Avalon Hill's Diplomacy Review
By Pauline Clay |
I've touched on this game in two separate previews. Why? Two reasons. First, I love the board game. I've spent many weeks obsessing over the German Anschluss or the Russian Inertia system. Alright, I know it; I'm a geek. Second, I was leery of Hasbro's chances of recreating all the refinement and tact that makes the board game so intriguing. It seemed that the AI got better and better with each fresh build we received and I eagerly looked forward to the day when the game would be released. I could then get my Diplomacy fix without having to invite a bunch of "friends" over to my house. "I'll just play against the computer," I thought. Well the game is out on shelves now and, while it's a solid game, it lacks the challenge of the original.
But first, a little context. Diplomacy recreates the political-military situation in Europe circa 1901. Seven powers (England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia) compete for control of 34 supply centers in Europe. Once you control 18 centers, you win. The catch is that you begin with only three (four if you play as Russia). That leaves 12 open centers. These are usually gone in the first few moves, so you'll have to take the rest of the centers from other powers. The deal is that you can't take them alone. You'll have to cooperate with some of the other players to get what you want. The trouble is that they want the same thing you do. The real appeal of the game is in the fine balancing act between amity and treachery that goes on among the players.
Diplomacy is also "totally chanceless." Which is not to say that there isn't a random element in the game; there just isn't anything random about the rules. Diplomacy is played entirely without dice or any other luck based rules. All the armies and fleets in the game have the same abilities and limitations and no one power starts with a much better positional advantage than any other...except maybe Turkey; they're screwed. But the uncertainty in the game is purely a product of human behavior. In other words, it comes to down to who you can trust. No one can ever be counted on to do what they say they're going to do so the shrewd Diplomatist is also a cunning judge of character. Although there are definitely strategic elements that can't be ignored, the best Diplomacy players are those who are the smoothest talkers.
Alright, now that the context is out of the way, let's talk about the troubles inherent in making a PC version of the game. The first concern I had when I heard Hasbro was planning to release a Diplomacy game was that it would be impossible to recreate the open-ended negotiations that are the soul of the game. In the board game, you are free to make whatever requests or demands you like when dealing with another player. The diplomatic aspects of the game can get quite convoluted and complex and it seemed unlikely that Hasbro could accommodate everything that might arise in a game with human opponents.
Over the past few months, those fears have been put to rest. While it's not perfect, the diplomatic interface is remarkable. The design team has boiled down all the intricate and mixed messages that are passed back and forth in the board game and reproduced them in an interface that is clean and easy to use. While it doesn't offer the long-term negotiations that are often so integral to many players' strategies, it does permit some pretty flexible planning and negotiation turn to turn. You can even set your "attitude" level with each individual player, which determines exactly how your suggestions are worded. Some powers respond more to the honeyed voice of the diplomat. Others respond better to threats and intimidation.
The diplomacy phase begins in an assembly room. From here you can go study the map or withdraw with other players to secret meeting rooms. Once in the meeting room, you can select from 12 "suggestions." You may ask the other player to attack or ally with any other player. Or ask them not to attack or ally with the selected player. You may ask the player to move or hold position, or support one of your moves or holds. Other players may also be entreated to convoy your units or observe certain "neutral zones." Best of all is the option to spread rumors (true or false) among other players. Want to worry the French government? Tell them that Germany and Italy are joining forces against them.
Once all that is done, neither you nor any other player is bound by what was said. All orders are composed in secret so you can really stab someone in the back by withholding support that you had promised only moments before. That's the real trick to the game -- knowing when to cut your allies loose and leave them hanging out to dry. If done too soon, you may not be prepared for the counterattacks and vilification that is sure to follow. If you wait too long, your ally may turn on you before you get the chance.
Now here's where the game really disappoints. The single player game isn't very challenging -- even on the hardest settings. I've played quite a few games as each of the seven powers and never lost once... well, once as Turkey, but that's to be expected. And I did it all without resorting to any sort of "deal-making" at all. I managed to conquer all of Europe all by my lonesome. I probably have the advantage of experience, but I'm thinking that most of the people who buy this game will expect a bigger challenge than they're going to get -- at least against the computer.
It's the multiplay element that's going to offer the best challenge to most players. The hotseat version offers the same face-to-face interaction that the game thrives on. The game can also be played in real-time over LAN or the net. This is probably the best way to play as you can all interact within the context of the game without the lengthy breaks that come in e-mail games. Seeing as how Diplomacy was one of (if not the) first PbEM games ever, it's hardly surprising that Hasbro has included that option here. My big concern here is that there are already several great, "free" adjudication programs out there that do a great job of handling e-mail games. Most of us that have used them have found them to be really effective.
The game manual includes a great introduction by Allan Calhamer, the inventor of the original game. He closes with this explanation of the popularity of the game: "I suppose some of us play for the laughs, some for the strategy, some to imagine we are Napoleon or the Czar, some for the society, some for the realism or challenge, some because the board and pieces are pretty, some because of the unpredictability, maybe most of us for most or all of these reasons, and some more." While all of these features are built in to the PC version, they just don't have the same power as they do in the board game. You can't really fault Hasbro for the shortcomings of the medium -- and it's great not to have to buy chips and soda for all your "friends" when they come over for a quick 8 hour game -- but the game doesn't stand up as a single player game.
-- Stephen Butts