One of the main things I do with my online time is to play Diplomacy. This is a boardgame invented by an American by the name of Allan Calhammer in the 1950s. Essentially it is based in Europe as it stood at around the start of the 20th Century, and a player takes one of seven major powers (Austro-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia or the Ottoman Empire). The idea is to conquer over half of the main cities. The tactical play is quite simple: the only kind of units used are navies and armies, and they move and fight with few rules needed to learn.
However, because the powers are all relatively well balanced, and there is no element of luck at all (orders for all players are handled at the same time, so there’s no advantage from turn precedence either), and because it’s quite hard to move against an opponent who defends themself, the main aspect of the game is based in negotiation with other players to discuss alliances, strategy and tactics. There’s also a fairly open tradition of double-crossing involved, quite often a game will see one alliance dominate, and one member suddenly turn on another in order to go for a win (called a ‘stab’).
While it started as a board game, it’s not easy to set up a game with seven players in one place – and it can take a while to play. So, by the 1970s it had been taken up as a play-by-mail (PBM) game, with fanzines going out by post and letters passing to and fro between players and the person ‘hosting’ the game (grandly called the Game Master, or ‘GM’). At the same time, people started to experiment with variants to the original game, with new maps or tweaks to the rules.
With the advent of the internet, the hobby has come on leaps and bounds. Email is much faster than post, and websites can host maps and discussion forums so that a game can take shape and be shared. There are even internet hosts that have software to process the rules, so you don’t even need a GM.
There a a few places where I’ve played games. I tried using the automated judges – and that was where I was first playing the game when I was introduced to it while at University. After a while, I found them to be too annoying, with players frequently dropping out and blazing rows erupting after every stab.
Then I found a UK-based site, Diplomacy 2000, which is quite friendly. I made the mistake, however, of missing two turns in a row, which not only saw me turfed out of the game, but also ‘greylisted’ from the site (which is the same as blacklisting, as they didn’t accept my excuse of technical problems with email). No hard feelings, I’d probably still be there if I hadn’t messed up, but I had to move on.
Now I use Redscape, which is based in the USA and has a large base of players, with annual tournaments and a thriving (if sometimes politically charged) discussion board. I’ve got to the stage where I have GM’d a few games (I use Realpolitik software to help, and it also generates the maps) as well as playing them. Games that I host are run under my own set of ‘House Rules’.
As a strategy game in which you play against people rather than a dice or a computer, it’s hard to beat. The profusion of variants means that there’s hardly a part of the world, time in history or fictional scenario that hasn’t been modelled.