Saying ‘Nice Doggie' (till you find a rock)

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I’ve been a Diplomacy player for more than 20 years. It’s a game with a long and storied history. Originally created in 1954 and released in 1959, Diplomacy the is one of the longest-standing and most successful boardgames ever created. And now, finally, it’s a great computer games available.

Produced by Paradox Interactive, the new version of Diplomacy is faithful to the original boardgame, but with the best things about computer games added in. The game is controlled (as it should be) not by chance or luck but by easily figured mathematics and the actions of the players and their opponents. Truly this is a game that removes everything from the gameplay except the players themselves. It’s brilliant.

And, as I said, Paradox has brought everything that makes the boardgame great to the digital world.

Everything a veteran player could want is there. The art of negotiation, the gameplay, the deceit and trust, the board, the pieces, the joy. It’s what you need to play the game and play it well.

And the time is finally right for it. Prior incarnations of Diplomacy have always been hampered by the need for up to seven players. It made play-by-mail and play-by-email games last (literally) months. Heck, the longest one I’ve been involved with lasted 14 months! But now with the ease of connectivity and the Internet, finding opponents is a much easier task and one that Paradox helps provide with their new online matchmaking system that helps to connect players of relative skill levels together for games. God, could I have used that in the eighties.

Note: Before I get too far, I want to say two things about this review cause I know folks will give me flack for it. First, I think removing language from playing the game online was an innovative step that not everyone will like. At first I was ready to give this game a zero rating I was so mad. But once I got into it and saw what Paradox was trying to do, I started to like it. Since then I have played quite a few very fun games with people from all over the world, many of whom I probably could not have communicated with in any other way.

Like any new idea, there will be resistance from the old guard. I feel that the rewards of opening the game up to all players *despite what language they speak* raises the game to new levels, exposes me to strategies from people I would not have otherwise met or played with, and makes me a better player overall.

However, if you are a traditionalist then take my review with a grain of salt because you probably won’t like the game as much as I.

Secondly, the other big innovation found here is that games can be played in just a few hours instead of over a period of months. I am older now and don’t really have time to spend sixteen hours in front of my system or six months playing a game by e-mail. Again, if you are a traditionalist you won’t like this and I am not going to try and tell you it’s the best thing ever. But I think most people will appreciate being able to sit down and play a game from start to finish. So perhaps this Diplomacy is really aimed at less hardcore players, though I consider myself a Diplomacy veteran who has placed in many regional tournaments and I do like the new interface. But buyer be warned I guess.

There’s a single-player system as well with a very good AI set up that provides a challenging game for both rookie and veteran players. I found it to be difficult to bluff, I admit. Apparently I need to work on my ones and zeros in my game face. AI’s don’t respond to ‘Trust me’ too well. Suspicious weasels.

Lastly there’s a truly useful tool called ‘The Sandbox’ which allows for free form gameplay experimentation. Players can establish scenarios and hypothetical situations that allows for a much greater learning curve than standard board game learning by friends in high school (rules interpretations were the subject of at least one dead friendship in the 1980s"no fooling). Sandbox mode allows for quick and easy game style and strategy gains by the rookie, though I fear it won’t allow much learning for a longtime veteran.

Taking the smooth interface a bit farther than any game has in the past, Paradox has eliminated the need for language in the game. What? How can you have a diplomatic game without language you ask.

The interface for talking with human players is the same as talking with the AI. You send proposals to your opponents/allies and wait to see if they will accept them or not. These can be general proposals like never attacking each other for the entire game to something more tactical like, "move your army here and I will support that move with this fleet so you will take the space, in return you support me over here so I can take this space." This is all done by either pointing and clicking on the board and physically moving armies – creating a plan and then sending it to another player to check out – or selecting a general stance like a non-aggression pack. The opponent can then accept the move or decline it and their response will be sent back to you. Sometimes they will even modify your plan and send it back to you for approval of the new order of battle.

All this is done by simply moving pieces around on the board. There is no need to talk with anyone. Not only does this make the game work with the AI, but also means you can play Diplomacy with anyone in the world regardless of what languages you speak. If your opponent only speaks Chinese and you speak English, you can have just as effective an alliance as with two people who speak the same language. And because there is no chat interface in the game, nobody gets any unfair advantages by sharing a language.

Like the board game, just because you accept someone’s proposal does not mean you are obligated to carry out the plan. In fact, the old rule that an ally with armies next to two of your unoccupied supply depots is no longer an ally – play the game and see if this is not the case – holds true here. You can even send a proposal to someone just to get one of their armies out of the way, and instead attack their providence. However, the game will alert you that you are about to break a treaty when the movement phase rolls around and tell you why. That way you won’t accidentally backstab someone just because you forgot to issue the appropriate order to bring your army into compliance with the treaty.

Graphically the game resembles the board game perfectly, showing a map of pre-World War I Europe dotted with armies and fleets. If you are playing with an AI, then that AI is represented when they are attacked or are moving a piece. This is done so that you can see the expression on their face and hear them cry out in pain as you cut into their territory in a surprise attack – not that I would do that. Trust me. The only negative thing I would say is that all the gasping from the computer AI gets a bit old after a while, so thankfully you can turn it off.

The goal of the game is to capture 18 supply centers and whether or not you are playing the computer AI or human opponents, its not easy. You basically have to trick at least one other player into helping you win, since without help it is unlikely you will be able to do much of anything given the purposely simplistic rules. But with thirty minute turns, a variable that can be changed if you need more or less time, you won’t be playing the game for 14 months like I had to before. Games are pretty much decided in a couple of hours, and much faster than that when just playing against the computer opponents who are ready to go to the next phase pretty much as soon as you are.

By any measure at all Paradox has delivered a great game. This one is worthy of the history that comes before it, and is sure to add to the legend of Diplomacy. It earns 3 + GiN Gems for their national treasury.


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