The Game of Diplomacy & The Art of Betrayal


Written by Jonathan Holz

Diplomacy is a compelling game of seven powers maneuvering to dominate Europe. Using armies and fleets; wits and platitudes; you steer a Great Power through the choppy waters of negotiation and ego in search of the 18 centers for a solo win. Not for the thin of skin or weak of heart, Diplomacy promises a different experience every session.
The board itself is divided into territories and sea spaces. Thirty-six land spaces have Supply Centers, of which you need to acquire eighteen to achieve a solo victory. Each year is divided into five phases: a Spring move, a Retreat move, Fall move, Retreat move, and lastly a Build turn. Starting in 1901, players submit their moves simultaneously to the referee/game master to have them reconciled. Most games have a set time for negotiations to take place before the moves, where players can talk in corners, pass notes, bluff, negotiate and plan.

Each player controls armies and fleets. Armies can move along land spaces and be convoyed over sea spaces via fleets. Fleets can control sea spaces and coastal territories. Kiel, Bulgaria and Spain are special territories: Kiel has a canal so a fleet can go from the Baltic Sea to Kiel to the Skag Bight; Spain has a North and South Coast so a fleet has to announce which coast it is on; Bulgaria has a South and an East coast. A fleet cannot go from one to the other without going through Constantinople first.

In addition to Move and Convoy orders, units may support other units into territories with the army or fleet with the most support winning the area. No dice are rolled in Diplomacy; all combat is determined by number of units involved. Note that two units attacking the same area cancel each other out and both lose to a unit with support. If forced to retreat, you have the option of retreating to a neighboring area or of disbanding it.

Building phases are done at the end of each year. If you have more Supply Centers than units, you may build; fewer, and you remove. To control a Supply Center you need to have it occupied at the end of a year. After that it is yours until someone else occupies it at the end of another year. Moving through an area in Spring does not change ownership, e.g., A Con-Bul in Spring and then A Bul-Gre in Fall gives Turkey only Greece as the Sultan has not established control in Bulgaria.

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.” (Yehuda Berg)

In Diplomacy, communication presages action. Six people clamor for your attention spreading truths, lies and innuendos. Your personal goals and preferences influence your perspective and even how you interpret the news with anonymous rumors and sometimes personal attacks being thrown around like vomit on a roller coaster.

It can be very confusing.

Then you make your first move, and the cycle starts again.

Dealing with this morass of communiques is meant to be challenging- if you are not receiving many messages then chances are other powers are combining against you. As everyone starts more-or-less equal, the art of communication is what keeps your country alive. No one country can stand alone in the beginning especially, and often in the middle and many times into the end. As communication is so important, special attention needs to be paid to it.

Diplomacy is a game, and everyone should enjoy it. Call the other powers by Archduke, Tsar, even Caesar. Create stories about what is going on in your country, or rumors from “spies”, absurd economic factors like the gyro trade. This helps lighten the mood and, if a couple people are taking time committing orders, gives the opportunity of banter and something to read. You can even have story threads and use it as a rationale for a double cross. You can even use these stories as a code with another power. I personally have been allowed into a draw because other players did not want to see me go.

It is vitally important to communicate not just with neighbors, but all the powers on the board. Finding out their style, their prejudices, even their word choice can give you information. Talking to countries that are not on your border can still give info on a third power’s plans. The more you talk with a power, the more they see you as a person, and the increased likelihood they will help you and possibly turn on their ally because you are more enjoyable.

“…right, as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Peloponnesian War, Book V:89)

Eventually, the time will come when you will need to betray an ally. When this time comes it is important to ensure that they are crippled. This can be accomplished in two main ways (which are not mutually exclusive):

  1. Ally with a another country that borders your soon-to-be enemy, preferably on the opposite side so you are not fighting for the same centers.
  2. Surround his centers ostensibly to help launch an attack on another, and then sweep in. This allows you to build quickly while the country will have to disband units.

When in doubt, the demands of the position will overwhelm the demands of alliance. The question is who will betray first.

Some alliances may last the entire game as the players are satisfied with a draw coming into the game, but it is always best to prepare for the worst. Always leave a reserve to disuade your ally from betrayal, the best allies are the ones you keep honest.

Diplomacy has evolved with technology; Face-to-Face and Play-by-Mail were the original methods of playing this vintage and still relevant game (fun fact: Diplomacy was the second game to be played by mail with the first being Chess). Then Play-by-Email became popular, and now multiple venues online allow play with different time constraints and variations available. Diplomacy has a long and storied tradition, with many articles on strategy and tactics available online. The Kennedy White House was an avid Diplomacy battleground with assurance that JFK did win some of the games.

After playing a few games, you come to appreciate my last piece of advice:

“The question is not whether I am paranoid; the question is ‘Am I paranoid enough?’ “

Categories: Features, Warfare


1 reply


  1. “The Game of Diplomacy & The Art of Betrayal” – The Board Game Show Podcast | Roll For Crit

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