After literally years away from the game, I’m playing Diplomacy again, this time with a group of students and colleagues here in the Political Science Department at Oakland University.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Diplomacy is the classic board game of early 20th century European great-power geo-strategic competition and conflict.
Or, as Grantland describes it, “the board game of the alpha nerds.”
I’m playing England.
First published in 1959, the game has a long and distinguished history. You can get a flavor for some of that, plus an overview of the game itself and the numerous variants that have been produced over the years here.
Given that I teach international relations for a living, you’d think I’d be a natural at this thing. Truth be told, though, and despite the fact that I first played Diplomacy some 30 years ago as an undergrad, I don’t expect to do all that well once things start to get … interesting.
Ultimately, to win the game, you have to stab the other players in the back. Ideally you want to do this after lulling them into a false sense of security by cooperating with them long enough that they lose their natural suspicion of you. And then, when they are particularly vulnerable, you betray them to advance your own interests.
I’ve never been very good at that part of the game. I understand the traditional Realist logic of the game: pursue self-interest above all else; alliances are temporary arrangements of convenience to be discarded when they no longer serve your interests; today’s partners are tomorrow’s adversaries; trust no one, least of all when your security is at stake; trust no one, because no one will trust you; expect everyone else to be playing the game the same way.
In my experience, knowing the underlying logic of the game, and being able to deploy that logic at just the right time for maximum efficacy, are very different things. My weakness in the past has been in placing too much trust in my alliance partnerships and my unwillingness to drive the knife home when I spot a vulnerability on the part of one of my allies.
But not this time. This time I intend to be ruthless. This time, in the words of Chancellor Sutler: