Double Cross Words

Diplomacy addicts smile and lie as they gamely try to conquer the world.

None of this is of particular interest to Diplomacy players, however. "They're very serious about this," explains Barnhorst. "There's a lot of whispering and then yelling." Which might explain why the Diplomats were given the entire twelfth floor of the Hyatt, far away from the milling crowds of lesser gamers.

The feeling is mutual. "It's all the others who are the nerds," insists Hand, who very briefly gained notoriety a few years back when his quest to visit the burial spots of all the U.S. presidents became public. "We don't sit around with twenty-sided dice or have little pieces of cardboard that fall down when you breathe. We're not the guys who live in our parents' basement until age 45. We need to shower; there's a social component to our game."

Mark Andresen

The game of Diplomacy was invented in 1958 by a postal worker who, like so many drawn to the USPS, had a personality that seems to have ping-ponged between brilliant and disturbed. "While I think Allan Calhamer invented a great game, his ability to express himself clearly in the written word was not one of his strong points," an editor of the magazine Diplomania wrote in an addendum to a 1966 essay penned by Calhamer. "The above article was heavily edited in parts to make it intelligible."

In the mid-1940s, Calhamer became infatuated with the complex and shifting alliances in pre-World War I Europe. It took him fifteen years to perfect the game that is said to have become a favorite of John and Robert Kennedy, as well as Henry Kissinger, which could be a recommendation -- or not. Diplomacy peaked in popularity in the 1960s and '70s, then faded away. Players say it is making a comeback thanks to the Internet.

The mechanics of the game are very simple. In practice, however, Diplomacy turns on the same close study of human psychology and motivation that is the foundation of today's reality television shows like Survivor and The Mole. "The game rewards strategic partnerships -- strategically broken," explains Hand, who is also head of the Association of Rocky Mountain Area Diplomacy Adversaries (ARMADA). "Diplomacy gets a bad rap for being a lying game. I'm not saying it isn't. It's a game of interpersonal relationships."

Besides, he adds, "If you get lied to, it's probably your own fault. You should've seen it coming."

Seven players represent each of the major players in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Europe: England, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Turkey. Each is given an army and a fleet to work with. The goal is to gain control of a majority of the European political divisions, represented by supply centers. Moves on the board are made after each player writes orders for his armies and fleets and places them in a box.

If that were it, however, the game would be nothing more than another version of the board game Risk, which manipulates armies around the world according to a roll of the dice. Diplomacy, by contrast, is a very human game. That's because gaining an advantage is impossible without forming alliances. "The game, in short, is a paradox," wrote an analyst in one of a surprisingly large number of learned essays about Diplomacy available for study. "I cannot win unless you help me, but you want to win, too, so why should you help me?"

The main action takes place between moves. Alliances are formed in intimate and occasionally clandestine meetings away from the table. Russia will nod to, say, England, and the two will go off to a corner to discuss whether the latter will agree to refrain from attacking Moscow so that Russia can make an uncontested move on Turkey. England may agree -- but is equally likely to stab Russia in the back and advance eastward anyway. Just like real life.

A Diplomacy tournament thus looks uncannily like a real session of the United Nations, with people wandering off into corners and private tables to chat sotto voce -- all the while watching to see who is meeting with whom in other corners. It also resembles the UN in that the players are overwhelmingly male. ("It's too confrontational for most women," Barnhorst hypothesizes.) Human trust is a commodity that is swapped and sold far more than actual territory.

Because flagrant dishonesty is such a big part of Diplomacy, the game isn't for everyone. "There's a large segment of the population that won't play," admits Steve Smith, who has been playing for fifteen years. "Their feelings are hurt too easily. Most people, if they get lied to or betrayed, they can't handle it." Not coincidentally, lawyers and psychologists are usually well represented at tournaments. The game also once enjoyed a surge of popularity in prisons.

For aficionados, the game of Diplomacy is never quite finished. Players are always sizing up one another before, during and after games in an effort to see how truthful each is -- not just for the next game, but in general. "What my opponent does today will affect the games next year -- and it never, never ends," says Smith.

"I was a lunatic when I started," Edi Birsan says. "I was Diplomacy's first juvenile delinquent. I forged letters, called someone on the telephone pretending to be someone else, convinced one guy I was a girl in a mail game in order to manipulate him. A lot of the turn-on of Diplomacy, particularly as a kid, is that it's a game in which this sort of behavior is encouraged; you're not held to anything you say or do to another person. You can listen in on conversations, lie, dissemble."

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