World Domination: the Game

Deception, double-crosses, back-stabbing … It’s not that the passionate enthusiasts who gather around the Diplomacy board can’t handle the truth. They just don’t care to
The Washington Post, November 14, 2004

The train pulls into Baltimore, and Satan is waiting, as promised.

They say the devil wears many disguises. Satan has chosen the summer weekend uniform of the American male, a polo shirt and many-pocketed shorts. So has his friend Bad Tom.

There’s no telltale sign of how Andy Marshall and Tom Pasko earned their nicknames — no teeth missing from their smiles, no jailhouse tattoos, no leather above the ankles. Bad Tom may have a ponytail, a scruffy beard and a stud in one earlobe, but the combined effect is more pleasure-boat captain than outlaw biker, and the character on his baseball cap is Grumpy, from Disney’s “Snow White.” When a Ford sedan honks at Satan’s Jeep SUV for a not-very-aggressive merge, Satan leaves the windows rolled up while murmuring, “It’s really unfortunate that you’re that upset.”

We stop for dinner at Bertha’s, a seafood place in Fells Point. Nursing a Glenlivet, Satan shrugs off his handle as a harmless pop-culture reference; in his round face, round glasses, receding short hair, mustache and goatee, friends detected a resemblance to the animated cutout of Satan on “South Park.” As for Bad Tom, he explains that on the Diplomacy circuit, “Evil Tom was already taken.”

Diplomacy is a seven-player board game based on the fragile balance of power in pre-World War I Europe. First played 50 years ago in a Cambridge, Mass., rooming house, it is a cult classic that, like a midnight movie or a jam band, attracts rolling waves of adolescent fans. It also enjoys a core following of salesmen, lawyers, software engineers and other adults, mostly men, who spend their weekends at gatherings in suburban dens, conference rooms and chain hotels around the country.

Diplomacy isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Time is one obstacle; a quick game can take six hours, and others can go on for 16 hours. More important, most of the action unfolds away from the table, in tense, furtive conversations among the seven players representing the once-great powers of Europe as they trade intelligence and plan joint maneuvers. The back-and-forth sounds like a David Mamet screenplay about the Triple Entente, especially because no promise is binding, no piece of information reliable. According to the rules, “players may say anything they wish.” Eavesdropping, slander and betrayal — back-stabbing, in Diplomacy parlance — become arrows in your quiver, not the concealed weaponry of cheats and spoilsports.

“The whole thing about Diplomacy isn’t lying,” says Bad Tom, who drove down to Maryland from Connecticut for the Tempest in a Teapot, a tournament run by the Potomac Tea & Knife Society, the national capital region’s Diplomacy club. “It’s getting other people to do what you want them to do and have them think it’s their idea.”

Satan laughs. “And if that doesn’t work, you lie,” he says.

MORE THAN 15 YEARS HAVE PASSED since I’ve been around a Diplomacy board. I discovered it in eighth or ninth grade, at that awkward age when boys, especially those of us not destined to become varsity athletes, seek out alternate paths to feeling powerful — anything from student government to the punk scene. My friends and I had made a brief foray into Dungeons & Dragons, but found it too fantastical, too formless, too random. Diplomacy, on the other hand, I fell for immediately. At the time, I was toying with the thought of a career in politics, maybe international affairs. And what was high school, after all, if not a world of limited resources, rampant rumors and shifting loyalties?

Describing an unfamiliar game, particularly something as involved as Diplomacy, is an almost impossible task. It’s like expecting a real estate ad or a blueprint to capture what it’s like to live in that house; you can’t understand until you’ve parked your toothbrush there. Enthusiasts sometimes describe Diplomacy as chess crossed with poker, because the game combines tactics and strategy on a board with bluffing and second-guessing in a large group. Reality television offers another point of comparison. “It’s like ‘Survivor’ without the bug bites,” says Lisa Foster of Burke, who joined the Potomac Tea & Knife Society last year. “You make alliances with people. You stab them in the back. You vote people out, sometimes because you’re threatened by them and sometimes because you don’t like them.”

Back in high school, sometimes my close friends offered the best alliances on the board, but other times I had to choose between my strategic interests in prewar Europe and my strategic interests in high school. We must have played Diplomacy only a handful of times, no more than 10, before burning through the pool of curious players and our own fascination. That may not sound like much — and compared with the typical player at the Tempest, we were mere amateurs — but it was like a formative teen romance: brief, intense, casting a shadow over future relationships.

In Diplomacy everyone gets to be an emperor, and emperors don’t always treat others with the respect demanded by family and friends. When a child tries to be manipulative, usually the effort is either revealed or rewarded; in Diplomacy both happen at once. No matter how much you remind yourself that Diplomacy is a game, an attack can feel surprisingly personal — in part, as seasoned players acknowledge, because it is. “Some of it is France attacking England, but some of it is me attacking Michael,” says Tom Kobrin of Greensboro, N.C., the one known as Evil Tom.

So sometimes a stab can reverberate beyond the board for years, raising fundamental questions about your ability to read strangers or about the trust underlying a long-standing friendship. Its impact isn’t limited to the person on the receiving end of the dagger. As much as I enjoyed back-stabbing in high school, it bothered me that I enjoyed it, and that I might even be good at it — a character flaw, I assumed then, for an aspiring politician or diplomat. Cunning is celebrated through nicknames and banter in Diplomacy circles, but the same players choose to keep thishobby separate from their professional and personal lives. Satan avoids telling outsiders how he spends his weekends. “I downplay the hell out of it,” he says. “I don’t want people to get the idea that I engage in this sort of lying and deceptive behavior in my real life. Partly because it isn’t how I am in real life, and partly because it is.”

THE POTOMAC TEA & KNIFE SOCIETY sends out about 100 invitations to its floating monthly games in members’ homes. The Tempest in a Teapot, which squeezes three rounds of Diplomacy into a 48-hour period, is its annual to-do; Satan, who lives in Germantown, is the tournament director. It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday in August, the first day of this year’s Tempest, and Satan is assigning players their tables and countries at the Hunt Valley Inn, a Marriott 20 minutes north of Baltimore. The champion will get a plaque, and the person who pulls off the weekend’s best back-stab will receive the Golden Blade. “It’s a good award to have, but you win too many of them and people start to wonder about you,” Satan says.

The players proceed to unfold the Diplomacy boards, which feature a map of Europe divided into 75 spaces, corresponding to provinces and bodies of water. Spaces marked with dots are called supply centers, and each can sustain one army or one fleet. The major powers — Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey — begin the game with three or four pieces in their home country, each one in a supply center. There are a dozen more unclaimed supply centers in minor countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria. To win, one player must occupy 18 supply centers, or a majority of the 34 of them on the board.

A turn begins with 15 minutes of negotiations in which the seven players discuss grand strategy and plan tactics. The pieces can go one space in any direction. Fleets can’t go inland, armies can’t cross the water on their own, but otherwise all pieces are equally strong. And two pieces can’t share a space; for instance, opposing pieces trying to move into the same supply center would mean a standoff. Instead of moving, a piece can provide support to a nearby piece, its own or an ally’s. Support is needed to capture a contested province, hold off an attack or force a retreat.

A similar dynamic exists on the strategic level. No player begins the game with enough strength to eliminate another country single-handedly, so you need to gang up. But on whom? Diplomacy is not a strict reenactment of history, so the battle lines of World War I usually go out the window. And while everyone wants to get bigger, nobody can afford to be seen as a threat to the others.

“When you’re playing on a Diplomacy board, you are a salesman,” says Jim Yerkey of Catonsville, Md., who has played competitive Diplomacy since 1976. “Whatever country you have, you have to sell your story to the other people. And in many cases, it’s a different story to each of the other six people.”

After 15 minutes, the players draft and submit written orders. Only when these are read aloud do you find out who kept their word, who betrayed you, who distrusted you, who hedged their bets (though the orders might contain a feint). Every piece moves simultaneously — that is, the pieces that haven’t been blocked from moving. The game begins in spring 1900; there are two turns per calendar year. At the end of each fall turn, players take inventory of supply centers, then add or remove pieces until every country has one per supply center.

I wander over to Board 6, where several top players are clustered, including Bad Tom, who is France. Perhaps the most formidable player here is David Hood, who picked up Diplomacy in high school in 1984 — right around when I did, only he never put it away. Hood, who now practices law in Hickory, N.C., is short and thin, with a widow’s peak and reddish sideburns. No diabolical nickname could possibly stick to his clean-cut appearance, honest face and gentlemanly manner. “In this game, lying is okay,” Hood says in his smooth Piedmont accent. “You can’t do that in a small town.”

The timer is set, the spring turn begins, and players pair off to negotiate. With seven boards going at once, the players spill out of the Hunt Valley Inn’s Garden Room into the carpeted hallway, the tiled vestibule near the catering kitchen and a brick outdoor patio. One player slinks around to another entrance on the far side of the patio so a clandestine rendezvous will go unobserved.

Hood, who is Turkey, first sounds out his immediate neighbors on the board — Italy, Austria and Russia — and tries to put them at ease. The Diplomacy circuit has its own balance of power, and Hood’s national reputation and trophy collection make him a prime target for a preemptive attack.

“Your name is too strong, Dave, you understand,” says Hudson Defoe of Baltimore, who is Italy. “You’re number one, realistically. I’m just telling you straight up.”

Hood seems unruffled. “If you wanted to work with me, you could make it happen,” he tells Defoe. Then Hood finds Nathan Barnes, an up-and-comer from Seattle, who is Austria. They seem to have a genial, if inconclusive, chat, but Hood smells danger. “He wants to kill me,” Hood says afterward. “He wasn’t being forthcoming at all about what he wants to do. This is not looking good.”

Russia is similarly guarded. Hood then chats with Bad Tom, who, as France, is too far away to be a short-term threat or immediate help. Together they size up the rest of the board. Germany is an unfamiliar player — what Bad Tom calls “fresh meat.” The England player, Carl Willner of Washington, “is an alliance player, but he’s aggravating as hell,” Hood tells Bad Tom. “Remember, he works for the Department of Justice. There’s not a lot of interesting people who work for the Department of Justice.”

With most conversations taking place between pairs, there is often an odd man out, and Hood finds himself alone at the table when time is up. When the others return, they write down their orders. From Turkey, Hood sends an army into Bulgaria, a neutral supply center, and another one east, toward Russia. In the fall, Hood tries to move up into Rumania; Barnes, playing Austria, has promised him support, but when the orders are revealed, he has written them down wrong. Russia also tries to take Rumania, but without Austrian support it’s a standoff. Barnes claims he made an honest mistake, but Hood doesn’t believe him. “That was a misorder on purpose,” he says. What’s more, Italy and Austria have allied against him, making a series of moves known as the Lepanto Opening, a gambit named for a 16th-century Ottoman defeat.

Hood tries to make nice with Russia, but it is too late. He holds out long enough to avoid being the first knocked off the board; the fresh meat is run out of Germany by 1903. Then Turkey gets carved up by Defoe’s Italy and Barnes’s Austria. But even before Hood retires to his room for the night, the conquering alliance has frayed, and Defoe is losing his grip on his supply centers.

Now in cahoots with Bad Tom, Barnes knocks Defoe out at about 11:30 p.m., just in time for Defoe to join fallen emperors from other boards at an unoccupied green table in the Garden Room for a friendly game of no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em. Like professional athletes with friends on rival teams, seasoned Diplomacy players are able to grapple intently, then leave what happens on the board. Paradoxically, betrayal binds them together, and Diplomacy circles have yielded many solid friendships. Andy Bartalone, a Potomac Tea & Knife Society stalwart from Bowie, says of one friend, “I would trust him with the payoff mortgage on my house — in cash. But I wouldn’t trust him to stay out of Belgium.”

IN 2000, THE HUNT VALLEY INN WAS THE SITE of the World Diplomacy Convention, an annual event that attracts players from North America, Europe and Australia. Also in attendance was Allan B. Calhamer, the creator of Diplomacy. “The biggest lie we ever tell around the Diplomacy board is likely to be, ‘I’m going to back you up,’ ” Calhamer said in his keynote speech. “They tell a lot bigger lies in the real thing.”

Born in 1931, Calhamer grew up in the Chicago suburb of La Grange Park, the son of an engineer and a schoolteacher. “We used to draw maps of imaginary countries,” recalls Gordon Leavitt, his boyhood neighbor and lifelong friend. “Once we discovered in the attic a geography book that showed a map of Europe before World War I with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the old boundaries.” Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Calhamer’s 10th birthday, and, though he discounts this coincidence, World War II clearly had a profound impact on him. In high school, he participated in debates about universal military service and world government. He read in Life magazine that the postwar world would have seven major powers.

“It didn’t work out that way, of course, because the United States and Russia were so much more powerful than the rest,” Calhamer says now. “But the article gave this idea of the complex balance of power. And it would make a heck of a parlor game, so I basically translated complex balance of power onto a board.”

Calhamer won a scholarship to Harvard, where he played on the chess team and majored in history, then went on to Harvard Law School. Calhamer was developing a board game, and one day he invited six classmates to his room to test it out. “It required somebody who had a lot of patience,” says classmate Herbert Prochnow. “After an hour or two, I started looking at my watch.”

Nevertheless, Calhamer made a breakthrough that day. “In the first game, we did the diplomacy by writing messages,” he says. “It got to be crazy, jotting these things off and throwing them across the table. So after that, we just talked face-to-face. That was a tremendous improvement.”

Calhamer never finished law school, but he kept working on Diplomacy. In 1958, he joined Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory, in nearby Waltham, Mass., where he was engaged in operations research, a scientific approach to military problem-solving that’s akin to designing a game. “He was hired because of the game,” says Richard Turyn, a mathematician who worked at Sylvania.

In 1959, Calhamer printed 500 copies of Diplomacy; through word of mouth, it sold out in six months, he says. He licensed the game to a publishing firm; Diplomacy was mentioned in Time, Life and the New Yorker, and became a feature of some introductory Foreign Service courses. Over the years it has surfaced as a diversion in professional diplomatic circles.

Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, learned the game as a teenager from Martin Indyk, a Middle East specialist and former ambassador now at the Brookings Institution. “Last time I played with Martin, he conquered the world by playing with France,” Rose says. “I don’t know that he’d cop to it, with the transatlantic alliance where it is now.”

At Harvard, Rose taught the game to his fellow graduate students, and he sees it as valuable practice for the real thing. While Diplomacy is not a perfect model of today’s world — it doesn’t anticipate a nuclear North Korea or a decentralized terrorist network such as al Qaeda — there is a parallel dynamic in mid-game, when one player takes a commanding lead. “The challenge to the United States today is how to be a liberal hegemon, how to maintain its dominance without provoking a balancing coalition, without pissing people off,” Rose says.

Diplomacy isn’t every diplomat’s favorite. “It rewards bad behavior and furthermore gives people the impression that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, that people achieve their objectives by deceiving people,” says Larry Lesser, who encountered the game while in the Foreign Service in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1978. Frank Crigler, then the U.S. ambassador, proposed a game of Diplomacy, with a turn each day at cocktail hour. Lesser signed up and got stabbed on the first move; he’s still smarting. Last year, Lesser wrote in Foreign Service Journal that the ambassador, when faced with resistance in the game, threatened to shut down an aid project run by one player, banish another from the Peace Corps and blackball him from the Foreign Service. “The ambassador’s wrath ended the game prematurely,” wrote Lesser.

“Larry and I have never been the same,” says Crigler. He says he doesn’t remember making any such threats, but if he did, they weren’t meant to be taken seriously. “Winners in the game of Diplomacy may forget they have to face these people in the office tomorrow.”

The game’s greatest devotees have been armchair diplomats. John Boardman, a retired physicist formerly at Brooklyn College, devised a postal version for players who couldn’t find enough time or people to play in person. Today, the action has moved to the Internet. The different media emphasize different skills — the persuasive essay versus the sales pitch — and the best online players can founder in face-to-face tournament play. Besides, as Bad Tom says, “one of the coolest things in Diplomacy is seeing the person’s expression when you screw them.”

This activity has never added up to enough sales for Calhamer to live off royalties, nor did inventing Diplomacy help him find work in the foreign policy field after leaving Sylvania in 1965. Calhamer eventually moved back to La Grange Park, where he took a job as a letter carrier for the Postal Service; he is now retired. When he writes in to the Harvard alumni magazine, “he always mentions the game,” says his old friend Gordon Leavitt. “It’s the one thing that he could always be proud of.”

At the Hunt Valley Inn in 2000, Diplomacy fans asked the creator of their universe to autograph their game boards, but they didn’t cut him any slack in the tournament. “I had two good games and two lousy games, I guess,” he recalls.

“He got creamed,” says Satan.

“Calhamer was pretty well crunched up,” says Jim Yerkey. “He has the ultimate target on his back.”

MOST DIPLOMACY GAMES END WITHOUT A CLEAR WINNER, because of tournament time limits, stalemates or fatigue. (Invariably, our games during high school were called on account of dinnertime.) With no end in sight, the surviving players can call a draw.

At the Hunt Valley Inn, in the early hours of Saturday, as Hudson Defoe is cleaning up at the poker table, Evil Tom pulls off a solo victory on Board 4 while wearing a button that says, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice Doggy’ while you look for a big enough rock.” Other boards have settled on three- or four-way draws and dispersed to the bar or the poker table, but Board 6 is still hard at work.

With 12 supply centers, Nathan Barnes is two-thirds of the way to a solo victory as Austria. At the table, he floats the possibility of a three-way draw with France and England — Bad Tom and Carl Willner. In one-on-one talks, however, Barnes explores with each of them how they might eliminate the third player. And this may all be for show, because Barnes appears to have too strong a position to settle for a draw.

“Austria’s got a solo sitting at his doorstep,” Bad Tom tells Willner.

“I’m happy to work with you,” Willner replies, but these two have had a testy relationship all night. As neighbors, they have prospered, but Willner, perhaps wisely, never lets his guard down, and Bad Tom grows impatient with Willner’s “defensive squirrel actions.” So Bad Tom and Barnes team up, and Willner can’t find any way to shift the momentum.

The sun begins to set on the British Empire. Willner, a gifted tactician, holds his ground as long as he can. At 2:30 a.m., he notices that Bad Tom, secure in his nonaggression pact with Barnes, has left France’s position badly exposed; by fall 1910, Austria could move into Munich and Rome, which would bring Barnes up to 18 supply centers and a solo. “You’ve done very well,” Willner tells Barnes privately. “You got him to move out of position. Refusing to take the last two centers just prolongs the agony.”

After cultivating Bad Tom for more than eight hours and laying the groundwork for a two-way draw, Barnes could put himself in contention for a tournament win, maybe take home the Golden Blade and have something to boast about for months or years to come.

What Diplomacy players compete for is bragging rights. Twelve hours earlier, Barnes had been smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey in the Hunt Valley Inn bar, swapping war stories with veteran players. My favorite came from Steve Koehler, a North Carolinian. “I’ve driven people out of the hobby,” Koehler had said with a mixture of pride and disdain. “We had a three-way alliance for eight hours. Germany was the front line, and England and I slaughtered him. And he said, ‘We’ve been at this how long and you turned on me?’ And we said, ‘Of course.’ And he got up and left the tournament.”

Koehler’s point was: Back-stabbing is fair play, but abandoning your position is unsportsmanlike. In other words, an ethical violation. From a distance, the Diplomacy circuit, which condones some “antisocial” behaviors, looks like an amoral free-for-all. But the game has rules, as does the culture that has grown up around it: See the game through to the end; respect the authority of the tournament director; and play in your own best interest.

Unquestionably, Barnes has Bad Tom by the short hairs, but he decides that, taking the long view, it is in his best interest to spare him. An hour later, the two have seized enough of Willner’s supply centers to declare a two-way draw between France and Austria.

“If I won this game, I wouldn’t have any fun the rest of the weekend,” Barnes explains before returning to his hotel room. A solo would have put him in excellent position for the tournament, but it also would have made him a target, and he fears early elimination in rounds two and three. He doesn’t want to have flown 3,000 miles for one glorious evening and two days of idleness. Getting to play all weekend, and having a chance at another solo, sounds much more appealing. And there are other weekends to consider; Barnes will face Bad Tom on another board one day, as well as other people who will hear about this game. He might need them as allies. “France and Austria, we did the whole handshake thing; I wasn’t willing to go back on that.” Besides, he says, “you have a reputation.”

NATHAN BARNES NEVER GOT ANOTHER CHANCE AT A SOLO, but he made his way into two more draws. He placed third in the Tempest, right behind Evil Tom, whose Friday night solo led to a humbler approach Saturday; the “Nice Doggy” pin was nowhere in sight. While fending off attacks to escape with a three-way draw involving Carl Willner, Evil Tom spent much of Saturday afternoon egging me on to play the next day.

When I had first talked to Satan about covering the Tempest, I explained that I had played Diplomacy years ago, and he invited me to join in the third round. We had left the question open, and I showed up Sunday morning not knowing whether I would be using my notebook to take notes or to order a Lepanto Opening. Satan finished the country assignments without calling my name, and largely I was relieved to be left out. My tactics are rusty, and I saw how these guys grind up fresh meat. Also, I’d have to go home and write about what happened, and, though I’ve matured since high school, I wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to leave what happened on the board.

Maybe what makes Diplomacy so difficult for most people to take is how closely it echoes human relationships — not the way people are supposed to treat one another, but society as it actually is, full of compromise, disappointment, betrayal. Nothing happens in this game that hasn’t been tried before on a blind date, a sales call, a family vacation or a reporting assignment, on Capitol Hill or at the United Nations. Most times we are still entangled with the same small group of people, and we can’t walk away from the board. We get swept up in our own tempests, and have to negotiate the turns to come.

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