Friday, March 27, 2009

The Chaotic Tale of a Diplomacy Game with 12 Non-gamer Co-workers

The Proposal

In the first session that I organized for my 12 co-workers, we played Pit, Apples to Apples, Haggle, and Set. Other than Set, it went over extremely well, so much so that I was enthusiastically asked to do another one.

For this second one, I was asked to do something with more strategy and tactics, more group work, and around 2 hours. I don't know why, but I immediately thought I could pull off Diplomacy.

My experience with the game is 1.5 games. I'd never tried to explain the game, and I hadn't played in several years. In fact I had to borrow a copy just to have a large map for the official positions. And I don't think I even like playing the game very much. But I was going to be facilitator, not a player.

The Prep

In preparation, I reread the rules. I asked someone who has played several times for advice on how to run the game. I photocopied short rules summaries and many copies of the map for the players to use. I considered changing the theme to something like competing companies with coffee machines for supply centers, but I didn't get around to it. Pre-WWI would have to do.

My biggest problem was that I only had 2 hours. I was hoping I could run rounds in about 15 minutes each, until near the end where I would give 10 minutes each. It was a very ambitious plan, and it failed completely. Instead of the 8 to 10 rounds I was hoping to get through, we only managed to get though 4.

The Explanation

Of course, I had to explain the game rules, and with non-gamers especially, every possible misunderstanding will be misunderstood. To complicate things, non-gamers are not intent and serious when listening to rules; they joke around and talk a lot; they lose focus after you get to the second rule. That's perfectly fair; after all it was supposed to be a social gathering, not a training seminar.

I got sidetracked following up the questions that lead all over the place after the first rule, until I realized that if we didn't start soon, people would just become even more confused and we would never get to play. Once we got started, I filled in individual people and teams as to any holes they still had in the rules. Only the UK people learned about the convoy rules. Suffice to say, I completely botched the rules explanation.

I never got around to explaining exactly how orders are suppose to be submitted. During the game, I got "army into B" (which one?), or just "army". I got only one unit submitted from a country, instead of all units. I got verbal instructions on top of the written ones, before, during, and after movement. I got two units from the same country trying to move into the same space several times ("you never said we couldn't do that!" in round 3).

The Questions

During the game's four rounds, I was asked if a unit could move several spaces and not just one, if it had to move to an adjacent space, if a fleet could travel on land, and if an army could travel on water. I was asked how you could move your supply centers and whether you could freely switch around your units at the start of, or during the middle of, the game.

I was asked if you could support an attack on the other side of the board, why you couldn't support and move at the same time (tried, and complained about when it failed), what the supply centers were for, and what the countries without them were for. And what a production center was (I said "production" center instead of "supply" center once - big mistake in a room full of technical writers).

I was asked whether you could get new units anywhere on the board instead of just in your supply centers, or if you could get them in the same space as your current units, or if you get additional units equal to all of your supply centers and not just your new ones. And what was the difference between a unit, an army, and a fleet, again?

And I got asked a lot of strategy questions, nearly all of which which I declined to answer.

The Play

We had 12 players in two teams playing 6 countries. No one played Italy, so it just waited to get beaten up.

It didn't take much time for people to realize that they simply could not achieve anything without trying to forge deals; you have to abandon your home country in order to conquer other supply centers, and that leaves you vulnerable until you get new units. The negotiations really got going, so that worked. The room got quite noisy. All but three of the players got into it and had a good time. They were actually quite good at it.

I told everyone that they could spy and lie. In fact, during the game they all lied continuously. I don't think any deal reached was actually implemented. Sometimes it was just due to misunderstanding how to submit the rules (there was confusion as to how to write "A supports B into C"). Most of the time it was intentional backstabbing.

Specific Reactions

The UK players were sitting next to me, and they had a hard time understanding many of the rules. They were quite happy and willing to try, but they made some mistakes with movement and support, and then complained that they didn't get a complete rules explanation when their moves didn't work. Rightly so.

Turkey and Germany did a fine job of slamming across the southeast and south central areas of the board. They ended as victors with six supply centers each. One of the Turkey players said that the game appealed to him greatly due to his interest in history.

The two Russia players were the sand in the wheels. One of them wasn't at all interested in this type of game, didn't fully listen to the explanation and didn't like all the noise. So she didn't play.

The other one couldn't wrap his head around conquest objectives; he wanted to know why the rules called for military objectives instead of forging peaceful relationships. It was cognitive dissonance. As a result, Russia deliberately made no moves in any of the four turns. Although he understood that a game is a game - and Diplomacy is as abstract as they come in war games - he didn't like playing warfare on real areas of the world where massacres had occurred. He pointed out some on the board for me. I couldn't blame him; I kind of feel the same. Good think we didn't try Nazis vs Britain or somesuch.

Most everyone wanted a big screen with a projection of the game on it. They wanted name tags for countries, so they knew who was who. They wanted better ways to simultaneously update everyone's maps with the results of each round (aka computer assistance). They wanted to know the rules much better.

All in all, considering all the chaos, nine out of twelve seemed to have a good time, and one of the other three probably did, too.


There was of course way too little time. We played only 4 rounds, instead of the 8 or 10 I was foolishly hoping to get to. We even had to stop for a coffee break after round two. I got a few thank yous and compliments.

Allegedly, the point of the game was to a) socialize the group, and b) get our minds working in ways that they are not used to, so stir up creativity. I'm not sure, but I think it ultimately worked.


Ove said...

You introduced Diplomacy to non-gamers? I don't wonder why it turned out chaotic... I have hard time even to find Gamers gamers for Diplomacy... Mostly because they have played it :)

EastwoodDC said...

Teaching a game to a group of new players requires you to have the rules down cold, so you can provide clear explanations and instant answers to questions. With a group that large though, I think even a very experienced Diplomacy player would have a hard time managing everything.

For something like this, you might want to give each player pre-written orders for the first turn, and a suggestion for the second turn. This would give them an opportunity to see how the game plays out without having to completely understand it on the first turn.

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