Pulsipher Game Design

This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about tabletop games he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design (tabletop and video) in general. It repeats his blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/
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Short-term Diplomacy (rules for shorter game)

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
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Short-term Diplomacy

There are three parts to a well-played game of Diplomacy, negotiation, grand strategy, and tactics. Strategy is something that functions over a full game, but that means 6 to 10 hours. Tactics is the most short-term of the three parts, with negotiation in between the other two.

But most people don’t have the time to play a full game of Diplomacy, even at the sacrifice of grand strategy. What can you do to play a shorter game?

One obvious way is to reduce the victory criterion to much less than 18 supply centers, for example nine or 10 (there are 34 altogether). But this still leaves a great deal of room for how long the game is going to take, and in some cases no one may ever reach nine or 10 as the game ends in a draw. If you only have a specific amount of time available this is unsatisfactory.

Another way to make the game shorter that also turns it into a very different game is to eliminate secret negotiation. All negotiation takes place over the board where anyone can hear it. But the very essence of Diplomacy is secret negotiation, so (at least in my view) you’re no longer playing Diplomacy. The extremist version of this, known as “Gunboat Diplomacy,” is to have no official negotiation at all. This is really hard to do in a face-to-face game because any comment that a player makes can be construed as negotiation, even if he or she is just “talking to no one”. I’ve heard of people putting tape over their mouths while they’re playing gunboat, but even then you can still gesture vigorously to try to make a point (or a deal). Gunboat removes negotiation from the game and minimizes strategy leaving only tactics, and even then you can’t arrange tactical cooperation with other players. So while it’s a popular way to play Diplomacy you’re not even close to playing real Diplomacy.

Another method is to play to the end of a previously specified game year. That works okay but can still vary a lot depending on how fast the game is played, which depends quite a bit on the players. It gives everyone a definite target year for their “big stab,” perhaps allowing for more planning than my method below, but you could easily find the game taking a lot more (or less) time than you expected.

So my method for a short game is to establish a more or less fixed by-the-clock time limit for ending the game while allowing the secret negotiation and cooperation that characterize the game. (This is hardly anything of great originality; points for centers is a common way to score short diplomacy games.)

Rules for Lew’s Short-Term Diplomacy

1. Set a time limit. For a club meeting the time limit would be the ending time for the meeting. Half an hour before that time limit expires, whatever game-year is being played at that time becomes the last game-year of the game. That game-year is played out in full. If players are slow then the game may still go beyond the actual time limit, or it may end somewhat before. For example, if the time limit selected is 10 PM then the game could end as soon as 9:31 PM if you’re just about to complete a game-year, but it could also end later than 10 PM if you’re just starting a game-year (the last game-year will take longer, most likely, because everyone will want to talk privately with every other player).

2. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Each player gets one point per supply center owned at the end of each game year, with centers counting double at the end of the last year. So if a player has five centers at the end of a game-year he or she scores five points. The score is doubled in the last game year for two reasons. First, it rewards players who have more centers, the idea being that those who are doing well would continue to do well if the game lasted longer. Second, it encourages more fluidity toward the end of the game in a grab for those extra points.

3. There could still be a draw, though it’s much less likely than in a full game of Diplomacy.

This is likely to be a niggling and nibbling game as everyone maneuvers to be slightly ahead (or slightly behind) going into the last year. If the game goes from 1900 to 1905, five normal scorings plus a double scoring for 1905, then on average a player’s going to have about 34 points. My guess is that 50 points will often be a win.

There are a variety of sometimes-complex ways to play Diplomacy with less than seven players, which could be combined with this Short-Term method.


At WBC (Lancaster PA, early August), I will be talking about Designing Multi-player Games (and a lot of other design related topics) on Friday at 5 in Hopewell. This is listed as 1 hour, but I don't see anything scheduled thereafter, so as usual it will be up to 2 hours or whenever people no longer want to participate, whichever comes first.

My seminars at GenCon (August, Indianapolis):

SEM1453968 Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames (https://www.gencon.com/events/53968) Thursday 3:00 PM 1 hr

SEM1453969 How to Write Clear Rules (https://www.gencon.com/events/53969) Friday 11:00 AM 1 hr

SEM1453970 Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design (https://www.gencon.com/events/53970) Saturday 11:00 AM 1 hr

SEM1453476 Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? (https://www.gencon.com/events/53476) Sunday 9:00 AM
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