Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Diplomacy Review

Diplomacy, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Creative and simple game mechanics lead to engrossing gameplay, splendid graphics for a map-based game, competent AI opponents, multiplayer matching service
The Not So Good: Annoying avatar reaction animations, will own your soul
What say you? A simple to learn but deeply strategic game of European domination: 7/8

Paradox Interactive has gotten a lot of run of out its Europa Universalis game style. Besides the original EU and its sequal (coincidentally titled Europa Universalis II), Paradox has produced no less than 3,451 games using slightly modified versions of that style, including Hearts of Iron (I and II), Victoria, Two Thrones, Crown of the North, The Battle for New Jersey, Rock Paper Scissors: Hardcore, and The Ashlee Simpson Simulator. Now, Paradox takes its global domination experience and applies it to a classic board game: Diplomacy.

Diplomacy has some of the best graphics for a board game ever. The developers have tried their hardest to make a game look good that takes place on a giant map, and they have succeeded. The game map looks good without being confusing (except for German controlled territories, where it’s hard to read black text on a black background), featuring clear borders and units with reflective surfaces and shimmering oceans. You can also tilt the game board to any perspective in order to get a greater view of the landscape. With the exception of the sometimes difficult to read province names, Diplomacy does an excellent job of making a map look first-rate. The sound is slightly less good, with a basic arrangement of combat and movement sounds. The background music is orchestral and appropriately over the top. The primary dilemma with the sound is the avatars’ reactions to every movement. Whenever any unit is moved during the reaction phase of the game, one or more avatars chimes in with a confusing gasp that sounds more like a sneeze, and never varies. This gets quite annoying close to the end of the game, since a lot of units by one side will be moving one after another that results in a repeated reaction noise by the opposition.

Diplomacy features both single player and multiplayer options for the game. Although there have been several hundred variations (rules and maps) of the board game, the PC version only has the standard map and one rule variation (a naval unit for Italy); I’m hoping that modding some of the more popular rules changes is possible. In order to learn the game, there are seven tutorials (one playing for each country) that cover all the game basics. The tutorials are thorough, but involve a lot of reading smallish text on the screen (which is still better than reading a manual). After you complete the tutorials and play one or two games against the AI, you’ll be good to go. You can play single games against six AI countries controlled by different profiles modeled after animals (sneaky snake, etc). You can test out scenarios using the sandbox mode, where you control all countries on the map; I suppose you could convert the sandbox mode into a sort of hot seat game with no AI opponents. You can also play other humans using the metaserver, which is Paradox’s matchmaking utility. Games run really smooth as long as everyone has a fast connection, especially considering the great distances between opponents (playing from Florida against Ontario and England went smoothly). The metaserver software makes it fairly easy to find a game, and will become even easier when more people get the game. Even though I’d really like to see more variations on the basic gameplay, the features of Diplomacy cover all the bases.

In Diplomacy, the object is to control the most supply centers, which are located on 34 of the 76 map divisions. The first person to control a simple majority of the supply centers wins (that’s 18). Each side has the same number of units as the number of supply centers, and larger forces are only gained through capturing additional supply centers. The map is divided into provinces that were present at the onset of World War I (back when we hung an onion on our belt), and classified as marine, coastal, or inland. Marine provinces can be traversed only by fleet (naval) units, inland provinces only by armies, and coastal provinces by both. The primary rule that governs the game is that only one unit can occupy a province at a time. Also, units can only be given one order per turn, whether they be instructed to hold, move, support, or convoy. If two units try to occupy the same province, the one with the most support wins, rather than using some abstract random dice roll like most games. Nothing in Diplomacy is random, which puts the end result in the hand of the players instead of some plastic cubes. After each fall turn (there are 2 turns each year), the supply centers change hands and new troops are born, and extra troops are lost (if you have less supply centers this year than last). Diplomacy, just like the board game, uses a WEGO turn format, where everyone makes their moves, and all moves are executed at the same time (like Combat Mission). This fits the computer platform well.

As I mentioned earlier, the number of control centers you own is the maximum number of units you can have, which is a global population cap; there will never be more than 34 total units on the map, unlike other RTS games where they think lots of units equals good gameplay (fools!). In order to capture more control centers, you must move your troops around the map. You can instruct your units to hold in place, move to an adjacent province, convoy any unit, or support any unit. Convoys can be used to transport units across the map, which means you can string out several naval units and transport land units long distances for surprise attacks. A unit can also support any movement to an adjacent province, which is the only way to capture a province that contains an enemy unit. This results in careful positioning of units to make sure you maximize the support of friendly units.

Since the game is called Diplomacy, there is diplomacy. There are several agreements you can make between different sides, and are either long-term treaties or turn-long movements. You can agree to demilitarized zones, non-agression pacts, offensive alliance, and full alliances, which remain active until either side violates the conditions of the agreement. With the alliances, you need to inform your partner of EVERY move that takes places in a province that borders one of their, which gets very annoying. I have unintentionally broken countless treaties by moving units that never actually traveled in their territory, just next to it. This isn’t such a big deal against human players, but can really mess you up against AI opponents. All treaties are graphical, which means you can easily make agreements with people speaking other languages; this level of international support is rarely seen. Alliances are also secret, so you won’t know who is aligned other than assuming the alliances from whom attacked whom last turn. You can only have one agreement per opponent, so you must modify or append standing treaties to make a new one. Not only can you make alliances and the like, but also you can coordinate movements between countries. Especially in the beginning of the game, you will need the support of other countries in order to defeat a common foe because the number of units is small. You can use draft movements to also sweeten a treaty you’d like to see go through. Once a treaty is accepted, you can convert the orders from a treaty and give them to your units, which eliminates giving orders twice or missing a component of an ally’s proposal. One of the shortcomings of the diplomatic model is that you can’t develop movement plans or overall strategies that take place over several turns, such as this turn I take this country and next turn I’ll help you take this other country. This is crucial in the middle of the game, as coordination between two friendly countries is needed to eliminate a semi-decent common foe.

In a game such as this, the AI makes or breaks the single player experience. Considering how complex the game may become, the AI in Diplomacy does an OK job of playing the game, but is no replacement for a human opponent. The main problem with the AI is with accepting and proposing appropriate treaties. The AI will present treaties to you, but they are only non-aggression pacts, full alliances, or support orders for their units. You will rarely see any complex combinations, or supporting your units or making long convoys. The AI also doesn’t accept any treaties other than simple ones, and since you must submit your moves in adjacent countries to allied nations, the AI breaks alliances far too often. The AI is good at playing the game and exploiting holes in your defense, but sometimes is reluctant in finishing off an opponent, especially a human one. Apparently, when you break treaties, it lowers your relationship with the AI nations, but there is no way to see a concrete value of relationships between countries; Diplomacy could use a scale from 0 to 100 rating the relationships between each side.

Diplomacy is a great board game, and the PC version is a very nice adaptation of the table top version. The game has simple overall rules and is easy to learn, but has much depth and multiple strategies during the game. Each turn, you’ll most likely have to make one or more decisions that could win the game or destroy your country; you will feel this constant pressure in both single player and multiplayer play. The graphics are very nice for a board game, and, although the game could use more variations in the rules and maps, the features are nice. For a small change, after you press the next turn button in multiplayer, I'd like to see a way to undo it as long as everyone has not punched in, so you can respond to treaties. I didn’t really know where to put that in the review, so I’ll stick it here. The AI plays the game well enough, but could be better at suggesting and accepting more complex treaties. The game is definitely multiplayer oriented, and the metaserver makes finding opponents easy. Diplomacy has awesome, deep gameplay that any honest strategy fan shouldn’t miss.