A friend recently described to me the details of the United States Foreign Service Exam. This is a test, the result of which decides who represents the USA diplomatically abroad, renowned as one of the more difficult and detail-intensive examinations this side of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. Despite becoming somewhat excitable regarding political affiliations, he remains rather eloquent when it comes to the finer art of negotiations, something I routinely fail at because my world view dictates that things should be my way unless a better alternative is presented.

As such, I am not what one would consider a “world class diplomat.” Since I am strong in a tactical sense, however, I figured this would help balance me out when I fired up Paradox Interactive’s adaptation of the Hasbro board game Diplomacy. There was a Diplomacy club in my high school that revolved around our famous history professor, known only as D. Smith. The league there was fiercely competitive, and I was very curious as to whether the video game could capture the sense of outright sneakiness and betrayal the board game was (in)famous for.

Diplomacy is an interesting game in its own right, and it successfully animates the board game with surprising detail. This isn’t to the level of Battle Chess because the extent of the animations is limited to some slight alterations in the background, the pieces moving across the board, and the representatives of the different nations acting either happy or shocked depending on the moves of a given round. But how did the overall game turn out?

It’s pretty difficult to jazz up a board game by bringing it into the world of 3-D, so Paradox Interactive chose to keep the interactivity limited. The world of Diplomacy is on a 3-D map of 1901 Europe with simple icons for both armies and navies, so that shiny new graphics card can breath a sigh of relief. It’s cool to rotate the map around for different vantage points, and zooming all the way in shows a surprising amount of detail on the units and the map itself. We’re not talking “blades of grass swaying in the wind” levels of detail, but it remains effective enough to keep gamers satisfied.

The character animations are limited to shock/disbelief, smugness, or looks of deep thought. Whenever a move appears that involves a country, that country’s avatar pops up in the corner and expresses one of those three emotions depending on what events transpire. It can be quite funny to backstab someone and witness the look of shock/disbelief while you sack their supply center, but eventually players will tune these out. They add something to the game other than pieces simply moving about a board, but there needs to be more variety. That’s just my opinion though, and others might disagree.

The other animations involve an animated bitmap for the water, and pieces moving across the board during each turn. Again, this will in no way tax your high-end graphics card, but it does keep a convoluted and complex game from drowning in sensory overload while players try and keep straight who is aligned with whom. The interface is clean and efficient, which is exactly what is needed for a game where mental strategy takes precedence over who has the bigger guns.

The orchestral music for Diplomacy is excellent. The mood shifts from a hopeful refrain to a darker thundering pulse depending on what happens on the screen. It’s nice to be able to listen to quality music while debating whether to strike a treaty with Germany and invade France or vice versa. The elegance of the score is very strong, and well worth listening to just to hear it.

Diplomacy does not require a wide range of sound effects, but what is there is nonetheless effective. The clanging of swords denotes clashing armies while the anguished cries of invaded nations’ representatives boost the fun factor. Part of me wishes there was actual dialogue recorded for the game, but in hindsight I’m hard-pressed to think of where it would fit in. Diplomacy‘s complexity is all about the strategy and by choosing to focus on that the game succeeds where it needs to. The music and the limited sound effects enhance the feeling of playing the board game against human or computer opponents.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Drag-and-drop is where it’s been at since the infamous Mac 1984 interface showed the world why there was a better and easier way to do things than typing in line-item commands. This is where having a simple drag-and-drop interface is a blessing, and kudos to Paradox Interactive for streamlining things to the point they have. By no means have they dumbed down the core game elements, far from it actually. But due to the inherent difficulty in remembering each and every element of each and every treaty the player devises with other players among dozens of other variables, having everything laid out in the open and available at the click of a button is helpful beyond words.

I like how the interface is both clean and efficient, and that everything is controlled by the mouse including camera angles and zooming in and out. Simply hold the right mouse button and move the mouse around to alter the camera angle of the game board, and click the left mouse button on a unit and drop it where you want to. All of the diplomatic options are shown at the top of the screen where the respective countries each have their own box. I can see how having a thorough knowledge of early 20th century European history would lend an opposing player a drastically unfair advantage, but this is by no means a requirement to either play or enjoy Diplomacy. If the player does not recognize which flag belongs to which country, simply scroll over to the where the country is and visually identify which flag symbol represents which country. With everything controlled in Diplomacy via the mouse, the only way to mess things up is by selecting the wrong order at the wrong time, and even then there is still a way to correct things. No order is finalized until the “Reconcile” button is pushed in the lower right-hand corner, so is an order was mistakenly made, simple recreate the order to your satisfaction before hitting “Reconcile.” Voila, problem solved and it’s on to the next turn.

Simply put, Diplomacy is huge. The player is initially presented with the choice of varying time limits per turn before a game starts, and the wise player would choose the longest time limit possible. The reasons why will not present themselves at first, but when the player finds themselves with several different treaties in place with numerous countries and dozens of pieces scattered across the board, every second becomes a blessing. Designer Allen Calhamer truly crafted a game for the ages when he created Diplomacy in the 1950s, and the one major knock I have against the source material itself is that it is very easy to become mind-boggling in its complexity.

Here is a basic example of how things work in Diplomacy: Say the player is Russia and wants to attack Turkey to the south, while forming a co-aggression pact with Austria to help attack Turkey. The player would click on a thought bubble for Austria, then select which unit moves would be beneficial to both Austria and Russia, then drags the combined orders into a folder and sends it to be viewed by Austria who will either ratify or reject it. In the meantime, the player can set up another treaty with a completely different country in exactly the same manner, only it can be a non-aggression treaty, or the establishment of a particular province as a de-militarized zone, or any one of several different things. Meanwhile, the other countries on the board are free to be as aggressive or diplomatic, or both, as they want. All of this will eventually result in one country dominating Europe.

The intricacies involved in Diplomacy are staggering, but once the player gets the hang of them, the game is a terrific amount of fun. It’s amusing to find yourself content one minute that the non-aggression treaty you signed with France several turns back will help you in the long run, only to watch France stab you in the back by siding with both Germany and Austria to take you out. All of a sudden, the player’s fortunes and shining future are gone, and the scramble is on to salvage something. I’ve not had a game last less than several hours, and since each country offers different customizable play styles, the variety of ways to conquer Europe is close to endless. Gamers can also play over the internet with up to six different people all playing one game, with the AI taking over for any remaining empty slots. All move orders and negotiations are still handled through the in-game interface, which allows people from all over the world to play without necessarily having to speak the same language. Frankly, I think this is a brilliant way to go about it, but there remains an in-game chat function as well for chatting while in-game.

Diplomacy is fiercely addictive once the player gets the hang of things, so the question then becomes what did I not like about it? Not a lot to be honest. I could have done without some misspellings and the ASCII characters in the tutorials and descriptions where I think someone meant to use either a colon or a semi-colon and forgot to proof things. I also was surprised that if I ran an IM program in the background, specifically AIM and GTalk, Diplomacy started to become crash happy. If anyone IM’d me while I was playing, then the game twisted into a 640X480 version of itself that required I ctrl-alt-del into Task Manager and forcibly quit the game. Turning off the IM programs instantly resolved this, and the game was rock solid from then on. But otherwise, Diplomacy is a game I’m looking forward to spending a long time with in the future.

With tons of different strategies required to play any of the seven European nations in Diplomacy, and never knowing which way either the AI or your online opponents are going to go, Diplomacy has a lot to offer in the way of replay value. It may not be a graphical powerhouse, but by no means does that affect the challenge and immense replayability of the game. It’s also easy enough to get past the textual errors, which in no way diminish the overall experience. I presume a future patch will address these oversights along with the stability if players run instant messenger programs in the background, but it’s still a solid game overall.