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Once I was in Diplomacy game with two experienced players, one intermediate (me), and four people who had never played the game before.

As it were, the two best players drew England and Turkey, and ran all over the board. Two of the new ones ended up with Italy and Austria-Hungary. "Italy," in particular complained, "I didn't know what I was doing the whole game." Meaning he wasn't about to play it again.

England, France, Russia, and Turkey are relatively easy to play because they are in the corners of the board. Germany, Austria, and Italy are much harder because they are in the center, and more easily surrounded.

If I had it to do again, I would have had the four newbies draw for the "corner" countries, and the three veterans draw for the three "center" countries. Would such a plan have made it a better, more balanced, game? And more fun for the newcomers?

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I don't think it would've changed the outcome at all. A strong player will walk all over weak ones regardless of which country they are assigned.

A better plan might be to play several "mini-games". Play for the most centers at the end of 1904, then take 15 minutes to "debrief" so that the newer players can get an idea of the strategy that was going on "behind their backs". Draw for new countries, and repeat, maybe playing a little longer this time.

Knowing that their entire day isn't ruined by a bad start and that they only have to wait a little while to start over should keep you from losing the new players, and the experienced players should be challenged by trying to repeatedly pull off strong showings. While ending at a particular year does result in some weird tactics toward the end, it should still serve as a good learning session that hopefully leaves everyone wanting more.

  • "A strong player will walk all over weak ones regardless of which country they are assigned." I once heard of a history class where students had to play Diplomacy as a class exercise. The two best students wanted to be on the same team. "Fine," said the teacher, "as long as you play Austria-Hungary." They got crushed. – Tom Au Mar 11 '13 at 23:09
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    @Tom Best students or best diplomacy players? Either way, it's certainly possible for new players to target a skilled player and eliminate them first. But usually the skilled player can find a way to make it worth people's while to keep him around and then slowly find a way back into the game. But as for Austria, I had more solos in e-mail play as Austria than any other country. – bwarner Mar 12 '13 at 2:40
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England and France are slightly easier for new players because of reasons you have already identified. Russia and Turkey are less straightforward. Russia has the problem of having many neighbors, so they actually lose quite a bit of defensibly (Turkey can take Sevastopol in 1901 easily; England can take St. Petersburg in 1902 from Norway if Russia isn't paying attention). Turkey can have the opposite problem of having too few neighbors that they have nowhere to go. I have also seen new players trip over the Bosphorus on many occasions. Germany is easier than it looks because they have a lot of easy expansions in the first year and a reasonable amount of territorial buffer between themselves and everyone else (Prussia, Silesia, Ruhr).

While getting a particular starting country can help, if you have new players in a game of diplomacy and you ever want them to play diplomacy again (which you should want, because it is hard enough to get 7 people to commit to an 8 hour board game as it is), I would suggest three things other things that probably matter more:

  1. Do two years of gunboat diplomacy (no discussion between orders) before you actually start the game (reset the board after you do this). This is to give them a feel for how orders work. Also give them feedback on things they did wrong, such as issuing support improperly, not giving orders to all their units, or ways they could have won an encounter that they lost.

  2. Read new players' orders first and be forgiving when they make mistakes. The purpose of reading their orders first is that they can make corrections without information about what other people did.

  3. Don't attack the the noobs for the first two years of the actual game. If you blitz a noob, they will probably never play diplomacy again (which is bad as it reduces your player pool). If another experienced player is attacking a noob, go all out against that player, and give the noob tactical advice on how to defend themselves (and aid you in your attack).

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I believe there should be no special treatment for new players. Life isn't fair, and Diplomacy is far less fair than real life. That's how the Creator intended it :-)

The only way I see to prevent experienced players running roughshod over newbies is simply to never put them in the same games. This idea works well for Chess, Go and Bridge, why should Diplomacy be different?

If new and experienced players must be mixed, the newbies require training on the rules and, importantly, the spirit of the game, before their first play. The rules of support, and to a lesser extent convoy, how to write orders correctly, and why orders cannot ever be changed once they are revealed are major sources of confusion and frustration, and they warrant a training session to ensure that at least everyone understands the game they are playing. This can take a few hours to do it right.

And even before they agree to play the game, I always give new players a standard disclaimer, that people can be very mean to each other in this game, even those who are your friends in real life, and if you're not OK with that, maybe you shouldn't play after all.

Anyone who passes both of those initial barriers to entry deserves to be treated with all the respect due to a competent player - that is, with no mercy whatsoever. Surviving and thriving in a den of lions is what the game is all about, after all.

In response to your particular concern, I'll say one thing more. For every duo of experienced players that forms a Juggernaut alliance and bulldozes the newbies, there's a "carebear" player out there somewhere who "teams up" with the newbies, and promises to help them and never ever betray them (very seductive for many newbies), and basically ends up dictating their orders to them, turning newbies into zombie players. These arrangements are utterly indistinguishable from a single player controlling two Powers.

I've played with such people. I find players who coddle (zombify) newbies are harder to defeat than experienced Juggernauts, because at least you can sell an "attack the cabal" alliance a lot easier than you can sell a "kill the newbies to drain the zombie master" alliance. Granting preferred placement to a "carebear" / zombie master player is basically my worst nightmare in Diplomacy. Please no!

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    This is a great plan... if you want people to never play diplomacy again. It's hard enough to get a playgroup of 7 for an 8 hour board game without actively alienating your friends. – Zags Jun 8 '17 at 21:53
  • My "no mercy" comment is meant in the sense of special treatment under the rules. I do discourage players from being mean to their opponents, not only because it can alienate players, but because cackling like supervillains and stabbing people almost always leads to defeat in the end anyway. I've seen it happen. (cont'd) – wberry Jun 9 '17 at 16:48
  • (cont'd) But I do believe that "oops I didn't mean that order" should not be accepted. And in games I have hosted, I have made crystal clear at the beginning that no one gets to change orders once they are revealed, and provided a template example for the format. This is also a lesson from prior experience, and it has worked out well. No new players have reported to me that this was a major frustration for them. And sometimes an experienced player will say "oops", and then, "oh well it's the rules". As long as it's well understood. – wberry Jun 9 '17 at 16:49
  • (cont'd) Of course, every group is different, there are cultural differences, etc. But in the end, this game will always occupy a niche because it simply isn't for everyone. About half of people I invite back out after I explain how political it really is. That's fine. One person told me, "I know myself, I can't do this, I'll lose friends." Good we had that talk then. – wberry Jun 9 '17 at 16:51
  • This appears to be a significant a pedagogical difference. I almost always find some advantage to give new players in a board game. I do this with most games (not just diplomacy), and leniency in enforcing rules can be a good replacement for material advantages where a purely material advantage is inappropriate (such as diplomacy). I've found that people are much more likely to play a game again if they enjoy their first experience with it. – Zags Jun 9 '17 at 17:19

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