Gunboat Diplomacy and A Game of Thrones

When an idea becomes heated enough, it can convert that heat into kinetic energy. An idea possessed of such momentum does not remain confined within a single mind: it passes through individuals, paying little heed to the apparent truism that there needs to be a connection between thought and thinker.

In the past couple of weeks, such an idea ripped through Oxford on Board – the games club I attend. I think essentially the idea was to make an event of a game in order to elevate the shared experience it offered: in other words, to play a big game together, in order to be united in having played a big game together. The game in question in this case happened to be the Game of Thrones board game: the force of the idea led to two members buying copies, which were yesterday played simultaneously. I don’t doubt the wish for shared experience could have found its focus in another game. In many respects I wish it had. However, sometimes one has to be there.

I had read that A Game of Thrones: The Board Game leant heavily in its design on Diplomacy – the archetypal negotiation-driven conflict game, and a game of which I am fond. Though I realized that to my taste many of the extra mechanisms in A Game of Thrones would feel superfluous, I was expecting to recognize the heart of Diplomacy within it. I did, I guess, but only in the same sense that a Francis Bacon painting recognizably depicts a pope.

I couldn’t help but feel that much of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game was engineered to limit the importance of negotiation – which is a bit like trying to make a whist variant which limits the importance of taking tricks.

Uncertainty, in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, made long term plans little more than flights of fantasy (so to speak).  At the beginning of each round the draw of a card would determine whether or not reinforcements would be available on that occasion: this made grabbing new territory a pure gamble rather than a calculated risk: if reinforcements were permitted, one could consolidate one’s new territory, if not, one faced being spread too thinly, and thus open to attack both in one’s new regions, and in those left underprotected as a result of the advance. Similarly, an unexpected change in tie-break conditions could mean one’s upper-hand in a border dispute evaporating without warning.

Meaningful negotiation requires meaningful evidence: you need to be able to show your neighbour that you cannot hurt him or her in order for trust to be established in a pact. A joint plan of attack requires knowledge about what both parties stand to gain. Though you might try and deceive an opponent by misrepresenting evidence – suggesting, say, a ship in water bordering common territory cannot possibly have malicious intent – for this to be believed still depends upon the idea that evidence is readable. In A Game of Thrones, too many random events renders too much evidence unreadable. Because the rules of a particular round may differ significantly from the last, the readings of the game state upon which mutual plans might be founded become little more than palmistry.

The winner of our game, playing as Martell, attacked both his neighbours, Tyrell and Baratheon, within the first few rounds. In contrast, in Diplomacy immediately alienating both of one’s direct neighbours would mean certain defeat. In that game, one needs to cooperate to advance, at least in the early stages of the game. The excitement comes from the knowledge that all the while one’s partner remains, fundamentally, an enemy. If one’s enemies are never more and never less than enemies, that richness is entirely lost.

In part, it should be said, luck allowed our winner to achieve that result: he was joint-last at the start of the final round. However, further mechanical elements of A Game of Thrones made this anti-cooperative victory possible.

Where, in Diplomacy, only one unit can occupy each territory, and all units are of equal strength, in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, neither of these facts is the case: large armies of more powerful units can occupy single spaces. This means that an individual player is more able to build a potent force by himself or herself, and will therefore have less need for support from third parties in attacks. Relatedly, it limits the spread of units across the board, in that more units will likely be needed to stay home to defend heartland territory. Thus, players will have less chance to enter direct contact with an opponent starting in an opposite corner of the board.

In sum, I was reminded of the ‘Gunboat’ Diplomacy variant: one in which negotiation is strictly outlawed. In a game played by these rules, the individual flavour of each country is much diminished: knowing one’s neighbours only by a pepper of rifle-fire makes them largely indistinguishable from one another. It’s the need to explain one’s motives, to justify the unjustifiable, that makes playing as each power in Diplomacy the great experience it is.

Indeed, as the game, in regular Diplomacy, is the diplomacy. Moving the pieces around the map is not the game, only the record of what has happened in the game. A Game of Thrones mistakes the board for the game, and is a gross contortion of Diplomacy as a result.

There’s to be a follow-up game next weekend. In spite of all my reservations, I may still get involved. Shared experience is a powerful thing.

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2 thoughts on “Gunboat Diplomacy and A Game of Thrones

  1. I disagree about the randomness in the game as I think there is a good deal of strategy involved. The design rewards both strategic play and player interaction in a way that is well balanced. If you can get six people familiar with the game then this would become more apparent – it would be a very rich gaming experience. On my first play I felt awkward and cagey. With repeated plays people would become a lot more opinionated about what that ship in that sea means for you and me! I have not played Diplomacy and cannot comment on the comparisons that you made. However I think that Game of Thrones placement as a six hour game instead of a nine hour game offers something new. Also with the right group the play time could be cut down to 3-4 hours putting it in a different category to Diplomacy. As one of the aforementioned people who bought the game I am a little biased 😉

    • I must say, I found my second play of the game rather more rewarding. There was more negotiation, and it felt meaningful (pacts changed based on evidence from the game, rather than from the whim of players to indulge in a form of role-play).

      I still have concerns that the event cards are too influential for my tastes: the card banning support orders was of immense importance, and very much changed the value of pacts which had been formed, and promises which had been made. Speaking as the winner, good fortune for me in the timing of that card was essential to achieving that win. I’d rather luck be much less decisive in a game of this length.

      However, from another perspective, there’s something interesting (and perhaps even something realistic) in facing a situation in which you form alliances knowing that unforeseen forces might at any time compromise that alliance. It’s an interesting question for a game to pose: how to build a stable partnership in an unstable environment.

      I find myself keen to play again.

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