Over the last couple of weeks I have engaged in my first set of public games of Diplomacy through the php based Facebook app. Below are some of my impressions of the pros and cons of Facebook Diplomacy. For information quick information on the game itself I suggest checking out Wikipedia (it has a pretty good description of the rules etc.) and for info on the app itself you may as well go to the source (http://speedycomputing.net/phpdiplomacy/).
Private vs Public
I am nearing completion of three games which I have been playing concurrently for about two weeks now. While I have previously played using this app, earlier games have been private affairs with people I know and can communicate with in real life. As such, games using the Diplomacy app were more of a convenience feature whereby much of the communication required by the game took place outside of the app itself and the app mostly facilitated a long term game without having to physically meet up every few days. My most recent games, on the other hand, have been with members of the public Diplomacy community who I have no real world relationships with. As such, communication has taken place within the confines of the app and the app has served served beyond a mere facilitator of a communal board but also as a networking tool for those with a desire to play the game even when they don't have six like-minded real world friends who have time to dedicate to playing.
One of the critical differences between my private and public games is the concern over the meta-game. The Diplomacy app tracks players and assigns points relative to skill level. I call this a meta-game in that obtaining a higher rating has itself become a game for players. This should not be confused with the concept of metagaming where one player utilizes position in one game to influence the actions of players in another (ie help me into France in this game and I will help you into Russia in the other game). For lower brackets (where I am playing), players are awarded points based on survival and controlling supply centers over outright victory. For private play, the meta-game was pretty much irrelevant as bragging rights are far much more important then any numerical attribution of skill. Being able to be recognized as the victor and reminisce about a critical stab are the likely unstated goals of private games. Public games, on the other hand, have players account for survival over outright victory.
The result of attention to the meta-game is generally more predictable play. Players maintain alliances and will even support an ally into outright victory knowing that they will get a piece of the end spoils. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I feel that it does lead to a less interesting game where obvious stab opportunities are ignored. The upshot is that games that might potentially slog in the late stages where two dominated powers struggle to secure a final supply center (while the remaining weaker powers simply sit back and watch) are mostly avoided in favor of a faster resolution.
So how have I fared? In three games I have been randomly assigned control of Germany, England, and Italy. As Germany I met a crushing early defeat as the power alliances of England/France and Russia/Turkey squeezed my west and east fronts respectively. Unable to convince any party to turn on its ally, I was relegated to a support roll and have done my best to aid the English/French side. As it stands now, the next few phases will determine which side gains dominance but I have been eliminated from the board entirely. As England, I managed to foster a solid alliance with Germany and we have more or less controlled the game as the other powers squabbled amongst each other. Germany and I have long passed the critical stabbing opportunities and unless one of us grabs an unexpected territory should declare joint victory in a few phases. As Italy, I secured rapid expansion against Austria and have engaged in a tense three way alliance with Turkey and Germany. England has been all but eliminated by France and my front has ever been pushing outwards against Russia. Recently, France has aggressively moved against me. I control the most supplies but my position is hinging on maintaining strong relations with two other powers. My Italian game is just entering the critical middle game where true alliances will come to bear and has been by far the most lively of the three games I have played.
The Good (Some of the better aspects of Facebook Diplomacy)
Players are generally competent and I have seen no evidence of cheating.
As such, games generally proceed with reasonably standard openings and alliances typically progress to mutual benefit. Sure sometimes a player might start pushing a front a bit early or make a support blunder but this is usually due to tactics as opposed to a failure to understand game concepts. Tied in to this, I saw no evidence of players colluding unfairly or supporting moves that made little sense to the flow of the game (in other words, people play a fair game and don't cheat by enrolling as multiple players). While I expect that the idea of metagaming (in the sense of using position in one game to impact a different game) is present, I didn't see anything obvious in the games I played.
The game board is clear and adjudicates perfectly.
By having a computer function as the game master adjudication is completely impartial and fair. The developers have even gone so far as to publish a list of paradoxical orders and described how the game will handle such circumstances. Additionally, the digital representation of the board is detailed and easy to interpret. Along with all of this, inputting, changing, and finalizing orders is handled in a streamlined and efficient manner.
The Meh (The mixed bag of Facebook Diplomacy)
Like everywhere else people communicate on the Internet, some people are jerks and some people are friendly. I would say that friendlies probably outweigh the jerks where I maintained solid conversations with other players even when we were overtly working against each other. Some players realize that it is all just a game and are more then happy to help explain rules and situations even when it is to their own detriment. On the other hand, a few bad apples seem intent on being vulgar and crude in their communications (fortunately most other players handle this by simply ganging up to eliminate them from the game).
Alliances for Life
As discussed in the 'meta-game' section, players receive incentives to maintain unusually long alliances. This has pros and cons but is limited to the range of public games. Further, at higher levels players can opt for a 'winner-take-all' format which seems to keep a bit more in spirit to face-to-face games.
The Bad (What goes wrong)
Failure to Play or Submit
In every game I played, Austria-Hungaria simply didn't play. What this means is that the early phases of a game are bogged down while the system waits for a non-player to timeout and then all orders are written as hold. Practically, this means that an observant player will take advantage and move aggressively for free supplies. When Austira-Hungaria doesn't play, Italy gains incredible power and a Russia-Turkey alliance is much more likely to form and succeed. This obviously unbalanced the game usually to the clear benefit of a particular power. Along with this, for real world reasons, sometimes a player just fails to submit orders for a particular phase. As such, an accepted strategy is to wait if a player hasn't logged on before submitting orders in order to take advantage. This also serves to unbalance the game.
While I find Facebook Diplomacy to be a decent substitute when one is unable to organize a proper face-to-face game, it ultimately falls short of the face-to-face experience. Something about looking a player in the eye and convincing them you are going to work with them only to stab and see the horrified look on their faces when the orders are read is inimitable in the current online environment. Diplomacy, after all, is a social game and is best when those social aspects are maximized.