It’s time for the third installment of 138 Games to Play Before You Die! We started with the classic abstract Go and we made it up to the mainstream deduction game Clue in the last installment. This time we’ll begin with Allan Calhamer’s remarkable Diplomacy and make a stop over in Sid Sackson land before finding ourselves in a strange twisty place as we wrap up the second week of gaming must-plays. Stay tuned for game number 16 and beyond as we press ever onward in our quest to bring you 138 hand-selected games that have just got to be tried.
- Diplomacy -
Larry: In 1953, when Allan Calhamer began designing the game that became Diplomacy, he had almost no precedents to work from. There were no tabletop wargames, not even something as simple as Risk or Stratego. Unless you count Pit, there really weren’t any negotiation games. Monopoly could still legitimately be considered the height of sophistication in board games. And yet, working in such a vacuum, he created a game that has not only thrived after half a century, but which must be regarded as one of the truly iconic designs of all time.
Diplomacy’s mechanical innovations are many — programmed, simultaneous movement; a multiplayer game of conflict; area movement; unit creation; and the wonderfully elegant concept of support — but the essence of the game goes far beyond mere rules. It’s a stark battle of wits and negotiation skills in the most ruthless arena in gaming. Positional play is surprisingly deep for a game of such simplicity, but in the end, it all comes down to manipulating your fellow man and choosing the right time for a backstab. The title’s renown spreads far beyond normal gaming channels — supposedly, both John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger were fans. PBEM games are more practical (and do a good job of simulating real life diplomacy), but there’s nothing quite as intense and exhilarating as an all-day, face-to-face battle with you and six of your former friends. Okay, the title’s reputation for ending friendships may be overstated, but even if it were true, I’d still play. Games like Diplomacy only come along once in a generation; I can always find new friends.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: Nowadays Diplomacy is still one of the few games where real diplomacy is the main part of the mechanic and where the road to victory really needs to pass through good negotiation. No modern board game has been able to do the same.
Tom Rosen: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Allan B. Calhamer is a genius. Move, support, hold, and convoy. It’s an amazingly simple system that underlies an incredibly complex game of psychological warfare. It’s also an admirably adaptable system that has been modified to fit over a thousand variants of the original. As Larry says, it’s infamous as the game that’s been “Destroying Friendships since 1959.” It’s certainly not for the faint of heart as it’s a brutal reenactment of pre-World War I political realism where alliances are merely a means to an end and allies are tools to be used and discarded. Diplomacy is the quintessential negotiation game where everything rides on your ability to make others see things your way and nothing can be accomplished without convincing your neighbors that you’re not a threat. It’s really the perfect board game, as long as your friendships are solid enough to withstand the bald-faced lies and deceitful betrayal that are an inherent part of the experience. I didn’t add it to my list for this series because I’m honestly not sure it’s really something that everyone should try, but nonetheless I’m glad it’s here because it’s truly a special design that stands the test of time incredibly well.
- Risk -
Matt Carlson: Spawning spin-offs such as Risk Legacy or Risk 2210 AD, and a forerunner of more lightweight wargames (Axis & Allies and its ilk), I think Risk is important to play at least once to understand the history of the genre. Yes, it is sometimes a luck-fest, but there is a reason it still sells strong today. The rules are clean and simple, and there is plenty of room for player alliances and backstabbing. Perhaps the quickest and easiest way to get a game of Risk under your belt is to cough up the $0.99 (or grab a free version) for a Risk-like app and gather around an iPad with couple friends. It loses some without the physical dice, but you can get an entire game in within a quarter of an hour.
Greg Schloesser: While I always loved board games and begged for those over toys at Christmas time and for my birthday, Risk was the game that truly launched me into more “sophisticated” gaming. My friends and I were Risk fanatics, often scheduling a risk match on one weekend night, while reserving the other evening for a date night with our girlfriends! My overly tame bachelor party was even a “Risk” night with my groomsmen! While we loved the game, we also enjoyed tinkering with the rules, particularly the “cash-in” rules wherein cards were traded for new troops.
Risk was the game that really piqued my interest in the war game genre and prompted me to begin investigating, purchasing and playing more substantial war games. More than any other game, I give it credit for launching me into a life time of board gaming.
- Acquire -
Joe Huber: You can make a fairly good argument that modern strategic games started with Acquire, Sid Sackson’s 51 year old masterpiece. Sackson was very highly regarded in the German gaming community, and clearly influenced the development of the market there, including the founding of the Spiel des Jahres award. While this admiration came for his work as a whole, it originated with his classic design – which itself was nominated for the first Spiel des Jahres.
Acquire is very representative of Sackson’s designs – there is an abstract base, with enough theme added to help the players understand and internalize the rules. And the math is right. One of the things which makes Reiner Knizia’s designs interesting is that he has a fantastic ability to get the math in his games right – no surprise, given his background in mathematics. Sackson was an engineer by trade, rather than a mathematician, but for accessible games that’s not a negative. The problem is not that the math involved in most games is _complex_ – it’s not. The problem is that the math involved in games (1) must be done right, and (2) should be hidden, as much as possible. If the first time someone plays a game, they notice and focus on the math behind it – well, for most people that’s going to be a negative experience. But Sackson, like Knizia, was an expert at getting things right and then hiding the numbers deep enough that players could focus on the game.
Oddly enough, the first edition of Acquire – the famous World Map edition – got the math _wrong_. Given that the problem was fixed almost immediately, I wonder if 3M changed the game, and Sackson had to go back and correct it. In any event, it’s worth remembering that there have been issues – significant issues – with first editions of games for a long time now.
So why should you bother to play Acquire? Many, many reasons, but they all boil down to – it’s a classic game that has had tremendous influence on modern game design, but still remains enjoyable in its own right today. Last year, for the 50th anniversary of the game, I played it 50 times. And while that’s a bit much for me – as with most games, I’m happier at a level of 20 plays in a year – I still had a wonderful time doing so. And I learned a few things, most notably that an average game sees only 7 or so mergers. Which just emphasizes the general advice for the game – get in on the first merger if possible, and no later than the second.
I should note – because of what _I_ find most interesting in a list like this, I didn’t vote for Acquire. But as no one had done the write-up as we approached publication, I stepped up – because I do strongly agree that folks should play Acquire. I just think it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated here…
Nathan Beeler: I didn’t have Acquire on my list of ten, but it was the last one I removed when whittling down. It was the first euro-style game I had as a kid, well before that was even a term, and it’s the only non-abstract of that era that still makes it into the rotation today. The years have been fairly kind to it. Although, thematically speaking at least, I think its offspring, Big Boss, got things a little better. It makes more sense to me to play for big companies from the very beginning, instead of needing to have your first influx of cash come from the company you invested in heavily disappearing as is the case in Acquire. That tiny quibble aside, Acquire can be a fun and tense experience, and is fully deserving of a place on this list.
- Password -
Nathan Beeler: Password is easily the best thing to come from a TV game show (Betty White notwithstanding). The game is all about the struggle to quickly think of the money clue word, or the reverse struggle to think of the correct word your partner is trying to get you to say. As a guesser, you have to not only think of the possible answers suggested by the clue you’ve been given (and all previous clues by both teams), but you then have to get inside your partner’s head and eliminate those candidate answers you think would have been served better by a different clue, and then judge the likelihood of your partner coming up with that better clue the answer was one of those candidate words. You have to do all this without setting up your opponents by giving them an easy follow-on clue. And you have to do that within a very short period of time. With a bit of thought and two partnerships of quality the game can turn into a magic show, with logical and correct answers being pulled from seemingly nowhere. It’s brilliant.
- Twister -
Anonymous: With your girlfriend/boyfriend. Nude. Oiled. It should end up more memorable than any other game on this list.
Brian Leet: I have no idea which snarky OG snuck in the above unattributed comment, but in many ways it summarizes why I added this one to the list. I can’t claim any deep meaning here, but there are non-obvious factors to consider. Twister, perhaps more than any other mainstream game, offers a unique meta-game challenge. Setting up the game. Who do you want to play with? Can you convince them to play with you? How quickly can you get the game back out of consideration if that other particular person shows up? Are you brave enough to propose “house rules”? Aside from the obvious physical components of play, this game has shaped countless experiences just from this meta-game.
But, does it deserve to be on this list? If you’ve never played, should you try, even as age takes its toll? My answer to both is “Why not!?” It might be tough and emotionally taxing to pursue, as the meta-game that seemed so stressful at a younger age only becomes more-so as we age. Social taboo and residual awkwardness is a powerful force. But, if you can find the right person(s), place and time, this would be a great way to rekindle that youthful amusement with ourselves and our bodies. And, perhaps remind us how we could all benefit from a more regular yoga practice. As a game, it is simple, but it works, and there is just enough game there to warrant the inclusion in my opinion.
To be continued…