Monday, November 12, 2018

Still thinking about the Great War...

Back in the Dark Ages before video games, I was once involved with a group of crazy people who were addicted to a board game called Diplomacy. It was based on a map of pre-WWI Europe and -- as you might guess from the name -- was not so much about tactics and ammunition as it was about making and breaking alliances. It was the between-moves huddles with other players that accounted for ninety percent of the game time, as we all tried to mislead (Sure, I went in the corner with Germany and Austro-Hungary, but I didn't make a deal with them), obfuscate (No, I'm not planning a naval battle, I just feel like talking to Britain and Turkey) and cheat (I know I promised not to stab you in the back. What, you believed me?).

It was a lot of fun, and along the way, repeated experiences hammered some basic principles of geopolitics into my head. I started with the naive view that all players were essentially in the same boat but eventually had to concede that your place on the map had a lot to do with your fate. If you're Great Britain, you become a major naval power ASAP or you lose. If you're Belgium and the Low Countries, it doesn't much matter what you do; Germany will wind up marching through you. And if you're the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you're screwed.

I wonder if all the Great Powers would have been so interested in war if they'd played a few rounds of Diplomacy first?


  1. "I wonder if all the Great Powers would have been so interested in war if they'd played a few rounds of Diplomacy first?"

    The French probably would have said that "the rules do not adequately reflect the superior spirit of our soldiers and our Ideology of the Offensive." The British would have said "our sea power would reduce Germany to desperation in a few months; the game does not properly simulate this." The Germans would have said "our General Staff's brilliance should have been reflected in a 2X multiplier for our troop strengths, at least." And the Russians would have said "our sacred obligation to our fellow orthodox Slavs still outweighs all else."

  2. But maybe, just maybe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have collected its toys and stayed home?

  3. I don't really know a lot about the AH Empire, but have the impression that the Emperor may not have been playing with a full deck, and that General Conrad was driving policy more than he should have been.

    Conflict among nationalities within the empire was a problem...Captain von Trapp ("the Captain" in The Sound of Music) noted that getting work done on his submarine resembled Penelope's Tapestry, and thought the Czechs in the shipyard were deliberately delaying the work.

  4. Oh, yes. The different nationalities making up the empire never were very well glued together. Yet another reason why they shouldn't have shaken the poor old creaky thing. I suspect a lot of the ruling class knew it was doomed and preferred to go out in a blaze of glory rather than quietly fading into irrelevance -- not having realized yet that the times had changed and there was going to be precious little glory in this war.


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