Board games in the board room? Thunderbird and Diplomacy

By Keith Blincoe, Staff Writer

Some people like board games, and some people don’t. I do, and my current favorite is called Diplomacy. A typical game of Diplomacy is a seven-player, 3-hour extravaganza of shifting strategic alliances. It’s said to be the sort of game that ruins friendships. It’s great fun. But more than that, it has clear relevance to Thunderbird.

Before I go further, let me explain the game a bit. In the classic version of the game, seven players are each trying to dominate pre-World War I Europe. The players represent Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. To succeed, you must take control of key territories (called Supply Centers). There are 34 Supply Centers; control 18 and you win.

It’s useful to contrast Diplomacy with the better known game Risk—both are map-based board games in which the objective is domination through conquest. But there, the similarities end. Diplomacy has no dice; the only involvement of chance is the initial random assignment of countries to players. Second, whereas Risk is turn-based, in Diplomacy every player acts simultaneously via written commands. (The rules specify how to resolve conflicting commands.)

Winning Diplomacy is virtually impossible without the cooperation—and trust—of other players. But this trust can be destroyed at any time. Hence the ruined friendships.

(Note to the worried reader: the tales of ruined relationships are, as far as I know, rumors. Don’t be afraid to try the game. There are several ways to play online for free.)

Diplomacy is a highly appropriate game for Thunderbird for two reasons. First, the premise of the game is one to which many T-Birds are accustomed: a complex, multinational strategic environment; an unclear roadmap to success; and uncertainty about one’s role in the room. In other words, the Diplomacy scenario is built on VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The relevance to the transnational career paths in which T-Birds characteristically excel is obvious.

Second, and relatedly, the skills needed for a successful game are the unfortunately named “soft skills.” (Another name for soft skills—which generally include communication, teamwork, negotiation, persuasion, and conflict management, among others—is “people skills,” or even better, “business skills.”)

Skill overlap is one thing; skill transfer is another. Does improvement in the game of Diplomacy lead to improvement in other arenas in which in-game skills are used, including business environments? I know of no data going either way for Diplomacy, but a number of studies have addressed the similar questions for more common games, especially chess. Studies regularly show that chess experts excel in certain cognitive tasks relative to novices or non-players. But headlines often distort these findings into “Research shows chess makes you smarter!” Reverse causation is at least as plausible an explanation (in other words, maybe only smart people become chess experts in the first place). Any study on Diplomacy would need better controls if we’re actually going to infer anything interesting.

For now, the question is: Are bouts of Diplomacy breaking out all over campus? Not exactly. But everyone needs a break from studying or the job search occasionally, and the pub isn’t always open, so why not find some friends and conspire to take over Europe?

 

Featured photo courtesy of Photobucket user eleonoraonline (http://s24.photobucket.com/user/eleonoraonline/media/DSC_0716-4.jpg.html)

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