Days Without Strife
I've been working on a project called Days Without Strife. It's an online asynchronous team multiplayer game of negotiation, strategy, and intrigue heavily inspired by the classic game of Diplomacy, modern reinterpretations such as Subterfuge, and day long megagames like the one featured in this video by Shut Up and Sit Down.
For right now though, I'd like to focus on Diplomacy.
Diplomacy is board game created in 1954 that sees 7 players take on the roles of world power fighting a battle royale version of WWI. Military power is heavily limited as each territory can only hold a single army and every army is of equal strength. Armies can only be displaced and defeated by the combined strength of multiple adjacent armies, and making any progress at all often involves making deals with other players. However, since all combat moves are chosen in secret and executed simultaneously, you only have their word as to whether they will support your advance against a mutual foe, as they could just as easily support your enemy's advance against you!
It's a timeless game, and for good reason, but it can be a nightmare to actually play. The experience is intense, and you have to be constantly watching out for betrayals while planning when you will commit your next betrayal. The simple rules create an ocean of depth but offer no emotional safeguard against the players freezing in Diplomacy's ice cold waters.
This creates two problems: 1) Only a certain type of player can comfortably play Diplomacy, and 2) they can only play with each other, as there is no one else to play with.
I aim to solve both problems in my current project by tackling what I believe to be their root cause.
Anxiety and Loneliness
The major issue I've found with Diplomacy stems from the incredible anxiety the game generates from the high stakes all-or-nothing combat system at the core of the game, the tension of not truly knowing your opponents’ plans, and the resulting loneliness.
This anxiety is not entirely a bad thing, as it is often a game's emotional impact that drives the players’ engagement in it, and both the high stakes combat and the uncertainty of opponent agendas is responsible for a lot of the emotional impact the players are seeking.
I do not think, however, anyone plays high-pressure negotiation games like Diplomacy to feel lonely. Uneasy alliances and betrayals are part of the experience, but if every alliance is uneasy and every betrayal is inevitable then many players will not bother trying to form any kind of connection beyond a temporary practical ceasefire. Any unnecessary connection or divulgence of information to another player is another potential tool they can use to betray you, incentivizing players to keep to themselves.
Trusting others is never worth the risk, and so the game feels lonely.
The first solution to the loneliness problem was straightforward: Make each world power in the game into a 3 player team called a Faction.
A player on a Faction can never be alone, and their teammates have no capacity to betray them. Being on a team also has the benefit of diffusing and redirecting the negative emotional energy from a betrayal, as when a group suffers a loss it often sparks a sort of righteous anger instead of lonely depression. Teams can support each other emotionally as they find a way to fight back.
This change also allows each player to specialize and focus on the part of the game they like best (and more importantly, stay away from the parts they dislike). Each Faction features 3 roles: The Speaker (in charge of diplomacy and espionage), the Commander (in charge of the military), and the Planner (in charge of resource management).
These Faction roles open up the game to new kinds of players. Silver-tongue liars, mechanics-focused wargamers, and the meek-yet-mathematically-minded can join the ranks of the bloodthirsty backstabbers, all without having to get their hands dirty if they don't want to. This in turn greats a greater variety of game experiences for the traditional fans of the genre, as now they have a team to share the game with and new kinds of opponents to interact with.
The second solution came about when I had a few playtesters who wanted to participate, but could not get a team together. I created a new role for them that I called the Wildcard.
Instead of controlling armies and capturing territory, each Wildcard instead had a unique ability that was largely disconnected from the map, such as generating free resources to sell, eavesdropping on conversations, or taxing certain actions. The Wildcards were given a separate victory condition from the Factions: They had to sell their unique services to the Factions and collect as much money as possible. Though these players would be alone, they had little actual stake in the world map and therefore had nothing to lose beyond a sale. Betrayal could not really hurt them.
Though the idea of the Wildcards was created to let a few extra players into the game, it had the side effect of giving every player exponentially more diplomatic and tactical options. Each Wildcard is essentially parasitically linked with a certain mechanic, and if the Factions want to interact with that mechanic, they have to at least consider that Wildcard and their influence. It’s as though every button on the interface had an associated personality. Meanwhile, the Wildcards are often hyper-focused on their respective sphere of influence, with each one trying to convince the Factions the game is all about their mechanical slice.
The Wildcards themselves escape the issue of loneliness not by having explicit teammates, but by instead lacking explicit enemies. It's in the Faction's best interest to be on good terms with the Wildcards, and even rival Wildcards have no real method for direct competition. Wildcards can feel free to take it relatively easy, safe in the knowledge that no one is out to get them.
The role of Wildcard again opens up the game to new kinds of players. Crafty merchants, sneaky rogues, and renegade warlords can now find a place in the game, all while giving the experience much more depth for the Factions, who now have access to many new tactical options... for the right price.
These are pretty radical changes to the base game of Diplomacy, and I am glossing over the many additional rules that have been added to accommodate the increased player count such as resources, the new combat mechanics, and the system of agents (more on those in future entries). The major result of all of these changes and additions is that the game is now a much more complex and dynamic experience. It plays like an ecosystem, with each player finding themselves a small part of it.
This new ecosystem allows each player to decide for themselves how much they invest in the game and its world. Some Faction players act as dutiful civil servants content to simply balance the budget, some Wildcard players will try to run the board themselves, and I've seen others create informal Faction-Wildcard coalitions that lasted the entire game. Though built on the skeleton of Diplomacy, Days Without Strife is now a different kind of experience, one that is much more about the journey than the destination.
The Faction and Wildcard systems have been the standout developments of Days Without Strife. Created to make the game feel a little less lonely, these systems have transformed the experience into something that feels more like a living world and less like a brutal strategy game. The primary impact of these systems is that for any given player, most of the game is spent surrounded by other players who are either truly friendly or at least neutral towards them. Players that normally would never play a brutal strategy game can now find a place to express themselves, and in the process make that same strategy game all the more unique for the veteran tactician.
The more the players can get out of each other, the more each one will add to the experience. That’s why I became fascinated with games like Diplomacy in the first place: It’s a strategy game that acknowledges that the most interesting part of the game is the interaction between the players.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope to write more about this project and these ideas soon. If this project sounds interesting to you, please check out the Days Without Strife page to see the current status of the project and any upcoming playtests.