Playing Board Games for PME? Using Diplomacy to Discuss Communication, Strategy, Values and EthicsBy John Dansie October 13, 2020
Character Training has been within the remit of chaplains for a long time. It has largely been classroom based and often in the format of lectures and discussions about values and occasionally some role plays. Within wider Army and Defence, adventurous training is seen as a way of providing experiential character training especially with regard to the development of courage, teamwork and resilience. The challenge for chaplains, therefore, is to provide experiential character training and then provide space for the soldiers and officers to reflect on that experience. This paper proposes that one such tool for this is a board game. 'Diplomacy' is a game which forces people to make difficult decisions about who to trust and potentially when to turn on an ally in order to succeed at the game. It also means that at some point a player is likely to be crossed by someone that he or she trusts. This paper will explain briefly what is meant by experiential character training, provide information on the game Diplomacy and how it might be included. It will then discuss some of the key learnings by reflecting on two games that have been played so far.
Experiential Character Training
The goal of experiential character training is to put the person in a situation where they are required to make a decision or carry out an action that leads to improving their character and self-reflection. This is a familiar situation for many Defence personnel and it is utilised to provide training in tactics and decision making; through the use of quick decision exercises (QDEs); the conduct of tactical exercises without troops (TEWTs); in simulated training such as the Crew Procedural Trainer for the Australian Light Armoured Vehicle (ASLAV) crews and the IFACT in an Artillery Regiment. It is also used in character lessons delivered at 1st Recruit Training Battalion (1RTB) where participants are required to discuss ethical dilemmas. In his welcome address at the 2016 South Queensland Chaplains Regional Seminar held at Canungra, the Commandant of Land Warfare Centre suggested his staff could provide character training packages on the All Corps Solider Training Continuum (ACSTC) and All Corps Solider Officer Continuum (ACOTC), but identified that the burden for delivering experiential resilience and character training was on individual units. Army, in general, is good at providing difficult experiential training for its members, which is part of the process of providing resilience training. However, Army has had mixed results with regard to the conduct of debriefing and reflection immediately after such training. This debriefing process can be similar to an after-action-review but is focused more on getting individuals and teams to reflect on their values, behaviours and beliefs as a result of the training. It can often continue informally over a meal or in a more social setting.
Diplomacy as PME and Character Training
Diplomacy is a board game which was originally released by Avalon Hill in 1976 for up to seven players. The game is set in Europe and begins in 1901 and each year is divided into two turns; Spring and Fall. Each player is assigned a country with the aim to control as many supply centres on the map as possible. The game play largely revolves around countries considering their interests, forming or breaking alliances and negotiating moves with each other. The game encourages participants to consider all players as potential allies and opponents. Unlike many board games Diplomacy does not involve chance (in the form of dice) and most of the play occurs away from the board as players meet in secret or in the open to negotiate and plan their moves. The time allowed for negotiation can be from as little as 15 minutes to several days depending on how the game is to be played. Moves are then submitted and are plotted on the game board according to the rules. Any units which are dislodged are forced to retreat or disband. Then at the end of every Fall, Supply Centres are captured or lost which allows countries to either raise or disband units.
Diplomacy is a viable tool for PME because it encourages strategic thinking and planning, as well as communication. Strategic thinking and planning are required as each country considers how it could use its available resources, and those of its neighbours to capture territory and defeat the other countries. However, the game cannot be won in isolation. Diplomacy requires people to be able to articulate and convince other players of the potential merits of their plan and how and why they should be listened to and supported over another country. Ultimately each player needs to make decisions about who to trust and which plan provides them with the least risk and the greatest opportunity.
Diplomacy is useful for character training as it forces players to decide who they can trust and who they might need to deceive in order to get ahead in the game. There are also opportunities to explore emotional responses such as feelings of powerlessness, isolation and rejection. This would assist young officers in understanding how their soldiers might feel in certain situations. It can also be useful to reflect on group dynamics for example how alliances are formed and what it is like to be in the group or ignored by the group. Finally it could also be used to observe how officers react when they are losing. Do they just quit, or do they dig deeper and fight harder to try to survive? The character training component could form a separate section to the game and could take the form of reflection and journaling or lectures and discussions on particular topics as they arise in the game. Through discussion and reflection players will be invited to consider their values and how these values may be applied, changed, manipulated or broken as a result of trying to win.
The weekly timetable for play included two turns per week, which consisted of revealing moves Mon 0900, submit moves 1500 Tues, reveal moves Wed 1300 and submit moves Fri 1200. This allows approximately 48 hours for negotiations. The meetings to reveal moves went for approximately 30 minutes for game one but were conducted via pictures on SIGNAL for game two (due to COVID). The players were allowed to submit their moves to the umpire using any platform they had, or in person. Playing the game this way enabled players to engage in the game without interrupting their actual work too much. In the following analyses of the two games, players will be referred to by the countries they played as.
Game one was played in 2017. From the outset France and England chose to work together and trust each other and made significant early gains as they communicated well and demonstrated that they were committed to supporting each other’s plans. Whereas on the Eastern edge of the board Russia and Turkey either failed to communicate well or did not trust each other and this caused friction in the Black Sea which tied up some valuable resources and cost them some time. Following the early successes of France and England, Germany decided to work with England in order to exploit the fact that Russia had overextended himself in his move West through the Northern provinces of Europe. This decision by Germany to trust England critically weakened Russia. In the South, Austria decided to try and play a solo game and was destroyed quickly.
Game two was played in 2020. This game was interesting in terms of missed opportunities. This time Austria proved to be a strong leader and communicator. Austria managed to convince Turkey to work with him to destroy Russia. In this game Germany became convinced that his only chance of survival was allying with Austria as well. There were a number of opportunities where Germany and Turkey, Germany and Italy, or Turkey and Italy could have worked together in order to reduce Austria’s power; however, none of these opportunities were exploited. In this game Italy initially worked alone and made some strong gains against France but then found himself isolated with no support as Turkey, Austria and Germany moved down to capture all four of his Supply Centres in one turn. There was also an opportunity for France and Italy to work together in the early stages to take territories from Germany.
The object of the games was to allow junior officers to think strategically, learn more about communication and reflect on their own values and ethics. In discussing strategic thinking with several players after both games, the overwhelming theme I discovered was that without a grand strategy or overarching “operational” plan the countries started chasing ground. The best example of this was Russia (in Game One) who over extended himself in the North and ended up getting an Army cut off and lost an important Supply Centre. Similarly Austria (in Game Two) learnt the value of “war gaming” potential courses of action on the board before submitting his moves.
The second aspect of this game was to get the junior officers thinking about their communication skills. During game one, one participant who formed part of the major alliance of England, Germany and France, noted that initially he was very tentative and used a “finer touch” in negotiating starting alliances. He went on to say that communication became much more transparent and open when the alliance was solidified and trust had been demonstrated. During game two several players made use of SIGNAL to “accidentally” send false moves to the group chat. Also during game two the most successful player (Austria) was the player who was willing to communicate and physically visit or call players and talk about moves and strategy with them. Conversely in Game Two the Italian and Russian players learnt how difficult and frustrating it was when players had already chosen to oppose them and were unwilling to communicate with them about the game.
During these games players also had the opportunity to reflect on or consider their values. During game one the Russian player stated from the outset that he intended to play a game where he was honest and maintained his integrity throughout. He was able to achieve this and built a strong relationship with Turkey. However this game was not played through to conclusion. Russia managed to listen in on a planning meeting between France, England and Germany. In game two players engaged in much more morally ambiguous actions. For example Germany called Italy with Austria in the room and pretended he was alone. The major moral or ethical questions players are forced to consider in this game revolve around who to trust and when to break trust. In both games players actions demonstrated that they were willing to subvert those countries who they had decided not to work with. Playing these games also provided an opportunity for players to reflect on how it felt to be accepted and betrayed and to consider how they feel and react when their back is against the wall. In almost all cases the players who were being defeated chose to give up. Some got very upset and took it personally.
Army is moving more and more into simulation and war-gaming to teach lessons. This paper has looked at the use of the board game 'Diplomacy' as a practical tool for experiential character training nested within PME. It is important to continue to find new and innovative ways to discuss ethical, moral and character related issues with members of all rank levels. In Diplomacy the pathway to power requires players to make alliances and establish trust. However the pathway to ultimate victory requires players to betray their closest allies before the game is done. The challenge is recognising the key moment and being able to capitalise on it.