Diplomacy is one of the more accessible games to play across time and space and for me and my group, playing the game has almost always been a digital affair. One of the sites we’ve used recently is Backstabbr, which according to the developers is “designed to bring some modern sensibilities and functionality to that space.” For full transparency, this review will only serve to introduce Backstabbr as an entity as opposed to explain the rules of Diplomacy.
To use Backstabbr, you will need to register for the website. Registration is done through Google. If you do not have a Google account, you cannot register for the site. Once registered, you’ll only ever need to sign in again in the event you sign out.
When starting a game, they can be made private (via email invitation) or public (where anyone can join). Public games fill up fairly quick and I’ve never had an issue joining or hosting a filled game and getting it started within twenty-four hours. Games can either have a Game Master (who is not playing) or no Game Master. The main difference is that the Game Master can see all moves and if needed, pause the game. It’s helpful for if you have a vacation coming up or work is too much and need some additional time. For players that want to talk to other players through the website, there is a press feature that identifies player by country. Press is the communication tool between countries (using the website) and can keep players anonymous. The full chat history will be available for each message and you can send messages to groups as well. The press feature isn’t bad but I more often than not tend to end up using Discord or What’s App to talk with opposing players as it’s more real-time and accessible.
The website will allow adjudication for times as short as fifteen minutes to as long as once per week and can be based off any time zone. In addition, the first turn can have a different length than the rest of the adjudication periods. The game can be also paused over weekends and automatically halve the adjudication phase during the Build and Retreat actions. Some other options include disabling player anonymity regarding country roles and the ability to disable draws/shared victories. Lastly, the game supports the ability to adjudicate the round immediately once all players have submitted orders.
The game can be played on a smart phone using a web browser (as there is no app) but I would definitely recommend using a tablet or laptop to play. The reason for this is that on a phone screen, the map is smaller and ensuring that you’ve clicked correctly (especially regarding Support and Convoy actions) are hard to verify as you’ll then need to scroll down to the bottom of the page for the written description of the action which means you cannot see the map to confirm between the two. I’ve played a few games on this website but still prefer using my laptop to finalize ‘complex’ moves. As much as I gripe, you can honestly use a smart phone just fine but with everything being touch-enabled, it can cause issues. I wouldn’t say the controls were intuitive immediately.
The interface itself is nothing fancy but gives players all the information they need to play the game. There is a decent sized how to guide and everything is color coded to stand out and align. Armies are shown as large circles and ships are denoted by triangles. Open supply centers are white squares, occupied supply centers are the colors of the country that occupies them and small squares are the home centers for countries. For each action, there’s directions on how to complete the desired effect. The interface also includes a sand box. The sand box won’t allow you to create custom scenarios but you can take the game from the phase you are in and see how moves would play out. This is nice to see what other players may (or may not) do but it’s also great for new players as they can test out a move to see if it’s legal or not.
Legality is an important part of Diplomacy and Backstabbr has no filter that disallows any move. For new players (or players new to the interface), it’s entirely possible to submit an order for a completely illegal move. On one hand, players should know the rules and understand the interface before playing a game but on the other, one wrong move (either due to a misunderstanding or a misclick) could easily ruin the entire game for a player.
If you’re looking for a way to stay in touch with friends digitally or like having a game being played in the background of your life, I highly recommend giving Backstabbr a look. It’s easy to use and free. While there are issues (such as missing logic that helps players only make legal moves and the unfriendly size when loaded on a cell phone), I appreciate what the developers have created and it creates a truly real Diplomacy experience for players behind a screen.