Board games centered on deceit

I am not a huge board game player, but I do enjoy the occasional classic war game like Risk, Axis and Allies (when the stars align and I happen to have both the time for it, and enough gathered interest from some of my kids).

I recently discovered the board game Diplomacy, from the 1950’s, and I’m wondering where this game has been all my life. It’s like everything I imagined Risk could have been, filled with informal, secretive alliances, deceit, and betrayal, all done in such a way that makes it a compelling and central part of the game – in contrast to Risk, where informal alliances tend to just make people mad and ragequit. :frowning:

In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, Diplomacy seems to do the whole deceit and betrayal thing so well that it makes me question the moral implications of such games in a way I haven’t considered for awhile.

So I thought I’d throw the question out there. What do ya’ll think about the moral implications of games that are built upon deception and betrayal?

In general, I think it’s a fair observation that all games involving competition will involve some layer of deception, big or small. In football, plays often involve misdirection. In any war game – even ones where everything is exposed in plain sight, like Chess – there is some level of “I know something my opponent doesn’t know and I don’t want my opponent to figure it out so I can exploit it.” Deception is inherent to war (e.g. Joshua 8:6-7), so it seems natural that it’s fitting to any war game, and I don’t think there typically needs to be a moral conundrum.

But is there a threshold? Does there come a place where a game involves deception to such an extent that we’re no longer just hiding information, but we’re being invited to bear false witness – where even though it’s in the context of a game, our consciences ought be bothered?

It seems reasonable to me to make the distinction that in a game like this, the deceit itself isn’t really deceitful since all parties are basically consenting ahead of time to the deception as part of the experience.




The first thing that comes to mind is the universe of card games that have provided me decades of entertainment and amusement. And, yes, endless opportunities to deceive my card-playing opponents.

I broke my teeth playing canasta against my mother (rarely, very rarely defeated her). I have many early memories of sitting on my father’s lap as he played poker with a half-dozen of his workplace friends. I could see his cards, and so I could also see how he played them. Bluffing, of course, is sometimes a blatant lie. Or not.

But, the most generous opportunities for deceit as one plays the cards comes with games like spades, or hearts, or - the prince of lying card games - contract bridge.

Everything about bridge is a teetering balancing act between attempts to communicate information to your partner during the bidding and simultaneously to deceive your opponents, especially in the playing of the cards. One of the most common tactics in card play has the name “false carding,” where a player plays a card that invites (or insists!) a certain holding in the remainder of the player’s hand, but is instead “false” - unnecessarily high or low, inviting the opponent to assess the remainder of the card distribution incorrectly.

Oh yes - most card games worthy of a man’s attention depend for their entertainment on deceit.


Be careful.



That graphic/tagline made me think of something similar (in spirit) that I once saw at the web site of an unapologetically Thomist Anglican Church web site. It went something like this:

St. Ambrose Anglican Church
Putting God in a Box since 1963

If anyone needs a minor tutorial on how/why that tagline is funny - intentionally so by its owners - just ask.

You’re talking about marriage, right?


I’ve gotten to play Diplomacy a couple dozen times (mostly 1901, Ancient Mediterranean and World 1862.) I know its reputation but I don’t think it’s an intrinsically deceitful game. It is cooperative and requires communication over a scarce resource and players agree to pursue solo victory as opposed to just ending the war as is. The negotiation flows from that. Players will be more deceitful if playing to win today or in just a few games with the same player group. Players who win more games over a long period of time write and speak persuasively to win and, as has been said, omit information rather than actively lie.

Generally, I personally would draw a hard line at convincing another player that so-and-so is a liar, i.e., their actions in the game cannot be trusted because of their personal character. That crosses the line into harming my neighbor’s reputation. In a real war, to defend lives I’d sworn to protect, I don’t know the right answer. But there’s no excuse to hurt someone like that for the sake of a game.

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Right. They’ve no expectation of straightforward honesty. Honesty, in this instance, is situational. And, of course, to be honest in the straightforward sense would be to never enjoy a game again.

We play a family game with younger kids - mafia. It’s built on deception. We have a son who is dispositionally incapable of deceit. He’s a terrible player because is very obvious when he’s deceitful. He always plays but its not good when he’s on your “team.” Of course, now that everyone knows he’s an open book he’s prime to be the best at the game - if he could do it.


Several months back, my pastor and his family came over, and one of his sons brought the game Secret Hitler. It’s one of those games where everyone has a secret identity, and you’re supposed to figure out who is who.

Without fail, my pastor would just look everyone in the eye and ask, “Are you a fascist?” and he is so skillful in reading people, and knows us all so well, that he guessed every single one of us 100% accurately.

Maybe a strange testament to a good pastor, but a good one I think. :slight_smile:


Yeah, that’s me. I am terrible at lying and I have no desire to improve my ability. I’d rather bang my head in a door than play another game of Mafia.

I have no moral problems with lying in the context of a game. Obviously i withhold information in card games etc. I just have a real hang up when I use words to speak falsehoods.


Perhaps there’s a distinction to be made there. It’s one thing to be breathing forth falsehoods about another player. It’s another to just choose to be discerning about what information you disclose. Both involve deception, but they don’t both involve false testimony.

I dunno. I don’t think there’s a hard fast moral rule to be found here. Deception within the context of a game when it’s actually part of the game (not talking about cheaters) seems like totally fair ground. Nevertheless, it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

There’s a brother in my church who gives testimony of great amounts of deception and theft in his life before he came to know Christ. He doesn’t have any interest in board games like Diplomacy, and I say praise God. I susppse there is the kind of repenting liar that should no more be pressed into a board game like Diplomacy than should a repenting drunkard be pressed into a beer.


I think it would be more accurate to say the key issue is betrayal rather than falsehood. The game mechanics of Diplomacy render it nigh impossible for a single player to make any headway against another single player. Instead, it is necessary to recruit an ally to gang up on someone else, or at least obtain a non-aggression pact so that the defense can be weakened at one location so that the offense can be strengthened at another location. Gaining a firm ally at the beginning of the game requires persuasion rather than deception, and both players can greatly benefit from the alliance as they defeat other less organized players. But in the end, there can be only one winner, so at some point it is necessary to stab one’s ally in the back and seize an insurmountable advantage. Waiting too long risks being on the losing end of betrayal, but waiting too short means foregoing benefits of the alliance against other players, as does trying to protect oneself from potential attacks by an ally. Then on a meta level, the other players understand the risks and rewards of the alliance and will try to persuade switching alliances.

Lord Palmerston: We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.