There are those who don‘t consider Diplomacy a wargame. Indeed, there are Diplomacy players who share that opinion. Diplomacy enthusiasts have always been a breed apart from the mainstream of the hobby. Long before Diplomacy became an Avalon Hill product the wargame hobby was generally seen to consist of three branches: board games, miniatures, and Diplomacy. The game thrives on the fact that it requires seven players and is better suited to postal than live play, factors which would certainly have condemned a lesser game long ago. Despite its age, every major game convention has a Diplomacy tournament. To that end, we offer a three-part series on the game with no dice by one of the giants of the Diplomacy community in the 1970s and 80s. You decide whether it is or isn't a wargame.
The heart of Diplomacy is negotiation between seven players who represent the Great Powers of World War I: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Turkey. Facilitating the negotiations are the simple mechanics of simultaneous movement of a total of 34 armies and fleets, with no luck involved. Deals and alliances are made and broken during the game, and no one can be certain whether other players will react as expected; in other words, the players themselves provide the chance element.
It is a mark of a great game, such as chess, that experts cannot agree on a best way to play. Diplomacy is no exception. Consequently, the advice below is my view of how to play successfully. Others would disagree, as I sometimes indicate. Some points will be expanded and clarified in the articles on the other two major elements of Diplomacy play, strategy and tactics.
Telling someone how to negotiate well is a difficult task. A person’s attitude toward life and toward the game have a strong, immeasurable, and probably unalterable effect on how, and how well, he or she negotiates in any wargame. Hundreds of essays have been written about this subject. Certain principles and common failings can be described, however, which no player should ignore.
The advice below applies to any well-played Diplomacy game, but it is necessary to recognize the differences between face-to-face (FTF) and postal or electronic play. When you play FTF with people you don’t know, you will often encounter attitudes and conventions very different from your own. In the extreme, what you think is perfectly commonplace might be, to them, cheating. In postal play with experienced opponents you’ll encounter fewer “strange” notions. Incompetent players can be found in any game, of course. Postal games suffer from failure of players to submit orders before the adjudication deadline -- ”missed moves” -- far more than FTF games. A failure to move at a crucial time usually causes significant changes in the flow of play. Both FTF and postal games suffer from dropouts -- people who quit playing before their countries are eliminated. Part of a good player’s range of skills is the ability to keep his allies (and his enemy’s enemies) from dropping out. In a top-class game none of these difficulties occur.
In FTF play it is easier to coordinate routine attacks and to form coalitions to stop the largest country from winning. Communication is more rapid and more frequent than by mail. More elaborate and brilliant tactical play is found in postal games because each player has hours, if he desires, to look for the very best moves. Time-pressure often causes tactical mistakes in FTF games. Finally, dogged persistence of argument is valuable in FTF, where a weak player might do whatever he was most recently told to do. In postal play, persistence (via numerous letters and long distance phone calls) is valuable, but written negotiation requires a more careful, logical approach than oral negotiation. Every player has time to think things through, to notice holes in arguments, to hear from every player. No one can monopolize one person's time.
When you begin a game, you must first learn something about each of your opponents. Sometimes you will know quite a bit to begin with, but you can also ask people who know the opponent better than you do. You want to know if your opponent is generally reliable or not, what his objective is, whether he is a classical or romantic player, and whether or not he is good at negotiation, strategy, and tactics. (This is a controversial point, insofar as some players -- usually the notoriously erratic and unreliable -- say that a player’s previous record should have no effect on the game. The more you know about another player, however, the better you’ll be able to predict his actions. It would require a peculiar view of life for a player to knowingly ally with someone who has never abided by an agreement in 20 games! Similarly, you have little to gain by offering a draw to a player who would “rather die than draw." However much some players like to pretend that they really are government leaders and that World War I is happening just this once, most Diplomacy players recognize that it is an abstract game of skill and act accordingly.)
Let’s consider each point you’re trying to learn about, beginning with reliability. Novice players, urged on by the rulebook introduction, usually believe that the winner will be the player who lies, cheats, and backstabs most effectively. Perhaps if you never play more than once with the same people and never acquire a reputation, this would be true. In the long run, players learn to treat liars and backstabbers as enemies. Why invite disaster in an already difficult game?
For one person to do well in a game with six competitors, some cooperation is necessary. Cooperation is easier and more effective between those who can rely upon one another. An expert player rarely lies, and then only because the lie is likely to radically improve his position. He prefers to say nothing, to change the subject, to speak of inconsequential things, rather than lie. When he agrees to an alliance of some kind he usually abides by the agreement. By specifying a limited duration -- until 190x, or until a particular country is eliminated or reduced to one supply center -- he won’t back himself into a corner that would require him to break an agreement. When he backstabs (attacks) an ally, he plans it so as to virtually destroy the country, not merely to gain a few centers. The stab is a means to accomplishing his goal, not merely to increasing his supply center count. He wants to be known as a reliable player because this will make other players more willing to cooperate with him.
Some players say that only mutual self-interest should determine whether an agreement is kept or a lie told. When the agreement is no longer in one player’s interest he should break it. In the short term this might also be true (though a lie or backstab early in a game will certainly be remembered to the end of that game, often to the detriment of the perpetrator). The expert player looks at the long term, because few people play just one game of Diplomacy. It is in his interest to maintain agreements and avoid lying in order to establish a reputation for reliability. No altruism is involved. (Incidentally, a reliable player is less often on the receiving end of an emotional barrage from an angry player -- no small gain.)
It is often surprising to new players to learn that not every player wants to accomplish the same thing. Some play for excitement, not caring if they win or lose as long as the game is full of wild incidents. Most play to win the game, but there the ways part. Many players (the “drawers”) believe that, failing to win, a draw is the next best result, while anything else is a loss. At the extreme, even a 7-way draw is better than second place. Others (the “placers”) believe that to survive in second place while someone else wins is better than a draw. At the extreme are those who would “rather die than draw.” Such fundamental differences in world view can have a decisive effect on a game. If you propose a plan to establish a 3-way draw, a placer won’t be interested. If you offer to help a weak country to attain second place if he helps you win, you’ll get nowhere if he’s a drawer but a placer would be favorably impressed. Placers make better “puppets,” but drawers can also be good allies. In some situations they are better, because they won’t abandon you (when they feel they can’t win) in order to try for second place instead of a draw. When you’re winning you’re better off with a placer ally, who is a little less likely to attack you than a drawer would be.
Whether a player’s style is “classical” or “romantic” is tricky to define. Briefly, the classical player carefully maximizes his minimum gain. He pays attention to detail and prefers to patiently let the other players lose by making mistakes, rather than trying to force them to make mistakes. He tends to like stable alliances and steady conflict in the game. He tends to be reliable and good at tactics. The romantic is more flamboyant, taking calculated risks to force his enemies into mistakes, trying to defeat them psychologically before they are defeated physically on the board. (Many players give up playable positions because they’re convinced that they’ve lost.) He tries to maximize his maximum gain, at the cost of increasing potential loss. He can be unpredictable, relying on surprise and the Great Stab for victory. Tending to be an unreliable ally and a sometimes sloppy tactician, he likes fluid, rapidly changing alliances and conflicts.
Finally, it’s useful to know whether your opponent is a poor, average, or good player, and what facets of the game he is better at. You can risk a one-on-one war with a poor tactician but not with a good one. An alliance of limited duration with a player who is deficient in strategy can leave you in a much better position as you outmaneuver him in dealing with the players on the other side of the board. Some players like to eliminate inferior players early in the game, while others try to use the weaker players as buffers or to eliminate strong opponents.
To reemphasize the point of this “sizing up,” the more you know about your opponent’s tendencies, the better you can predict his reaction to a given situation. As you negotiate, try to learn more about his preferences. In the extreme case, you can try to make yourself appear to be a certain kind of player in order to gain the respect, trust, or sympathy of your opponent. Even if you begin a game with six unknown quantities, you should be able to learn something about their styles before writing your Spring 1901 orders. Surprisingly, simply being friendly is sometimes the best approach; talk about yourself and your own views in order to draw out the other players.
There are five other principles of negotiation beyond “know your opponents:”
- talk with everybody
- be flexible
- never give up
- explain plans thoroughly, and
- be positive.
1) At the beginning of the game, and periodically throughout, talk with all the other players, even your enemies. Someone on the other side of the board may know something of interest to you. Trade information, when possible, with those who have no immediate stake in what you do next. Don’t be too free with the information you obtain or it may get back to your source, who will decide he can’t trust you with more. An expert player takes account of and tries to control the actions of every player in the game. You he can’t do that if you don't communicate with them.
2) If you expect everyone to play the way you do, you’ll surely lose. Don’t get emotional, though it isn’t necessarily bad to simulate some emotion in order to change an opponent’s behavior. It is only a game, and betrayal is a part of it. If you are stabbed or someone lies to you, anger will do you no good. What you can do is make sure your antagonist regrets his action, with the idea that next time, he’ll remember and won’t do it again. (Advocates of short-term Diplomacy go even further. They say forget about the stab and think only about what is in your interest this moment. Your best ally might be the player who just betrayed you.) When you are at war, always think about possible deals with your enemy, especially if he has the upper hand! No rule says you must fight to the bitter end. You might both better off doing something besides fighting each other, such as jointly attacking a third country or separately attacking two other countries. Always have an alternative plan in case things go wrong. Humans, especially Diplomacy players, can be erratic.
3) Keep negotiating with your enemy even as he wipes you out. You may be more useful to him as a minor ally than as an enemy. As long as you have a unit, you can affect the course of the game. There have been postal games in which a player reduced to two supply centers later won, and in FTF games even one-center countries have come back to win. In the fluid conditions of many games, dramatic reversals of fortune are common.
4) When you’ve sized up your opponents and selected your strategy, make your approach. Explain in detail and at length what you expect both you and your potential ally to accomplish. If he can’t see any advantage in what you propose, he won’t accept -- or more likely, he’ll pretend to agree and then use the information against you. Some players prefer to be noncommittal, to get the feel of things during the first season or first game year. Others like to form solid alliances as soon as possible. Whichever you prefer, be sure you put effort into your attempts to come to agreements with others. Even if you intend to break the agreement, back it with plausible reasons. If things go wrong, you may find yourself relying on an agreement you intended to break. If you don’t seem interested in the agreement when you propose it, the other player won’t bite. For example, when you propose an offensive alliance, don’t merely say “Let’s you and me get him." That isn’t negotiation, it is an invitation to be treated as an inferior. Instead, talk about why it is in the interest of both countries to eliminate a common enemy, how it can be accomplished (tactics), what other countries will probably do (strategy), how the spoils will be divided, and what each of you can do afterward to avoid fighting each other. If the attack doesn’t give both of you prospects for gain, your potential ally will be suspicious, especially if the alliance appears to favor him over you.
5) Convince the other player, don’t passively hope that his ideas coincide with yours. Negotiation is a strange mixture of aggressive persuasion and play-acting to seem innocuous, to avoid drawing too much attention to yourself.
However you go about it, don’t be discouraged by initial failures, and always analyze why you succeed or fail. There’s no substitute for experience.
In the next installment we’ll examine strategy in Diplomacy.