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Tournament Diplomacy, Part 4
Big Picture, Little Picture
by Edi Birsan
with help from the hobby

Strategic Combinations

The strategic game requires that you look at the alliance patterns as a system. It has long been argued that a perfect Diplomacy game is one that would resolve into a three way draw. In the opening game, there are basically five players against two. In reality, one or more players often split their forces against the two targets. In the middle game, two players have been eliminated and the situation comes down to three against two; again, at least one of the majority alliance members will hold down two fronts. In the end game, there is no strategically stable situation. In a perfect game, a two against one situation would see the two-player alliance break down as soon as there was an advantage to one side. Then the alliances would shift and the game would reach strategic stalemate.

Tournament play in fixed deadlines does not allow that type of end game to develop, for the most part. Instead, you have the game in two parts: beginning and middle. The most dangerous situation in a tournament occurs when one part of the board sees a two vs. two conflict while the other part of the board sees a two vs. one conflict. This causes a significant power shift toward the region with just three players. The most common way this develops is when the East develops into Austria and Italy vs. Russia and Turkey. That leaves England, France, and Germany to play odd man out.

If you are counting on fast gains, then you must think globally in terms of large groups. Plan to be one of the five that are ganging up, not one of the two being ganged up against. Then look ahead and think about who is going to be your buddy and who is going to be your target when the game is down to five players split three against two.

The shorter the game, the less stable the alliance needs to be. An alliance of everyone against France and Austria is probably the most unstable as it moves toward the middle game. If the game is going to end in 1905, however, this alliance might be perfect for a group of aggressive slashers. A longer game increases the importance of pacing yourself strategically and is less likely to see rapidly shifting alliances, unless the tournament system is in the extreme range of Supply Center Ranking.

Strategically, every time you change your alliance structure, you lose time. If you ever move an army back to a province it came from, you have lost time.

Strategic tournament thinking also requires you to consider whether you are going to face any of these same players in the next round. How will your ability to influence those players in the next game be affected if you set yourself up as someone who always plays against the leader -- even when he is your ally -- in this game? Carrying grudges from one game to another is considered very poor behavior, but what you've seen of a player's style, in this or previous games, is an important factor when making decisions. Who would you want as an ally: the player who always plays against the leader no matter what, or someone who is willing to put the long-term goals of the alliance ahead of a single supply center difference in your power? Players who have competed in many tournaments with supply center ranking are the most prone to turn on allies who pull slightly ahead, while those more accustomed to a draw system tend toward longer alliances regardless of differences in supply center count.

In games with long time limits and an emphasis on draws, then strategic play comes down to choices: do you ally with partners who must, for geographic reasons, cross the stalemate lines and thus risk a double cross with no defensive stalemate, or do you plan an alliance structure that seeks to achieve a stalemate line to guarantee results in a small draw?

Before making that decision hastily, remember that most alliances bring with them a mirror alliance. That is, by forming an alliance with one player, you virtually force another to join the opposition. Also, the tighter your alliance is, the more it forces your opponents into a tight alliance.

The most common alliance is between two neighboring players: England/France and Russia/Turkey (The Steam Roller) are the two most powerful next-door combinations. They also bring against them, however, the potential for a three way alliance that can overwhelm them in time. Consider the strategic limitations and counters to your alliance mix.

Common Errors

When you start the game, you set a tone for yourself that others hear. If you're a new player, study the possible openings beforehand. When you receive your country assignment, you should already know the most common conservative opening and the slashing combinations. Know the geography of your country so that you can discuss your opening without having to wonder whether Liverpool connects to London (it does not) or be shocked when an Army advances from St. Petersburg to Norway in Fall 1901.

In tournament play, if you announce that you're a rookie at Diplomacy and act like a victim who's just learning to play, then you will become a victim. Worse, you will not learn the most important thing: how to feel and act confident in yourself. Appearing meek works in some social settings but it definitely does not work in tournament Diplomacy play.

Irrationality as a technique works mostly in short games where you can get away with a few "crazy" moves or paranoid plays. Claiming that you want to see what happens when an Italian Army enters Silesia in 1902 or an Austrian raider steams into the Mid Atlantic is amusing, but only for a short time. Most players have a consistent policy of treating an irrational player as an enemy. This minimizes the effect of their irrationality and leaves you concerned only with their unit moves. It's surprising (or maybe not) how often a player who professes to be wild and crazy suddenly becomes rather conservative when forced to contend with unrelenting pressure and a lack of allies.

In long tournaments, the usual reaction to players who constantly lie and stab allies is to eliminate them from the game early. In short tournaments, players may be more forgiving simply because liars and stabbers can fall back on the line that "the tournament system made me do it" or "I need that center to stay even in the tournament." But guess what -- the player it was taken from needed it, too.

Stagnation is a common error. You might think that a situation forces you to play a few turns in turtle mode, just holding a defensive line. Never be content with this. Imbalance is the dynamic that wins tournaments and breeds great players. When you find yourself in a stagnant situation, try to get your ally to help you open things up diplomatically. Consider whether a surprise retreat might present your opponents with conflicting desires that allow you to shift the alliance structure. If nothing else, generating some imbalance is fun.

Order writing in tournaments is horrible for the most part. The handwriting is even worse. The number of miswritten orders goes through the roof. Even very experienced players make errors. The first thing to do is to make sure your starting forces are listed correctly. Second, do not use abbreviations if you are nervous or new. A poorly written order that allows for only one interpretation is better than a well-written but vague order. So what if you spell out North Sea? It avoids an argument over what was meant by "Nor." Use a big piece of paper. The trees will forgive you long before you forgive yourself for a bad opening move in which you forgot to list a piece's order because the paper was too small.

The most common adjudication error is forgetting that a force cannot cut support for an attack on itself. The second most common adjudication error is forgetting that your allies' armies can dislodge you if they are supported by your enemies. One infamous North American DipCon was decided by an unintended support that caused Munich and a stalemate line to collapse.

It may happen that players in your game make an adjudication error that you recognize, but it would be to your advantage to keep quiet and let the faulty interpretation stand. Polite play -- quality play -- requires you to point out the error. Playing with extra units you don't have the supply centers to support, or with units in the wrong locations, may be funny at the time in your secret inner place, but in the long run it isn't good for the game and it isn't good for you. Every tournament has a Gamesmaster somewhere. If a series of moves and orders is confusing, make use of him to help straighten it out. If he decides in your favor, be grateful; if he decides against you, be gracious and above all, don't argue. A bad GM call is wrong but arguing with the GM is worse.

Above all, remember --

It is only a game.

Have fun and make it fun for others.

Don't miss any of Edi Birsan's series on tournament Diplomacy.

Part 1: What Makes Tournament Play Different
Part 2: Tournament Systems and Scouting for Results
Part 3: Tried and True Opening Moves
Part 4: Grand Strategy and Small Mistakes

Edi BirsanEdi Birsan is considered the first Diplomacy world champion for his win in 1971BC, the first championship invitational game. He has won numerous championship games since then in North America and worldwide and is universally considered one of the game's top players. More importantly, he has striven tirelessly for over three decades to promote Diplomacy play in all its forms, at all levels, all around the world.

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