Taking your Game to the Next Level

by Andrew Goff

Diplomacy is a game which repeatedly challenges even the best players to improve their game, throwing down the gauntlet as new ideas impede accepted strategies and new players bring different attitudes and styles to the game. Apart from questions of motivation, the reason why extended periods of dominance are so uncommon is linked to this: other players will have their attitude changed by someone winning even one tournament, and the strategy used to win is usually examined and that pathway to victory closes a little.

This can be very frustrating for anyone who has ever won a tournament, but is often unfathomable to a newer player. Unfortunately, new players still have to deal with this as it changes the game just as they are learning it. Unlike learning a sport, where your skills can develop in a stable environment, Diplomacy challenges you to learn in a dynamic environment and this contributes to the very steep learning curve.

The biggest challenge is that we are not taught how to learn in this environment – the rules of high school math and English do not change under our feet! This article, while not professing to teach you how to learn in another manner, will hopefully challenge you to see the game from different perspectives. Hopefully it will also challenge you to think beyond “how should I open?” or “what is the best way to play this country” to questions that address the “why” and the underlying concepts of the game.

Concept One: Opening Grooves not Opening Moves

NEWSFLASH: There is no best set of opening moves.

You heard me, “the best” opening move is a creature of mythology. There are “favorite” opening moves, and “standard” opening moves, and the idea of a “best” set of opening moves. All three of these concepts lead to poor play.

The novice mistake is to search for one “the best”, but this is in fact the easiest opening disease to cure! Most players will throw the idea out once they get toweled a few times after using it. Some will get stuck on this concept, constantly seeking a best move, convinced they just haven’t found the right one yet. This attitude, in practice, degenerates into “the favorite” as described below – though the person may be more annoying as they try and sell their favorite as “the best”!

Much more dangerous to improving your play are “the favorite” and “the standard”. The reason for this explains why there is no “best” move as well; it is because the opening is not an exercise in tactical movement, but acts as the scene setter for the strategies for the game and, critically, the negotiation mechanics between the players.

A “favorite” opening move is also a weakness because it often ties a player into a pre-determined negotiation and strategy plan in order to make that move. Do you love opening Mos – StP? Then every time you draw Russia you will find yourself negotiating in order to make that move possible. You have locked yourself into a strategy regardless of what else is happening on the board. Ask yourself “What opportunities am I missing from doing this?” and you should find that you have closed a lot of doors all in the name of trying to open the one you are aiming for... and if that one is locked, where will you now go?

However limiting “favorite” openings may be, “standard” openings are even worse traps for intermediate players. Yes, they are standard for a reason, but if I see one more Italian opening with a Lepanto with the sole reasoning being “it’s the standard opening” I might just cry. The trap here is that you are not thinking about your opening. You might be doing exactly the wrong thing, or it might be the perfect move for the game... but opening the standard way regardless of other factors is foolish. It is, from my experience, the number one way very good players dominate boards: recognizing when the standard opening was misused.

So “What should I do?” I hear you all ask! My very strong advice is to look beyond the moves, and into the groove of the game. In your openings, talk to the other side of the board as well as yours trying to find out what they are up to; use your intuition as well as tactics – a great example of this is the underused Turkish Opening of [Con – Bul, Ank – Bla, Smy – Syr] when you feel an AIR alliance is forming – it’s a shock opening which aims to stir things up while also defending strongly against an Italian Lepanto without threatening back. It combines a clever tactical move with the intuitive need to shake things up. A standard opening here would simply solidify the AIR alliance. Of course, if you were to open like this in a game where a strong RT alliance was likely you would have made a shocking opening!

Another example is in negotiation: when you are playing newer players there is no need to go to the fine details of “how do you see this game going?” and so forth – just ask them what their favorite opening is! If you can then facilitate that happening you will more than likely find an ally! Your opening becomes absolutely a tool of negotiation to the point where the moves almost don’t matter.

Concept Two: Liar Liar Pants On Fire

Diplomacy players lie too much. And no, I’m not taking an ethical stand or just trying to stop you lying to me! I’m serious, Diplomacy players lie way way too much.

The rules of Diplomacy expressly allow lying, and many players therefore feel that this gives them free reign to lie non-stop start to finish, or assume that because the rules allow something it therefore should be done and/or will have no consequences. This is of course ridiculous! The rules of Baseball allow you to intentionally walk a batter, but you don’t see pitchers doing it all the time just because they can.

A lie is your most powerful weapon in a Diplomacy game. It can and should define the game. I aim to tell no more than two lies in a game of Diplomacy, and even then only if they are needed. Most experienced and successful players would be unlikely to tell more than that. When and how to let a real stinker out there is a subject for another time, and this concept is easy to learn from. Randomly (say about once in every 5 games you play), do not tell a lie. Don’t even deceive or omit or trick or anything. Just be honest. You’ll need to plan very differently, and you’ll find it very hard. But it can be a very valuable learning experience to find other ways to be successful which you can then take back to the rest of your game.

Concept Three: X minus X equals 2X

I can hear you all saying “well he’s got that wrong hasn’t he”. But let me expand on the idea a little for you. Every action has an equal reaction. If you gain “X” then someone is losing “X” somewhere else.

A very strong Australian player from the 80s called Luke Clutterbuck codified this idea and used it as a basis for his decision making. To take the simple tactical example, If I as England take Belgium I get “+Bel”. If I take it from the French, they get “-Bel”. If I am at war with the French, the net benefit to me is not one, but 2 centers. Of course, I don’t get all the benefit – Italy or Germany may also be attacking, so it could be 1 1/3 for me and 1/3 each for them. This is a very oversimplified example, but it goes to show the principle.

Now, apply that principle. Take it beyond the tactical, into the strategic. My pet hate will serve as a good example. Germany is considering bouncing Russia in Sweden in Fall 1901, should he? In no more than 1000 words justify your answer using this methodology. Best three to be published next issue!

Of course, this methodology is very limited and has since been discredited as a holistic playing guide, but the principle of looking at the “reaction” as well as the “action” is one that is inherent and powerful in all multi- player board games.

Concept Four: the Poker Player’s Guide to Guessing Right at Diplomacy

How many times have you been in fifty/fifty guess situations and just guessed? Oh dear, that’s too many.

The “50/50” guess is never just what you see on the board. There are three other considerations: Is there a better way to win? Is there a better way to lose? And can I find out what the other player is doing?

In many cases, a 50/50 leads to a next turn where winning one way is substantially better than winning the other. Classically this occurs around stalemate crunch positions such as MAO, Ion and Tyl. If winning Tunis means the other player then defends everything else you may even be better off losing the guess to keep the situation alive! Most players consistently miss this!

The same is true in reverse, but far more critically. Many stalemate lines break not because they couldn’t be held, but because the defenders over-reached and left themselves with three 50/50 guesses in a row rather than conceding the first and locking the line. Again, why defend Tunis and risk all of Italy? Just chuck Tunis away and become immovable!

Both of the above examples are commonplace, but look at every guess to see if there is actually a better move to make than just guessing. Poker players do this all the time. If poker were only about who had the best cards it would be far less interesting! Good poker play means trying to get the most out of the situation, not just “guessing” if you have the better cards; it’s never a black and white picture and the same applies to diplomacy “guesses”.

If you see where this analogy is going it will come as no surprise that the third point is also strongly applied in poker. You never just guess. You gather information, you look at body language and you try and influence the other player to make a mistake. The number of times I’ve elicited ridiculous moves by insisting a situation was a 66/33 instead of a 50/50 is astonishing. The number of players who will give away their moves by staring at the point they are leaving weak will blow your mind.

Table talk can fluster people beyond belief; even asking for confirmation of orders close to a deadline from the other side can be hilarious! If nothing else it increases tensions in the other person, but often you will get a dead giveaway gifted to you from this kind of thing. This all of course cuts both ways. So misdirect where you can! Then mis-misdirect... and suddenly 50/50 guesses start looking more like poker and less like luck by the minute.

Concept Five: Relativity and Perception

Diplomacy is a game of perceptions and relationships. I love asking newer players what an “average” game of Diplomacy is, because they always get it “factually” wrong!

In Australia, where we are heavily centre-based in perception, the average game of Diplomacy is, of course, 34 divided by 7 (aside: funny how the average game of Diplomacy is irrational). If it were where you finished it would of course be fourth place. But ask someone and they will say “eight or nine” or “3rd place”. Most players would consider a true average game to be a bit of a failure!

This creates an interesting dichotomy whereby there are two “centre points” of the game: a psychological one and a tactical one. This splits the game into two conceptual elements of value – supply centers (and tactical position) and diplomatic advantage (such as trust, alliances, etc). The value of each changes for each player throughout the game. A player about to be eliminated *should* be burning every diplomatic advantage they have in order to stay in the game – the value of one centre is infinite and diplomatic advantages are meaningless. Likewise going from 17 to 18. Conversely, going from 6 to 7 is almost meaningless by comparison to the Diplomatic advantages that will drive future growth. I know this is a bit heavy so try this graph on for size:

Just as a visual aide, use the graph to see what matters at a given moment. Or, I should say, a given moment for a given player. Relativity kicks in brutally here, and the dynamic of the game can be expressed as players exchanging “Blue” for “Red” in the graph above depending on the situation. The inherent bargaining in the game could be said to be based around the conversion of the two.

Once again, this idea is not original and has flaws – but rather than me point them out think it through!!! What are the weaknesses that mean a system based on this can be taken advantage of?

Concept Six: It’s The Economy, Stupid...

...and in Diplomacy economy means tempo. Moving efficiently is so essential to the game some people base all their tactical decisions around it. We’ll get to that shortly.

First, what is tempo? Tactically it is simply how quickly you can move – Par – Bur – Mun is faster than Par – Pic – Bel – Ruh – Mun. Tempo is best when combined with the understanding of “exponential gain”: that the faster I have grown the more capable of further growth I am. If I have 5 units, I have 5 potential tempo, whereas if I have 15 I have 15 tempo. I am more powerful!

Tempo is deeper than that though. Critically it identifies how you lose tempo, primarily through bouncing, having the wrong unit types, and having “unusable units”. The classic case of tempo would be England having a useless fleet stuck in Barents having just taken StP and now requiring that fleet to take Tunis. That’s a lot of wasted moves before it can be useful!

Tempo theory has had a lot written about it and it is a very useful concept, and I recommend you read up on it and judge for yourself. But I find it fatally flawed because it never draws a strong link between the tactics of tempo and what it imperatively means you should do. Saying “going slowly is bad so you should go faster” doesn’t tell me how... nor most importantly which way to go. I won’t sabotage it or misrepresent it any further – get out there and read about it from an advocate.

Don’t think that economy doesn’t also apply just as strongly to other Diplomacy – be quick and direct in your negotiations and you effectively negotiate more than the other players! Create distractions... if the other players are wasting their energy (on the board or off it) then you have an advantage.

Concept Seven: The Psychology of Winning

The one sole thing all diplomacy players who win consistently share is psychology. The great Rob Stephenson once commented to me that “it is easy to get to the top; the hard part is staying there”. Sure, the motivation to win just so you can nail the world to the wall is enough to get to the top for many people, but to stay on top you need to do more.

There are generally three ways this is done:
  1) Positive
 2) Negative
 3) Pure, unadulterated psychosis

Yep, you heard me right, psychotic people can consistently win Diplomacy. I will bravely assume that you aren’t psychotic, so we can rule that out... but be aware some people who play this game are.

Most consistently great players derive their motivation from negatives. I have no hesitation saying that my need to win is driven by the habitual caning I got when I first played in tournaments as a teenager. I needed to be accepted as an equal of the adults, and as a result the Australian hobby bred a monster. I (hope I) have moved beyond that initial motivation, but the need to tick all the boxes still motivates me – I am not a complete Diplomat till I win that World DipCon (and etc..).

Some people are motivated by positive things. There are not as many of these, and it is important to note that it is not a “better” motivator. Positively motivated players are far more likely to share their motivations because they are far more likely to be honest with themselves about them.

This all leads to two things: what is your motivation? And what are your opponents’ motivations? Gaining an understanding of what is driving others is critical to manipulating them. I can’t be nice about that. If you want to use someone leveraging their motivations is the number one way to achieve it. Likewise, being aware of yours will stop you being manipulated – and I don’t mean what you say they are, but the underlying ones.

Of course, many players lack motivation and won’t win. If you don’t want to win for some reason, find one! It’s not hard to find something, but drifting is not a way to win.

Finally, dealing with the psychos (especially the talented ones) is a skill in itself... but the key remains motivation. Think “Silence Of The Lambs”... how would you beat Hannibal (and would he be a very good Diplomacy player)?

Concept Eight: Convoy/Move/Support/Hold

Convoys are better than moves. Moves are better than supports. Supports are better than holds.

Concept Nine: Everything you have read about alliances is wrong

Well, not everything, but up to a point you are wrong. I shall be terse. It is not the best play to ally with the best player, the worst player, the player in the lead, the central power, the corner power, the power earlier in the alphabet, the girl, the old guy, the local, the player with more armies, or the person who drinks the most.

In particular, it is disgraceful to support the leader getting further ahead. You’d have to be out of your board gaming mind to do that... but people do. Don’t be one of them.

Oh, and girls, work it. Diplomacy players by and large will ally with girls because they like girls. Even some of the best ones! If some dummy wants to give you all their centers because you are a girl, more power to you.

Concept Ten: The First Rule of Diplomacy Club...

Is that the best players always keep some tricks to themselves. They will not share all, nor should they be expected to. So the critical point here is to learn from them. Don’t just give up. Learn from the guy who beats you. While there is no substitute for being on 14 centers yourself for learning how to deal with it, looking at the game from the perspective of someone who is – asking yourself how you would act, watching how the person concerned acts, and then analyzing if you could have done better and what you really liked about how it panned out.

Players in the lead are always a good mark, but watch the good players when they lose just as much. I had the pleasure of watching Toby Harris get ripped to pieces as Austria at World DipCon last year, but his fight and play was superb and I learnt a lot from it. He finished on three in a situation where I would have been eliminated, so I must therefore have something to learn from the situation.

The best will not give it all away, but they will put it all out there for you to see. The best leave it all on the field; you just have to pay attention to each and every game you are in to fill in the pieces. All the best players adapt their game continually. I won the last two Australian Championships by playing totally different styled games!

The learning never stops and your game should constantly be evolving. And on that note we are back to where we started. Think about your game, you must keep learning to keep winning.

You may not agree with all (or any) of the above concepts. I don’t! The point is that they should make you think about the game beyond where to move Munich next time you draw Germany.

I promise next time I’ll make an easy tactical article... but until then feel free to send your feedback to me at acgoff@hotmail.com. And let’s see what you have to say about Sweden!

This article first appeared in Diplomacy World 105, Spring 2009.