Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior
A Book of Five Rings
The Teachings of Miyamoto Shinmen Musashi
by David E. Cohen
Many readers will have some familiarity with a classic military
text, Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
A Book of Five Rings is another classic
oriental military work, and the lessons in it are much more relevant to
the play of Diplomacy. Miyamoto Shinmen Musashi lived in feudal Japan
from 1584 to 1645. He wrote A Book of Five Rings shortly before his
death, while living in a cave in the mountains. The slim volume is a
distillation of fifty years of training and experience from a man who,
in his youth, was the foremost swordsman in Japan, so it is written from
Musashi's writing is steeped in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which --
despite what many westerners might assume -- is not incompatible with the
military arts. The final chapter of A Book of Five Rings, the "Book of
the Void," concerns itself with some general aspects of the way a
warrior should think about reality and it's opposite. This is
interesting but beyond the scope of my discussion, so I will confine myself
to the first four chapters of the book.
The Ground Book
In the first chapter, the "Ground Book," Musashi opens with the
statement, "Strategy is the craft of a warrior." For Musashi, strategy
is mainly concerned with personal combat. You may ask what personal
combat tactics have to do with the grand scale strategy involved in
Diplomacy. The answer, of course, is everything. Personal combat
tactics are similar to the type of action we have in Diplomacy, in the
physical movement of the pieces, and even more similar when it comes to
the psychological elements. Musashi believed in the Japanese proverb
that one well-trained warrior can defeat ten, and we all believe when we
sit down at a Diplomacy board that one can defeat six.
Musashi speaks of the mental state of the strategist, as well as the
mental state of his opponents. "You should not have a favorite weapon.
To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not
knowing it sufficiently well.... It is bad for commanders and troopers to
have likes and dislikes." Applied to Diplomacy, this is a very
important point. Having favorite tactics or known preferences can be
bad if your enemies are aware of them. Do what is best in a particular
situation, even (or especially) if you are not known for it. That means
defending at certain times when your natural inclination is toward
attack, or vice-versa.
Musashi then discusses timing, which he states is the chief
concern of all the parts
of his book. "You win in battles...by
knowing the enemies' timing, and thus using a timing which the enemy
does not expect." Very relevant to to Diplomacy, since a player can
turn in a perfect set of orders from a tactical standpoint, but if it is
done too early or too late from the point of view of the game as a
whole, it may well be disastrous.
Musashi enumerates nine points:
- "Do not think dishonestly."
Self-delusion is a great danger in Diplomacy. Players often see the
board as they wish it or fear it to be, not as it really is. Much of
the time, your opponents will not see the board as you do. A good
Diplomacy player must always step back and look at the game situation
- "The way is in training."
As Musashi frequently emphasizes throughout the book, practice makes
perfect, which is just as applicable to Diplomacy as it is to life.
- "Become acquainted with every art."
The superior player has detailed knowledge of both the standard
rulebook and the house rules of the GameMaster (if any). Learn about the
little tactical nuances that other players may not realize are available.
Cover a supply center and still have a unit available to attack elsewhere,
through use of the prohibition against self-dislodgement or by
causing a beleaguered garrison situation. Send a unit home quickly with a
friendly dislodgement by an ally, followed by a disbandment. Use the
house rules of the GM to your advantage. If the GM has modified the
removal rules in the event that no moves or retreats have been turned in by
a player, pay attention to the differences. There is no feeling
worse than to be asked why you did not try something, after a game is over,
and you can only reply that you did not realize it was possible.
- "Know the ways of all professions."
Being well-rounded may not directly help you in Diplomacy, but it
can't hurt. It may also help you to understand your opponents and to
form a mental model of them, and thus help you in planning operations
- "Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters."
Gaining a supply center is not always a good thing. Losing a supply
center is not always bad. Knowing when each of these statements is
applicable can be a great aid in the play of Diplomacy. Knowing to look
beyond the immediate situation on the board and understanding the big
picture is one of the marks of a superior Diplomacy player.
- "Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything."
A good Diplomacy player should try to understand what each of the
players are thinking and doing, and relate this to their play, even when
it has nothing directly to do with his particular situation.
- "Perceive those things which cannot be seen."
In Diplomacy, it is vital to understand what is not being said. Is
there something your ally could be talking to you about but is not? The
reason for that omission could affect your survival in the game. Your
ally may be discussing the split of centers in the upcoming campaign,
but neglects to mention the center your enemy will be certain to take
from another player in the coming turn. Perhaps a simple oversight;
perhaps not. You think the center naturally belongs to you, but maybe
your ally feels otherwise, and wants to leave it out of the discussion.
Don't just pay attention to who is talking, either. Lack of
communication by a player may tip you off to a change in policy.
- "Pay attention even to trifles."
Little things can make a big difference. For example, say you are
playing England, and there is a long-standing Russo-Turkish alliance you
tried unsuccessfully to break up a few turns ago. Turkey is mopping up
Italy, and had an option to build a fleet in Constantinople or Smyrna for that
purpose. Why did Turkey choose to build it in Constantinople? Perhaps because
(consciously or subconsciously) Turkey is a little less trusting of
Russia these days. This could be a prime opportunity to engineer a
breakup of the alliance.
- "Do nothing which is of no use."
A mini-stab with a spare unit, having no real chance of success, could
anger a potential ally. Is it worth it? Of course, if you are thinking
about when not to do things, you should bear in mind that the converse
is also true. Do anything and everything which is of any use. Rather
than just hold,
support yourself, even if it is not necessary. If you miswrote another
support order (not that such a thing would ever happen!), that
"unneccessary" support may save you. Or order a support for an enemy's
unit to move against that player's ally. The hostile alliance could be slowed
by the mistrust you might create.
The Water Book
In his second chapter, the "Water Book," Musashi begins with a
discussion of the influence of "Spritual Bearing" before going into
specific sword techniques, emphasizing the importance of the mental
component of combat. "In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be
any different than normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you
should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness
yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased... Do not let your
spirit be influenced by your body, or your body be influenced by your
spirit. Be neither insufficiently spirited nor overspirited. Do not
let the enemy see your spirit."
In Diplomacy, this would include
finding the will not to dash off that angry message to the ally who just
stabbed you, five minutes after the results are out. Look at the
situation as it is, not as it might have been. Wild shows of emotion
have their place at times, but if you can write that message when calm
and detached, you will be able to say what you want to say, and leave
out things which might be better left unsaid. It is often helpful not
to let the enemy know what your true feelings are, but instead construct
a "straw man," with feelings that you want people to think you have.
The less the enemy knows, the better. This is an important difference
between face-to-face and postal/e-mail Diplomacy. You can always control
your reactions in an e-mail or postal game, and by doing so, you have a
better chance of steering the actions of the other players toward a
direction of your choosing.
The Fire Book
The third chapter, the "Fire Book," discusses more fine points of
individual combat, which, as he says, can also be applied to
"large-scale strategy." For example, "Chase him [and] when the enemy gets
into an inconvenient position...pin him down." If you can force enemy
units into positions where movement or support is difficult, you are
halfway to victory, even if no supply center is yet taken. If you can
keep your enemy pinned down -- unless a stalemate line can be held -- the
mobile units you have will eventually force the enemy position.
Musashi later talks of the necessary corollary to this statement.
"In large-scale strategy, when the enemey starts to collapse, you must
pursue him without letting the chance go. If you fail to take advantage
of your enemies' collapse, they may recover." Knowing when the position
of your enemy is no longer tenable, and launching a highly fruitful
attack at the right time is a very difficult thing to master. The quote
can also be taken as referring to mental collapse, as well as physical
collapse. The ideal Diplomacy game would have in it players who would
all play out their positions enthusiastically to the bitter end, but
this does not often happen in reality. A player in a losing situation
will turn in sub-par orders, or no orders at all. A superior Diplomacy
player will try to guage this, and take into account these possibilities
when writing orders. A good Diplomacy player will "become the enemy...
think yourself into the enemy's position".
Of course, surprise is also an important element of strategy.
"Attack without warning where the enemy is not expecting it" is standard
practice for any good Diplomacy player. Again, the mental element comes
in. Knowing the mind of the enemy, and misleading the enemy as to your
own intentions are vital objects in determining whether an attack really will be
In addition, when an attack is not working, it is sometimes better
to break off than pound your head against a wall: "...where there is no
possible resolution, we must abandon our efforts, think of the
situation in a fresh spirit, then win... through a different technique."
If you take three years to grab a single supply center, other powers may
have found easier pickings and developed more rapidly, making you weak
in comparison. To be truly successful in Diplomacy, one should look
simultaneously at the flow of the game as a whole and at the tactical
situation of the moment. "Whenever we have become preoccupied with
small details, we must suddenly change into a large spirit,
interchanging large with small."
The Wind Book
The fourth chapter, the "Wind Book," concerns itself with the faults
of other schools of combat. The fault on which Musashi comments most
frequently is that of the emphasis of style over substance. As he
states in the close of the previous chapter: "The true way of sword
fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing
other than this." This is exactly true of Diplomacy as
well. What everything comes down to is that the best move is not
necessarily the prettiest move. The best move is the move that wins.
This was only a brief overview of the lessons that can be taught by
A Book of Five Rings.
The full text of the book
is available online, and I
encourage all the readers of this article to read it in its
entirety. I am sure there are passages I have not discussed
which you would find enlightening, but I hope that my discussion here
will help you to improve your Diplomacy play.
David E. Cohen
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