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 practical experience.

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:

  1. "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 objectively.

  2. "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.

  3. "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.

  4. "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 against them.

  5. "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.

  6. "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.

  7. "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.

  8. "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.

  9. "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 a surprise.

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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