Last month, there was a message posted on rec.games.diplomacy by somebody who was a repeat stab victim and wanted some advice. Now everyone who plays Diplomacy enough is a repeat stab victim in the sense that every is going to get stabbed sometimes, and the more you play, the more often those "sometimes" come up. However, this player was stabbed a lot, and by a lot I mean eight times in eight games. The message ended with an appeal:
No matter what I do, I'm stabbed by my ally. I'd just like to know why it is that this happens. [...] While I love the game and will continue to play, I'd just like to know what prevents everyone else from being stabbed.
Now that's an extreme case, I present it not to draw negative attention to this one player. Quite the opposite, actually--I comment the player for feeling compelled, by virtue of his track record, to attempt to identify a source of what was obviously a problem.
It was clear to him that he was doing something wrong. However, there are people out there who are at times doing things wrong but may not be as aware of it if their record is not quite as consistent. So I thought I'd share some of my own thoughts on the subject of avoiding stabs.
First off, let me preface my remarks by drawing attention to the title of the article: Avoiding Stabs 101. Note the 101. That means this is introductory-level reading. Not necessarily only for the complete newbie, but aimed more at the novice players than experienced players. I have a high level of confidence that the advice which follows will be helpful for many of the people who get stabbed often, and don't always know why. If you don't have a problem with being stabbed (many novices don't and more experienced players even less) then this article will not be of great use. It will either seem pretty obvious to you, or you will think "I don't do any of those things but I still don't get stabbed." Well, good for you; it means you've found a different set of solutions on your own that work for you. You don't need this article.
I should also reiterate that you *will* get stabbed. Even if you follow my advice, you will get stabbed. I get stabbed. It's inevitable if you play enough, simply because an allies actions are fundamentally not something you have complete control over. All you can do is nudge, guide, and influence. You can do everything right and still get stabbed, but if you get stabbed a lot, then you are probably not doing everything right. You can't avoid stabs altogether, but you can avoid walking around with a big red bullseye painted on your back. And that is what I hope to help repeat stab victims do better.
Back to the original thread on r.g.d. I was surprised at how many of the responses to the question of how to avoid being stabbed went something along the lines of "Stab first!". Yikes. That's a really silly reply. That kind of reasoning can lead to a trigger happy power who is liable to stab unpredictably out of fear of being stabbed.
Yes, if you plan to stab first, you will end up being stabbed less often. However, the time to stab is when it is in your best interest to do so. Obviously if you have good reason to believe you are about to be stabbed, then stabbing first can be in your best interest. But stabbing only in order to be the one to stab first will often not be in your best interest. If you stab merely to avoid being stabbed, then you may not be stabbing for the right reasons, nor at the right times, and if you do not stab for the right reasons nor at the right times, then you will not be as successful in your games as you might otherwise be.
Now I am not saying that I've never been stabbed, but I have gone full games, online and in tournaments, allied with cutthroat players for the whole game and not been stabbed. Why? Because good players only stab when it's in their best interest, so the best way to avoid being stabbed is not to stab-just-to-stab-first, but to make conditions such that it is not in your allies best interest to stab you. Ironically, if you can do this well, you will be less likely to be stabbed when playing with good players, and more likely to be stabbed when playing with trigger-happy newbies who stab-just-to-stab-first.
Lesson 1: Don't make yourself a target
If you want to avoid being stabbed, then the first thing you need to learn is to not leave yourself ripe for stabbing. If you are being stabbed in every single game you play, then the most likely problem is that you are leaving your allies in a position that is too good to resist. Some players will ally with you and stick with you for the entire game no matter what. But you cannot rely on that occuring. You cannot assume that you are playing with somebody who will be faithful to the end. If you do, you will find that you are wrong much more often than not.
Most players only pass up so much in the way of potential gains before they take action, whether you are their ally or not. If an ally can stab you for multiple centers, with good prospects for more gains to follow, and leaving you in a position where you are too crippled to hurt him back, then that ally is often going to take the opening you've left available. You need to keep enough of a defense up that you are not ripe for a stab. That doesn't mean a putting up a solid defensive line like one you would put up against a power you are at war with. If you did that, you'd commit so many of your resources defending against your ally that you couldn't afford to commit units on a different front in a real war, making real gains. It means having enough of a defense that the payoff for your ally of attempting a stab is is questionable rather than overwhelming. Whether you realize it or not, if you are getting stabbed every single time, it's at least in part because you are inviting your ally to do so by leaving yourself open and inadequately defended.
Lesson 2: Create incentive for sustaining an alliance
The second thing you need to do to avoid being stabbed is use diplomacy. When you talk to your ally make it clear why your ally should not stab you. That does not mean you should threaten to retaliate or to throw the game if you are attacked. It means making clear to your ally why it is in his best interest to keep you as an ally? Why does he need you? Why is he better off with you than without you? Why would stabbing you be a bad move?
I am not suggesting that you write a message saying "Hey ally, you should not stab me because...." A message that lacking in subtlety is unlikely to do the trick. Don't tell him "You need me because..." Instead, inject these things into your general discussions so that they make a case for why the alliance is in your ally's interest. Giving your ally reasons to remain allied with you will be more effective if you aren't outright telling him that you are giving him reasons why he should remain allied with you.
If yor make a convincing enough case, then a good player will not stab you. The issue, obviously, is that you don't always know what to say. What might convince one person may not be the same argument that would convince another. And as I said above, you will not always be playing with a player who stabs only when it's in his best interest, in which case offering reasons to remain allied, even good ones, will not always be successful. With players such as these, you rely more on Lesson 1 than Lesson 2, since even a more erratic stabber will be less likely to stab you the less likely he is to gain from it.
Lesson 3: Be a "good" ally
I mentioned above that while I don't advocate stabbing merely to stab first, stabbing first is in somebody's interest when they have reason to believe they are going to be stabbed. Therefore, the flip side of everything mentioned above also applies. You should, in the course of diplomacy, attempt to convince your ally that it is in your best interest to remain allied with him. The simple reason for this is because the less worried he is about you stabbing him, the less it is that he thinks it is in his best interest to stab you. And you can bet that there will be times when other powers are trying to convince your ally to stab you, and that sometimes the argument they will make for why your ally should stab you is an assurance that you are about to stab your ally. The less your ally is worried about you, the safer you are.
Lesson 4: Conflict resolution
There will unavoidably be some conflict in the options that face you if you decide to follow the advice given above. You want to be well defended enough to make the payoff of a stab low, and yet you want to convince your ally that you are not a threat to him. This is sometimes hard to do when you are trying to use some of your units to defend against an ally since your ally may see your defensive units as potential offensive units.
Overinvesting in defense not only makes it hard for you to carry out offensive actions against real enemies, it is also a source of concern to an ally that if sufficiently strong, could lead to a stab. But it is equally important to note that while demilitarization can be part of making yourself less threatening to an ally, do not demilitarize yourself to the point where you are open to attack and unable to respond. As pointed out in Lesson 1, you'll only be inviting trouble by doing that.
There is not much I can say specifically about resolving these conflicts, other than drawing attention to them. You need to figure out the right balance between these conflicting suggestions, and that needs to be done on a game-by-game basis because there is no one right balance.
Lesson 5: The Post Mortem
The most important lesson you can learn is one that applies to all aspects of Diplomacy: to learn from your mistakes. As I've said before, stabs are inevitable, so the best thing you can do when they do happen, is to analyze the situation and find out why it happened. Did somebody convince your ally to stab you by convincing him you were going to stab him (and could you therefore have done a better job at getting across your commitment to the alliance)? Did you get stabbed because you made yourself too attractive a target (and could you therefore have done a better job at making yourself less vulnerable)? Did an excessive number of defensive units result in a preemptive strike by your ally who was paranoid about the possibility of you attacking him (and could you therefore have done a better job at ensuring your safety in a manner that would appear less threatening to your ally)?
Of course, in some cases, being stabbed will just be "one of those things". You may get stabbed because your ally thinks he's in a position to successfully go for a solo or shrink a draw by getting rid of you. When an ally believes that, it's hard for you to make a convincing argument for why he needs you. Sometimes you get set up from the start and it turns out that your ally was never really your ally to begin with. While the advice imparted in this article has to do with how to avoid being stabbed by somebody who is at some point really your ally, it is still worth asking yourself why it happened even in other cases. For example, if it turns out that you are being set up quite often by a neighbor who pretends to ally with you only to stab you early on, that may point to the need to improve your negotiation skills for how to establish an alliance early on in the game (something that is outside the scope of this article.
The point is, the advice given above is not clear and crisp. I fully acknowledge that everything I've said above is easier said than done. Every game is different, and every player is different and has different levels of trust, different levels of paranoia, different levels of temptation or fear he's willing to tolerate before stabbing. You need to not only know the information I've presented above, but you need to know how to read a situation and/or a player in order to apply it at the appropriate level. You need to know how to find the right balance between the conflicts I highlighted. In order to improve your ability to do that, every stab should be a learning experience. Do not allow a stab to happen without learning something from it that will make you more likely to avoid a similar mistake the next time around.
I personally, have found the above lessons invaluable in my own play, and I've learned from experience. In my early days as a Diplomacy player, I learned these lessons the hard way--I got stabbed a lot. So I distilled what I've learned since then into Avoiding Stabs 101. I cannot guarantee that you will never be stabbed again if you follow the above advice. But if you've had a problem being the victim of stabs in an excessive percentage of the games in which you play, I think the above advice may be of help. If you are such a player, your homework is to apply the above knowledge in the next few games you play and let me know if it makes a difference.
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