Growing Up

By Brandon Clarke


My article in the S2000M issue of The Pouch, Playing the Bigger Picture in Face To Face Diplomacy got me thinking. The theme of that article was that as you become more familiar with the mechanics of the game throughout your Diplomacy career, this frees up more time in each negotiation period to consider the Bigger Picture. New players often spend most of each negotiation period just worrying about what their orders should be, and so don't have time to cross-examine the other players, analyse whether what they are saying makes sense, or even whether it's likely to be true. Nor do new players have time to develop opposite theatre alliances for the middle- and end-games (not that this usually matters, because as newbies, they often don't make it to the end-game, but anyway...). As players become more experienced, they need less time to figure out their orders, and this leaves more time for other aspects of the game.

Reflecting on this I've realised I didn't say everything I wanted to say in the first article. I addressed how to go about thinking about your game in terms of how to decide what your moves would be. This was the tactical half of the phenomenon of players changing how they play the game as they become more experienced. There's also a strategic development that I think takes place. The two go hand in hand, so this article should be read in conjunction with the first.

This article will address how players play the game at an alliance structure level -- with whom a player chooses to ally, and why.

Diplomacy is complicated game. Newbies appreciate this, often very quickly. I've been playing for fourteen years, and I am still learning. Recently, I had a discussion with Kazel Law, one of my good friends who has only been playing since late last year. I talked about the Bigger Picture article, which actually arose out of an earlier discussion with her, and with Melissa Nicholson, another friend of ours. We talked about the game of Diplomacy being a jigsaw which extends forever in all four directions. When you start out, you can only see a small portion of the picture. As you become more experienced you can see more and more of it, but even when you're a veteran, there's still no end in sight to the jigsaw. You are always learning.

Being able to see more of the jigsaw is a distinct advantage. So, as a newbie -- being only aware of a small portion of the jigsaw -- how can you hope to get a good result? And as an oldbie, being able to see more of the jigsaw, how does your approach change? We decided that there were several stages of development in your strategic approach to the game. There may be more.... they may be in the parts of the jigsaw that I myself haven'tt worked out how to see yet.

Stage 1: Find Yourself a Horse

As a newbie, one viable strategy is to find an experienced player and hitch your cart to their horse. Let that player take the lead and drive your alliance, while you remain content to follow along under their control and let them steer the two of you to a good result. Let me be clear, this is not the only way to play successfully as a newbie, but it does have a lot going for it. In this stage of your career, you're just learning to walk. Learning to walk is a lot more enjoyable if you can go about it without someone smashing you over the head with a large heavy object. By finding a horse for which you can be the cart, you get the security to play out games without always getting smashed over the head. You enjoy the game more because you are expanding, your moves are working, and you learn to cope with owning more units, conducting more complicated moves, and by simply playing more turns with more pieces you get on top of the mechanics of writing orders more quickly.

Stage 2: In Search of Equals

After a while you'll grow enough within yourself to feel you no longer need to look for a horse to which to hitch your cart. Filled with confidence in your own ability to make your own decisions based on what you've learnt by playing and planning with your helpful horses, you now feel confident enough to go into an alliance on an equal footing. Now you look for partnerships between two equals. You want your alliance partner to credit you with enough ability and intelligence that they don't expect you to merely follow them; instead you want to contribute equally to the running of the alliance. This begins to realise results, as with two minds working on the strategy and tactics, and two sets of competent eyes looking for weaknesses in your positions, you begin to deliver some really good results.

Stage 3: Being the Horse, and Looking For a Cart

As good results begin to come in, you then suddenly realise that while partnerships of equals are good, sometimes -- in your quest to find equals -- you are turning down alliances with newbies who you don't feel are competent enough to play at your level. You've become full of yourself perhaps, and think you are above allying with them. However, as your confidence grows even more, you then realise that you are now good enough to be the horse, and that if a partnership of equals cannot be forged, perhaps you could step up and be the horse that pulls a newbie's cart. Your ego may even push you to prefer being the horse with a cart in tow than pursuing partnerships of equals. It's nice to think that you know it all and can be the dominant partner in an alliance.

Stage 4: Growing Up Enough to Realise that Sometimes You Should Still be a Cart

Later in your playing career, you realise that -- despite the fact that you are good enough to be the horse -- there are times when you'll fall flat on your face trying to pull a cart. Sometimes the board just does not favour you trying to be the horse. At this stage, you realise that the real skill is knowing when to apply each approach as dictated by the situation in the game you find yourself in. Sometimes you will need to step up and be the horse. Sometimes it will be best to look for a partnership of equals. Other times you may want to be the cart for some other player's horse. For example, you may find a player who's just entered stage three, and he's obsessed with being the horse. His ego is puffed up with the fact that he is now good enough to tell people what's what. You might need this player as an alliance partner, and the way to make it work may be to allow him to think that he is being the horse and that you are being the cart. Similarly, you might need to ally with a player who wants a partnership of equals, but who you feel is clearly not up to your level of play yet. That's not the point. Make such a player think that he has forged a partnership of equals with you...pamper the player's ego, make him feel good about the fact that he has allies, as an equal, with you. Sometimes, you'll even have to forgo all three approaches and just accept that this game you're going to have to go it alone... and you'll have to learn how to do that with confidence too. The wild mustang can often outrun a team of carted mules.

Some players naturally start off in one of the later stages. Others get stuck in one of the earlier ones. We're all different and do things differently. This article is about learning that there are these styles of approaching alliance formation and that there are different approaches to the game at different stages of player's Diplomacy careers.

Other Ways of Growing Up

The first article talked about the gains that can be made by learning to formulate your orders more quickly and thus spend more time thinking about the Bigger Picture. The big lesson there was that we often start our playing careers by considering what we want our moves to be first, and worrying about the other players' intentions later, trying (hopefully) to bend them to our way of seeing things. I talked about how this "my orders first" approach has limitations, and how -- if you can free yourself from it, and consider everyone else's desires (their "me, me, me" statements) and then formulate your orders against that background -- you start to make a lot more progress.

This first part of this article discussed different approaches to alliance formation, and the gains that can be made by appreciating that there are several ways to go about that. But how else can we see the way Diplomacy players develop over their careers?


I wanted to write this article mainly in an effort to help players new to the hobby realise some things about the game that take some players years to work out. I wanted to share some of the insights that my experiences have taught me. Hopefully there will be some intermediate players who read this and think "Wow... that's me to a tee, only I didn't realise it before!" I also hope some players more experienced than I will read this and offer me some insight that allows me to see more of the jigsaw.

Players play for different reasons. Players also play with different sets of assumptions. What is clear and obvious to you might not be clear and obvious to the people with whom you are playing. Sometimes showing them that it is so will help you, but at other times it may just cause them to think you're a pompous know-it-all who they want to take out. The game is not about being right; it's about beating your opponents. If you have to let your opponents think that they are right in order to get the advantage over them, then do so. Hopefully this article will illustrate some of the ways other people think, and highlight some of the factors that make them play the way they do. If you can work out what your opponent wants, and what motivates him the rest is easy: all you have to do then is convince him that you'll help him get what he wants.

Ummm, yeah, easy... of course.

Brandon Clarke

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