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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
- Lying is one of them. Many newbies learn that you can
lie, and they try it, get a kick out of this devious element of the game,
and then get trapped into thinking that a player should lie (simply
because he can, and it's fun) all the time. Later in their career, they often (although
sadly not always) realise that lying all the time is not only not neccessary,
but also makes your lies less effective. It's better to lie only when you
absolutely have to. If you tell the truth 95% of the time, players will learn that
you are generally trustworthy, and they will trust you. For a lie to be truly
effective, the victim needs to believe you. If you lie all the time, players
will learn not to trust you, and the effectivness of your lying is greatly
diminished. Experienced players often say that they only lie when they have to,
and when they lie, they lie big, and make sure it nets them big gains.
Otherwise, it's not worth getting the reputation as an untrustworthy player.
- Stabbing is another way players grow up. This is similar to lying,
in that the lesson is don't do it unless it's truly worth it -- make your stabs
big ones, not pissy little one centre stabs. But while you can lie to an enemy
without too many qualms (keeping in mind the caution given above that lying
for lying's sake is counter-productive, of course), you cannot stab an enemy,
so there is more than just the deception
aspect of a stab to consider. When thinking of a stab, you must consider the strategic implications of the move.
More often than not, a power can only defend on one front. If the power
is fighting on one front, and is stabbed from behind by an ally, faced
with the choice of continuing the war in which he is presently engaged in or
defending against their erstwhile ally, most players will abandon the war they
were engaged in and rush back to fight the stab. Often their attitude will
be, "Too bad if I suffer losses to the country I was fighting. That country can
have all my centres for all I care, just so long as I teach the person
who stabbed me a lesson!" Because of this phenomenon, you should try and
make your stabs as devastating as possible so that the victim's ability
to fight back is lessened as much as possible. Furthermore, you should
consider the strategic implications of the change in the alliance structure
that your stab will produce. If you and your ally are about to break through
the major Gibraltar/Switzerland/St. Petersburg stalemate line, you
maybe ought not to stab if you cannot be sure of completely replacing your
ally's position along that line. If you stab and then have to fight your
ally you may find the players on the other side of the line can now cross
it unhindered as your former ally fights you tooth and nail. Better to
wait until you break through the line, and then stab your ally.
- Playing for position rather than Supply Centres is another
important concept that seems to come with playing experience. The concept
I identified in the paragraph above about stabbing is based on this idea.
Many new players play the game from turn to turn just trying to increase
the number of Supply Centres they control. They want Supply Centres, and
they want them now, thank you very much. Don't try and tell such a player that
he should wait, he will "know" that you're just trying to trick him. More
players, however, learn that position can be just as important, and in some cases much
more important than the number of Supply Centres you control. The existence
lines in Diplomacy means that once people on the opposite side of the
line get into a certain position, they cannot be removed even by force, no matter what
you do. This means that there are times when taking a supply centre that
you can take is not the right move, because in so doing so you ensure that
the enemy has time to get into position at a stalemate line, from where they
can block you for all time, no matter how many units you have. In such a case, the
extra unit you gained by taking that supply centre becomes worthless. Instead,
it would be better to leave the supply centre and try to get across the
line and prevent the shutters from going up. If you can do that then you
can mop up the supply centre you left earlier and still have a chance to
keep expanding. If you can't mop the supply centre up later it doesn't
matter, because the alternative is being stalemated.
Playing for position is not always related to stalemate lines, though.
Earlier this year, I played in the Wellington
Diplomacy Championships and began my second game playing France with
an attack on England. Germany and I worked together and ended 1901 with
a French fleet in the North Sea, a German fleet in Holland, and a German army
in Belgium lined up against England's army in Yorkshire, fleet in Edinburgh,
and fleet in Liverpool.
In spring 1902, I moved my Brest fleet to the Mid-Atlantic, and my North Sea fleet
to the English Channel, and Germany
moved his Kiel fleet to the Helgoland Bight, and his Holland fleet to the
North Sea. In Fall 1902 we had three choices:
I ordered my Mid-Atlantic fleet to the Irish Sea, with the support of
my English Channel fleet,
and Germany ordered his North Sea fleet to the Norwegian Sea and his
Helgolant Bight fleet to the North Sea. All of these moves
worked because England (anticipating a play for Supply Centres -- and you
can usually count on this defense) ordered his Norwegian Sea fleet to
Edinburgh, and his other two units to London. This meant that
although we hadn't gained a build off England in 1902, we were ideally
placed to gain all three English centres in 1903. By being patient and
playing for position instead of guessing how England would defend and possibly
making no inroads, we invested in position for the sure take-down in 1903.
- a supported
attack on London (which could fail as England had fleets in the Norwegian and
Wales, and his army in Yorkshire),
- a pot shot at Edinburgh, or
- play for position.
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
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
Ummm, yeah, easy... of course.
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking
on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the
"Dear DP..." mail interface.