This article grew out of discussions among my Diplomacy team, the Seven Most Evil Men in the World, prior to the recently completed (April 2000) World E-Mail Masters Tournament. Below, I list and explain six key traits that advanced Diplomacy players share.
Flexibility is a multi-faceted trait which can mean many things. It includes the willingness to try unusual moves instead of expected moves. Flexibility also refers to a willingness to make and consider almost any diplomatic offer, no matter how seemingly outrageous. Finally, an important aspect of flexibility is the knowledge that sometimes a carefully plotted strategem fails, and must be reconsidered, modified, or even abandoned in the face of a changed board or diplomatic position.
Most new players are not flexible. They tend to devise a single, all-consuming plan in 1901, and follow it to the bitter end, far past the point of diminishing (or nonexistent) returns. With experience comes increasing flexibility. Advanced players are usually supremely flexible. They are capable of shifting both their tactical and diplomatic plays to suit the game.
A flexible player always has plenty of options for each season's moves. Certainly, a good player must pursue his goal with tactical precision and the appropriate diplomatic underpinnings, but he must also remain aware of other possibilities. Really advanced players often have several schemes going at once and for that reason are almost never caught in an untenable tactical or diplomatic position.
Flexibility is related to willingness to communicate.
WILLINGNESS TO COMMUNICATE
The good player shows a willingness to communicate during all stages of the game. This does not necessarily mean that he writes reams of press, or even that his press is well written. It may be in a player's interest *not* to write very much, or deliberately to adopt a poor writing style. Regardless, a willingness to communicate informs the advanced player's negotiations.
Good players communicate with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose can be rather vague, such as lulling another player into complacency, or gradually building a basis of friendship and trust that may or may not bear fruit later in the game. The purpose for communicating can also be extremely specific, such as securing support for a certain move, or carefully coordinating a stalemate line.
Newer players tend to react poorly to hostility from other countries and refuse to communicate with them. If asked about this, a new player often responds by wondering what two 'enemy' powers could possibly have to discuss. What the experienced, better player understands is that Diplomacy is, by its nature, a game of shifting alliances and unexpected reversals; your hated enemy today may be your rock-solid ally tomorrow. Therefor, it is crucial to maintain communication with all powers, even (or especially) those with whom you are presently in conflict.
The combination of flexibility and willingness to communicate is a powerful one. It often means that the advanced player is in simultaneous discussion with all sides of a conflict. This gives him more options, as discussed under flexibility. It also keeps him aware of what the other powers are are saying. And while you can't always believe what they tell you, you can glean information from the lies you're being told.
Flexibility and willingness to communicate are necessarily tempered by realism.
Realism means that a player has a mature understanding of the game: that it is a struggle for resources and position. That struggle involves both tactical conflict over the board, and psychological conflict through press. At all times, the realistic player is aware that others *are* plotting against him (paranoia is a fact of life in Diplomacy), and that if he shows weakness or vulnerability he is very likely to be hurt.
Conversely, the realistic player is not afraid to explore his options with powers other than those with which he is presently aligned. While leaning on an ally for support he may also be plotting that ally's destruction with the help of a third party. And the realistic player knows that both his ally and the third party are probably plotting with each other or with others against him.
Advanced players are not afraid to hear that their so-called friends are exploring other options. Nor are they afraid to do so themselves. In games with newer players, it is common to see much spreading of gossip with the intention of damaging one player's standing in the eyes of another's. In games with advanced players, the spreading of gossip turns into spreading of information, and rather than provoking scorn, it leads to a grudging respect of each player for his peers. The realist's knowledge that he is certainly being plotted against keeps him on his toes and makes him less likely to leave himself vulnerable.
It is extemely important for the advanced player to discover the level of realism of the players around him. A naive player will react very poorly to what would make a realistic player merely smile. Worse yet, a group of naive players may mark the realistic player as too dangerous to leave alive. Even the most tactically gifted player cannot withstand both diplomatic isolation and positional assault by multiple other powers.
The necessity to assess other players falls under judgement.
This is judgement in the sense of judging another player's character, not in the sense of making legal determinations. A good player must be able to determine what another player is like, both as a Diplomacy gamer and as a person. Keen judgement of personality allows the good player to predict how his peers will react in certain situations. Judgement of this sort, combined with other traits, ensures that the advanced player is seldom surprised by his fellow players' moves. While stabs remain possible, of course, the reason for the stab is usually predictable.
The combination of judgement and realism makes the advanced player take a rather calculating view towards others. He knows that they are plotting his downfall, and he knows that they are going to lie about it. What's more, he knows that those lies, if coming from a good player, will be convincing and well-reasoned. The advanced player must weigh multiple considerations when deciding whom to trust in a game. For it is a truism of Diplomacy that it is impossible to win the game without cooperating with others at some level.
Some advanced players are so good at judging others' characters that they succeed in appearing to offer just what is necessary to sway the others' behavior. For one person this may be friendly banter about a shared culture or pasttime; for another it may be in-depth tactical discussions and positional analyses. The player with good judgement knows which arguments to use on which person, and in which situation.
Of course, the above traits are useless without a firm grasp of the tactics of Diplomacy. The advanced player can be counted on to play with tactical precision, making no or very few mistakes. Of course, in some complex situations even the best player is faced with difficult decisions, some of which may fail; but he will make those decisions with a sure understanding of their tactical ramifications.
The advanced player almost never guesses or makes a 'lucky' move. He may make a calculated risk or take a deliberate gamble, but again, he does so knowing the consequences of either the success or failure of each move.
New players make all sorts of blunders, for which they can be forgiven, as Dipomacy is a complex and difficult game. More damaging, however, is a new player's inability to see what is going to happen several seasons into the future, and to plan for that eventuality. It is for that reason that new players often make inappropriate builds, or send their units into the 'wrong' province. The advanced player can not only forsee what will happen this coming season, but can also make reasonable predictions about the upcoming years. His ability to sense the shape of the board to come allows him to move towards long-term strategic goals, supporting them with appropriate diplomacy.
Diplomacy is notorious as a game that takes a long while to play. Face-to-face games last hours or days; e-mail games last months; and play-by-mail games can last years. The good player is patient through all of this. He is not deterred by the investment of time the game requires.
He is also patient within the game. If another player refuses to talk now, perhaps he will talk in the future. If an attack didn't succeed today, perhaps a slightly different version of the attack will succed tomorrow. A patient player also knows that Diplomacy is not won or lost by who gains builds each year; it is won by who has control of 18 SCs. The patient player is content to sit on his current SC count, or even lose SCs, in order to advance toward his goal in other areas.
New players lack the patience that the game requires. That is why so many of them abandon positions, especially when those positions suffer reversals, no matter how easily rectified. New players also lack the patience to stick with a seemingly unfruitful line of attack or defense. For this reason, it is very difficult to get new players to form a stalemate line, should that be necessary; and so many games with new players end in victory when they 'should' have ended in a draw.
The advanced player is as patient as Job. He acts when it is time to act and waits when it is time to wait.
The underlying assumption of the above list of 'advanced player traits' is that Diplomacy is being played as a rational game with good-faith efforts being made to win, or not lose (i.e., draw) by all powers. Nothing is more dangerous to what I call the good (or advanced) player than a maverick who does not care about winning the game, and who behaves irrationally. A single such player can drastically alter the outcome of a game, turning stable positions into chaos, and turning dynamic positions into gridlock.
Still, assuming a board full of rational, competent players, the most successful players will be those with the greatest strengths in the traits I list here -- flexibility, willingness to communicate, realism, judgement, tactical grasp, and patience.
|Joshua E Randall
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