In an effort to gain favor with Charles (in case I ever need to borrow money from him or something), I decided to take a few minutes and write an article for The Pouch. When Charles gave me a list of potential topics I might consider, I saw a problem: most of them would actually require thought, work, and effort. Fortunately, I remembered the old adage
you are what you eat write what you know. And what subject could I possibly know more about than being a true son-of-a-bitch? All that I needed to do was think about how to apply that mentality to negotiating in Diplomacy. I could handle that — shouldn't take more than a couple of trips to the bathroom with a notepad in hand!
I do suffer from one major disadvantage when it comes to Diplomacy: I learned to play, and spent the greater part of my playing time, during a different age. In the days of the postal hobby, the odds were pretty good that you'd run into the same players more than once. Names became familiar, and certain rules of conduct were enforced. For example, cross-gaming was thought as really poor form. Just because Marc Peters stabbed you for a one-center gain which doomed any hope of your two-way alliance sweeping the board, you were supposed to forgive and forget the next time you played together. Obviously you might choose to protect yourself better, to watch for a potential stab, but to make the game fair (and fun) you needed to be as open to a new alliance with Marc as with anybody else. In fact, some of my favorite games have been ones where I allied with a player who'd deftly shattered my hopes and dreams in a prior game.
Another hobby no-no, one of the biggest of them all, was passing letters. Aside from the occasional phone call and the rare email through CompuServe, back in those days almost all negotiation took place by postal letter or postcard. It was considered a damnable sin to take a letter you'd been sent and pass it on to other players. Certainly there was nothing wrong with quoting the letter to someone, as they'd have no way of knowing whether you were being honest or not. But to send the original, or a photocopy, would eliminate any sense of doubt. If you were caught doing this, unless you were a complete novice within the hobby, you would find yourself generally shunned. Word got around fast!
The final rule you were not allowed to break, or even bend, was that of trying to deceive the GM. Most GM's, myself included, had houserules which specifically forbid any deception by a player against the GM. This included playing two positions in the game at once, one under a pseudonym of some kind, as well as attempting to submit orders for another player or to somehow interfere with their submission. If you were caught, you were kicked out of the game. Since in the postal era a game would normally last more than two years, sometimes many more, it was a major punishment to invest months in a game just to have a stupid attempt at cheating to cost you any chance of making it to the end.
These days, there seems to be very little left of this type of self-policing. I've had multiple emails forwarded to me in games. Players regularly tell me right off the bat that they are attacking another player simply because he stabbed in a prior game… or worse, because of some rating system they are both members of. As for deceiving the GM, I don't know of any recent problems in that regard, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen!
So, since the standards of behavior seem to have changed quite a bit over the years, I figure you may as well suppress any sense of fairness or conscience you may have, and just do whatever it takes to win. Treat each game of Diplomacy like a civil suit against a major corporation who served you coffee which was too hot: truth and terms like "right" and "wrong" have nothing to do with it; all that matters is how much your payday is (after legal expenses, of course). Like outcome-based education, it doesn't matter how you play the game — as long as you win.
If this seems a bit overly harsh, try to rationalize it this way: the other players are going to screw you eventually. If you've ever read Robert Ringer, you know there are only three types of people:
Got your guilt under control now? Good, time to have some fun.
The first thing you can do is learn all you can about your fellow players. Are they young and inexperienced? Old, and suffering from common health ailments? Are they financially secure, or struggling to make ends meet? Democrat or Republican? Urban or rural? Married, a family man, dating, or single and lonely? By asking simple, leading questions you can learn quite a lot. Pretend you're a fortune teller; train yourself to pick up on the small signals which unintentionally reveal all.
For example, let's say you're Turkey in a new game. You email your opponents and give some personal details of yourself. Mention the city and state you live in (whether you want to be honest or not is up to you), something about the weather, and NOTHING ELSE. The last thing you want to do is give information. The idea is to collect facts, without divulging any. Once you know all that is possible, you can decide what your personal "truth" is going to be.
Okay, Russia tells you he lives in New York City, is married with two kids, and has a dog. France lives in Toledo, Ohio and volunteers for the DNC. Austria misspells all his words and mentions he lives in "Da Bronx." England is a Bulgarian living in London. Germany is a college student, attending USC. Italy is not open about any of his personal details. From these facts we can assume the following:
From this data we know that Italy is our biggest threat. Austria will play erratically, and may drop out of the game with no notice once he gets bored, but our first goal needs to be to encourage him to attack Italy immediately, with French help if possible. Remember, this game is like the poison scene in "The Princess Bride." You must think three steps ahead at all times or you'll wind up drinking from the wrong cup. I would suggest the following:
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Foster hostility between Russia and Germany. Bide your time, take Bulgaria and Greece (which Austria will not be in a position to stop since he's sent all his forces west). Once Italy is on the way out, you can concentrate on Austria. Keep Russia on your side by complaining about high rent and high taxes. Convince England that Germany is an isolationist and supported the old Bulgarian regime, and Germany that England wants to abolish student loans and require college classes to start at 7am each morning. Whatever it takes! Google all the players to see what other tidbits you can uncover. You never know, maybe France was once sued for sexual harassment. Or possibly Austria has a particularly revealing MySpace page? Use the internet to your full advantage! Let France know that you found a database of recent Diplomacy games which reveals this game's England always attacks France around 1903 if not before. Remember, the more lies you tell the harder it will be for them all to be discovered. And remember this crucial adage: a good lie has details. Keep a notebook if you have to, or build a database file which cross-references what you've told one player with another. Don't get confused or the whole house of cards is sure to collapse on top of you.
Okay, fast forward. The game is approaching the end. It's you, Russia, and England, with a 2-center Germany hanging on by a thread. To win you need to encourage the end of a solid E/R alliance. Simplicity itself! Wait until there are about 12 hours to the deadline, then send Russia an email directly from "England". This isn't a passed email, but rather one directly to Russia from an email account you set up. In a variation of a famous Kathy Caruso move, you write the email as "by the time you get this, you'll have seen the results, so let me explain why I chose to stab you." When Russia receives the email, he'll hopefully think England has slipped up and revealed his plans too early, before the deadline. Presto, instant war between England and Russia!
If this isn't enough, the following season you can really go all-out and try to induce a Russian NMR at the most critical moment. This trick doesn't even require any special email accounts. Just write an email to Russia, where you are "replying" to an email he sent you. By now you know his wife's name, either through your friendly emails or by a simple background check. All you need to do is put in your portion of the email "Hey, did you mean to send this to me? It seems kind of personal." Then in the "quoted" section, type out an email from the player's wife to "my darling" where she reveals her plans to leave her husband (Russia) as soon as she can figure out a way to empty all their bank accounts. If you time it well, this will almost certainly result in an NMR. I suppose it is possible that the confrontation between Russia and his wife could turn ugly or violent, but after all, this is war. Collateral damage is an unpleasant but unavoidable consequence!
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