Read the Pieces
     Read the Position
          Read the Players

by Edi Birsan

There are three main areas of playing the game of Diplomacy:

  1. Tactics, or what the pieces are able to do;

  2. Strategy — what the relation between the countries and alliances are; and, finally,

  3. The mindset and interactions among the players as individuals.

Before we get into grandiose manipulation of this knowledge to the great glory of the one closest to your own heart, we have to know how to read the basics of these Pieces/Position/Players.

Reading the Pieces

One of the oldest lines in Diplomacy is 'The pieces never lie.' What this means is that when you review the pieces on the board and look at the individual or combined immediate moves they should tell you a story of possibilities. Note that this does not mean probabilities. When reading the pieces you ignore the people and the alliances, and instead you concentrate on what can happen. You can allow yourself to discard a few aspects, but do not but blinders on about the capabilities of the pieces. Players have a tendency to ignore some of the more common combinations of moves, namely:


Most typically:

  • Army Kiel to Livonia convoyed by Fleet Baltic,

  • Army Spain to Tuscany convoyed by Fleet Gulf of Lyon

  • Army Greece to Apulia convoyed by Adriatic or Ionian

  • Switch of positions using fleets, such as Army Bulgaria-Rumania convoyed by Fleet Black Sea

  • Any combination of other players making a convoy, for example: Italy using Fleet Ionian with Turkish Fleet Aegean to swing an army from Smyrna to Albania.

Basic Rule of Support:

You cannot cut support for an attack on yourself. This is often overlooked when there are multiple units involved with additional supports. For example:

FRENCH Army Spain Supports Army Marseilles to Gascony
FRENCH Army Marseilles to Gascony
GERMAN Army Brest Supports Army Gascony
GERMAN Army Gascony Supports Army Burgundy to Marseilles
GERMAN Army Burgundy to Marseilles

In this situation the French are dislodged in Marseilles.


People are used to the idea of ordering self-bounces to use them to keep some other power out of a location, such as ordering Army Spain-Marseilles and Army Burgundy-Marseilles to prevent an Italian unit in Piedmont from entering Marseilles.

However, people often do not look at the possibility of another player using a supported attack on one of its own pieces to foil a self-bounce. For example:

FRENCH Army Spain-Marseilles
FRENCH Army Burgundy-Marseilles
ITALIAN Army Piedmont Supports FRENCH Army Spain-Marseilles

There is also the use of the self-bounce to cut supports, such as Vienna and Rumania both going to Galicia, simply to make sure that (without wishing to actually leave Vienna or Rumania) the unit in Galicia cannot deliver support.

However, people often do not look at the possibility of ordering a supported attack on one of his own pieces to cause a bounce. For example:

Army Paris-Burgundy
Army Marseilles Supports Army Paris-Burgundy
Army Burgundy Supports Army Munich

Since you cannot cut your own support, such a combination allows you to put a force of two on Burgundy to keep out an unexpected supported move by another player against Burgundy.

Reading the Positions

It can be said that the learning curve on tactics in Diplomacy is very steep and short. It is not a very complicated tactical game, and the possibilities are limited. When it comes to talking to and relating to people, this is a skill that often you either have or you do not have; and the changes in skill growth are either non-existent, or sudden massive jumps almost on the level of an epiphany. Reading a position or the fundamentals of strategy is one of the more elusive skills that players need to learn; and it is a slow curve, as it encompasses a lot of perceptions and a sense of timing that often does not come without experience.

Reading a position is looking not at the players or the pieces, but at the relationship between the countries, and the sum of their pieces rather than their individual location. From an initial position in Spring 01 you might represent the positions of the countries like this:

E G Rn
 F ARs
  I T

With Rn meaning "Russia (north)", and Rs meaning "Russia (south)".

When reading a position you have to ask yourself :

  1. Which countries are mostly front line countries?
  2. Which countries are backfield support countries?

For example, one of the classic problems of the popular Western Triple Alliance (England-France-Germany) is that England has a very narrow front line position, often composed of an Army in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, Germany is committed all along its border with Russia and Austria, while France is mostly committed in the south. The result is that England has a support role that translates as having four or so units behind both France and Germany. These units have nothing to do except look for opportunities to pounce on someone. This is one reason why when I am in a Triple that I want to keep going, I advise the English player that he should waive builds so as to reduce the temptations.

The same is true when looking at the other side of the board that faces a Western Triple: Italy, Austria and Russia become front line positions, with Turkey sitting back there in the corner with nowhere to go.

As the turns go on and countries expand in certain areas and collapse in others, the relationship between a Front Line and a Support power changes. Whenever you are fighting as an ally against a smaller target, always ask yourself: “what happens next?”

Players often will make a horrible strategic choice, and in effect draw a target around themselves for the next period. Take for example the Western Triple. If Germany insists on going for Moscow and holding a position in Sweden, then where is England going to go when Russia is dead? Even if England has just Moscow, it is an awfully small front to project power to the south — but not a bad one to go west from. (Oh, but Germany is there. How sad for him.)

When you are trying to make a choice of an ally in the middle game period, look to see who will be left when you are successful. Does the position REGARDLESS of the personalities make any sense in terms of stability? Are you playing into a stalemate position, or will there be a further imbalance after the target is removed? Where does your country stand as regards to being a Front Line power? What choices will the other powers have next, or are you playing to a situation where you will be forcing the other powers to ally against you?

Think of the board as an enclosed box filled with seven water balloons at the start: each rubbing against the other in different degrees. As one is removed, its space is taken up by the expansion of the other balloons. Who do the expanded balloons rub up against, and what is their frontage? What is the number of units that will be left uncommitted?

Understanding the positions will give you a handle on what you should be talking about and worrying about.

Reading the Players

This is not about telling if someone is lying to you because he scratches his nose, or is duplicitous because he does not look you in the eye. Since many of you are going to play by Email, these physical or neurological idiosyncracies or "tells" would not be so helpful anyway, even if they were reliable measures, which they are not. And this is not about using the quality of the person's prose and use of grammar to gain an insight into his soul. Let's be rational here, and remember that many people you play on the Net may have English as a second language; and then there are those — like myself — who are still struggling with it as a first. Furthermore, the new generation raised in the chopped language of text messages (OMG) have an unnatural barrier to overcome even to achieve the typical level of incompetence that one could hope to see to be able to judge such things in written communication.

Reading a player is about understanding what he wants, what he thinks about what he wants, what he is able and willing to see, and what you believe that he understands about all of that. Once you are secure in your grasp of the player, you can then start to construct and sell a picture of the game that weaves in its fabric what you want to accomplish, and what they want or are able to see. Here are simple steps to build up a read on a player:


What is the player's goal in the game? When asked, does he say "to win", or is he focused on (say) doing well in the tournament — in which case he will answer not about the immediate game, but about the result of the tournament? If this is a social game and a standalone, then it is very important to understand what he sees as his achievement in the game. So sometimes, rather than asking about the player's goal, ask about what he did in other games. If the player comes back with an answer such as "It was a four way draw that I just managed to get into", then you know that the player is looking at the game from a draw-based position, and not from a center-count basis.

Communication Style:

Does the player initiate communication? In face-to-face games, does the player stay around the table and hesitate to interrupt anyone or talk to anyone? A player who is so low-keyed that he screams out 'victim' … usually will wind up as the victim. In discussions and communication, is there an evidence of a plan, or is the player strictly reacting to others and hoping that others will suggest plans to him? Players like this who are reactionary tend to overlook the strategic positions of countries, and can be maneuvered into situations where their choices become no choices at all, and thus their play becomes totally predictable.

Homicidal Tendencies:

Does a player look at the game as attacking 'John' or 'Joey', or is he detached and speaks of the countries, not the human players? If you have a high profile in the hobby or if others in the game have such a thing, then how does the player you are reading react to other players' reputations or prestige? Is he more inclined to be a gunslinger, going after the higher-rated or better-known player just because of this reputation?

Where Is He Coming From?

What is the player's background? The social aspect of the hobby is important, not only for your own growth as a human being relating to others, but also because it provides a lot of clues as to the personality and response of the person. Is he guarded and cautious? Does he combine risk-taking in his normal range of things?

Does the player come from a gaming background in wargames, or role-playing games, or board-game mini-max type play? Bridge players and sci-fi fans made up some of the first two groups that established the Diplomacy hobby, and it was with the arrival of the Wargamers a few years later that the three groups provided the perfect combination of supporters to grow and sustain the hobby. Each of these gaming backgrounds nicely filled out the Strategist, Diplomat, and Tactician types that formed the hobby base. The non-Diplomacy games we play often tell much of the way we approach the game of Diplomacy before the immersion into the Great Game itself works its way into the player's soul.

So the basics of where you start to learn are:

Read the Pieces
Read the Position
Read the Players

Edi Birsan

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