by Thorin Munro

Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in the november 2006 issue of Owls Diplomacy News, Thorin Munro's newsletter for players in the Owls series of games on the DPjudge. We reproduce it here with Thorin's permission.

What is power? I like the working definition taken from physics, that power is the rate at which work is done! Or, expressed as a formula, power = work / time. The more power you have, the more work you'll be able to do. And while in a game of Diplomacy, power is more likely to be thought of in terms of influence and control, considering it in terms of 'the ability to get work done (to your advantage)' is very relevant!

Ultimately success in a game of Diplomacy will boil down to how well you can get other players on the map to work with you . Typically, the way to do this is to find objectives or uncover leverage that meets others' needs while also delivering your own agenda. It is all about 'power'; understanding the power you have, and how you go about using it…

When considering 'power' most people will immediately think of the negative connotations of power; abuse, manipulation, corruption. As a result, many people have an aversion to the concept and also the use of power. It feels dirty and corrupting! However, when considered in the light of power equating to the ability to get things done, power begins to have a more constructive and useful face. In fact, understanding power in all its forms and impacts becomes a key for success in Diplomacy, and in life!

There are six formal 'power bases' which, when exercised, have differing impacts on people's actions, thinking, and feelings. An awareness of these types of power and an ability to judge which power/s to exercise in a given situation, will be the hallmark of a superior Diplomat!


The first power base most of us learn to use is Coercion — direct force or threat. This is the classic 'stick' approach: "You will do what I say, because if you don't there will be negative consequences". In a Diplomacy game this will usually be the threat of loss of territory, centres, and elimination; but it can be psychological coercion. "If you don't do what we agreed, I will be angry, or will form an alliance with another player," are threats that can often be very powerful. The problem with this power base is that whilst applied, it does produce immediate action in the desired direction; but there will likely be a building underground resentment and desire for revenge. If the threat or leverage is lost, there is often a reaction based on this build-up.

The next power base most people who work in a job will be familiar with is Reward, or the 'carrot' approach. In its constructive form it can be fair payment offered for services rendered. It can, however, be corrupted into bribery and pay-offs. Related to Diplomacy, the obvious reward is a supply centre; but a creative Diplomat will be attuned to what other players want in the context of the game, and can shape rewards in that manner. For example, one player may have never survived a game, and offering that may be a strong inducement. Or another may have been wronged by a neighbour and not have the forces to do anything about it, whereas you do… Reward is a double-edged sword. It is right to compensate someone in exchange for what you gain. However, prices have a tendency to escalate; and beware the recipient finding someone else prepared to pay a higher price. Loyalty based purely on a payment is not likely to be very strong.

Positional or legitimate power usually refers to powers vested in a specific role. Policemen, judges, managers, and even game-masters have power based purely on their function and laws or agreements. It is probably not a power that is accessible to players in a Diplomacy game. Still, there are times when a player will try to leverage the power of the game-master. Exercising legitimate power will get action, but may not change attitudes. A speeding ticket will get you to slow down in the short term, but how effective it is in the longer term is debatable.

The use of Information is a power base key to any Diplomat's success. Gaining information from allies will be critical to your plans and actions. Sharing information or spreading misinformation will similarly influence actions by others. As discussed in a previous article on lying, lies are a valid element in the game, but breaking one's word is one of the most important strategic decisions you will make in the game. One of the best ways to build a reputation as a reliable ally is through the judicious sharing of information. The more credible your reputation as a source of good information, the more influence you are likely to have with other players' actions. This virtuous cycle can keep building until you have reached the decision to play for a solo. Being found to spread misinformation is likely to paint you as a target by others.

Closely aligned with the information power base, Expertise as a power base means you leverage past experience to try to influence actions. Have you had experience in a particular alliance, in organising a stalemate line, invading a country, and playing a power or with another player? Sharing this experience is a solid way to build credibility and influence action. The challenge is to do it in such a way as to avoid coming across as a know-it-all, because no one likes a know-it-all!

Finally, the Referent or trust power base is where you have built a credible, respectful relationship, and are able to leverage it to gain action from another. Operating from this power base is likely to maintain or even enhance goodwill and regard from others. The reward is the relationship itself. Some players are very skilled at establishing this rapport. Often it is established over time through exercising a combination of the previous power bases; but it can be built on chatting about family, holidays, politics, etc. The referent power base is the hardest to build, but is usually the most powerful one to be operating from. With the relationship primary, there is a great reluctance to stab or break an agreement. I would argue that in the context of the game, building this power dynamic is a strong way to play for the solo — if you are ruthless enough!

So what is the 'best' power base to use? In my view it is purely situational. There are times when a direct threat is the only way to prevent or influence an action. The classic would be "If you attack me I will throw the game to France". A very powerful threat, if real and carried out. However, the more sophisticated power bases up to Referent are more sustainable. Threats, Reward, and to some extent Positional power are only able to maintain traction through constant exercising of them. Once you remove the threat or reward or oversight, actions are very likely to shift, probably adversely to your interests.

The other factor to note is that it is rare for a power base to be present in pure form. Combinations and layers of power are used constantly. Highlighting them as discrete forms is purely to give more clarity to the range of options and levers available to Diplomats.

So remember, power is not a dirty word. You want to have as much power as possible in your Diplomacy games. This is how you will get things done. The art is to not overtly display it at all times; rather, use it well and wisely. The awareness of these different forms of power will broaden your arsenal, and help improve your ability to shape the fate of Europe.

Have fun!

Thorin Munro

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