Analysis on ending a Diplomacy game is an area I haven't seen addressed much in this or other forums, perhaps because it seems to be an overly self-explanatory issue. The game ends when either someone solos or when a stalemate is reached, right? Well sure, if you play in a vacuum. But it should be obvious for anyone who's played more than a game or two that games that are not solos and are not deadlocked are nevertheless often ended with agreement by the players — call it prematurely if you like, but most games that end before a solo or tactical stalemate are usually ended as a result of strong lobbying by one or more surviving players, leading to a consensus realization (accurate or not) that little advancement is possible within the allotted game constraints.
I gear the discussion predominately toward face to face play because (1) that is where most of my experience lies, and (2) it is much easier in email play to circumvent the constraints and/or pressures that may be limiting in an FTF game. That being said, many of the principles in closing out a game may be of generic utility to PBEM players as well, particularly the analysis of how to approach draw votes and convince other players to accept them.
I start with a framework for analyzing endgame positions in deciding whether it is in your interest to continue, whether it is in the other players' interests to continue, and how to decide what to do about it. Most very strong players do this analysis subconsciously as the game starts to transition from a midgame toward a resolution, and a lot of it hinges upon understanding players' motivations (a subject I have previously written on). If a lot of what you read in this article seems obvious, it because it should be! However, I can't begin to say how many times I've seen players vote to end a game when they were enjoying themselves and could have vastly improved their position, or conversely, be the only player to vote down an endgame proposal only to see their position substantially suffer.
Let's start with the assumption that the game has progressed to the point where at least 1-2 players have been either eliminated or reduced to a status of minimal influence. Let's also assume that you're not one of those players, because in those situations you typically have very little say over whether the game will continue or not. Finally, we'll assume the game is either in 1906 or later, or has been going on for longer than 4 hours. These assumptions are important, because barring them it is unclear why a legitimate discussion of ending the game would even arise. You did after all come here to play Diplomacy, didn't you?
So, let us get to our framework, which is nothing more than a series of questions to ponder as the game advances. Importantly, these are not static questions; the answers should be updated and continuously evaluated as the game continues to progress.
—What are the constraints against continuing to play forever?
I know some players who would argue that there aren't any (at least that's how it felt at 5 a.m. in Fall 1916 when we'd been playing for 11 hours… but I digress). Constraints could be a pre-set time limit, in which case you're really just considering whether to end the game before it times out. In a social game this could be a time limit set by a player having to leave at some specified time or by general social graces (we could keep playing, but it sure would be nice to get home in time for dinner… or Sunday Night Football… or late night television… or breakfast tomorrow morning). Typically in a social setting there's some sort of general agreement about when the game will have to end. In a tournament game a constraint could a timed round or the start of the next round (lest everyone have to skip the next round or play on multiple boards). Bear in mind that constraints are different from the wishes of a player, particularly in tournament settings (you may want to get 6 hours of sleep, but there's nothing about that desire that actually limit's the game time).
—Self-evaluation: What do I hope to accomplish in this game? What can I reasonably expect to accomplish given the current status of the board? What is the likelihood of my position improving if the game continues? What is the likelihood of it declining? What risks am I willing to take to get a better result?
It's nice to go into games wanting and expecting to get a solo. By the time you and other players are deciding whether it's time to call it a game; it may be that a solo is still possible and you want to keep playing until you either have it or are 100% sure it's not there. Or maybe getting up to 13 or 14 centers is sufficient to keep you happy. Maybe you're getting whipped and are hoping to just hang on with a couple of dots. Maybe your goals have nothing to do with getting to a particular size, but instead you're mainly concerned with punishing or rewarding a particular player.
It's important to be realistic about expectations, but it also critical not to underestimate the potential of a position. Think about the flow of the game; is momentum on your side? Will it remain so? Is someone else gaining or losing momentum, and how does that affect me? Is the game pretty static with players just jockeying for position and little change of power occurring?
Finally, consider what risks you are willing to take. If the game isn't moving forward and you're hoping for a better result, are you willing to do something rash, like stab a player on your own side of the stalemate line, and thereby risk that a power on the other side of the board will reap more rewards than you do? Is it worth it to fight it out for another guaranteed dot or two while other players are likely to equally grow? And so on. Again, be realistic, but don't rule out a bluff. Sometimes the threat of some risky or crazy move is enough to get other players into your line of thinking in the endgame.
—Evaluation of other players: What did each player hope to accomplish going in? How have their goals changed over the course of the game?
Now take your self evaluation and ask the same questions to paint a picture of what each remaining player wants to get out of the game. Determine who thinks they can top the board or push a solo, and who just wants to survive with a couple of dots. Who is happy to play through the entire night, and who would rather go to the bar now. Who is tired and burnt out, and who is fresh and energetic. Who is likely to go with the consensus of the board, and who is likely to decide when the game ends on their own terms. Think about possibilities: what moves could each player make that would change the game dynamic, and how would it affect you? Understanding these points will be critical to deciding if and when it is in your interests to end the game, as well as to pushing through an endgame proposal on an unwilling party when the time does come. Fortunately, as the game rolls forward, it's not uncommon nor unreasonable to ask other players during negotiation time "how do you see this ending?" and "how are you hoping to end up?" No one is obliged to give a true response, of course, but answers to these pointed questions can be very helpful in evaluating your opponents' thought processes.
—How long will it take for me or other players to reach their goals?
Now that you have an idea of your goals are and the goals of everyone else, figure out how long it will realistically take to reach them. If you want to pick up some extra dots off of someone to get a little bigger, can you do it in a year or two, or will it be a long struggle to do so? If it's the latter, what's the likelihood that you really can get them without something else significantly changing on the board? More importantly, is it worth it to you, or to another player, to pick up those last couple of dots rather than calling it quits? Obviously this links back to the constraints of the game as well as the desires of the players. If it's 2 a.m., many people could be convinced that sleep might be more valuable than going from 8 centers to 9; maybe not if it's 2 p.m.
—What meta-benefits are there to continuing or ending?
By meta-benefit I mean something that goes beyond the game itself. This could include, in the case of a tournament, an improved score, or in the case of a house game, the opportunity to play a second game or a game of something else. Different players will value these benefits differently — know who really cares about every point in the tournament versus who's willing to let a couple of centers slide in order to head to the bar early.
Evaluating a proposed vote to end the game
—Does the game remain fun? Do I want to keep playing?
Duh. But surprisingly many players forget to ask themselves these questions FIRST when deciding whether to vote for an endgame proposal or not. If the game is no longer enjoyable for whatever reason or you simply have had enough, voting to end the game really requires no further justification than this.
—Self-evaluation from framework above.
Okay, we now assume that all things being equal you're happy to keep playing, but you need to decide whether it is to your benefit to do so. Here's where you go back to thinking about your goals, your risk-benefit analysis, and your expectations for the game. If your goals have been met, and your position is not improving further, the decision is easy. If your goals have been met but there's still substantial room to do better you either haven't set your goals high enough or you haven't been appropriately modifying them as the game progresses! Let's consider a few basic scenarios. You drew Germany and are hoping for a strong performance. In 1909 after 6 hours of play you're at 12 centers, topping the board, and continuing to enjoy the game, though it become mostly a tactical exercise and the remaining surviving players are starting to clamor for an end. You note that a solo is pretty much off the table because the other side of the board has the stalemate line, but you could pick up another 2-3 dots if you continue for about 2 years, and maybe an additional dot or two if you continue for 4-5 years. Most players response to an endgame vote would depend on the situation: in a social game, if everyone else has had enough, it doesn't prove much to anyone to keep playing just so you can pick off some dots; in a tournament game, the extra couple of centers might be important in scoring or toward earning a best country award. A much more complex scenario arises when you're doing well but maybe not leading the board, and realize you could make gains over the next few years if certain players follow a certain course, but it is unclear whether or not they will. Once again, this goes back to understanding your fellow players.
Of course these scenarios are highly dependent also on the willingness of the other players to end the game, but part of your job when you've maximized your position is to convince them to do so! Obviously it may be hard to categorize every position because of the myriad factors involved, so it is up to you on how risky or conservative you ultimately want to be. Some considerations:
—Position is reasonable or good and has potential to improve
As a general rule of thumb, if your position could get better and you have no particular reason to otherwise end the game, vote down the endgame proposal the first time it is offered and then gauge the board's reaction. This particularly holds when you are the board leader. If the game hasn't already been a marathon, it is often a good idea to verbally veto the draw in a very mild way by saying something along the lines of "let's play one more year and see where we're at." This avoids the annoyance of people pinning a failed vote on you and using that as justification for rash behavior.
In cases where someone else leads the board or is in position that is as good as yours, it often still appropriate to vote endgame proposals down unless continuing to play will improve their position much faster or more significantly than yours (in which case they are likely to vote it down anyway, but you never know!). Consider you're a 9 center Turkey that's getting out of the box and there's some tasty centers in the Italian boot for you to finish picking off. On the other side of the board, there's a 13 center Germany who is trying to plow his way into Russia while finishing off France. Last turn he got a fleet into Western Med. While you might be able to pick up Naples and Tunis for 10 or 11, this might not be a game you want to continue playing given the strong possibility of a German solo or at least growing to a 16 or 17 center power. Your job instead becomes to convince Germany that it is in his interest as well to end it! On the other hand, if the same Germany is about to lose a bunch of dots to Russia and France, giving you a shot at a board lead, obviously you want to keep going!
—Position has stagnated and does not appear to be advancing
The only thing worse than a supply center chart that reads 4 5 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 is one that reads 4 3 1 0 (and many people might argue with me on this point). But we all have been there more times than we'd like to admit, and it is in these positions most of all that it can be most difficult to decide whether and when it is time to end it. Such positions might be divided into a couple of broad classes that we can call "I've been banging my head on a wall for 7 years and nothing's going to give," "I've been sitting in the box, but at some point maybe I'll get out," and of course "I've been sitting in the box, but at some point someone else is going to come in and do nasty things to me." Obviously most real positions are somewhere in between these generalizations, but when thought of on simpler terms it often becomes easier to decide how to proceed.
—Position is very likely to deteriorate if game continues
If your position cannot get better or could deteriorate, obviously you often will want vote in favor of ending the game. Some positions have simply no chance of improving, and here your diplomatic objective becomes to convince everyone that the game is deadlocked, done, finished, over. However, a failed draw vote can often be used as leverage to change your fortunes, particularly in games that are relatively balanced and you appear to be the odd man out in a 3 or 4 vs 1. This decision may play back into your willingness to take risks. If you're getting rolled back in the endgame but one power is significantly stronger than the others (in centers or position), a failed endgame vote can sometimes be used to elicit enough paranoia on the part of the other players that you can earn yourself some breathing room and potentially make a previously untenable position better. For example, let's say you're an 7 center Austria and were just stabbed by a 9 center Russia. There's an 8 center France coming toward your Italian dots, but there's also a 10 center England behind the lines. Though it looks like you're going to lose dots from both sides, if a draw fails and the negative vote can be pinned on England (who might have actually supported it because he's currently topping the board and is worried that if the game continues Russia and France will grow faster than him), you might convince France or Russia that England is just vying for position and getting ready for a better stab (which is very likely to be true anyway). The likely consequences of such a position continuing might be either that you end at 2 instead of 7, or that Russia turns around and you can simultaneously stab him with English help, thereby significantly improving your position. A willingness to take such a chance or not largely depends on your risk tolerance and tactical familiarity with the position.
Make it end already!
Now let's say you're in the position, having fully evaluated your own situation, that there is no benefit to continue playing and you are ready to call it a day. But it seems one or more other players is of a mind to keep going. What to do? Once again, we go back to making sure we understand every player's motivations. Also it is important to understand all of the factors within and outside of the game that lead to those motivations. In a tournament, how does the scoring system influence a willingness to continue on the part of other players? Will continuing to play significantly improve their score? Most importantly, can you convince them that it won't? In a tournament setting, some players will play for every last tenth of a point, while others will let it go when they have more or less maximized their score. If the holdout is one of the latter, convincing them that you could play for 6 more hours but no one's score would substantially change may go along way. If the holdout is the former and wants to fight for every tenth of a point, they might be convinced if you can argue that while they might improve their score by 2 points by playing an additional 3 hours, someone else on the board might improve their score by 50 points.
An interesting end of game phenomenon that I have noticed in a large percentage of games is for the board leaders to begin discussing and agreeing upon a final game resolution as the game begins to wind down and no solo appears possible. Such "agreements" are often beneficial, but remember that nothing holds you or the other conspirators to them.
In conclusion, by knowing your goals, knowing your opponents goals, and carefully balancing the risks and rewards in the endgame, you can often improve your final outcome by a wise choice on whether to continue to play or conclude the game.
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