by Matt Johnston

I started playing Diplomacy as a kid in 1985 and was immediately hooked. It is the simplest game and yet the most complex all in one. Really, the tactics themselves are not all the complicated as games go. However, in Diplomacy, the tactics are really just the medium through which your negotiating skills are measured. In other words, as the name of the game implies, Diplomacy is a game all about your diplomatic capabilities.

Somewhere between 1985 and the Internet age, the true nature of the game for many players seems to have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps it is the emergence of the Gunboat variant as an Internet game - players can effectively participate in ten or twenty gunboat games at a time, with daily moves. When things go poorly, they can simply abandon a game or five and play the others. This seems to be perfect for the modern culture of immediate gratification. However, this loses the real joy of the game.

In a press game, have you ever had an ally suddenly turn on you, practically destroying your game, but when you appeal to your neighbors, begging for help, their responses tell you that they all saw it coming and applaud him? They don’t even blink over the fact that your former ally now has two more centers than anybody else on the board? How could this be? How could he be the backstabber, the largest power and still have five allies? It’s all about good diplomatic relations.

So often, players say that you need to check in with every player every turn. But what do you say? Nobody really seems to know. And, after a turn or two, they simply stop communicating with those in the other theater or with whom they are at war. The key is to have a global perspective and to become a player in both theatres from the onset by creating useful alliances with every opponent. Personally, I like to have a combination of two and three-way alliances – and I stroke them every turn. Consider how I approach each power when I play Turkey. Keep in mind that these concepts are easily applied when playing any power.

Spring 1901 Negotiations

  • Russia: I demand a bounce in the Black Sea. Of course, I am nice about it. Either I will occupy the Black Sea – in which case the Tsar is going to have a rough time cracking my defenses – or we will bounce. Should we bounce, he will most likely order either Moscow or Warsaw to the Ukraine. Of course, I encourage him to establish a demilitarized zone in Galicia and order Warsaw to violate it and Moscow to the Ukraine – in order to put an army in Rumania, threatening the Austrian. I prefer to open with ANK-BLA, CON-BUL and SMY-CON. I will clearly tell the Russian these orders ahead of time.

  • Austria: I emphasize the power (and generally surprise value) of an alliance between Austria and Turkey and try to immediately set up an agreement where, if he allows me into Greece, I will support him into Rumania in 1902. (Of course, I will readily agree to allow him Greece, if he promises to help me into Rumania. I also suggest that he have a demilitarized zone in Galicia – and encourage him to violate it. I will also share my spring 1901 orders with Austria.

  • Italy: I request an alliance immediately. My preference is that he head west. To encourage westward movement, I will attempt to rope him into a three-way alliance with England so as to bring France down. If he is truly dedicated to coming east, I strongly suggest that he focus on Trieste first and that I would be more than willing to allow him to place an army in Greece if it is necessary in order to balance our growth. I assure him that, once Austria is out of the picture, I will move against the Russian, if he is ready to either move against France or Germany. Of course, I would be happy to split the board with him for a two-way “victory” or, if he is more comfortable, to find an ally in the west to split the game three ways.

  • England: I try really hard to convince England of the benefits of an alliance. The obvious, of course, is that we can share intelligence about the Tsar’s intentions – which will benefit both of us. However, he is an ideal partner for sharing a two-way victory – or to be a balance with Austria, Italy or Germany for a three way. I really push the point with him that our two nations are not likely to ever be in conflict, so sharing intelligence can only be mutually beneficial.

  • France: I immediately start running ideas for three-way alliances past France. France might be the only nation that does not particularly object to a Juggernaut – but certainly would not be upset with a strong Turkey-Austria alliance either. I suggest that he and I should find the alliances we need in our own theaters with the idea that, as the four of us approach that we will, together, work to squish out the weakest of the other two to create a three-way victory. Meanwhile, I emphasize the importance of sharing information. Naturally we should have plenty to share about Italy’s intentions, but, if he manages to ally with either Germany or England, he will certainly have information about when the other is likely to move against Russia or Austria as the case may be.

  • Germany: The biggest fear that I have as Turkey is that a central alliance will form and that Germany bribes the Russian to go after me instead of Austria by offering Sweden. It is imperative that I form a strong relationship, therefore, with the German. He must understand that I am the answer against Russia – even If I have to move against the Austrian first. I freely and honestly exchange information with the German. I do whatever I must to gain his trust and convince him of my value to him. If he strongly demands that I move against Russia, I let him know that I cannot do that as long as there is any danger that Italy and Austria are allied against me. I don’t care of Italy moves west or attacks Austria. However, if Italy comes after me, I will be forced to ally with Russia.

Fall 1901 and beyond:

There are too many permutations at this point to detail all possibilities. However, if I have done well in the spring, I should still have strong relations with most of the board. I must now assess the following: Do either Austria or Russia look like they are attacking me, or have I created strife between them. Italy: did he move his fleet to the Ionian or Tyrrhenian Sea?

Clearly, if either Russia or Austria is attacking me, I ally with the other. IF both are coming after me, I work my tail off to get Italy to move against Austria and England to ally with Germany so as to molest the Russian in the north. My success here will depend on how well I have established relations with each in the spring.

However, if my spring negotiations went well, I have my choice between an alliance with Russia or Austria. I can work both and, if they are in open conflict, I might try to continue to work with each of them for another turn or so. Austria will now often not argue about Greece – especially if I promise to take the Black Sea. Russia is not necessarily going to be upset about the Black Sea if I talk about having armies in both Greece and Bulgaria, making the Austrian very vulnerable in Serbia. Besides, the Russian will then have a fleet stationed in Sevastopol, supporting an army into Rumania. Yes, if I have managed to pit both my neighbors against each other early, I can push the boundaries a little to become the dominant power in the partnership.

However, eventually, I will have to choose. Whether I choose to work with Austria or Russia will depend on what other alliances have been established by myself – or others. Is Italy going west? If so, I must fear a Central Alliance. If Italy is going west and France seems to be the odd man out in the west, I must ally with Russia. I will need s strong Russian to hold the German/English alliance at bay. Moreover, with Italy moving west, Austria is doomed as the odd-man-out in a two-one-one. Of course, this is a Juggernaut and the entire board is going to move against us, right? No. By establishing good relations with France, he will be desperate to see his eastern friends grow very quickly – at the expense of his three enemies. Moreover, if I have played my cards right, Germany, Italy and England will be fully expecting me to move against Russia as soon as the Austrian is doomed. Germany, especially, will be worried. However, he will keep the conversation going, in hopes that I do betray the Russian.

However, if it looks like Germany is going to fall quickly, an alliance with Austria will be strong: First, if Germany is falling, England and France are likely to be allied. They are unlikely to be upset as Russia falls and neither will likely shed a tear when Italy is felled. Moreover, if I have played my cards well in the beginning, my relations with both England and France will be such that they will be looking to stab one-another – making them a little cautious and slow to develop. Plus, they will each (together and separately) be pleased when I stab the Austrian. Of course, if Austria and I have slower development, Austria will be on the frontline, taking the brunt of our conflict and putting me into a position to share the draw with England and France.

If it looks like England is going to be the first to fall in the west, I will want to first take out the Austrian with Russian help – to break a possible central alliance. If Italy sides with Austria, I will be pleased to be working with the Russian, but life will be hard. If the Italian is moving west, he is likely to stall out with the Frenchman and Germany is likely to grow. This will suggest that I should stay with the Russian a bit longer and continue to stroke my relations with the Frenchman as we divide up the Italian. If Italy helps take the Austrian out, Austria will die very quickly – before England can be eliminated. Then, if the Italian forges west and I stab the Russian, we can likely catch France unawares and really prolong England’s life. In any case, I can continue to stroke good relations with the German, talking in terms of a three-way with either the Frenchman or the Italian.

The key, in each of these scenarios, is that my alliances and relations are well enough established that I will not make enemies by brutally stabbing an ally and gaining strength. Each stab will make me look, to everybody else on the board, like I am simply following through on prearranged agreements. Moreover, the establishment of multiple alliances will allow me to choose with whom to remain allied based on what will set the board up to my political and strategic advantage. Moreover, in Diplomacy, rarely does everything go my way. The establishment (and continual stroking) of strong relationships and alliances will provide me with the flexibility to adapt to constantly changing political dynamics, usually coming out with friends.

Of course, when things do go according to plan, I’ll break my last alliance just before I capture my 18th supply center - and the remaining players will not have seen it coming.

As another point of emphasis, the continual conversations with all other powers have two added benefits. First, if you are generally honest, polite and have some humor, they will like you and be more likely to team with you when faced with a choice. Secondly, the intelligence they provide you (wittingly or not), and your assessment of their personalities will provide you with the background you need when you are faced with a decision.

Most articles on how to play this game focus on the strengths and weaknesses of different alliances or tactical maneuvers and players looking to improve their games strive to memorize all these ideas and patterns, debating such silly things as “What is the strongest alliance possible” or “Can Austria really join a Juggernaut?” This approach to learning the game shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the game itself. The game is called Diplomacy for a reason: 99% of the effort of good players is spent negotiating with other players. The tactics and the map simply measure your success.

The Internet brings temptations. You can play in many different games at a time. You can drop out when things turn south. You can be lazy. Don’t succumb to this temptation! Play one or two games at a time and choose deadlines that will allow you to have multiple exchanges with your opponents in every phase. Within this context, you can focus on developing relationships in your game and thereby maximize your success. If you do nothing else but develop this part of your game, you will quickly be stronger than 90% of all Internet Dippers. Unlike them, you will be playing Diplomacy.

Matt Johnston

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.