What I Learned at World DipCon

David Willis

Before last month, it had been a long time since I had played Diplomacy face to face, and that had always been with a small group. All the members of the group knew each other well and we all knew what to expect from each other. Many years passed, and then one day, while looking for fun, I stumbled across The Diplomatic Pouch.

I enthusiastically leapt into e-mail Diplomacy, and have loved every minute of it. Still, though, I always longed for "people like me" who wanted to play The Game face to face. I learned of World DipCon through The Pouch and vowed that I would attend forever thereafter.

What I found at the DipCon was:

  1. the friendship of those who, "like me," were willing or crazy enough to spend five to ten hours on what, one must admit, is an exercise in frustration (except for the few who win), and
  2. that I didn't know squat about face to face Diplomacy.

Yep, thatís right, I got my ass handed to me. Far from being bitter, except toward those bastards who screwed me (I have your names!), I must say that I had the best time I have ever had gaming, and I learned a thing or two to boot.

Most of what I learned can be attributed to observing the play of one dark, evil tormentor in particular, a certain Edi Birsan. I drew him as an opponent in my first game, and he was selected to play Italy (go figure). Thus, I got to watch a master first-hand. What follows are a few pointers I picked up from those observations.

First off, stabbing: don't do it. That's right. The number one thing we all fear, if done well, and that we all pray we carry off well ourselves, and here I am saying don't do it! In the games I watched Edi play, he and his chosen ally (pronounced "dark minion") took the board from beginning to end.

They were never seriously challenged before the endgame because they started out together, fought together, and ended the game together. They intermingled their units, not caring if their centers lay all about the map. They planned and carried out their diplomacy carefully and with excellent coordination. Of course it helps when someone who has a head like a library of dip tactics is planning things, but still this example is applicable to us all.

I cannot count the number of e-mail games I have played where stabs were performed too early, poorly done, and/or ended up being more costly to the stabber in the long run than to the stabee. There are those who may believe the "stick together" strategy is less fun, or less challenging than the typical "set-up and stab" strategy that so many games follow. I will put my money, however, on the fact that the people sitting atop the email-ratings list and the FTF ratings list have a history of longer lasting alliances.

The second lesson I learned, I have already mentioned in passing: do not care where your centers lie. If you want to steamroll the rest of the map, you cannot concern yourself with neat little rows of centers or splitting centers based on some arbitrarily drawn demarcation line.

Do what is right for the alliance and you will benefit. If you have a strong alliance and a partner who knows and understands the value of that, forget about him being behind your lines, or you being behind his; just get out there and kill, kill, kill.

Finally, don't ever stop talking to an opponent. Badger the suckers till they capitulate. Edi turned my ally on me at the last minute through, I am convinced, nothing more than the sheer force of his advertising campaign. I never gave in because I knew the price I would pay, but my partner went over to the dark side at the last minute to try and save his own hide. It worked, for all of about two seasons.

My point here, however, is not so much that you should continually barrage your opponents with information and "deals," but rather that you should talk to your partner more about the other guys' strategy, and less about your own strategy.

What I mean is that allies usually stop talking with one another above and beyond, "what are we going to do this year?" That is not enough. Hopefully, you and your partner are talking to everyone on the board. All those other guys are making offers to you and your partners. You and your partner aren't really offering each other anything any more than you already have -- you are just assuming that you will be working together for the time being. So, what happens is that those other guys get to you at some point and convince you or your partner to sell the other out.

Now, check me if I am wrong here, but buying yourself a few extra seasons of life is not worth throwing away a perfectly good alliance, and yet it happens every day. The lesson is that you must perform "counter intelligence" every single turn. Talk to your partner about what those other guys are likely to ask of him, and ask of you. Then walk your partner through the repercussions of making those "bad" decisions. This will keep your alliance together longer, and avoid the "stupid" stabs, where your former ally usually winds up regretting his decision a few seasons later (when it is way too late).

Some of this is a lot harder to do in e-mail than it is face to face. There are, however, games out there dedicated to tightly knit groups of individuals who like to play together, because they don't have a lot of loose cannons in their group. Be on the lookout for these kinds of people. I, for one, maintain a list of everyone with whom I have played, and invite the good ones to get into games where there is a dropout, or invite them to join games that I master, or I gather particular groups together to play in an atmosphere of competency.

So, get to know your friends and foes alike. Get to know the people online who quit (or do not quit) games. Provide references for good players. That is my best advice for how to improve the pool you are swimming in. If you follow these guidelines, you will find yourself playing more high-quality e-mail games, where the strategies I am describing are used far more frequently and can thus rub off on you all the more easily.

Finally, the best advice I can give you is this: unless you are one of Edi Birsan's "dark minions," kill him as soon as possible.

David Willis

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