Playing the Bigger Picture in Face To Face Diplomacy

A users guide to taking your game from Intermediate to Expert.

By Brandon Clarke.

Experience changes the way you play Diplomacy

When you start to learn to play Diplomacy your focus is very close in and tight. You concentrate on the small grain things, like how the rules affect what orders you should write; whether a support might be cut by a certain unit; how you can use your units to get some more SC's, since after all to win you need to get 18 SC's, and to get 18 SC's you need to first get 4, then 5, then 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 etc., right? 
New players playing Turkey (for example) often concentrate on their corner of the board and only their corner of the board. Some people say that that is a beginner's mistake, but I think it's natural. You must get a set of orders written, and you only have 15 minutes to produce that set of orders. The rules and the tactical situations are not second nature to you yet, so it takes at least 12 minutes to get your head around what your moves need to be. Then you've only got, at most, 3 minutes left, and that is usually spent agonising over who is telling the truth... there is simply not enough time for larger considerations.

As you play a bit, you become more confident of the rules, and how they are applied in different sorts of situations. This allows you to spend less time thinking about what are good moves and what are bad moves, which allows you to pull your focus out a little wider. You also have better appreciation for the tactical situations that you are presented with, and are beginning to understand a little about the alliance structure considerations of the game and a little about stalemate lines and how they should affect your play, and how various moves will be interpreted by your opponents. Now you find you can usually get your moves sorted out in about 7 or 8 minutes, leaving more time for negotiating and double dealing. The game becomes a whole lot more enjoyable.

You play some more, and as time passes the amount of time that you need to dedicate to figuring out what your orders ought to be steadily drops. Some people get to the point where they can look at the board for 60 seconds, and then write their preferred set of orders down. Many experienced tournament Diplomacy player's do this, so that if they get carried away negotiating they have a set of orders written that they can throw into the box at the deadline.

As you get more and more proficient at the mechanics of the game of Diplomacy you're able to dedicate more and more energy to what actually wins most games of Diplomacy, and that's the consideration of the Bigger Picture.

The Bigger Picture

What is the Bigger Picture? For those of you new to the game, it may not yet have revealed it's nature to you. To some of you oldbies out there it might be what keeps you coming back. My observations above about the evolution of what we spend our time doing over the developing course of our career lead me to believe that at the beginning of our careers the Bigger Picture is not visible to us, simply because we're struggling with the mechanics of the game, and considering what to do and how to do it within our immediate focus of the part of the board where our units and SC's are demands so much of our 15 minutes that we just don't have time to consider the Bigger Picture. As we become more proficient at handling the mechanics of the game more time becomes available for us to consider the Bigger Picture. Some players use that available time to consider the Bigger Picture, while others continue on focussing on their part of the board... they've grown up on a diet of the immediate focus, and they fail to either see that they can change gears, or fail to implement the required change.

The Bigger Picture is the key to advanced Diplomacy play. Continuing with the Turkey example, sure the actions of Russia, Austria and Italy affect you. That much ought to be obvious to every beginner. However what Germany and France and England do is also crucial to your fortunes. If you want to attack Russia, you'll find your advance is much more likely to be swift if Russia is facing pressure from more than just you, so England attacking Russia is good news for you. If England attacks Russia hard from the outset, that directly affects you as Turkey. Russia can hold you off in the south much more effectively if England is not simultaneously attacking in the North. On the other hand, if you wanted to ally with Russia, perhaps attacking Austria together, then England attacking Russia in the North is bad news for you, as Russia will need to divert forces from the attack on Austria to defend in the North, slowing your advance.

That's not the end of the story though. You need to consider what factors affect whether or not England will attack Russia. For example: If France is attacking England hard, it less much less likely that England will be able to mount a successful attack on Russia. However you then need to consider what will affect whether France will attack England. It's unlikely that France will attack England if Germany and/or Italy are attacking France. And it's unlikely Germany will attack France if Austria and Russia are attacking Germany, which in turn is unlikely if you're trying to woo Russia to attack Austria with you.

"The enemy of the enemy of my enemy is my enemy."
So you see the affairs of every part of the board are interwoven. We just took one strand and traced it around the entire board, but we could equally start at any other point on the board and trace any number of strands of reasoning like that around the board. Reading the Bigger Picture is all about identifying the relevant strands and then looking at how they all interact so as to be able to see how each of your six opponents is likely to play.

As well as those various strands of interpower dependencies, there are the considerations of pan-theatre issues such as stalemate lines, and the race to resolve your theatre before the other side of the board does. These all form part of the Bigger Picture.

So how do you do it? Read the Bigger Picture I  mean...

The following model is I think most applicable at three different stages of a game of Diplomacy: Imagine a turn, or several turns in a game of Diplomacy where everything happened in the negotiation phase when and where you wanted it to... where you could sit back and think for a while, and then click you fingers and the person you wanted to talk to was always available and ready to talk to you... you never once had to wait for Germany and Italy to stop talking before you could talk to one of them... so there's no wasted time in your fifteen minutes waiting to achieve or say what you want to.

Given that happy mythical state of affairs, how would you approach the turn(s)?

Many players would start out by figuring out what they wanted their orders to be, and then would set off to talk to the other players and try and bend them to their own goals. This is a result of the way we learn, and the focus we have early in our careers on the immediate issues confronting us...what to order each unit to do, how to get another SC etc. However as your career develops these become less and less significant, and yet we still allow these considerations to dictate our approach to the turn, I say mainly out of habit.

What follows is a model, to be applied in those mythical circumstances, of how to turn that around so that the Bigger Picture is not only what we spend most of our 15 minutes worrying about, but in fact is what shapes the way we conduct our negotiation altogether.

Step 1: Blur your eyes and "Blob the Board".  At the start of the turn, imagine the board doesn't have a whole lot of little pieces on it. Imagine each power is one large blob of colour. Then ask yourself some very high level questions: "Is it a good or a bad thing for me if France and Germany work together?"... "Do I want Italy and Turkey to work together, or fight each other?" ... "Is Russia being strong good or bad for me in the next few years?"

The answers to these sorts of questions will paint a very broad brush picture of the way you would like to see the alliance structure of the game look. You're not interested in what the alliance structure of the game is, you want to paint the picture of how you'd ideally like to see it. I think it's best to do this from the angle of "In what situation would there be the least total threat to my position" i.e. consider your security, and try and identify whether various situations are a threat to your security or increase it.

This should take about 30 seconds. It's a very intuitive process.

Step 2: Prioritise the other powers in terms of their criticality to your security. From your quick broad brush picture of the board identify which powers can cause you the most grief in terms of disrupting your power's security. Again, this is an intuitive step that should take no longer than 30 seconds.

Step 3: Talk to each of the other powers and get a "Me, me, me." statement from them.  In the order of priority you established in step 2, talk to each of the other 6 powers briefly and get them to tell you what they want. Let them talk, and tell you what it is they want if they are given the freedom to pursue their own interests. Let them talk about "Me, me, me..."

Step 4: Step back from the fray and analyse. Consider each power's "Me, me, me" statement, and overlay those responses with your broad brush picture of how you'd like to see the alliance structure of the game developing from step 1. In a perfect world all six players will have given "Me, me, me" statements that perfectly match how you want to see the board develop. My experience tells me that this is actually rare in the extreme, and if it did ever happen I would be highly suspicious that some of the players were not dealing straight with me, and instead were just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear.

[Note: At this stage we haven't yet given much consideration to what we want our units to do. This is somewhat the idea... you have to have a response ready in case any of the other powers ask you for a "Me, me, me" statement, but what we are trying to do is reveal at least some of the Bigger Picture before we make a decision as to what it is we want to achieve.]
What you are really interested in are cases where the other players "Me, me, me" statements diverge from what it is you want to see develop. Those indicate areas of possible conflict with your interests - powers you may end up fighting (if they are neighbours) or powers who it seems are unlikely to play the way you'd like them to (if they are your neighbour's neighbour). Powers who's "Me, me, me" statements are compatible with your broad brush picture of how you'd like to see things develop are potential allies or potential easy targets (their "Me, me, me" statement might see them getting out of your way and leaving themselves wide open to you).

Step 5: So let's convert this into a plan then. From there opportunities and threats should become apparent to you. Armed with that knowledge you can go and talk to the other players again about what you're actually going to do, and you can formulate your moves accordingly.

The important message

The fact is the model above can be unwieldy. To do all of that in 15 minutes can be difficult, and maybe even impossible. That's not to say it useless for real life application at all. You can trim it down and use it for the basis of how you actually play - I do. However it's not something you have to get all done in one 15 minute Diplomacy period. You can apply it across several turns, garnering your information bit by bit, all the while trying to feed your opponents misinformation about key issues to divert them away from courses of action that would hamper your expansion. The key to what I've said before is trying to make the mental leap from deciding your orders at the start of the turn and then going out to convert the board to your way of thinking, to allowing the board's way of thinking to influence how you want to move. It's about identifying resistance your your planned routes of expansion, and opportunities to expand while staying onside with your neighbours, and taking the path of least resistance and therefore the most gain.

We begin our careers obsessed with deciding what our moves are going to be. Then we graduate to trying to influence other player's moves. As we truly leave the status of newbie behind us and move into the intermediate ranks we begin to look at some of the larger considerations. However, often players at this stage of their careers are held back by poor methodology: They try to decide their orders before contemplating what everyone else wants and thinks, and this shackles one of their arms behind their backs, as everything that follows is tinged as either good (because it agrees with what they've already decided) or bad (because it's not compatible with what they've already decided), when in fact many of the ideas and approaches with the best potential for growth may be those that these players list as "bad".

Take your time to consider the other player's "Me, me, me" statements, and consider how they mesh with your "Me, me, me" statement. Use this angle on the bigger picture to help decide your best course of expansion, and from their your orders will write themselves.

Brandon Clarke

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