Before I get to the subject proper, let me get something off my chest.
From time to time, I've gotten feedback on my articles in more or less this vein: "that won't work every time, unless your opponents are incompetent." Of course, I could point to just about any strategy article ever written (including my own) and proclaim "that won't work every time unless your opponents are incompetent." All around, heads would nod and people would murmer assent. That's not a hard statement to make about any singular strategy. All I can say is that I think that people who tell me that are missing the point of writing strategy articles (and probably missing the point of reading them). I'm not trying to create an army of slavish disciples of my ideas (no matter what Grant F. says ). I'm trying to:
On the other hand, I happen to think that consideration of "tempo" and other chess-derivative principles is a sound part of any strategy and, apparently, so do a lot of you. So I guess Grant F. is just going to have to get used to seeing the word.
The subject proper for today is negotiations in the Play By E-Mail world, how those negotiations differ from Face-To-Face playing experiences, and why I feel that those PBEM negotiations need to be carried forward both proactively and multilaterally. This article is essentially an edited version of some past postings I've made to the rec.games.diplomacy newsgroup, refined into the form of an exposition at the urging of "Jim-Bob" Burgess. If you don't like this article, blame him, since I probably wouldn't have decided to write it all down otherwise. If you do like it, I get all the credit.
When I say "proactive," I don't mean agressive, though being agressive is important, too. Everyone who played the FTF game before bringing their act to the PBEM world knows that success is the reward that naturally follows agressive negotiating. I try to negotiate agressively myself, as agressively as I think that I can get away with, once I feel I have the personalities scoped out. Some of the people who've given feedback on my "Lawyer/Diplomat" article have mentioned that they feel that following its advice has made them more agressive. I don't doubt it. Though I never stated it overtly in the article, being agressive in pursuit of your own interests is a fundamental part of what the contract negotiation model is all about.
Being proactive is a cousin of being agressive, but it's aimed more as at your attitude towards a game's negotiations as a whole, rather than your behavior in any specific negotiation. PBEM demands a level of proactivity in negotiation that FTF does not, because in FTF, it's all happening in real time and all in front of your eyes. In a FTF game, you don't have to ask anybody to find out who is talking to whom. You see it. You see the corners where they huddle. You see the looks in their eyes, the demeanor, the body language. You don't see those things if they lock themselves in the closet, but that act is also overt and significant. You don't have to make any effort to gather this data. It's a part of your environment.
It's also true that in FTF, time is both scarce and non-fungible. By this I mean that both quality and quantity are considerations in allocating time resources for negotiations in the FTF game. In FTF, if you draw England, you are going to spend the lion's share of your precious negotiation minutes in the first three years with France and Germany. You really have no choice. The clock keeps ticking, and the quality of any negotiations you have with those two powers in the first few years is going to affect the outcome of this game far more than the quality of negotiations you have with any other. The imperitive of survival dictates where and how you spend your finite time resources. You'll try to find time to say hello to Turkey and even spend an odd moment of friendly chat with him, but the time factor forces you to stay focused on that Western Triangle and the powers that most directly affect it.
The PBEM environment is precisely opposite in both of these respects. The "game room" where everything takes place is a black box. You see nobody. You know nobody (usually). You see nothing of what occurs: no huddling, no demeanor, no body language. This makes things a lot harder than in FTF where, to a very large extent, all of this knowledge comes to you unbidden. But at the same time, unlike in FTF, you've got all the time in the world to try to figure it out. Where in FTF, you've got all of thirty minutes for your first pre-game negotiations, in PBEM, you've typically got anywhere from one to three weeks for pre-game negotiations, and negotiation periods after that which can range from forty-eight hours to a week (and with delays and dropouts, many longer periods in which to talk). You've got the time you need to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, but they won't come to you on your own. You've got to make it happen. That's a big part of what I mean by saying that negotiations must be proactive.
Personality evaluation in FTF is also much easier than in email, owing to the opportunity you have to physically observe, while PBEM presents everybody the opportunity of keeping the perfect poker face. Personality evaluation also falls under the heading of negotiating proactively. I've already written an entire article about my techniques in that area. Anyone who hasn't read it yet should review "What's Your Point?" for my view of how to evaluate personalities in a manner relevant to the PBEM game.
Just because you don't have the luxury of your opponents' physical presence in PBEM, however, doesn't mean that you can't make the same kind of evaluations of their behavior as your line-of-sight evaluations in FTF. It's usually very easy to figure this out, provided you are trying. Part of every exchange with every player should be an attempt to find out who else is talking to whom and how frequently (you will, of course, be expected to divulge the same information). When you find out that Russia and Turkey exchanged three e-mails with each other and with Italy before saying "hi" to you, then you know who is in a corner huddling with whom. At the same time, unlike FTF, you don't have to settle for letting someone else dominate another player because they won't unlock the bathroom door before the fifteen minutes are up. You always have time and opportunity to wrest that advantage away by becoming the dominant talker yourself. You need to use that time and opportunity proactively, though.
A basic example: How exactly, in a PBEM game, are you sure when you're going to be attacked in Spring 1901? In a FTF game, if you see two of your neighbors spend most of the initial negotiation period with each other, casting furitive glances in your direction, you've got a pretty fair clue. In PBEM, seemingly, you're never going to see that happen, or catch the gleam in anybody's eye. You can also be pretty certain that their press to you will give little in the way of direct clues, so how can you possibly find out? You find out by becoming proactive.
First and foremost, you become proactive by talking to everyone. I know this is tired advice, but I'll stop giving it only when I see evidence that everyone has actually started following it. Second, and only slightly less importantly, by listening to and evaluating what everyone says back to you. People will certainly lie to you about their intent to attack you, but they almost never do so without telling someone else--and that someone else almost never withholds that information from you, if you ask properly. If you pay attention to the signals all others are sending, you'll rarely be surprised by a direct attack in 1901. I can safely say that in all of the email games I've played, I only ever suffered one Spring 1901 attack that was completely out of the blue. On that occasion, the attacking player purported (and I never came accross any evidence to the contrary) that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision he made just before the deadline.
To take Austria as an example, the typical Italy is not going to go to Trieste in Spring 1901 without an iron-clad promise of support from Russia and/or Turkey (I'm not going to get into the irrational newbie Italians who simply lunge in without a plan). Those players have the information you need. You need to get them to divulge it. In my experience, the best way to get these powers to divulge that information is not to ask them directly, but to make a variety of your own proposals to them and see how they react. How they respond to you and what they tell you they want you to order is probably the biggest tipoff as to who is planning what.This is where all of that stuff I wrote in Lawyer/Diplomat about controlling the document comes in especially handy. The more you force IRT to react to and respond to yourself, the less confident they are going to be in the success of their plots with each other--and the more likely it is that someone decides to play with you instead of against you. That way, when crunch time comes, you'll order that A Vie to Tri or Gal (or whatever) with confidence, knowing that you aren't trying to guess which way they are going, because you've got them reacting to you, instead of the other way 'round.
If Austria is determined to know the Italian mind, it's also fruitful to talk to France. What did Italy say to him? How much did Italy write to France? What was his "demeanor," as expressed in his letters? Compare those notes on Italian-French relations with England's perceptions and Germany's. If Italy's presses to the West are running hot, then you know that he's seriously considering plans that involve opening in that direction. If he quickly concludes a DMZ agreement with France and exchanges only brief or cordial chat with England and Germany, you can safely conclude Italy is focused East, regardless of what he is telling you. But note that for Austria to get the best handle on Italian intentions, he has to talk to all five other players at the virtual table and get each and every one of them to tell him what, if this were a FTF game, Austria could see with his own eyes.
This kind of information-swapping press--not asking what your neighbor is planning in so many words, but inquiring constantly after the quantity and quality of one's neighbors press to all others--should form a significant portion of your press in the pregame negotiation period. It should probably also form a significant part of your press for several more game years. This is proactive press, not in the sense of carrying forward your strategic or tactical plans, but in the sense of giving you a "vision" of the dynamics of the player relationships that are shaping up. The ideal is that this cyber-image should become as reliable as the line-of-sight images you get as a matter of course in FTF. The key to PBEM is understanding that it doesn't have to be a black box, if you are willing to work hard enough at it.
I've seen people express concern that too much press might alienate people. As the person who has been the most talkative power in every game he's played in except one [tip of the hat to Grant F.], let me give my perspective to you on this point. In many (certainly not all, but many) of the games I've played, the EOGs reveal that most of the players tended to think I was their best ally/strongest relationship for most of the game. My experience informs me that it's hard to overestimate the value of simply being the most verbose person at the table. It's the difference between being the object of courtship and just one of the suitors. If in any of your games, your perspective is that the "one most talkative power" is someone other than yourself, then in each of those games, it was likely that person, not yourself, who had the most possible options for alliance combinations/strategies. Naturally, I don't mean that one should simply babble. It's not hard at all to be expansive in talking about even relatively narrow Diplomacy subjects and stay on message at the same time. There is such a thing as quality verbosity and I think all the best PBEM players employ it--whether as a conscious strategy or not.
Finally, don't give up if other players are not, at first (or even at second) responsive to the deluge of emails you send out in your attempt to shine light into the black box. I'll admit that I've gotten frustrated occassionally and gone "radio silence" on uncommunicative or obstinant players, but I've always regarded that as my emotions/ego getting the better of my judgment. The better rule is to keep sending press to silent and/or belligerent powers. I've seen more than one EOG from a laconic player that said "I decided to back Player A at the end because he's the only one who kept sending me messages in the game." It's maddening when a player who won't talk to anyone still judges others by how much they talk to him, but there you go. They do it. Hypocrisy happens. Every press you don't send is an opportunity you are conceding to another player. This is a minor point, though for two reasons:
There is a misleading bias inherent in switching from the limited-time-resource negotiation challenge of FTF play to the time-as-fungible-resource challenge of email play. In FTF, because time is not fungible, if you spend most of your negotiation period with another player, you know that player also spent most of his negotiation period with you. You can have confidence in his cooperation; or in the alternative, you can have confidence that if he stabs, he won't have coordinated support from others. This can lead to the mistaken assumption in email play that if a power is talking to you frequently, he isn't talking to anyone else (or, at least, not as much). Simply untrue. If a power is talking to you frequently, he is quite likely talking to everyone frequently (or, at least, trying to), which makes it all the more imperative that you talk to his other neighbors and find out if what he is saying to them is consistent with what he is saying to you. FTF negotiation is almost always bilateral. Email negotiation should always be thought of as multilateral--an interconnected web where everything touches everything. No one ever twitches the web here, but that it's effects aren't going to be felt there and there. Anyone who aspires to becoming a better PBEM player needs to become adept at feeling the whole web and, better yet, shaping the web.
This is yet anther reason why we email players beat that dead horse about talking to everyone. In FTF it makes little sense for France to talk to Russia, Austria or Turkey more than in passing for the first few years. Most of what he needs to know about their behavior, he can discover with his own eyes and ears because it takes place in a lighted room. In PBEM, it is possible for France to spend as much time talking to these distant powers as to any other. It is also of great value, since any such exchanges will throw some more light into the black box. You'll certainly be frustrated from time to time by players who just won't respond adequately to distant powers, but making a habit of trying will pay off in the long run. Eventually, presuming your success, you will come to a point where you must deal directly with these powers. If you haven't shone some light into the black box before then, you will be at a serious disadvantage in dealing with and understanding them.
A FTF player, limited by his scarce, non-fungible time resources for a negotiation, typically spends the early game trying to form concrete two-power alliances. The bilateral negotiation dynamics of FTF naturally encourage players to isolate the game into regions of two-against-one conflicts and rely on the victorious bilateral alliances that result to carry them for a good portion of the game. By the time the latter portion of a FTF game rolls around, it's likely getting quite late, or the latter part of the game might not get played at all due to an arrangement (or tournament condition) that the game end after a fixed time period. In such an environment, developing relations with distant powers is seldom necessary or rewarded. You grab an ally early, stomp a neighbor or two, go to war with the person/alliance that emerged on the other side of the board (or stab your ally for a win if you think you can), but whichever way it goes, the game often breaks up before any serious purpose is served by collaberation with distant powers. The strong bilateral alliance can rule most FTF games.
A typical newcomer to the PBEM world, relying on his FTF experience, often tries to do the same thing. This strategy mistakenly carries the limited idea of bilateral play from the FTF game, where it is formed of necessity, into the PBEM game, where the same restrictions do not apply. This practice is a lot less successful in the PBEM atmosphere than the FTF atmosphere. The primary reasons why have already been suggested: you simply can't evaluate people by their written word the same way you can by all of the observations that you have the luxury of making in FTF; you can't corral your neighbor in such a way as to devalue his options by isolating him from others; and the game has no time limit--it ain't over 'til it's over--so all of the hidden flaws of the bilateral alliance play are going to bear fruit in a PBEM game, where they normally lie dormant in FTF.
In the black box PBEM environment, if you try to leap into a strong bilateral alliance arrangement before the first orders are in, while ignoring the thoughts of non-neighboring powers, likely as not you'll get burned. If you try to isolate your side of the board into a little two-against-one conflict, you'll discover that the other four powers will take a much more active interest in this than they did in your FTF games. You're much more likely to get blindsided. If you do well in the beginning, but advance into positions where the actions of more distant powers now affect you directly--and you haven't previously cultivated an active relationship with them--more likely than not, you'll get ganged up on. If you've taken care to build up your ally's strength to keep that bilateral steamroller going, no preset time limit or sense of late hour fatigue is going to save you from his might. You'll get stabbed.
A much more successful approach in PBEM is to envision the game from the beginning as one-against-six and play accordingly. I'm not suggesting that players eschew alliances altogether, but I do think that one must adopt a different attitude towards them. An ally is a tool. All tools are more dangerous to their user as they become more powerful. The purpose of an alliance should be to advance your game and your game alone. That allies can grow more powerful by their relations with you is not a virtue, but a necessary evil. Since you plan to ill-use your immediate allies from the beginning, you need to set about cultivating alliance level contacts with every single player at the board. You need these contacts immediately to shine light into the black box. You'll need them later when you stab your first ally and the game keeps going (and in some cases, going and going and going) and you need new strategies to advance. Multilateral contacts and multilateral manipulation of play are possible in a way in PBEM that is simply impossible in FTF.Whereas in FTF, the game naturally divides itself into little zones of interest, in PBEM you have the ability to continuously and simultaneously engage all six other players from beginning to end. With all of the additional possiblities that such a multilateral approach offers, why ignore it?
To shift from the abstract, to a concrete example: If I'm playing as Austria, I'll never assume a posture of allying with just Italy, or just Russia, or just Turkey, prior to the submission of the Spring 1901 moves. My ideal posture when the Spring 1901 deadline arrives: to be everyone's potential ally and no one's actual ally.
Let's further specify the frame of reference to Austria's negotiations with Russia. As Austria, what I'll try to do with Russia is no different from what others try to do: paint him the most optimistic possible picture of why he wants to ally with me this game and why allying with Italy or Turkey this game is a disaster waiting to happen. Unlike others, however, I don't try to do this immediately, because I know that I really don't have any sound basis for those arguments. Instead, I begin by shining the light into the black box. I begin with attempts to feel Russia out in the manner of "What's Your Point?" Of course, to know how Russia might be reacting to others, I'll need to feel them out too. During this time, I'm also striving to get a feel for how much press is crossing back and forth between each of IRT. I'll also inquire of England and Germany as to any negotiations with Russia over Scandanavia, to get a feel for Russia's grasp on the north. Notice that I don't limit my concept of negotiating with Russia to talking to Russia. The process of negotiating with Russia is a multilateral one involving information about Russia which is flowing to and from every player on the board.
Once I've gotten the best feel I can of Russia's personality and attitudes towards the other players, I'll outline for him a specific strategy for an AR alliance, tailored as much as possible to what I've discovered about him. I'll never limit that alliance proposal to simply a plan to carve up Turkey, but also outline the alliance as part of a broader game strategy. I want him to get used to the idea from the beginning that I have an interest and a say in all of his dealings, not just the destruction of Turkey. After all of that, if he proves receptive, I promise him a comfortable opening, but I won't tell him that we are allies. Instead, what I'll say is that I'd very much like to be allies, but if an AR alliance is to go forward I'll expect to see certain things from him. Then, I'll outline those things (hewing as close as I can to my "Lawyer/Diplomat" contract drafting model). I put the burden on Russia to bring the alliance forward, not merely by agreeing to the alliance plan I propose, but also by putting up some earnest money, i.e. he's got to show me by his first orders that he's following the outline for our final agreement. It is a rare event for me to consider a contract finalized in the pregame negotiation period. That's probably a point I should have made clearer in "Lawyer/Diplomat." It goes under the heading of "consideration." A contract isn't enforceable until the process of exchanging consideration has begun. Until that point, it's just a piece of paper.
Since I never assume anyone is my ally (or contract partner) before Spring 1901 (and I never assume anyone is my ally forever), as Austria, I'll causally be trying to stir up anti-Russian sentiment in the north, regardless of how well or ill I feel my negotiations with Russia are proceeding. I'll encourage Germany to open F Kie-Den to "keep his options open" about bouncing Russia in Sweden and then encourage him to do that bounce in Fall 1901 if it seems at all favorable to my long term strategy. I'll send notes to England casually warning him that Russia seems to be counting on taking Norway in 1902 to keep his build momentum going. It doesn't matter whether Russia is my ally or my enemy, I'd rather that he had a problem on his northern front to deal with. If he's my ally, it makes him more pliable; if he's my enemy, it makes him weaker. And how many times have you seen a Tsar who was attacked from the north throw his centers to Austria/Turkey (and doesn't Austria always get the greater share?) to spite his northern attacker? That's not a bad deal either.
In short, where Russia is concerned, I'd like him to be my ally, but I put the burden on him to commit, I don't want him to be too successful if he does, I don't leave myself without options if he doesn't and I cover all my bases. I'm also doing the exact same things in my negotiations with Italy and Turkey. Further, if any of them "discovers" that I am wooing the others in the same fashion, I will cheerfully admit to it. A good multilateral player never apologizes for talking to everyone and he doesn't hide the fact that he seeks their affections, but he uses it. I might also even toss in (true or not) that their competitor seems to be making more concessions to me than they are and that they might find themself in a bidding war for my affections. It's never useful to lie about having negotiated with others, but it's always useful to lie about the results. Even if your contact compares notes, he still can't be sure what's true or who is lying. To the extent that you've admitted to certain amounts of the truth, however, the lies you mix into your truths have more weight. Even if I can't get any solid agreements at the start, the degree of mutual concern and uncertainty that I've created by all of my activity is usually sufficient to paralyze those around me into "neutral" wait-and-see openings. After all, if you are Turkey (for example) are you really going to believe in that Juggernaut the Russian is holding out to you after Austria demonstrates that he is deep into negotiations with Russia, himself, and not the least bit afraid of knowing you are? Nope. Unless you truly have nerves of steel, once you find out you are not Russia's only option, you are going to be all over Russia demanding that Black Sea fleet bounce in S01. That, quite frankly, is about as good a result of S01 as any Austrian can ask for (that, and an Italian who agrees to a Lepanto and actually does it).
Multilateral negotiation not only serves to get you launched into the game in good shape, but it continues to serve as the game wears on. Whipsawing your neighbors against each other while encouraging outside forces to bite at their exposed flanks can gradually turn you into a dominant regional power with little sister allies. All of the activity that you've expended towards the "distant" powers will also bear fruit as you begin to shift your tactical theaters from the immediate region to a broader amount of the board. Your chance of long-term success (i.e. a solo) rises significantly over the bilateral model as you:
The objection that I sense most people have to refraining from solid bilateral alliance commitments prior to Spring 1901 is that, if they don't do it, others will, and those others will then have the advantage. I submit that this is not a realistic way to view the world. Other PBEM players do not consistently bring off bilateral alliances formed pregame. Don't assume they do. More often than not, "solid" alliances forged in Spring 1901 are little more than a pretense by one player (occassionally both) for the sole purpose of mispositioning his ally, or stirring up hostility between two neighbors, or in some other manner attempting to gain the singular upper hand. Don't assume that you can't gain the superior confidence of one (or even both) of the neighbors seemingly allied against you after the first moves and convince them that your own plans and proposals are superior and that all other plans will come to nothing.
In PBEM, if you lead with your chin, you will get clobbered more often than not, and far more often than you did in FTF. Use that knowlege to your advantage. People who try to accomplish the 1901 bilateral alliance knockout will be leading with their chin. No one can pursue a specific plan of conquest that early in the game without leaving themselves tactically vulnerable on all other fronts. The attacker has reduced his whole game to a single ally and a single plan. This leaves the attacker extremely vulnerable to any shift in strategy or alliance structure that virtually any one of his neighbors pursues within the time frame of the attack. If you are pursuing the multilateral plan of offering the possibility of alliance to everyone, then you will, more often than not, be able to convince someone to make a shift that is fatal to your attacker's monomaniacal lunge. You will then find yourself in the pleasureable position of being able to clobber the other guy on the chin after he sticks it out. It's a good feeling.
It's best not to unduly fear the formation of other alliances among players. It's going to happen wether you like it or not. Never assume an unbreakable level of trust exists among other players who are allied. It is extremely rare, in my experience, for allies to consistently confer on what to tell a third party (it shouldn't be so rare, but it is). Don't assume that it will be happening all of the time to yourself. Further, the idea of two people conferring to vicimize a third is an idea based in an assumption that everyone at the virtual table is conducting negotiations of a bilateral nature. If you conduct yourself on a multilateral strategy level--conducting friendly and substantive negotiations with a broad audience of fellow players--it's much harder to be victimized by such a strategy.
Multilateral play redefines the game as being about player relationships, not power relationships. Don't be fooled by the amount of energy I've expended on articles explaining my tactical approach to the game. Such knowledge is essential to guide good play, and using that knowledge to craft your ideal strategies is important. At the same time I try to never let such considerations trump the ebb and flow of my multilateral diplomacy in making my final strategic decisions. I remain constantly aware of the limitations that my neighbors theories of play and personality types place on my tactical possibilities. My pre-game diplomatic goal (as I already said) is to be everyone's potential ally and no one's actual ally. My long term diplomatic goal is to be working as many alliance level contacts for as much of the game as is humanly possible. My tactical goal is to achieve the best possible board positioning of my units in any given turn without significant impairment to my ability to continue negotiating multilaterally. I absolutely never go into a game thinking that, if I am playing power X, then I must ally myself with power Y, else I will not be successful. I try not to ever succumb to that kind of thought at any other point in the game, either.
Usually, I do have a strong idea which player I wish to initially ally myself with after the pregame negotiation is concluded, but I generally resolve doubts in favor of neutrality. I'd say about one game in five, I have a strong enough feeling about a player to commit to a decisive course of action as his ally commencing in Spring 1901, but those are special cases. This attitude towards the pre-game and Spring 1901 does not prevent me from engaging in strong alliance-based play. I've been known to hold to a single alliance for years. Once (but just once), I held to a game long alliance and split a two way draw with the other player. That was a very special case, and one which I have a hard time seeing ever repeating. I've also been known to stab a different player every year (or more frequently). How I behave accross any given game is largely dictated by the personalities I encounter in the game.
At the highest level of PBEM play, the term "Juggernaut" tends to become an oxy-moron. The more analytical and reflective pace of PBEM play usually won't allow such alliances (or any strongly implemented bilateral alliance) to flourish unchecked. That's why I think that it is imperative to adopt a more flexible, broader based approach to alliance play. I'd much rather have a tactically "weak" alliance with a player who I was confident in than a tactically "strong" alliance with a player whose personality and style was a poor fit with my objectives. I'd much rather use my multilateral contacts to promote alliance-shifting and alliance uncertainty all around the board, than devote all of my energies to wooing just one bilateral ally. In such an environment, my own alliance shifting becomes much more forgiveable and much less noticeable.
All alliances come to an end. Do not mourn their passing and do not try to delay or prevent that end at cost to yourself. An alliance is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The goal of an alliance is to use your ally to promote your own growth, not your ally's. Your ideal should be to offer him the minimal possible incentive to cause him to ally with you, while doing your best to ensure that being your ally is something he perceives as his best and only option. The best ally is one who feels beset on all sides and who slaves for you as his only option. The worst possible ally is one who sees that he has all kinds of options and no threats. Such an ally is not beholden to you at all.
To the extent it is possible, I try to keep following an "ally with the person, not the power" mindset right into the middle-game and even into the late-game. That extent is, perforce, much narrower than the early game, but to the extent that I have choices, the "ally with the person, not the power" mantra informs those choices.
Here's an example of a very typical middle game situation reached by a player who follows the strategy of opening strong via the forging of a strong and faithful bilateral alliance. The bilateral alliance succeeds in wresting control of a specific region of the board from weaker powers caught in the crossfire. The bilateral allies are probably the two strongest powers on the board. The other powers have begun to recognize the danger now, though, and tougher resistance has set in. It's probably about 1904, and the world of the board is divided, thusly: The Two Loyal and Faithful Allies; The Victims of Their Alliance (or, rather, what remains of them): and The One (Possibly Two) Guy(s) on the Other Side of the Board Who Accidentally Prospered by The Alliance's Behavior. The Loyal and Faithful Allies' advance has become bogged down, as a tactical matter. New gains for anyone will only become possible when someone shifts loyalties. That's a fairly typical mid-game scenario resulting from the driving of a strong bilateral alliance. That's also an extremely problematic dynamic, because it's possibilities for the Loyal Allies are very limited.
The Victims of Their Alliance will not want to listen to anyone who has consistently steamrolled them for several years without mercy (and probably told them a lie or two along the way). No shift in loyalties by prior victims should be considered more than a very remote possibility. This is a fairly heavy price to pay for consistent loyalty to another player. I think a lot of people underestimate this price.
The One Guy on the Other Side (etc.) owes the Allies nothing. He may have prospered by their behavior, but he knows he doesn't owe them anything for that. No one has any special hold on him/them. If one of those players changes sides, whom it will favor (apart from himself) will be more a matter of luck than anything else.
Each Loyal and Faithful Ally isn't really a loyal and faithful ally. Each is operating out of self-interest. If the bilateral alliance has reached this point in anything other than a perfect strategic/tactical balance of power (an unlikely scenario) each of the allies is likely to view the other at this point as their biggest threat, not their best friend. The power tool that the Loyal Allies created, each in the other, to drive them through the game at this point is now perceived as an enormous danger, not just to others, but to themselves.
Actually succeeding at forming and driving a strong bilateral alliance (no mean feat in PBEM) is almost guaranteed to get you out of the opening and grow your SC count. It can give your budding empire every appearance of health. But if that Loyal and Faithful Ally you cultivated suddenly deserts you, what is your backup plan? You've cultivated no loyalties with other players. Your situation has been reduced to a single decision: stab or be stabbed. The success of that stab is largely determined by the reactions of the other strong powers in the game--powers whom you've done nothing to earn a break from. Such a dearth of options indicates that bilateral early game strategies are not so much a strength as a crutch, and the collapse naturally follows once the crutch is kicked out from under you.
So many times, a deeper and more devious multilateral game plan is more successful than honestly and faithfully driving the bilateral alliance, no matter how strong the reputation of the alliance or how necessary seeming it might appear at the time. Here is an example of how driving an alliance, but driving it from the point of view of the multilateral player, can get you past that mid-game cramp and into a successful endgame.
In the game "Arthur," played at The Old Republic, I found myself part of what was shaping up as an AGI center power alliance. I was Germany. What follows is from memory, so I apologize to any of the Arthur players if I don't get this correct in all details. It'll be close enough for jazz.
It's 1903. EGI have smashed France, which is down to two isolated units squatting on their SCs. AIR are squeezing Turkey, but more slowly, as Turkey still has four. There is an uneasy detente in Scandanvia, with EGR each holding their "natural" neutrals. Austria wants Italy's support into Bulgaria and promises him that, should he get the build, he will not, under any circumstances, build in Trieste. Austria gets his support and promptly builds an army in Trieste. Italy's reaction is as you might expect. He excoriates Austria in his press. He moves to defend Venice. He also (and this is very important) becomes quite indecisive on the Iberian front; pulling some troops back, in anticipation of a fight with Austria, but also posturing neutrality to both E and G in the Iberian Penninsula, because he's afraid of becoming involved in a two front war.
With Italy waffling, Germany (me) was unable to make further progress in Iberia and also unable to effectively plan any stab of England. Austria's act of duplicity also made it fairly risky for me to engage Russia, since I now had serious doubts about whether Austria would aid that effort (as I previously thought he would) or support Russia (in which case, England would proably ally with Russia too and I would be toast). The uncertain implications of Austria's build with respect to the future of our own alliance left me in a position where leaping the wrong way would be disaster. I chose to wait and see as my only course with a reasonable risk/reward ratio.
Until Austria's duplicitous build, Russia had been in a very uneasy situation. Turkey had attacked him from the start and he'd allied with Austria from necessity, not choice. He was trying to war with Turkey without leaving himself open to Austria and he wasn't getting anywhere very fast that way. He was stalled in the north in that uncomfortable detente. Seeing Austria's build, however, gave him the comfort he needed to devote himself fully to war against Turkey and leave himself open to Austria. After all, Austria just stabbed Italy and he wasn't going to risk a two front war, right?
In 1904, Austria followed up his duplicitous build in Trieste by visciously stabbing Russia. The stab was extremely effective. In the meantime, this single build caused Italy to undermine his own position by waffling and moving in the wrong direction, and caused England and Germany to struggle and stagnate. Sure, it would have been more effective, from a certain point of view, to tip off England and Germany so that they could pressure Russia in the North and make the stab of Russia even more brutal, but as it turned out, England and Germany pig-piled on the stricken Russia anyway. Critically, for Austria, England and Germany jumped in a turn late and Austria was able to dictate the terms of the spoils to a much greater degree than before. Austria successfully paralyzed the whole board for two seasons whilst he set up himself for a great stab of Russia.
In the aftermath, Austria excused himself to Italy by pointing out that he'd never actually attacked or stabbed Italy and basically said that, if Italy had waffled, it was his own fault for over-reacting to a single build (which was true). Italy had little choice but to sit and take it. He'd spent two years shuffling his units back and forth, bypassing builds in his panic, while Austria got three. He was in no position to attack Austria on his own. In playing as Austria's Loyal Ally, Italy had completely alienated Turkey and couldn't put any IRT action against Austria together. Italy had little choice but to re-backtrack and once again seek gains in Iberia. Meanwhile, because he'd waffled on the Iberian front, leaving little sense in England that England owed him anything, he soon found himself in danger of being squeezed out of there by EG (actually, I was spurring England toward Gibralter, all the while planning to stab him when he got his fleets out of position).
Following Austria's stab of Russia, Austria announced to me (Germany) that he intended to take Warsaw, too. He dictated to me that I ought to keep clear of his rightful spoils and focus on Scandanavia and my stab of England. He was capitalizing on my new sense of concern about his aggressive behavior towards Italy and Russia and it played me like a violin. I went all out for Warsaw, to keep Austria out, but Austria never attacked Warsaw. He focused on his other targets and got all of them. Meanwhile, I had bypassed my other targets to ensure Warsaw, letting England get more of Scandanvia than otherwise would have been the case. In the aftermath, he justified himself to me by pointing out that he hadn't attacked me, I'd gotten a build, and Russia was much more devastated than would otherwise have been the case. Even further, he pointed out, it was I, if anyone, who was in the position of "betrayer," since I'd attacked his declared target. All true. I simply had no claim that Austria had been actually hostile to me. I'd simply been spoofed by a little reverse psychology.
Let's assess this. Austria, via two lies, completely and effectively stabbed Russia out of the game. But he didn't tell those lies to Russia (not directly anyway), he told those lies to his two "allies." The results:
Austria's insurance against a German stab was a powerful enough England to make Germany uncomfortable with all of those vulnerable coastal SCs. His insurance against an Italian stab was Italy's undersize, plus the hopeless relationship Italy developed with Turkey (by being unflaggingly loyal to Austria), plus Italy's unease that his waffling in Iberia gave England and Germany common cause against him there. If Germany and Italy stab Austria together, England will surely join in common cause with Austria, so the worst case scenario still leaves Austria with one powerful ally. All of this insurance in the form of balance of power was far more valuable to Austria than the position he would have achieved by maintaining his veracity with his allies and loyally and faithfully participating in an AGI alliance that produced much more powerful versions of Germany and Italy.
These are the wheels within wheels that Austria was spinning with his calculated lie about his build. The multilateral objectives he was seeking were all much more important than contining any bilateral alliances. I think it's especially instructive that it occurred in the context of a white broadcast press game. Everybody got to see Austria lie to Italy that way--which made the lie all the more effective in terms of achieving the multilateral results that Austria wanted! The same effect could have been achieved in a partial press game, had Austria boldly broadcast a boast after the build report about how he'd suckered Italy with his lie, but how many people would think to do such a thing as part of a deeper strategy?
That game ultimately ended in a three-way draw with myself and Italy stalemating Austria just short of eighteen centers. Austria's diplomacy in that game was masterful. He did such a great job of manipulation of events and power balancing in his favor (would you believe that after all of that, Austria was still able to successfully portray me to Italy as the aggressive, dangerous, deceitful stabber of our three way alliance?), that his "allies," Germany and Italy, were never able to retaliate for his deviations from the stated AGI game plan. The most important thing to realize is that, had we not reacted strongly to his spoofs, but ignored them and acted purely in our own best interests, we would have both been much better off. He was actually counting on our "good allies don't lie to me" and "good allies don't dictate to me" reactions and made them work in his favor. It's one of the few occasions I've felt completely diplomatically outmaneuvered by another power in a game.
Good players aren't pursuing just one alliance and just one game plan. Good players spin wheels within wheels (and sometimes wheels within wheels within wheels within wheels). Any time you devote yourself with perfect loyalty to the driving of just one alliance, even if it's theoretically the "best" alliance, you are setting yourself up for later-game victim status.
This is why I feel in agreement with those who assert that getting comfortable with alliance-shifting early and often is the ultimate evolution of Diplomacy skill. That's why I said in my "What's Your Point?" article that I feel the highly skilled Deviate is the most powerful player stylist of all. A philosophy of success through a foundation of driving bilateral alliances can yield good results in skilled hands in FTF play and even finds some degree of success in PBEM play. There is definately a glass ceiling encountered, however, in insisting on that style in PBEM. The top drawer players just don't play that way. The top drawer players all approach the game multilaterally, knowing from the beginning that the game is always one against six. There is no better way to play it.
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