Those Who Can, Teach
(Reflections on the TeachMe format)

By Alastair Tomlinson


Editor's note: This is my favourite article as it talks about a great way to get new people who are interested into Diplomacy but don't feel comfortable jumping in by themsleves. I have a friend who has always stayed on the fringe as he feels daunted to jump into a game. This would be a great option for him and others like him. I think we should try and promote more of these type of games. I like it so much one I will dedicate my next "Canadian" series of games, which I run on the DPjudge, to this concept.)

The TeachMe format has comprised a series of standard partial press games where each power is played by a relative newbie, each accompanied by an experienced coach that sees all the press that is being sent to and from that newbie, with the coach being only allowed to communicate with their own power.

The intention of the format is to provide a learning experience for all concerned - often the best way to learn something is to teach it, and for the newbies this is a golden chance to learn from a previously experienced player.

There have been three games in the series to date. I took part as a relative newbie playing Austria in teachme3. From my perspective I found the experience immensely helpful. There was a fair bit of discussion in the EOG of teachme3 about the format, improvements that could be made, problems that might need addressing, and it seemed appropriate to me to try and develop these ideas into a more structured reflection on the whole series. (Maybe after reading this you'll think otherwise!)

I therefore sought the view of other past participants in the series, whether as players, coaches, or GMs (some have fulfilled more than one role over the course of time). I asked some general questions, and some directed specifically at coaches or players. I've done my best to summarize and collate the responses below.

What did you learn from your participation in TeachMe?

"Teaching guys like Brent Warner and Chris Aanstoos the secrets of advanced play can have a negative effect on your JDPR Rank." - Eric Hunter

As might be expected, players in general felt that they learnt a lot from having the almost instant feedback on how they were doing from an experienced player. A number reported how much better their play became as a result of playing in a TeachMe game - in most cases the improvements were noticeable even as the game itself went on. It was interesting to note that coaches as well as players found TeachMe a learning experience. Even GMs felt that being 'in' on everything being said, both between players and between players and coaches, was a great learning experience.

There was also felt to be a significant learning opportunity at the end of the game with the availability of the complete press archive - enabling players to look back through the various stages of the game, seeing how their press and tactics were being analyzed by other players and coaches. The difficulty with this was making the press available in a user-friendly format (realistically web-based) and also the sheer volume of press involved (in teachme3 around 3600 messages) which at the end of a long game takes a bit of ploughing through. You can view the full press archive from the teachme3 game at the Diplomacy Press Archives.

What works well about the TeachMe format, and what are the drawbacks?

A general view is that the key innovation of the TeachMe format - i.e. the presence of a coach offering near-instant feedback on the nuances of press, strategy and tactics - is extremely useful, and the huge opportunities for all involved for learning and improving your game.

The only major drawback identified (which is unavoidable to a large extent) is that there is a lot riding on the quality of the relationship between the player and his/her coach. If that relationship goes well, the game seems to be a great learning experience for all involved. If for some reason player and coach don't hit it off (whether due to lack of time, commitment to the game, no rapport etc etc etc) then the game becomes a bit more of a struggle, especially if as a player you are not benefitting from the sort of advice and discussion that other players may be.

Another potential downside is the additional complication of having the extra press flying between coach and player, which can result in unfortunate errors (e.g. press intended for a coach being sent to a rival power, which could reveal an awful lot about your intentions) and as a practical issue inevitably requires longer deadlines, and may result in less spontaneous press than might otherwise occur. The sheer volume of all this press can become a little overwhelming, and if communication between player and coach drops off too much, the main benefits of the format are lessened somewhat. That said, a certain amount of 'tailing off' of the flow of advice seems to be inevitable, as the players grow more confident and begin to 'spread their wings'. The way that coaches handle that loosening of the reins seems to be another key theme that emerges. And beneath it all there is always the danger that the coach uses their player as little more than a puppet to act out their desires - for the format to be of benefit, it is crucial that the player makes the final decision in all matters.

What sort of issues were discussed most?

A common theme was the way in which the game was split into various facets - Diplomacy, Tactics, and Strategy (and also Psychology, in the view of some). The balance between each of these varied depending on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both players and coaches, and the changing game situation. Many players felt a major issue was learning how to analyze press, reading between the lines, and the use of subtle emphasis in both their own press and the press of others. Developing the skill of analyzing the board position in its widest sense (not just tactics) and managing the transition from opening to midgame, and midgame to endgame (so far as these distinctions exist) was also a valued theme.

Any improvements that could be made?

There was a general feeling that the TeachMe format works well as it is. Any possible modifications seem to revolve around trying to increase further the feedback from coaches to players. One suggestion was to have more than one coach for each player - but it can already be difficult to find suitably experienced coaches with the time to devote to the game, and having more than one set of advice coming in could be confusing for a novice player.

Another option is the concept of a "Coaches Corner", where coaches pass comment on the press and play of all the players - either in the form of a diary (which only becomes available at the end of the game, and doesn't allow much discussion between coaches) or via some form of discussion forum. The catch with the discussion approach is trying to avoid situations where game information spills out in the discussion - a suggested way round this might be for coaches to refrain from commenting on their own player or responding to the comments of others about 'their' player.

Richard Judd, GM of the original TeachMe game, suggests that one modification could be for observers to sign on to receive all the press sent and received by one particular power, including the coach-player correspondence. To a certain extent this merges the teachme format with the commentary style that has been followed in the comments and pinnacle games recently. It might also reduce the strain on observers of trying to digest all the press from a game such as this. Perhaps such 'power observers' could even have some mechanism of making comments to the coach (or allowing the coaches, but not players, to have access to this discussion forum) for the coach's use, allowing the coach to make additional suggestions to the players as they see fit.

The possibility of alternative coaches has been suggested (with the necessary proviso relating to the difficulty of recruiting coaches, see above). This would allow students to have the opportunity to 'fire' their coach if they don't feel things are working out. Chris Aanstoos (a player in teachme2) explained that in his situation, although his initial coach was perfectly friendly, he didn't feel that he was getting the advice he needed. So he requested to have a different coach of his choosing, in this case Joe Brennan, who he had already struck up a good relationship with in a previous game.

By the same token, students should recognize that involvement in a game like this is really a privilege, and therefore they should take an active role. There is an argument that players who are not taking a truly active role (e.g. persistently late, even if they meet the grace period; not involving a great deal of discussion with their coach) should be replaced.

Addressing the recruitment of coaches seems to be a key issue. It's perhaps worth emphasizing that, based on the comments received, there is no expectation that coaches have to be perfect or very highly-rated players (though of course it is a help, and there is a need for at least a certain amount of experience). A number of coaches commented that in some aspects of the game their players were as good or better than them; in those situations the coach focussed their attentions on the player's weaker areas, and those areas in which they felt most able to offer constructive comment - sometimes this was in the area of tactics, in others addressing the area of strategy and press.

My comments

Andy Tomlinson (no relation) commented that involvement in teachme3 helped him feel more like a part of the wider Dip community - before then he had felt more like an outsider looking in. I can certainly concur with that feeling. I found that being involved in teachme3 was a great learning experience, and in combination with following both games in the comments series, has allowed me to develop a much greater understanding of how to improve my play. I hope that the series will continue - with appropriate modifications where necessary - and that other players, coaches and GMs can gain the benefits of involvement with such a great format.

Thanks to all those who responded to my requests for comments; in particular Ben Harris, Chris Aanstoos, Brent Warner, Eric Hunter, Andy Tomlinson, Randy Hudson, Richard Judd, Thorfinn, and anyone else I've carelessly forgotten!

Note: This article is also published in Diplomacy World Issue 91.

Alastair Tomlinson

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