So this is it. You've played a few games of Diplomacy so far, and you've learned a lot. You've done well in a few games, and taken an early bath in others. But this time, you're ready. It's time to win your first solo.
Well, good for you! That's the right spirit. We here at the Pouch heartily approve, and the site is set up to help you achieve that goal as much as possible.
So before you rush off to sign up for the next game or to write that first press to your prospective ally, realize that a large part of your success can come from the groundwork that you do even before your fingers touch the keyboard. And the articles and online resources here at the Diplomatic Pouch can help. You can improve your game a lot with this material!
However, this wealth of information is a mixed blessing: there's so much that it's hard to know where to start. If you're playing Turkey, should you attack Russia right away, or should you side with the Tsar and go for the Austrian jugular instead? If you're Italy, should you begin by attacking Turkey ["This strategy is, I am convinced, the only sane one for Italy to follow."], or France ["In the long run, going WEST is BEST"], or Austria ["If you want to win the fast way, you have to crush the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and you have to do it fast."]??? There are plenty of articles that will give you diametrically opposed advice. How do you choose which counsel to follow?
I still have an enormous amount to learn about Diplomacy, but I have improved a lot in recent games thanks to the Pouch resources. This article is partly a guide to the advice that I've found most helpful, along with an explanation of why I think you'll benefit from reading the same articles; and partly my suggestions for other things you can do before the game start to make it go as well as possible. I hope you'll find both aspects useful.
You Gotta Learn to Walk Before You Can Run
If you've just signed up for a new game, I'm sure you're full enthusiasm and all sorts of plans, especially if you've chosen the country yourself rather than having it assigned to you randomly. That's great; but before you get carried away with specific plans — even before you know which country you're playing — make sure that you have a very good grasp of the basics!
Quick — if you support a foreign unit in an attack on one of your own units, are you dislodged?
What if you're only doing it to fend off a third country's two-unit attack on the space; what happens then? Do they bounce, leaving your first army intact? Or does the enemy defeat both you and your foreign ally, dislodging you?
The name of the game is Diplomacy, and being able to convince others to do what you want is easily the most important aspect of play. However, you need to know what you want others to do first! A solid grounding in tactics is essential if you want to do well. Not only will it ensure that you're asking your allies for the best moves, it may let you surprise your enemies with actions they didn't anticipate. It can also enhance your credibility enormously; allies will be more likely to agree to your plans if they're sensible, and your enemies will be more reluctant to attack your defenses if they're solid.
You should begin by mastering the basic rules from the Diplomacy Rulebook (4th Edition © 2000 Hasbro). Once you've done that, you'll have the background you need to appreciate Matthew Self's Library of Diplomacy Tactics. The Library explains some important concepts that follow logically from the rules, but are not immediately evident from them:
Some of these tactics will come up frequently, while you may not be able to use others very often at all. Nonetheless, it's to your benefit to know about all of them! You never know when you'll have a chance to spring one of them on an unsuspecting opponent.
Finally, once you feel you have a good grasp of the basic rules and tactics, I highly recommend that you read Paul Windsor's seminal work, "Caissa at the Diplomacy Table". In this article, Paul applies many elements of Chess analysis to Diplomacy, and explains how understanding them can improve your game. Are all units equally strong? Is the country with the most centers automatically the leader? No, of course not; and Paul's article explores the reasons why. Several readers (myself included) consider it one of the finest articles to have graced the pages of the Pouch. Have a look, and judge for yourself.
Once you've had a look at these articles, it's time to think about the game in a broader sense: the strategy that all this tactical study will serve!
If you've played for even a while, you've likely heard of something called a stalemate line. In case you haven't: a stalemate line is a position on the board where units properly ordered will hold 17 centers or less indefinitely, because they cannot be dislodged or circumvented by any combination of opposing attacks and supports.
The main stalemate line goes from the STP-MOS border, through Livonia and all the empty provinces between the German and Austrian home centers, then through Piedmont to the westernmost sea areas of the Mediterranean, to North Africa, dividing the board into two main areas with 17 supply centers on each side. This means that in order to win, a country must cross that line to grab and hold at least one supply center.
If you haven't studied this before, learn it now. It is, quite simply, the most important strategic element of the game.
Crossing the main stalemate line easier for some countries than for others: Russia starts off with home centers on each side of the line, while England and Turkey must move four spaces to reach the closest center on the other side. So if you're doing well as the Tsar you'll probably cross it without effort, and not have to worry about it at all; but if you're the Prime Minister or Sultan, you have to keep it in mind every single turn. Because if you don't, you may grow to seventeen only to find that a coalition of more strategically-minded players has managed to seal it up, and that the crucial eighteenth center is now forever beyond your reach. Few events are as frustrating, so make sure it doesn't happen to you!
Once you have the main stalemate line commited to memory, you'll be a long way toward improving your strategic game. However, it's only one of many stalemate lines. There are so many possibilities that the Diplomacy Archive has an entire section dedicated to them, as does the Pouch itself!!!
Before you panic, let me reassure you that the vast majority of possible stalemate positions guard fewer than 17 centers. Of those that do, there's the western wall (Position 8: Enemy holds Germany and StP); two similar Eastern positions (Position 2 and Position 3 respectively) which require fleets on both north and south coasts; and a single Southern position (Position 6).
All the other stalemate positions hold 16 centers or less, so strictly speaking it isn't necessary to cross them in order to win. However, that presumes that you're the only country left on your side. If your side of the line actually consists of yourself and an ally, you will have to stab your ally in order to grab that solo. This can be a problem if nobody on the other side of the line is willing to join with you when you do, since your erstwhile ally may then join a larger stalemate line. However, knowledge of the lines can be useful when you or a coalition of you and your allies are on the defensive against a winning alliance.
That's the other important reason why you should be aware of stalemate lines: you may need to use them yourself!
I encourage you to look at all the stalemate articles at least once. However, it isn't necessary to memorize all of them. In the short term it's enough to know these stalemate lines exist: you can come back to the Stalemate section later if you need to refer to the exact positions.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the key areas involved in stalemate positions. Watch StPetersburg, Tunis, and Munich: look out for Italian, Austrian, or Turkish fleets sailing into the Mid-Atlantic Ocean and beyond. If you see an enemy unit (by which I mean any unit that isn't yours) crossing the main stalemate line, beware. And make sure you cross that line yourself as quickly, permanently, and quietly as possible — doing so is your key to victory!
Tactics and strategic knowledge can only carry you so far. Your main tool for preventing anyone else from securing a stalemate must be diplomacy! You must sow confusion among your enemies; manipulate them into fearing each other more than they fear you; distract them from your true goals and purpose. What could be more fun?
But how do you do it, exactly?
Well, one good way to keep your opponents from ganging up against you is to be very careful not to appear a threat to them. And one of the best ways to do that is to have somebody else appear to be a threat. Derek McLachlin discusses this approach in his article Wielding Too Much Power: Early Leader Syndrome, where he goes over the dangers of becoming too powerful too soon and suggests how you can turn it to your advantage when someone else makes this mistake. Early Leader Syndrome (ELS) is a very real danger, and you should be careful not to fall prey to it yourself. This doesn't necessarily mean you will be attacked every time you grow a center or two larger than anyone else, nor should you necessarily try to organize a grand coalition every time somebody else does; but be aware that either can happen! The idea of a Balance of Power is central to this game, after all…
Another diplomatic tactic for dealing with ELS if an alliance forms is to have a smaller country on your side. Napoleon is reputed to have said "If I must have an opponent, let it be a coalition." I can well believe it, because coalitions are difficult to coordinate and hold together! It often takes only one holdout to bring the whole thing crashing down, so if you can co-opt even one small country , that may be enough.
Paul Barker discusses this option in his article The Janissary: A Mid-Game Strategy for Turkey. Although the author basically presents it as a strategy for Turkey (hence the name "Janissary", which refers to the Sultan's private standing army of ex-Christians), it's a useful concept no matter what country you're playing. Find one or more smaller countries on the brink of elimination, and promise them revenge against another player, and/or to help them survive to the very end. So long as you treat your minor allies with respect and they don't blame you for their misfortune (or even if they do, so long as they're willing to overlook it), they may well choose to help you in an effort to avoid elimination — at least for a while. After all, where there is life, there is hope; so they have a duty to survive as long as they can (or so you should tell them if they express doubts about the ethics of it all!). Just be careful to treat them as respected allies, not puppets!
ELS and the Janissary are both important ideas to keep in mind for the long term. However, it's important to have negotiating skills that will help you implement these diplomatic strategies and tactics, or avoid the need for them altogether.
Paul Windsor (there he is again!) has written several articles about effective negotiation, based in part on his experience as a lawyer who does it for a living. His Lawyer/Diplomat article discusses how you can give your negotations focus and credibility. His Persuasive Illogic lists some interesting diplomatic approaches that are a bit non-intuitive, but that can be very effective when used skillfully. If you're playing by e-mail, the New World Order article gives valuable insight on how to use the nature of electronic communication to your advantage. Finally, What's Your Point offers some ideas on what aspects of the game may apply to different players, and how to use their inclinations to sell them on your plans. All these articles will help you fine-tune your negotiating style.
To round out your approach to negotiations and the crucial diplomatic aspect of the game, I recommend that you look at Joshua Randall's The Six Traits of the Advanced Diplomacy Player, and Steve Ray's Good Players Make the Best Allies. Both of these articles go over qualities that the most successful players display consistently — Steve Ray even suggests ways to turn these virtues against them! However, the main reason to read these articles is to supply criteria that will help you identify the best players on the board, and also to make you think about the way you want to present yourself to others.
Okay. So much for the background articles. I know it's a lot to read and absorb, but it's well worth it.
It's also a good start; but only a start!
The articles I've mentioned are all useful, but they're generic. They don't (and can't) account for all the peculiarities of your own situation. They're useful tools, but planning your approach to any particular game is something you can only do for yourself. And there is still plenty more you can do to help your shot at that solo if you put in the time:
I've already mentioned the Ray and Randall articles. Look at them again. How many of those traits do you possess yourself?
Having done your research on tactics and strategy, you should now have a good grasp of both. But what about your general approach to the game, and your playing style? It's important to have a good, honest look at your own strengths and weaknesses, so you can take them into account. You should work your strengths into your game plan, and work around your weaknesses or try to improve them. Of course, in order to do so you have to know what they are!
End of Game (EoG) reports can be very useful in this self-evaluation, and it's a good idea to go over the EoGs from your previous games to get a more objective view of your play. If other players didn't write EoGs, you may even want to go so far as to write them and ask more specific questions about why they reacted to you as they did! Some of the evaluations you get may be criticism, and that isn't pleasant; but it's actually very helpful. So don't get defensive, even though that's a natural reaction, and don't ignore them. Your critic is actually doing you a favour and offering you valuable insight.
Finally, have another look at theWhat's Your Point article, and try to decide where you fit in among the four player archetypes. If you're aware of what motivates you, you can fit your strategy to your style — and maybe also avoid moves that appeal to you, but don't serve the end goal of winning.
Count to Eighteen
You need eighteen centers to win. Where are they going to come from?
Now that you know about stalemate lines, you will realize that this isn't a trivial question. At least one of those eighteen must come from the far side of the great divide. You must either establish a permanent presence there early, or keep the others in enough disarray that they can't stop you from crossing the stalemate line in force at the end.
That isn't the only aspect of the board you have to keep in mind. In his article "Geography is Destiny", Paul Windsor also discusses the concept of the swiftest route to victory. Basically, this concept suggests that the success of a Power depends to a significant extent on the number of supply centers it can reach easily and quickly starting from its home supply centers. Although I've come to believe that "Geography is Destiny" is fundamentally flawed (for reasons which I intend to discuss in a future article of my own), I do agree with this basic idea. Centers that are closest to a Power's home centers are more accessible and more easily reinforced; a Power with plenty of centers within easy reach has more diplomatic options, since it can better afford to leave some of them in the hands of an ally while still picking up enough elsewhere to win; and a Power with many centers nearby is more likely to sprint to victory before it can be stopped.
Consider the centers available within four moves of each Power's home centers, as shown in the table below:
|Centers Reachable In...||Total|
|1 Move||2 Moves||3 Moves||4 Moves|
|Austria||Vie, Bud, Tri||Ser, Rum, Ven||Rom, Mun, War, Sev, Bul, Gre||(6 of 7) Tun, Mar, Kie, Ber, Mos, Nap, Con||Spa, Par, Bel, Hol, Den, StP, Ank, Smy||27
||Lon, Edi, Lvp
||Bre, Bel, Hol, Den, Nwy
||Swe, StP, Kie, Par, Spa, Por
||(4 of 5) Mar, Mun, Ber, Mos, Tun
||Bre, Par, Mar
||Lon, Bel, Mun, Ven, Por
||(9 of 12) Lvp, Edi, Nwy, Den, Hol, Kie, Rom, Nap, Tun, Tri, Ber, Vie
||StP, War, Bud, Gre, Ser, Swe
||Kie, Ber, Mun
||Mar, Par, Bel, Swe, War, Vie, Tri, Ven
||(5 of 11) Spa, Bre, Lon, Edi, Nwy, StP, Mos, Rum, Ser, Rom, Bud
||Sev, Bul, Gre, Por, Lvp, Nap
||Ven, Rom, Nap
||Mar, Tun, Mun, Vie, Bud, Ser, Gre
||Spa, Kie, Ber, Rum, Bul, Con, Smy
||Por, Bre, Par, Bel, Hol, Den, War, Sev, Ank
||StP, Mos, War, Sev
||Swe, Ber, Mun, Vie, Bud, Ser, Bul, Con, Ank, Smy
||(2 of 8) Gre, Tri, Kie, Den, Edi, Lon, Hol, Bel
||Ven, Par, Mar, Lvp, Bre
||Con, Ank, Smy
||Sev, Rum, Ser, Gre
||Tun, Nap, Tri, Bud, Mos
||War, Vie, Rom, Ven, StP
Cells starting with "(x of n)" indicate that if the Power already holds all closer centers, it only needs x of the n supply centers listed in the cell to reach eighteen. Italics indicate that the italicized center is not needed at all, except as an alternative to a closer center.
Every country can reach eighteen within four moves. However, from this analysis it's clear that Germany and Russia have an advantage. They have more centers within their four-move radius, the majority of centers needed fall within two moves of their homelands, and they have plentiful choices within three moves for those last few centers required for victory. Together, these factors give them more and better options than those other countries enjoy.
By comparison, poor Turkey has no wriggle room at all: there are exactly eighteen centers within four moves of the Turkish homeland. Of course, this doesn't mean that Turkey will always go for those same eighteen; but it does mean that the Sultan will have a hard time finding significant alternatives. Combined with the fact that all but one of those closest centers are on the same side of the stalemate line, this means that Turkey faces some daunting challenges.
It's important to know all this, because it can help you in your planning no matter which country you play. If you're interested in a long-term alliance with another country, how much overlap is there between your spheres of influence? How much farther afield will you have to go to make up for the centers you're yielding to your ally? And what about him — will he race to eighteen while you're still slogging away to get to your tenth center (as in the classic case of an RT Juggernaut)? How will you compensate for the inequalities? Or will you just have to stab him at an appropriate moment — before he gets too close to winning, or alternatively before he realizes what an advantage you have over him?
A lot will depend on situations that arise once play has started, of course: if the Tsar is stymied by a strong EG while your Turkey is facing an incompetent Italy that collapses quickly, then that compensates for the difference. But the disparity in potential will always be there; so be aware of it, and use that knowledge to your advantage.
Once you know which country you're playing, you can make specific plans. The Diplomacy Archive is full of Strategy and Tactics articles that offer plenty of options for each of the seven Great Powers. If you need ideas for what to do, you can certainly find them there! The articles for each country range from general discussions, to endorsements of particular alliances, to exact openings with turn-by-turn plans for your diplomatic messages and moves. In fact, no matter what opening you're considering, the chances are that unless it's patently absurd (and maybe even if it is!) somebody has already named it and/or written an article about it. Just try the interactive Openings Library! You'll be amazed at what's already there.
Some of these alliances and openings have become so famous that you should know about them no matter what country you're playing, and recognize them when you see them:
I'm not going to comment on these, nor on the other country-specific articles in the Archive. You don't need me to! Having improved your tactical and strategic skills, you should now be able to look at them all critically and decide for yourself which ones you like best. But be sure that you never become too wedded to any one article, because there's no certain path to success or failure; there are too many factors to consider for any one strategy to work all the time.
Or to be more precise, there are six factors: the other players.
You can never be sure what the others are going to do. If you choose a specific plan and pitch it well to the allies you need to carry it off, you may well convince them to go along with it. However, that is never guaranteed! There's always the chance that another player won't agree with your proposals, or have decided arbitrarily that he wants to try a different alliance or opening. If you're playing by e-mail or post he may simply be unreliable, failing to return press or even to submit orders. So you have to be careful about committing to any one plan before you know who you're dealing with.
But at the same time, it's a bad idea to drag your feet. He who strikes first often strikes last! If you organize your alliances quickly and make decisive moves, you may crush your opposition before it gets off the ground; whereas if you're too slow, you may be the one who gets crushed. It's also an important diplomatic factor: many players will prefer to ally with someone who has a good plan and appears enthusiastic for the alliance over someone who seems lukewarm and overly cautious.
So which is the greater risk, early commitment or inaction? What should you do?
I believe part of the answer lies in the format for your game. If you're in a face-to-face (FtF) game, you'll have to choose very quickly. But if you're playing a postal or e-mail game, you have more time to think it over.
If you're playing with a regular group — a club that gets together for FtF games every few weekends, or a circle of e-mail players — it may be less of an issue. You may already have an idea of what the others are like, and who you're able to work with. But if you're playing with a group for the first time, or playing a DPjudge gunboat game where the identities of the players are concealed until the very end, you have to expend some effort to get a sense of what the other players are like.
My own experience in recent years has been in e-mail games, so I don't have much advice to offer when it comes to FtF. Overall you have little time to waste there, so to my way of thinking the direct approach is probably best. Pitch strongly to your chosen ally or allies, and keep an eye on them to make sure they don't spend too much time talking to anyone else! You may also get clues from body language and the other non-verbal cues we all use to interpret another's intentions. [If you have other FtF advice, I urge you to send it to the Editor for the Pouch Deposits section next issue!]
In e-mail, however, you usually can manage at least a few exchanges with the other players before the first orders are due. Many players will open with a general broadcast, inviting others to send them mail. That's an improvement over silence; but it's better still to take charge and send an individual message to each country. I recommend that you be proactive, and send at least one friendly press to each player before sending your main pitch, just to test the waters.
As suggested in the Lawyer/Diplomat article, this e-mail can present a simple initial proposal — at least to your immediate neighbors. Once you see how they respond, you'll be better able to judge what to do next. I recommend that these initial messages should have the following characteristics:
This may seem like a lot to fit in one e-mail, but these e-mails can (and should) be relatively brief. Besides, one of the advantages of e-mail games is that if you know what you're playing, you can write your opening press before the game starts. Doing so lets you craft them carefully, and helps you send your messages first before your rivals do!
When the responses come back, you should have a better idea of how to proceed (and if you get nothing, that's actually an answer right there). The topic of how to evaluate them is really beyond the scope of this article, since that happens after the game begins; so I'll just touch on it by pointing you to Jake Orion's excellent article on the subject.
The final point I'll leave you with is that you must have a Plan B, and you must be willing to use it if necessary. No matter how persuasive you are, you can't control everything; if you try too hard, you're setting yourself up to lose. It doesn't matter how strongly you believe that Austria and Turkey must fight, or how much you wanted to try that Sealion attack: if the others won't play along, you must change your approach. You must react to the board as it is, not as you hoped it would be. There is no surer road to defeat than persisting in a failed plan! Believe me. I've tried it.
There's a lot of material here: I hope you aren't overwhelmed! It takes a while to absorb it all. It certainly took me a while.
So don't get discouraged, or feel you have to go through all the articles I've mentioned right away (though they are well worth reading). And if you have little time to spare, don't feel you always have to do all those preparation exercises or pre-write press for every game. Much of the time you may not be able to anyway: most of the games on the DPjudge assign powers randomly, so you don't even know what you're playing until the game is already underway. Besides, there's only so much you can do to prepare for any one game, and the best way to improve at Diplomacy is simply to play more of it!
However, if you do have the time and motivation to do some prep work for your next game, I think you'll find it's well worth the trouble. I encourage you to try it, and see for yourself!
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.