by Heath Gardner

Parental Advisory: Heath has been playing Diplomacy on-and-off for over 15 years, and is probably not much better at the game than when he started. His online strategy is always to drown fellow diplomats in press so they have so much to read that they never get a chance to send in orders. So far, this has yet to work. Despite his failures as a Diplomacy player, Heath would love for you to spend the next few moments or hours picking over his unsolicited opinions on the game.

Hello, and welcome to my second article in a row. This is such a hot streak for me that I'm going to go ahead and call it a regular column. "The View From Switzerland": observations from a completely impartial source. :-P.

Today's topic: "To Solo, Or Not To Solo?" Subtitled "Shall We Make New Players Hate The Game?"

On first blush, seems like a pretty easy choice, no? And possibly even on the second through fifty-ninth blushes. Why not solo when you can solo?

Generally, yes, solo! But, especially given the arduous nature of attaining solos, and their relative rarity: is that the only reason we play the game? And is the forced solo win always the proper course of action, depending on the context of the game?

I want to start my column by relating to you the sad story of how my initial Diplomacy group, all of us 14 or 15 years old and playing pretty regularly, came to its end.

A friend, Nick (not his real name), for whatever reason, got repeatedly shafted over a series of games — every one he played, I believe. He was and still is a nice and very smart gamer. But, in Diplomacy in particular, he was unfortunately an obvious weak link, and he was singled out as a target with regularity. Nick was excited enough about the game after his first crash-and-burn with us to buy his own copy. During our last game, I believe all four powers attacked his Russia (if only my brain had a Wayback Machine, I could verify that) and his response — since it had been his copy of the game we were using — was to pack up the game and leave.

Party foul, indeed — but at the same time I couldn't entirely blame him. It was just the last straw. I sincerely doubt he's played the game since or surfed to

What happened after that? Well, we could never get 7 again after he began to refuse our invitations. And I turned, at age 14, to the good ol' mid-90s Internet, and found my way to this very site, to the judges… and to a World DipCon in nearby Chapel Hill less than a year after learning the game … yikes. The rest, for me, is history.

But my precious FTF Diplomacy group itself, the group of guys I've had many of my all-time most fun Diplomacy games with, was ALSO history. Was it worth it to backstab the kid every single time and maybe get one solo win for myself out of it? Or was he simply a weaker player and bound to get knocked out every time? Either way, it was years before I played face-to-face again after getting pasted at that World DipCon.

As I've recently found another group of new players that have been involving me in their online (at and offline games, I've been rethinking this dictum I've always heard about soloing/cut-throating at all costs.

Let me back up for just a moment to give some context. I have to confess that I have been vigorously (yet still friendlily) accused of being a carebear in Diplomacy. I know that carebear vs cutthroat discussion has been done to death, but please bear with me:

I took a break from Diplomacy during grad school, and after the break, back in aught-nine, I played a single standard judge game. I was lucky, as France, to have a dream ally in England who let me build plenty of fleets as we swept the board together. He was a dream ally in more than just close cooperation — over the months we played that game, we were pen pals as well as allies. The dude's press cracked me up daily, and he had gone well out of his way to put me in a good position.

The position was so good, in fact, that I probably had at least a 50-50 shot at the solo with little downside. I definitely mulled it over, I don't want to pretend I didn't diagram plenty of ways to stab the guy. But in the end, we orchestrated a draw with the surviving power in the East. I wanted to reward the guy for being such a good ally.

The response to my decision was an irritated, or at least confused one, and it brought up the whole "carebear" vs "cutthroat" argument again among the Dipsters group, who started a series of games in which players were instructed to act either carebear or cutthroat, as though the two can never overlap. The argument "solo win above all" was made in response to my play in that game, and it's a fair one. But I'm still not sure I agree that this applies to all cases.

Especially with new players. Again, I've been playing with a group of guys who are super jazzed about the game, but have probably completed less than 4-5 games each at most. I played a FTF game with them, I didn't press an attack against a total n00b who was almost literally learning the rules as she went. That game ended in a draw including me and almost everyone else who started the game. I've finished two games with them online, 3W and 4W-drew each, had a potential solo shot in the second but I chose instead to nurture a game-long alliance in a very similar way to the game that caused all the "carebear" commotion.

Consider: would you rather end a game by consensus and spend an hour with new players excitedly discussing after-action reports, answering questions, shoring up another invite to play with the group? Or would you prefer to force them to spend 12 hours slogging along as you grind out a fairly easy solo, followed by a solo car ride home?

I'd actually like to close this rambling by positing a few scenarios to you — I'd really like to poll a few Diplomacy players, so write me.

  • Scenario A: Similar to above. You are experienced player playing with 6 newbies. Important to note that this is your only Diplomacy FTF group, and it's only just now bourgeoning. Everyone knows you're experienced and seem, possibly counter- intuitively, to not want to mess with you. Your most immediate neighbor, brand new to the game, is sneaking peeks into the rule book while not in negotiations, and in negotiations says nothing other than "I'd like to not mess with anyone for a while, see what develops."

    • Do you attack her immediately?

    • Do you take her under your wing as a potentially pliable ally? What if she really doesn't want to attack anyone yet?

    • If you form an alliance, do you ultimately stab her to begin a slow grind to the solo, given a solid chance?

    • Would you prefer to be able to take the time to force a win in this game, or do you promote the overall game experience as players learn?

  • Scenario B: You are in an online "club" game. Everyone knows or knows of each other, but new players are welcome, so it's a mix of experienced and novice players. You and your (somewhat new) ally hit it off, and he earnestly wants to play down to a 2-way draw. As I described above, it's a months-long rapport and you read the guy as a completely earnest carebear.

    • Do you care if he sees you as a "reliable ally" next time the two of you play?

    • Do you actually make the effort to achieve the mythical 2-way, putting your own game at risk?

    • Does his carebearism cause you to enter that mode yourself, or does it bring out the cutthroat in you?

  • Scenario C: Same as scenario B, and same questions, only this time it's gunboat with white press and you have no idea who this guy is, and you'll certainly not be able to call on past experience when working together in a later game down the line. Does that make it any different?

  • Scenario D: A kid, obviously conversant with the rules but still getting a feel for the game, in a tournament. Nuff said. How do you treat him? (Since I've been that kid, I'm particularly interested in answers to this!)

In closing…

For me, Diplomacy is all about fun and always has been. I've had my share of solo wins, but probably not as many as other players that have played as long as I have. I've certainly tried for many more than I've achieved! Still, as you may have gathered, I see the "solo above all" mentality as flawed — in casual games. In a tournament, you should be out for blood! Solo up a storm (and I think Chris Babcock's Diplomacy World Cup proposal is great for that and other reasons. The difficulty of pulling of solo wins should be richly rewarded in tournaments).

I am definitely not against the solo — it's the true metric of success in this game. Don't get me wrong. I don't forgo all attempts at it just because I'm not in a tourney. I am simply interested in bringing new folks into the hobby and these questions have been much on my mind as I've played with them.

Maybe in a game or two it will be time to summon my inner cutthroat! They'll never see it coming (a great upside of visibly carebearing it up in the last game)!

Wait, they might read this… Never mind, guys. I only need to pass through Constantinople to get to the Aegean, honest!

Heath Gardner

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