Jeff's online journal, ramblings, whatever.

Lessons from Diplomacy

Recently Annelise got me playing a game of Diplomacy on Facebook. If you’ve never played it it’s this old game based in pre-WWI Europe, where the seven Great Powers (England, France, Germany, Italy, Austrio-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey) duke it out. The two main gimmicks are, first, the elimination of the element of chance. Unlike Risk, where battles are determined by dice, in this game every unit (army or fleet) has the same attack strength, and units can only overpower other units if supported from nearby territories by other armies (your own or even a different player’s). This leads to the second gimmick and the reason for the name of the game: the diplomacy factor. In the game you form alliances with other players to wipe out or at least attack enemies. The kicker: it’s all a verbal (or written or typed, in the case of Facebook) thing, and you can easily mislead or screw over other players by agreeing to do one thing and doing another. All players write down their moves secretly (or pick them secretly from a drop-down box in the php version) and then all moves are revealed and happen at the same time. This is to provide some subtle subterfuge to the whole thing, as if you agreed to do one thing and in reality did something else, there’s nothing the other player can do about it that turn. If you want more info about gameplay itself, go search Wikipedia or something; I’m not going to retype the rulebook here.

Diplomacy, for me, has been a great learning experience, both personally and just in regards to the game. You see, in real life I’m usually a pretty fair person who prefers more for everybody to be on an equal footing than to take unfair advantage of a player to win. Sure, I like winning just as much as the next guy, but I like to do it out in the open for the most part. The problem is, in Diplomacy that’s basically impossible, so there has to be some element of deceit. If you just play as a backstabber then nobody’s going to trust you, but if you keep your word on everything you say you’re going to do then you can be sure that you won’t last long, as at least one of your opponents is sure not to. The reason is, if you’re playing with a group of the most honest people and nobody’s willing to backstab, then everyone can be prepared for all eventualities and the result is a draw, and the game really isn’t all that fun at that point.

It hurts to be backstabbed. In the first game I was playing I thought I had an alliance with Dave Omer, who was playing Russia. We were helping each other take over Austria (played by someone who never really got into the game, and eventually left it out of inaction). I supported his move into Budapest, expecting him to support me into Vienna, as we had discussed. Instead, he invades into Silesia, stabbing right into my homeland! Now, as any Diplomacy player worth his salt can tell you, that kind of stuff happens all the time. But I was outraged! We had an agreement, and Dave violated our sacred trust! For the next few turns I was fighting a defensive war against Russia, and trying to convince everyone else to turn against him. My sister, playing England, agreed to this (and was promptly slaughtered; at the time of this writing she’s only got one supply center left), while Turkey (played by my brother-in-law Mickey) didn’t, because he and Russia had a real alliance that neither would attack each other at least until one of them had 11 supply centers. I didn’t realize this, and Turkey seemed amenable to a backstab into Russia, as we had no real quarrel. Of course, due to their alliance, Turkey went right around and told Russia that I was plotting against him, shoring up Dave’s determination to crush me. (Truthfully, though, of course I was plotting against him. We were openly at war; surely I would be trying to get allies to stop him. Duh!)

In any case, in my blind rage, I was concentrating so hard on Dave that for a long time I didn’t see the real threat, which was Turkey slowly gobbling up the entire south part of the board save France (& Spain, controlled by France). I also sent England to her doom without gaining a share of her bounty (England’s basically carved up between France and Russia at this point) because of her blind trust in me. She took a few potshots at Russia and even ended up with St. Petersburg at one point, but it didn’t last long, as France came in her back door for the kill. Now I’m holed up in West Germany and the Low Countries, Turkey’s claim to the Mediterranean is supreme, and France & I, although kind of allied, are pretty much screwed at this point, unless we can convince one of the giants of Russia and Turkey to turn on each other.

Diplomacy may seem to be a mean, even harsh, game, where everyone seems to be cheating their partners. Surely I thought so after Dave stabbed me the first time. But then I realized that, with any game, this game just had a certain set of rules as to what was cheating and what wasn’t. Does this mean that I’ll become a lying, backstabbing, cheater in the game? Probably not. I still consider myself an honest person. But you can play the game based on trust just as easily as lies. The trick is two-fold. Firstly, only put forth a deception if you know for sure that it will end of advantageous to your position in the long run. Dave attacking me was probably fun for a short-term gain, but out of all the attacks he’s made on my homeland since his stab eight turns ago he’s only gained one supply center off of me. Meanwhile, Turkey’s been sweeping Austria, Italy, and is about to launch on France. So, Dave attacking me may not have been in his best interest, at least until my forces were scattered a bit more. (Of course, Turkey was helped by the fact that nobody was playing Italy and the guy playing Austria was completely clueless. I think he had something in his real life keeping him super-busy, so he never really bothered to defend or attack or do anything, really, other than occasionally move about in his homeland.)

Secondly, don’t be naive. If someone starts the game trusting everyone who writes and says, “Hey! Let’s form an alliance! It’ll be fun!” that person is doomed. If you say, “I’ll support your move into Budapest if you support my move into Vienna the next turn” and you’ve obviously left your back door into Berlin wide open, then don’t expect him to help you into Vienna. The exception, obviously, is if you both have a bigger plan in mind that will strengthen you both more effectively than a stab could. On the other hand, if a person is expecting everyone to stab him he will be unwilling to form an alliance with anyone, without the certainty that no stabbing will happen until the game leaves the other player no alternative. When somebody is afraid to trust anybody, that person is alone, and another word for “alone” in the Diplomacy world is “dead.” Like the article I linked to in the previous paragraph says, “Trust but Verify.”

Deceit is part of this game. Therefore, anybody who ends up deceived needs to realize that that isn’t the person being a jerk. If you take personal offense against someone who may have deceived you in a game, remember that. If you’re playing the game to win, you will, eventually, have to deceive someone as well. How would you feel if you were telling someone to move their troops to X position and then you move yours to his homeland, surprising him, yes, but also taking a lot of territory and supply centers, helping you on the road to victory? If the answer is “terrible,” then either you are taking the game too personally, or you haven’t realized that deception is part of the game, just like rolling a die or reading a Community Chest card or suggesting that it’s Col. Mustard in the Billiard Room. It’s a whole different set of rules. One that I personally wouldn’t adapt to real-world situations, but one that is essential to enjoy this game.

And the game can be enjoyable, even if you lose. I’ve been reading a lot of Diplomacy articles online lately, and several players expressed that they’d rather lose to a master of the game than just draw with a bunch of people not willing to employ deceit. Of course tempers can get hot, but it’s just a game. Once I finally came to terms with that, I found the game much more enjoyable, even with Russia breathing down my neck. The situation is still salvageable, since I still posess five supply centers, France isn’t attacking me, and Turkey’s strength may be noticed by Russia soon. I have now learned to get past any personal vendetta-like grudges against Dave to better my situation in the game. Dave’s attitude has always been one of “Hey, man, sorry to screw you over, but it was obviously in my best interests, and if the positions were reversed, wouldn’t you have done it?” I don’t know whether I would have or not, but at least with what I know now it would be more based on strategic decisions than a sense of naive absolute trust. But Dave hasn’t personally been a big jerk about it, instead keeping a friendly air of professionalism in our messages to each other. I think that’s the best way to play Diplomacy: to not take anything personally and to always remember: be polite and cordial, even after a deceit has come to light, and everyone involved, even those on the receiving end, will have a much better time.

Now I’m starting a new game with a bunch of my college friends (and my sister again). I’m playing France this time, and my sister’s playing Italy. Everyone else playing has never played the game before, so it may be a bit chaotic, especially at the start. Crazily enough, some of the players are a bit paranoid, especially toward advice that I’m giving, because they think I’m setting them up for a fall. While that may or may not be true in later turns, I’m not going to deceive anyone unless it’s a clear advantage, and there’s still that part of me that wants everyone to have a good time and a fair chance to win. In this case, I provided a link to the Diplomacy strategies and theories I’ve been reading, for anyone who wants to peruse them. I also helped a few countries figure out some good opening moves, not moves to my detriment, of course (if they want those they can read the strategies themselves), but not ones to their detriment either, although one of the paranoid players later panicked and changed her moves, for the sole reason that I had suggested them to her earlier.

In any case, I am going to try to get everyone to play with the same sense of detached professionalism and politeness, in order to minimize any Diplomacy conflicts turning into destroyed friendships in the real world. Once a person realizes that 1)deceit is part of the game, but not the only part; 2)always be polite, especially to anyone you’ve betrayed; and 3)don’t take anything personally; then they will have a lot more fun playing the game. This also extends to the real world as well, as if a veteran Diplomacy player is betrayed by someone else in real life, he or she will have an easier time forgiving and forgetting.

Game on!

(That link may only work if you’re on Facebook and have the Diplomacy application added.)
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One response

  1. Hey, will you guys knock it off! I’m over here in Germany watching these armies go back and forth looting and burning as they go… I can’t take it anymore!

    August 26, 2008 at 12:00 pm

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