Play Diplomacy the Jedi way

Spencer Bernard

Reproduced with permission from The Portland Piggyback Society.

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

Okay, it was only 1996 but it was in New York City, which may as well have been a galaxy far, far away. Just ask anyone who doesnít live there.

1996 was when I first started to study the ways of the Force and learned how to play a game called Diplomacy. My mentor was a famed Jedi Knight (or Sith Lord depending on who you talk to) named Chris Martin. Nowadays Chrisís claim to fame is being the 1998 World Diplomacy Champion, an impressive feat no? But back then he was just a good Diplomacy player. Chris and I got to be friends and gaming buddies. We played Magic, Warhammer and a variety of role-playing games. It was a gaming friendship made in heaven.

Then one day, I was watching when he sent in orders for all of the Diplomacy games he was playing. I believe at his height, Chris was playing in 7-10 games by email at any given time. As for me, even now four years later, Iím lost if Iím playing in more then three. Anyway, I asked him about Diplomacy, so he showed me the ropes and taught me how to play. Like a lot of games, Diplomacy seems relatively simple at the onset, how hard can a game be where the only thing you have to do each turn is decide where a few pieces are going?

I was to learn that playing Diplomacy is easy; playing it well it is extremely tough! My first game was a simple newbie game on one of the Judges, I seem to recall doing pretty well but then I had Chris to ask advice of every turn. Then came my first face-to-face game with Chris, a bunch of law students he played with on occasion and a very talented Jedi by the name of Grant Armstrong Flowers. The Force is indeed strong with Grant and I recall him kicking major butt that day, coming back after being down to 2-3 centers as Italy to being a part of the draw. I got to an 8 center Austria and I was pretty pleased with myself. I thought I was getting the hang of the game, but like Luke Skywalker after blowing up the Death Star, my greatest trials were still ahead of me in playing in tournaments.

I canít stress enough how invaluable it was to me to have a good player I could go to for tactical and diplomatic advice. Even now when I call him on the phone half of our conversations are debates about situations in the game or just analyzing a position and figuring out all the myriad possibilities of moves to attack or defend.

As of this date, Iíve played in six tournaments plus countless email and face-to-face games. Without tooting my own horn too much, Iíd say Iíve done rather well. So just as Chris passed along his knowledge and experience with Diplomacy to me, I felt it was my duty to pass along some of the wisdom Iíve gleaned from taking my lumps and studying with (or fighting against!) some of the best Jedi Masters playing today.

Obi-Wan: "I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father."

Luke: "You knew my father?"

Obi-Wan: "He was the greatest star pilot in the galaxy and a cunning warrior. I understand youíve become quite a good pilot yourself. He was a good friend. Which reminds me, I have something for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough."

Luke: "What is it?"

Obi-Wan: "Your fatherís lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight; not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a civilized age."

So you think youíre ready to play Diplomacy against the Jedi? Got that lightsaber and youíre ready to kick butt, huh? Now, before you go off half-cocked letís start with the basics.

The first lesson any Padawan Learner needs to figure out when he starts to learn the ways of the Force is how to pick an ally! In most games, you have maybe 5-10 minutes (or a few emails) to size up the people on your board and get an idea about how good they are. Like Obi-Wan you need to decide who is going to be trustworthy, after all you are handing them a lightsaber too. No one in a game can hurt you more than your ally and not always by doing something as clumsy as stabbing you. After all, you trust him to write his orders correctly and hold down his side of the board.

So what do you look for in an ally? Well, first and foremost Iím looking for the most capable player. If I talk to both of my neighbors and one is competent and the other is a newbie, Iím allying with the competent one and convincing him to help me kill the newbie almost every time. Why? Time is of the essence in a game of Diplomacy. If youíre playing face-to-face you have maybe 15 minutes to diplom every turn. Do you want to waste 10 of those minutes explaining to your ally why the moves youíve outlined are the best? Or what a Lepanto or a Sea Lion is? I certainly donít. Iíd much rather use that time to tempt my enemies into stabbing their allies or misleading them as to what my true intentions are.

Also, time is important in securing tempo. From 1901 on, you should be looking at achieving position, gaining centers and most importantly getting past the stalemate lines! If you target the less capable player first then you stand a better shot of taking him out quickly and then turning around to face the other side of the board.

Luke: "How did my father die?"

Obi-Wan: "A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force."

Nothing hurts more than an ally who turns on you. You think things are going great and suddenly the moves are read and your ally just stabbed you for 2-3 centers. Ouch! Guess what? Your game is just shot. Sure, you may be able to fend him off and maybe even drag him down with you, but unless youíre really good (or heís totally ineffective) the odds are every other player on the board is now sharpening up their knives too! Your chances of now soloing or even being part of the draw are horrible.

So how do you avoid this fate? Two ways, first I canít say it enough, choose your allies well! In your diploming is he being edgy? Refusing to look you in the eye? Does he move ever so slightly differently than he said he would be? Sounds like you may have to rein in that cowboy a bit by telling him straight-up your concerns and point out how a stab of you would only hurt him worse (as you wonít hesitate at all to make sure he pays for any bad behavior). The only thing worse than an incompetent ally, is an untrustworthy one. Finally, if you do get stabbed then my rule of thumb is always to make it as slow and painful for your attacker as you can. Punish bad behavior by turning around and fighting as hard as you can. Give up centers to your other neighbors if need be. More then anything you want to establish a reputation as someone who doesnít take an attack lying down! If you make it tough for your opponent to actually gain beyond that initial stab then he may think twice about stabbing you in the future.

Second, (and my personal favorite) be bigger! In any alliance you want to make sure youíre the one who has the slight edge in units and position. Always set things up with your moves so that not only would it be foolhardy for him to even attempt to stab you, but also you can stab him at your leisure. Unless youíre dealing with a total newbie, no ally is going to try to stab you if you never give him the chance to. A smart player is never going to stab for only one center and most definitely wonít stab if you can hurt him worse in the exchange.

Now a bit about stabbing. Personally, this was one of the hardest lessons Iíve had to learn. Donít get stab-happy and stab just to gain centers. A true Jedi knows when it pays off better to let a chance to stab go by in order to foster the alliance and ensure a reputation of being trustworthy for future games. When thinking about a possible stab, look at the entire board. Would other players benefit more from the stab than you? Would it slow down your race to the stalemate lines? Would it create so much ire that youíd never be able to ally with that player again? All are good reasons to keep that lightsaber on your belt.

That being said though, the idea of Diplomacy is to win and to win you need 18 centers. If Iím at 15 and the easiest three centers to take are my allyís then he is going to get stabbed. Plain and simple. And a true Jedi will not only be able to take those centers when the time comes but he will also have used the Force to ensure that his ally wants him to!

Luke: "The force?"

Obi-Wan: "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. Itís an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together."

So letís talk a bit about the Force. What is it when it comes to playing Diplomacy? Well using the Force is a way of being persuasive without antagonizing your allies and enemies. Itís using the carrot instead of the stick, itís convincing your neighbors that the other guy is much more dangerous then you are, itís developing your intuition to the point where you can read the other players and know just how they will move before they do it. It is the most important skill any Diplomacy player can master.

So letís talk about examples of how a Diplomacy player can use the Force.

Obi-Wan: "You must learn the ways of the force if you are to come with me to Alderaan."

Luke: "Alderaan? Iím not going to Alderaan. Iíve got to get home. Itís late, Iím in for it as is."

Obi-Wan: "I need your help Luke, she needs your help. Iím getting too old for this sort of thing."

Luke: "Listen I canít get involved. Iíve got work to do. Itís not that I like the Empire, I hate it. But thereís nothing I can do about it right now. Itís such a long way from here."

Obi-Wan: "Thatís your uncle talking."

Luke: "Boy, my uncle! How am I ever going to explain this?"

Obi-Wan: "Learn about the force Luke."

Luke: "Look, I can take you as far as Anchorhead. You can get a transport there to Mos Eisley or wherever you are going."

Obi-Wan: "You must do what you feel is right, of course."

That little exchange always makes me smile. Did you catch it? Did you see how Obi-Wan subtlety planted the idea of going to Alderaan with him and learning to be a Jedi into Lukeís head? Sound familiar? Almost like opening negotiations with a possible ally? Obi-Wan is a smart and crafty old Jedi and uses the maximum amount of leverage he can on Luke. He appeals to his sense of duty by saying that he and Leia both need him. He then points out how his uncleís talk was sapping his courage. And finally, sensing Lukeís reluctance, he takes a step back and letís Luke "win" the point. Learn that last point well, my apprentice, as the most important part of any negotiation is learning when to back off as to not antagonize the person you want most to ally with.

Letís look at this conversation again from a Diplomacy point of view. As an example, letís say Iím Germany and Iím trying to talk France into opening to the English Channel so we can both kill England.

Spencer: "You must move Brest to the English Channel if you are to be my ally and help me defeat Jeff."

Edward: "The Channel? Iím not going to the Channel. Iíve got to get my neutral builds. I already agreed to DMZ the Channel."

Spencer: "I need your help Edward, Russia needs your help. I canít take out someone as good as Jeff by myself."

Edward: "Listen, I canít do that. Iíve got to be able to take both Spain and Portugal. Itís not that I like Jeff; I donít trust him at all. But thereís nothing I can do about it right now. Maybe in 1902 after I get my builds."

Spencer: "Thatís Jeff talking. Are you so afraid of fighting him?"

Edward: "Boy, Jeff! How am I ever going to explain talking with you so long? Heís bound to be suspicious now."

Spencer: "Tell him we were arguing over Burgundy."

Edward: "Look, I can promise to open to Picardy and not support Jeff into Belgium. But I canít promise anything else"

Spencer: "You must do what you feel is right, of course."

See? The real point here is not necessarily to get the French to open to the Channel (though that would be grand) but to plant the idea that you really want to work with him and that England is much more dangerous than you are. By doing that right from the start you are more likely to secure him as an ally than someone who doesnít immediately have a plan. Itís an old salesman trick to go in asking for something huge and then "letting" them talk you down. So what did I achieve? I planted the idea that Jeff is dangerous and I got Edward to concede not moving to Burgundy and not supporting Jeff into Belgium. Not bad, huh? Now, it doesnít always work out this nicely (frankly Edward is a much better diplomat then that) but the above example is the way you want to start sounding when you first approach an ally. Always have a plan to sell!

Darth Vader: "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force."

The Death Star Commander: "Donít try to frighten us with your sorcererís ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebelís hidden fortress..."

*starts choking as Vader seizes his windpipe with the Force*

Darth Vader: "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

Oooh evil! But worse is that it is exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to gain someone as an ally. One threat or provoking move is all it takes to make some players want nothing more than to ruin your day. Now Darth Vader (and some really good Diplomacy players) can get away with using the intimidation approach, there is certainly something to be said for being feared. But itís an unwise strategy in the end. Chances are you are going to be playing with this person again at some point in the future, either as part of your regular gaming group or in a tournament. You may be able to threaten someone in cooperating with you in one game but itís unlikely heíll be up for a repeat performance in the future.

Remember, a Jedi uses persuasion and misdirection, not threats, to get what he wants to happen.

Obi-Wan: "There was nothing you could have done Luke, had you been there. You would have been killed too and the droids would now be in the hands of the Empire."

Luke: "Thereís nothing for me here now. I want to travel with you to Alderaan. I want to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father."

Going back to our example, letís say England opened fleet London to the Channel. On one hand itís tough when you and your potential ally are caught like that but on the other hand, itís great news for you. Itís an easy sell to gain an ally after another player has already attacked them.

Now a Jedi in the same situation as before may have done something ingenious like gone to England and "warned" him that France was opening to the Channel. It works even better if he also hears it from another source, like Russia. Sometimes a potential ally needs a little help in trusting your judgment and nothing fosters that better then warning him that the other guy was untrustworthy and then having the moves prove you right.

Obi-Wan: "Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

So, a brief side note here to talk about tournaments, otherwise known as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nowhere do you need to be more on your toes than when you are playing for prizes/glory/fame. I actually donít recommend a complete novice to the game going to a tournament, better to play in a few local face-to-face games first (like the ones the Piggyback Society has once a month or so). A complete novice walking into a tourney is like someone diving into a shark pen holding a dead fish. Heíll get eaten alive in the feeding frenzy.

I went to my first tournaments at PrezCon in 1997 and 98. I had been playing dip for over a year at that point, a few face-to-face games and a lot of email Dip and thought I was pretty good. Well, to say my back looked like a pincushion after those tourneys isnít overstating the fact. I got creamed! The fact is that no one is going to cut you any slack at a Con and youíd better have your ego armor-plated before you go in. I strongly suggest that you read all the articles and advice available here and on the Diplomatic Pouch before you play in a con.

Then go into a tourney hoping to do well and treat each game as a learning experience. Remember even Luke, Obi-Wan and Han Solo got chased out of Mos Eisley with their tails between their legs.

Obi-Wan: "These arenít the droids you are looking for."

Stormtrooper: "Those arenít the droids we are looking for."

Luke: "I canít understand how we got past those troops! I thought we were dead."

Obi-Wan: "The force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded."

The famed and feared Jedi Mind Trick. What is it, you ask? It comes in two varieties when you are talking Diplomacy:

The first is the old "These are not the centers you are looking for." There you are, getting beat down by not two but three players and yet, instead of ranting or crying, you go and diplom quietly with each of your enemies. When the moves are read, not only are you NOT being attacked anymore but you also got one of your attackers to stab the other and you fought off the third. Heck, maybe you even got a build.

How do you pull this one off? Appeal to their greed and point out how you are not a threat to them but their neighbor is, especially if he gets bigger off of your centers instead of the enemy you are talking to. Then subtly point out how he can stab his ally for 2-3 centers and gain even more centers by suddenly shifting his forces and getting behind his allyís lines. With a lot of players this works wonders. Not only is he gaining SCís, where by continuing to fight you he wouldnít, but he also has a "friend for life" in you now that he stopped attacking you.

One of the best examples of this was in the email game "Hybrid" that is currently being played on this site. In fall of 1905, Germany was under attack by France, England & Russia. If the attack had continued he would have been down to one or two centers but instead England stabbed Russia for two, Russia supported Germany against France (helping him knock the French out of Munich) and Germany ended up building one. That my friend is a Jedi Master at work! Never give up hope, a true Jedi is at his best when the chips are down and heís diploming for his life.

The second variety of the Jedi Mind Trick is setting up an "ally" for a stab. This is where you convince him to move out of position, leaving his entire backside open to you and allowing you to stab him fatally for 2-3 centers in a turn. It takes practice (and a lot of it!) to be able to be completely convincing as you tell someone how they need to move fast against someone else and youíll be moving your units in his rear to someplace else.

Itís tough to pull off, as most experienced players are extremely cautious and almost always leave at least one unit to guard their rear. Your job is to convince them that a) youíre completely trustworthy/harmless and b) that they really need that guarding unit up at the front if they are going to have any hope of breaking through. I will advise, use this one with care and be ready with a completely plausible explanation once the orders are read. The real trick to it is not convincing him to move out of position but convincing him after the stab that it was all a huge mistake and that youíll immediately turn around and stop attacking him. Once he buys this explanation and he trusts you again, you immediately stab him again to finish him off. Sound impossible? Not at all, it just takes some extremely good lying and the ability to come across as completely sincere. As Chris Martin once told me, "The trick to any relationship is sincerity. If you can fake that, youíre golden!"

David Hood is the all-time master of this variety of the mind trick. I canít tell you the number of times Iíve watched him eliminate someone off a board but do so in such a way that leaves them still feeling pretty good about David and more than willing to believe/ally with him in the future. If you eliminate someone, always make sure you arenít dancing on their grave or gloating about it. Apologize for the necessity of it and praise their skill as a player. Youíll be amazed at how much that pays off in good will, later on. Ask Darth Hood. He won this yearís North American Diplomacy Championship at DipCon XXXIV and many other tourneys.

C3PO: "I suggest a new strategy R2, let the Wookie win!"

That being said and with the risk of repeating myself, let me say again; many times it is better in the long run not to stab your ally. Iíll give you a personal example. At DipCon this year I was in one game where I was Turkey and Tim Richardson was Russia. We had a great little RT juggernaut going and Austria and Italy quickly fell to our combined might.

Now I was looking at the board and Russia was pretty deep into Germany and actually had very little guarding his back. So very unwisely I stabbed him for Rumania. It was a stupid one-center stab and I immediately saw what a mistake it was. I went back to Tim, apologized and gave the center back to him. Unfortunately the damage was already done. After my stab Tim immediately retreated from Germany to cover his home centers against any follow-up stab from me. It took us a year to get back into the same positions we were in before my stab.

In that time, England and France got their acts together and made it to the stalemate lines. What could have been a two-way/three-way (or maybe even a solo) later on became a standard four-way draw. The only good side to the entire game was that once again I learned a valuable lesson about bad stabs. A Jedi doesnít fight unless heís thought it out and is completely ready to finish the job.

Obi-Wan: "You better get on with your exercises. Remember a Jedi can feel the force flowing through him."

Luke: "You mean it controls your actions?"

Obi-Wan: "Partially, but it also obeys your commands."

*Luke gets zapped by the remote and Han laughs at him*

Han Solo: "Hokie weapons and ancient religions are no match for a good blaster at your side."

Luke: "You donít believe in the Force, do you?"

Han Solo: "Kid, Iíve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. Iíve seen a lot of strange stuff but Iíve never seen anything to make me believe thereís one all-powerful force controlling everything. Thereís no mystical energy field controls my destiny. Itís all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense!"

Obi-Wan: "I suggest you try again Luke. This time let go your conscious self and act on instinct."

*Obi-Wan puts a helmet on Lukeís head*

Luke: "With the blast shield down I canít see. How am I supposed to fight?"

Obi-Wan: "Your eyes can deceive you. Donít trust them. Stretch out with your feelings..."

*Luke manages to block some of the remoteís shots with his lightsaber*

Obi-Wan: "See? You can do it!"

Han Solo: "I call it luck."

Obi-Wan: "In my experience, thereís no such thing as luck."

Luke: "You know, I did feel something. I could almost see the remote!"

Obi-Wan: "Thatís good. Youíve taken your first step into a larger world."

Another point I want to make about using the Force in Diplomacy is learning to trust your instincts. Hereís an example -- this ever happen to you? Youíre playing in a game as France, looking at the board. Everything seems okay. No one is blatantly attacking you and in talking to all the players no one says anything that alarming, yet when the time comes for order writing you have a real sense of dread. You think it over again, canít place where the feelings are coming from, so you write your standard moves. Then blammo! The orders are read and suddenly three players are all over you like white on rice. Englandís in the channel, Germany is in Burgundy and Italy is in Piedmont. Now your suddenly wishing you had moved hedgehog style and bounced all of them.

All too often we listen to Han Solo, the rational side of your thoughts, and dismiss our feelings about the board. Now, Iím not saying listen to your fear or paranoia. If you do that youíll never learn to trust anyone and will be doomed to never do well in a game. Thatís a subtle point but an important one, I think.

As Obi-Wan says your eyes can deceive you and in order to be a good Jedi you need to learn to trust your instincts. I recall reading somewhere that over 70% of human communication is non-verbal. Your brain is constantly picking up on body language and other cues and I firmly believe this subconscious process is where a lot of our "gut feelings" about people come from. Learn to listen to your gut, not your greed and also not your fear. Keep your goals firmly in mind but listen to that inner voice and what it has to say about the trustworthiness of your allies.

I canít tell you the number of times Iíve thought about it after Iíve been eliminated and realized that I had talked myself out of going with these gut feelings and how I wouldíve done much better if I had used the Force.

Darth Vader: "Iíve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the Master!"

Obi-Wan: "Only a master of evil, Darth."

Darth Vader: "Your powers are weak, old man."

Obi-Wan: "You canít win Darth. If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Finally, letís talk about defeat. A lot of players are terrified about losing -- getting eliminated from a board. They open too cautiously; only get their 1-2 neutral builds and then kind of hold in place. Theyíre afraid that if they move, someone will attack them and strike them down. Thatís not how a Jedi plays.

A Jedi comes to the table with a sound plan and picks his allies wisely. He moves aggressively and makes his play. Many times, if the Force is with him and he resists turning to the dark side by stabbing his ally, heíll do well and end up in a draw or maybe even solo. But many times something will happen, youíll get bogged down and an ally will abandon you or maybe three players jump you right off the bat. Or it may just be that, like Obi-Wan, you need to go down fighting an enemy so the rest of your allies can win in the end. Defeat happens to all of us and for an important reason, itís many times the best thing that can happen to a young apprentice.

Thereís an old saying that you rarely learn from your victories, but always learn from your defeats. In my experience thatís very true. If I hadnít gone to every game trying to win and getting my butt handed to me, then I would have never figured out how to win by learning what not to do next time. Donít be afraid to draw your lightsaber and start the game swinging. Sure, you may end up getting eliminated but youíll be back next time and more powerful then your enemies can imagine, as a wiser Jedi!

No one ever truly masters how to play Diplomacy, even guys who have been playing and winning for twenty or thirty years still sit around after a game and go through the post-game analysis, picking up new tricks and figuring out what doesnít work. A Jedi never stops being a student of the game.

I hope youíve found this article informative or at the very least entertaining. I always love to get feedback, so please feel free to share your thoughts with me.

Obi-Wan: "Remember... the Force will be with you, always."

Spencer Bernard
(zalandris@yahoo.com)

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