Reflections of a Born-Again Diplomacy Player

J.T. Fest

Reproduced with permission from The Portland PiggyBack Society.

Sing Hallelujah! I am born-again.

I played my first game of Diplomacy in 1970, and for the next 6 years I had the good fortune of running in social circles where Diplomacy was a valued diversion. It was never too difficult to find seven people who were up for a romp through Europe. Then I moved from the east coast to the west coast, not knowing at the time that my move was the start of a 24-year Diplomacy drought. I was never again able to find the requisite seven, and in my new social circles I was the only person with the gaming gene.

So these were years filled with solo computer games, and my board game collection gradually deteriorated in a series of basements. Then, in late 1999 I was in a game store at the Mall of America in Minnesota - face-to-face with a brand-new Diplomacy game. Like a sirens song, it captured my attention and - through the magic of VISA - it left the store with me.

Of course, my social circles remained the same. I now owned a spanking-new board, but was still an embassy of one. But the possession of this object of desire drove me to the Internet where I discovered that a cyber-social network existed of impressive proportions. Eventually, in the summer of 2000, I came across a local club - the Portland Piggyback Society, (also see the Piggyback Tournament) - and a few emails later I found myself in my car driving to participate in a face-to-face game.

I was a bloody chunk of meat falling into a pool of hungry sharks.

Apparently, Diplomacy is not like riding a bicycle. I remembered the basics of the game, but the grand strategies and unit tactics that need to be second nature for a higher level of play were rusted and mangled in the recesses of my memory. It was my diplomatic skills, however, that required the greatest overhaul and - as I pound them out in the body shop of repeated play - I thought I might share some insights gleaned from my rebirth.

So lets begin with my two cents on the old debate: is it better to be a skilled tactician, or a skilled diplomat? Iíve read others writings on this subject, and the consensus seems to be that most players are one or the other, but rarely both. Beyond that, it seems to be a six of one, half dozen of the other, proposition - with most advice recommending that you find your strength and capitalize on it. Good advice but - in my opinion - the name of the game is Diplomacy, and the skilled diplomat will always prevail over the skilled tactician.

Now, donít get me wrong. The good player will have both diplomatic and tactical skills. But, if I could only practice one or the other, Iíd practice my diplomacy. Donít agree? Letís make the following bet.

Suppose we are able to find two players: one, a brilliant tactician with moderate diplomatic skills, the other, a brilliant diplomat with moderate tactical skills. Weíll give the tactician the most powerful nation, the diplomat the weakest (weíll assume for this example that we can agree on which nations they would be). The remaining five nations are given to first-time Diplomacy players. Only the diplomat and the tactician know that the real aim of this exercise is the elimination of the other - victory or defeat of the other five players is of no consequence. Who are you going to put your money on?

Iím dropping my ducats on the diplomat.

Even the most powerful nation in the hands of the most skilled tactician is cannon fodder against a concerted alliance, particularly in the early years. It is the diplomat who will prevail at building and maintaining such an alliance. Given the conditions I laid out, I maintain that the diplomat will always be the victor.

It is interesting to note, however, that as the game progresses the reverse seems to be true. While diplomatic skills rule at the start, in mid to end game tactical skills gain in importance. But the skilled tactician will not survive to end game if out-diplomed at the beginning. Besides, even in end game, where battle lines are drawn and enemies are defined, diplomacy can still be the decisive factor. Take, for example, the following:

As France I was on the verge of that elusive Holy Grail of Diplomacy play: the Solo Win. An F/G/R alliance had made toast of England, and Germanyís leader had to leave early due to family obligations. Rather than face civil disorder, his nation was taken over by a first-time player who was rather easy to manipulate. Russia and I took him under our wing and were making good use of him as his nation crumbled. (As an aside, this is another argument for diplomacy. Only diplomacy can make someone willingly suffocate under your wing.) Italy was all but gone, and R/A/T were engaged in a circular series of alliances and stabs.

Russia became so annoyed at A/T for their inability to sort out the south while France grew threateningly large that he decided to teach them a lesson. He quite publicly volunteered to assist me in a solo (which I accepted, of course). With Russiaís active assistance and Germanyís puppet status, I was on my way, and poor A/T could do nothing about it.

Then we took Munich.

Now, it wasnít that Germany cared. We had been steadily dismantling him over the past few seasons, and he was happy to do his part for his mentors. He was fully aware that Germany would probably die in the creation of my solo. The problem, however, was that we didnít tell him that we were going to take Munich - we just took it. In that failure of diplomacy, we lost our untarnished mentor status and opened a door for Germany to start listening to A/T. It was a single German unit doing what A/T wanted instead of what F/R wanted that stopped me. Tactically, I had it in the bag - but the solo was lost to a diplomatic oversight.

All things considered, diplomacy rules the game.

Never the less, Iím amazed at how often players rely more heavily on the military might of their nation than they do on their diplomatic skills. One reason may be that tactics are easier to see and learn than diplomacy. You can count armies and fleets and see their position on the board, but what exactly are the skills of a good diplomat? We need to begin with a definition.

My dictionary defines diplomacy as:

1. The art or practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements.
2. Tact and skill in dealing with people.

Letís ignore the fact that there should be a third definition - the greatest game in the world - and instead begin with an examination of the second. Now, I donít mean to offend anyone, but Ďtact and skill in dealing with peopleí seems to be a less than common human trait. You undoubtedly know that from your daily experience with others, and Diplomacy players are no exception. The sad truth is that most people simply donít know how to deal with others tactfully and undervalue the impact that this lack of skill has. Case in point, the game Iíve already referred to. As I said, a F/G/R alliance made short work of England, but it didnít have to be that way. England was being played by a young college dude I had never met before, and who was relatively new to the game. Despite a quick round of introductions, I didnít even know his name. I did know that Germany and Russia were being played by experienced players, and - to be honest - I felt kindaí sorry for the kid. So I decided, as France, I would ally with England and help him survive (at least for a while). As the game began I asked if we could talk, and he turned to me and answered with:

"Iím moving to the English Channel and Belgium is mine."

So much for tact and skill, and so much for his life expectancy. I replied quite graciously, but then negotiated with him for a Ďbetterí strategy - one that kept the Channel open, allowing me to take it. I also entered a F/G/R alliance against him and - in the first year - took Belgium myself and attacked London. He was out of the game in a matter of seasons, but the game could have gone quite differently. He took someone who was predisposed to assist him and - in a single sentence - sealed his own fate. How you deal with people is often as or more important than the details of the dealings.

Now consider the first definition, which highlights another challenge for some players. Obviously, the Ďart and practice of conducting international relationsí is what the game is all about - and most players understand that. Itís the second part that refers to alliances, treaties, and agreements where players begin to miss the mark. They get hung up on the goal - the details and structure of these agreements - rather than the means, clearly identified in the definition as Ďnegotiationí. I submit that the means may be more important than the end.

There are two major types of negotiation. The most practiced and well known is called Win/Lose negotiating. In Win/Lose negotiating you attempt to strike the deal that benefits you the most. WIIFM, or Ďwhatís in it for meí, is the operative principle. In this style of negotiating it is the parties positions that govern the discussion. I want Belgium versus I donít want you to have Belgium. This is the style most suited to the tactician, who sees negotiations as support for the movements of armies and fleets. I believe the second style, however, to be better suited to the game. In this style, known as Win/Win negotiating, the focus is not on positions, but rather on interests. A real-world example is the best way to demonstrate.

1967, the Arab-Israeli conflict known as the 6-day war. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan attack Israel on three fronts.132 hours and 30 minutes later, Israel has captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Basically, Israel kicked butt.

Fast forward to 1978: The Camp David Accords. Egypt broke ranks and made peace with Israel. What many do not realize, however, is the diplomatic triumph that those accords represent.

Here was the problem. Egypt was making overtures of peace to Israel. They were willing to settle the long-standing dispute, but came to the table with one absolutely non-negotiable position: the Sinai must be returned to Egypt. Israel, on the other hand, welcomed the overtures of peace, but they too had one absolutely non-negotiable position: the Sinai will not be returned. Somewhat incompatible positions, wouldnít you agree? What to do?.

The US negotiators decided to use principles of Win/Win negotiating. That is, rather than focus on positions (control of the Sinai), they focused on interests. Both sides were asked the simple question, why? Why was control of the Sinai a non-negotiable position for them?

For Egypt it was a matter of national sovereignty. The Sinai had been part of the Egyptian state since the time of the Pharaohs. It would be like the US giving up New Jersey (or, if you think thatís a bad example, substitute a state that you might be hesitant to surrender!). For Israel it was a matter of national security. They had been sucker-punched by Egypt out of the Sinai, with Egyptian forces only 90 miles from the then Israeli capital of Tel Aviv. Israel was understandably reluctant to go back to that precarious position (for you Diplomacy players, think Venice-Trieste).

Once positions were ignored and interests were identified, a solution became clear. Israel would give the Sinai back to Egypt, who would exercise complete national sovereignty over the area - with one, small concession: no military forces of any type will be stationed in the Sinai. If so much as a jeep crosses the Suez Canal it will be recognized by the international community as an act of war against Israel. By focusing on interests instead of positions, Egypt got sovereignty, Israel got security, and the world saw peace where none seemed possible.

Of course, in the game of Diplomacy weíre not trying to establish a lasting peace, weíre trying to grab 18 centers. But Win/Win negotiating still is advantageous over its Win/Lose counterpart. You appear to be a workable, rather than confrontational, player - making you seem a much better potential ally. Win/Win negotiating also allows you greater flexibility in obtaining your goals. But its greatest advantage is that it conditions you to see the game through the interests of the other players - which I believe is the real key to successful play.

This is another area that many players know, but donít really understand. Iíve read much advice telling players to put themselves in their opponentís shoes - what would you do if you were them? This is a recipe for disaster. Why? Because it doesnít matter what you would do, it only matters what they would do. Example time again.

As the Austrian member of an A/T alliance, we were on our way to a two-way draw. I looked at the board and saw that I was vulnerable to a Turkish stab. While there existed a slim chance of going for a solo by stabbing, the far more likely result was that Turkey would end up in a three-way draw instead of a two-way draw. I put myself in his shoes and thought; if I were him I would prefer a safe two-way to a long shot at a solo that would likely result in a three-way. So I ignored the potential stab. It came the next move.

My mistake was that I assumed that my interests would be his interests. In the post-game discussion, however, it became clear that he was more interested in a successful stab and the tantalizing shot at a solo, however slim, than in the draw numbers. Actually, he hadnít even considered two-way versus three-way, he just wanted a shot at the title and the experience of pulling off a good stab. What would matter to me if I were in the other playerís position was useless information. The only thing that mattered is what mattered to him.

In closing, Iíd like to say a few words about stabs. We all know that some players take them pretty personally, holding grudges and seeking revenge in future play. To me, thatís human nature - and if I ever felt truly stabbed Iíd probably react the same way. I donít react that way in Diplomacy, however, due to my rather controversial belief: there is no such thing as backstabbing in this game. WAIT! Before you dismiss me as a lunatic, let me explain.

My ever-so-trusty dictionary defines backstabbing as follows:

Certainly Iíve experienced my share of underhandedness and deceit. But those are qualifications of backstabbing, not its essence. The essence of backstabbing is Ďto attack unfairlyí. Come on, how is that possible in this game? When you sit down to play, you know that the only way to win is for the other six players to lose - and theyíre in exactly the same position. The only possible way to attack unfairly is to cheat on the rules somehow. Anything short of that isnít unfair, itís the game! For a lover of the game the only proper reaction to a Ďstabí is admiration, not anger. The same goes for lying and deceit. If you canít admire the role that these things play in Diplomacy, don't play. Its not about you, its about winning - isnít that your goal? Why blame someone for trying to achieve the same goal that you are?

In my very first game with the Piggyback Society, I was lied to three times in a row by the same player. So what? If his lies worked thatís a reflection on me, not him. When you negotiate a deal with another player always hope itís the truth, but plan for it being a lie. If the agreement would be fatal to you if the other player is lying, don't make the deal. But if you do make the deal, donít blame the other player if you get burned.

Remember, this game is the art of giving the other player your own way. Thatís what youíre trying to do, and thatís what the other players are trying to do to you! Its called ĎDiplomacyí.

J.T. Fest
(jtfest@piggybackdip.org)

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