Unethical Practices in FtF Diplomacy

by Jared Johnson

In this article I would like to discuss a number of things which seem not to have been given much attention to date. I would like to talk about what some people might call “unethical practices” in Diplomacy. These practices may be termed legal according to a strict interpretation of the rules, and yet their use I have often found to greatly annoy a number of players including myself. There are a number of things a player may do during a Diplomacy game, among which are the following:

(1) Let another player watch him write his orders or see the finished orders before everyone’s orders are exposed, so as to make sure he is conforming with the terms of an alliance or bargain.

(2) A player may drop out of the game from boredom (since he is losing) when he doesn’t really have to leave. His sudden departure from the game can often spell doom for certain players and victory for the one player in the best position to gobble up a lot of supply centres without opposition.

(3) Or, instead of completely dropping out of the game and letting his pieces and, a player may decide to turn control of all his pieces over to another player. He merely lets that player write out the orders for his pieces, while he goes off and does something else (plays another game, watches television, etc.). This is tantamount to the player staying in the game and simply writing down for orders whatever the person he wants to help tells him to, but in this case the player is saved the bother of sticking around.

Regarding the first point, there is nothing in the rules forbidding a player from letting another player watch him write his orders. “Each player writes his “orders” on a slip of paper, usually keeping them secret, and these orders to the armies and fleets are all exposed at once” (underlining mine). However, I think this is a dangerous precedent to set in a game of Diplomacy. If it develops to the point where a person always expects to see you write out the orders you say you are going to write out, the essence of the game could be destroyed. In this case, if a person refused to let an ally see his orders before they are exposed, it would be an outright admission of an upcoming double-cross. This almost got started in the local group with which I play. But, I made it clear that I would never let anyone see my orders ahead of time under any conditions, ally or not, because of the “principle of the matter”. I felt it would benefit me personally in all future games to set an example and not set such a dangerous precedent. I am quite confident of my ability to deceive other players, and playing a game where a player always lets his ally see his orders and where refusal to do so would be admission of a double-cross, would ruin everything.

However, there is more to it. Suppose this does become a widespread practice among a local group of Diplomacy players. I could foresee all sorts of under-handed tactics. Player X writes out a “bad order”, i.e., a badly-written order. He shows it to his ally (whom he is ready to double-cross), who nods his head, since he knows what the move is supposed to be, and doesn’t pay any attention to the ambiguous way in which it is written. When time comes to expose orders, Player X looks at his orders, gives out with a fake moan, and says: “Oh, dear. It seems I have written an ambiguous order. Certainly it is not perfectly clear what this order means, therefore it is invalid.” He turns to his opponent smiling: “So much for your support, your attacks fail, and now you’ve had it.”

Or, all orders are written out clearly and shown to his ally, who nods his head and reveals his own orders. Then it cornes time for all players to reveal their orders. Player X quickly whips out another set of orders on a sheet of paper which he has prepared secretly ahead of time. He grins fiendishly as he crumples up the paper he had shown to his ex-ally. Also, the rules forbid any diplomacy immediately preceding retreats. But suppose you just expose your retreat orders as you write them to avoid the possibility of a conflict, and the loss of a unit by two countries?

Regarding the second point, the rules state: “If a player leaves during the game, it is assumed that civil government in his country has collapsed. His units stand in position and defend themselves, but do not support each other. If they have to retreat, they are routed and removed from the board…” But what if a player is not forced to leave the game. So much for the rules to cover this situation. It has been known for a person to withdraw from the game, leave his units standing, and designate mutual support between pieces in specific situations to continue as long as the units remain on the board in the same positions. Also, his pieces are retreated, rather than immediately removed from the board.

However, some players do not even do this. Instead, they (3) turn all control of their units over to another player, i.e. a player designates someone who will be allowed to write out the orders for his pieces. Is this really legal? The same thing could be accomplished if the withdrawing player actually stayed at the table and wrote down whatever his “ally” told him to, but now he is free to leave. Somehow, I find it hard to harbour any ill feelings when a player does this in certain situations (like when he turns control of his pieces over to me…).

When a player sees he is lost, he must look to the future, and it may be advantageous to wreck as much havoc upon the person primarily responsible for his downfall as is possible, as a lesson to be remembered in the next game. I see nothing wrong with using all legal means to bring about the defeat of a certain player in the game, including giving another player your all-out support. I would much rather see a player do this than to try to prolong his existence in the game when the situation is hopeless (I know a few people who do this – they are dangerous and untrustworthy allies). When I ally with someone and subsequently find myself in an untenable situation, I am usually ready to offer full support to my ally with my remaining units. Not so with this other type of player – the only thing that interests him is keeping a piece or two on the board, and he will switch alliances as many times as necessary to accomplish this end.

A few other points, now that I am off on this tangent: I can never really hold it against an “ally” if he turns against me when I am in no position to retaliate. This I should expect him to do, and I do not become too angry or go all-out against him in the next game, etc. What does burn me, however, is the player who double-crosses me when it is obvious that I am still able to defend myself and when it is obvious that the ensuing conflict (as I attempt to recover lost territory) will surely bring about the downfall of both countries This person I will pay back. An example of this occurred in a recent game with myself as Italy and a short-term ally (as it turned out) as France. France was doing fine in Germany, and had no problems with England who was fighting Russia. If anything she should have invaded England. But no, France turned against Italy, while it was still “easy”, although costly for me to defend myself At the time I was fighting. What turned out to be a losing war in Austria (Austria was dead too, and Turkey and Russia were cleaning up), but I was able to hold France off in a bottleneck with two fleets for some three years. As was inevitable, this capricious campaign resulted in utter defeat for both of us.

It is often the stupid players that I worry about the most. Many times the fool can be far more dangerous than the rational player. The rational player’s moves I can try to anticipate and understand, but not those of the fool, because the fool’s motives are often contrary to the very object of the game. He may figure from the beginning that he cannot win, so he decides he will just try to stay in the game as long as possible. Or, the player may be so thick that he. fails to see that an attack against a certain country will almost inevitably result in defeat not only for that country, but for himself as well.

Knowing how to handle such players is important, because most FtF games have them. When you are looking for a six-or-seven-man game of Diplomacy, you are usually able to find three or four very competent players. Then if you are desperate, you may have to settle for a younger brother and a fool or two to fill up the table. This I have found to be quite often the case. On the board itself, the competent players are the ones I fear tactically, but off the board, it is the fools and the younger brothers etc., whom I worry about diplomatically, especially when they are unable to recognise a situation that is to both players advantage or that will inevitably lead to both players downfall.

Good players cause me to lose, but only stupid players make me angry. I rarely get mad at a good. player. When I am double-crossed and outwitted by another competent player, I am somewhat peeved, probably dismayed at the appearance of my crumbling position on the board, and if anything mad at myself for not outguessing my opponent. But, it is stupidity that makes’ me angry, particularly when a player makes a move that hurts me, and does not help himself either.

Of course, there is another practical motive for siding with a particular player, even if he was the one primarily responsible for your destruction. When one finds oneself losing the game from the very beginning, one begins to feel a bit restless, and starts glancing at one’s watch to see if there will be time enough for another game. Then one looks around to see whom one can help to end the game the quickest.


To conclude this article, I am going to take a survey. I want to take an opinion survey to see what Diplomacy players think about some of the things I’ve mentioned in this article, that is, whether these things are “ethical or unethical”. For each of the following situations, practices, or whatever you want to call them, please answer four questions:

1.    Do you consider this ethical or unethical?

2.    Would you resort to this and have you?

3.    Would you mind if another player did this?

4.    Do you think this should be made illegal?


1. A player agrees to let his ally see his orders before they are exposed to all players, to make sure he is not being double-crossed.

2. .A player is bored with the game because he is losing. He decides to let country go into civil disorder, and goes to play a different game. This action pretty well decides the game in favour of one player.

3. A player decides to turn control of all his pieces over to another player.

4. A player uses as a threat something entirely unrelated to the actual play of the game. For instance:

(a) “If you don’t support me, you can walk home.”

(b) “If you attack me, I’m not going to pay back the £10 I owe you.”

(c) “If you start an alliance against me, I’m going to punch you on the nose!”

Assume the player carries through with all threats.

5. A player attempts to peek at other players’ orders.

6. A player looks at orders of another player which have been written and placed under the corner of the board (so he can go to the bar) on the assumption that they are to be left there awaiting adjudication.

7. A player (who is losing) decides to do all he can to end the game as quickly as possible. This usually entails giving full support to the player who is already furthest ahead.

8. A player who is taking his turn to read out the orders, “accidentally” doesn’t read his orders first and then adjusts his orders when it comes to reading them out to take into account what another player has done. The other players don’t notice the discrepancy.

First published in Diplomania 12 (January 1969)
Reprinted in Spring Offensive 52