Book Review – “The Game of Diplomacy”

Review by Mark Berch

The hobby is indeed fortunate. The first hardback book has been written by the single person most qualified to do it, Richard Sharp. He is a writer by profession, and has written other books on games. He is also a top-notch player and has published Dolchstoβ, one of the finest – and biggest – dipzines ever produced.

The book, to put it simply, is a delight to read. Sharp’s writing style is smooth, concise, witty and literate. He is a crisp phrase mongerer. My favourites are “…find an ally who will die for you and see that he does just that,” and (in telling Russia how to gain the valuable alliance with Italy) “…sympathize with him over the evil fate that deals such a fine player such a useless country.” Sharp positively excels at setting a scene psychologically, whether its depicting a frantic Russia scrambling for an ally in a FTF game, or describing the arrival and opening of a dipzine. I have never seen anywhere the “feel” of the game and hobby so well recounted – although it helps to have 150 pages in which to do it.

It begins with a one page intro outlining the amoral atmosphere of the game, clearly (and well) designed to ensnare the casual bookstore patron who has never heard of Diplomacy. This is followed by “Fundamentals” which is exactly that: An explanation of the basic rules of the game. This chapter is the perfect solution to the problem of teaching the game to someone in a short period of time. Just handing the newcomer the rulebook will be useless unless he has had a wargaming background; trying to explain it yourself risks getting bogged down. Just sit him down with this chapter and be assured that Sharp is the master at explaining, clarifying and exemplifying.

What follow is “The Smyler with the Knyf under the Cloak”, which will be considered along with Chapter 12 “Vive la Difference.” These deal with the techniques and psychology of negotiations, and various swindles and coups. For me this is the most fascinating part of the book, and is masterfully written. Some of these matters are difficult to write about with any degree of specificity, and few even try. Further, top players are often reluctant to discuss their more spectacular deceits and coups. Going public will make it more difficult to pull the scheme off a second time, and may give them an unsavoury reputation in some quarters. And once these people stop playing, they often leave the hobby, so the tales never get told. So these chapters are rather unique. Personalities, revenge, multiple sets of orders, camouflaging an alliance, varying playing styles, miswritten orders, passing letters, playing under an alias, impersonations, proxy orders, joint orders, cross game alliances, bribery, hoax-zines, dealing with incompetents – its all there, and there’s case studies to back them up.

Most are drawn from British zines, so US readers will find most of these stories unfamiliar. Many of these cons failed, some backfiring spectacularly. But to the perpetrators, this often didn’t matter – it was the deed itself, and not the board position that counted. Richard suggest “…if you are in any doubt, check first with the GM to see whether he finds your ruse permissible or not.” This is sound advise, though not always practical. Richard specifically condones some practices which, in my opinion, go too far, and would get you expelled from some US dipzines. I refer to an incident in which Sharp, as a player, prepared a phoney re-adjudication of the game, using the GM’s typewriter and stationery. Or another case where a player slipped into the GM’s dorm room and was caught reading the orders of the other players in his games. I suspect that once North American GM’s get a hold of this book that many will decide that just saying “No deception of the GM is permitted” in the House Rules leaves too many grey areas. But even if you never have the nerve of opportunity to try any of these stratagems, they make for very amusing reading.

Next is “More on tactics” with a disappointing discussion of stalemate lines. Richard rightly points out that “The stalemate line is perhaps the most profound single concept in Diplomacy tactics… bitter experience has convinced me that ad hoc solutions, devised on the run, simply don’t work.” In a 150 page book you’d think that a page or two could be used to list all the major ones. Instead only four examples are given, one of which isn’t a true stalemate lines. All are of the “diagonal” type; those that divide the world E-W or N-S aren’t even alluded to. There is no mention of what I consider to be the single most important strategic implication of stalemate lines: virtually all lines hold either all of E or all of T. Thus to be sure of inclusion, you should either own one of these sets, or make yourself indispensable to whoever does. There is even an outright error: The famous English position holding eight centres is not the smallest. There is a Turkish one with 6.

After that shaky start, Sharp is on firm ground, with a solid discussion of 8 tactical ploys, ranging from the common self-standoff to the impossibly rare Pandin’s paradox. Theoretically all are inferable from the Rulebook. In practice, unless you’re familiar with the procedure in the abstract, you will be much less likely to notice the opportunities when they arise. All the ploys are described with examples, and he notes the strategic and diplomatic implications of many of them, along with indications of where on the board they are most likely to occur. Diplomacy, of course, is not primarily a tactical game. But there are times when you need time or position to make your diplomacy bear fruit. This chapter has quite a few helpful suggestions along that line.

What follows are seven chapters, one on each country. Each begins with an introduction, summarizing how well the country does, and often gives his or others’ reaction to playing the country. Next are “Position”, “Targets” (where to find the winning centres), “Openings” and “Friends and enemies.”

England is the first and the shortest (7 pages) but contains some of the strangest advice you will ever read. Richard prefers F Lon-Eng, and indeed presents a compelling case that France should be England’s first victim. But this is prefaced by a naive-sounding statement: “Provided France is above the moron class, it is not too difficult to persuade him to let you take the Channel.” This has certainly not been my experience, either as F or E.

Oddly enough, the one occasion that Sharp says you shouldn’t enter Eng is when you think that France will. Thus “But I am convinced it is better to let France into the channel than to risk a standoff there… I do not play to the Channel as England unless I am convinced that France will let me in.” This is perilous advice to follow in a game where both F & E are playing “by the book”. France begins by writing England all sorts of reasons why French F Eng is a good idea, and more or less implies that he’ll move to Eng anyhow. England naturally tries to talk him out of it, but France stands firm. Taking the above advice, England lets him. France however, takes his advice from Chapter 10: “The best winning line for France is to take out England, giving a power base of 3 home centres, 3 English and 3 easy neutrals.” What better start than to take the channel! What next for England? Surely he won’t defend London – after all, what’s the point of doing F Lon-Nth, and then F Nth-Lon, when France has only done what he said he would do? So in the fall France sails right up the Thames to London.

France is not the only country with something to smile over in this chapter. Sharp is so gung-ho on the alliance with Germany that he refuses to even mention the idea of moving F Lon-Nth, and thence against Germany in F01, despite the fact that nearly all English 1901 attacks on G start in just that way. He considers F Lon-Nth as just “making a beeline for the StP cul-de-sac.” Two supposedly anti-German openings are given, but both are based on F Lon-Eng, and indeed, one of them entails England taking Bre in 1901: I kid you not; its called “Hey Bresto” and he spends over ½ page on this “anti-German” opening. England’s largesse is not limited to the west. Russia, is to be invited to move A Mos to Stp, and if he does so, Nwy is to be his! And lets not forget Turkey. If England somehow manages to persuade R to take Nwy, T is to be tipped off, allowing him to rip the guts out of central Russia, forcing Russia to hole up in Scandinavia. All this is likely to be pretty distracting to a Germany who is supposed to be your ally against France.

Alas, quite a few things have been left out. Sharp is so busy explaining how “a Russian army in Nwy is the best guarantee you have of immunity from attack in that direction” that more pedestrian matters are ignored. Differing approaches to Scandinavia; the joint attack on both Scan and France; F Nth-Hel vs. F Nth-Den/Hol; the alliance with Russia; how to get F and G to fight over Bel and the western triple alliance just aren’t discussed. Indeed, if you don’t want to move F Lon-Eng, this chapter does not have a great deal to offer.

The chapter on Germany by contrast is a masterpiece – this is one of the best written “articles” you will ever see. He writes from obvious affection: “…playing Germany in a good class postal game is the most enjoyable experience Diplomacy has to offer.” The chapter revolves around Sharps’ strategic concept of the “Anschluss”, a special form of German alliance. Most players take this alliance pretty much for granted. Boh and Tyr are routinely demilitarized and Germany concentrates on “more important” countries. Sharp advocates a much more activist role: Austria should become a German protectorate. He marshals considerable circumstantial evidence to the effect that an early Austrian elimination is a bad omen for Germany. To prevent this, R and I are told that G will not tolerate an early attack on A. F Kie-Den means that Swe is the hostage for Russian cooperation in not entering Gal. A Mun is kept there (e.g. by standoff in Tyr or Bur) so that if I attacks A in S01, some help will be available in F01. This is a much more eastern-oriented style of play than most players are accustomed to – for example with no F Hol and probably no A Ruhr after S01, Bel has been kissed off and even Holland is not assured. This does not bother Sharp, as he feels that 1) neither F-G nor E-G favours G, and 2) an E-F war is easy to generate.

But don’t get the impression that the west has been ignored. A couple of pages are devoted to an example to Sharpian double dealing drawn from 1974-N – its too delightful to just summarize here. He provides the usual survey of openings, but his studied disinterest in Bel and his rigid requirement of F Kie-Den certainly colour his perceptions. More on Germany later.

The Russian chapter is with one exception, a thorough one, with the theme being “shoot first and ask afterwards.” Nearly a dozen openings are dissected, with particular reference as to how they reflect/effect relations with A & T. His favourite, the seldom-seen “Octopus” at first blush appears quite belligerent, but after reading Sharps’s defence it seems quite sensible. Included are some helpful paragraphs on the perplexing matter of relations with western countries. Russia is difficult to write about; fewer articles have appeared in dip zines on Russia than any other country.

The one serious imbalance is his hostile treatment of the R-T alliance, which is capable of explosive growth, as their first two victims, A and I, are so often at war in 1901. A single year or even a season of war is usually enough to doom both countries in the face of an R-T juggernaut. But Sharp doesn’t see things that way. Openings based on F Sev-Rum are scorned. One (moves to War, Ukr) is called “insane”, another (Ukr, StP) is “feeble”. The only one he’ll countenance is Ukr, Sev, which is hardly a good start on an R-T alliance. Even that one he discusses almost entirely in terms of either stabbing T in F01 or defending against a S01 Turkish stab. When it comes to discussing the alliances themselves, R-A and R-I are well presented, but not R-T. The only context he’s willing to discuss R-T favourably in is one in which R takes Con in S02, to be moved to AEG or annihilated in F02. But these are uncommon procedures in R-T alliances, and he implies quite strongly that the sensible Turkish player will turn these down. Strangely enough, in the Turkey chapter he sings a different tune, saying that “Russia is apt to get the better of the bargain.”

And speaking of Turkey, that chapter is a fiasco. Richard is quite upfront about his bias: “I dislike playing Turkey in face-to-face Diplomacy. In the postal game …I absolutely loathe it … Turkey bores me to death.” The result is unimaginative, unduly pessimistic, and just not terribly helpful. Richard plods thru Turkey’s (rather limited) openings with no real enthusiasm for any of them. The one he seems to like the best is F Ank-BLA, A Smy-Arm. If the fleet move succeeds, you’d think that T would be pleased, right? Not dour Richard: “If F (Ank)-BLA succeeds, Turkey … is not necessarily going to make a quick killing against a competent Russia, unless he can rely on Austrian help, and this is unlikely.” Why? Because “…the Russian Attack … almost guarantees Austrian hostility, or at least the absence of Austrian friendship.” This is what I mean by unduly pessimistic. Austria has at least two prochoices: 1) ignore the war and use all his forces to pulverize Italy 2) stake his claim to War, and dicker with T over Rum, using his uncommitted position as a bargaining point. Of course, it is up to the resourceful Turkish diplomat to persuade A that the destruction of R is a good thing.

The rest of the openings don’t fare much better. One will land up “infuriating both neighbours”, another is “excessively tame”, and at one point he even suggests misordering F Ank. Its a sorry lot.

When he turns to Turkey’s alliances, things get even worse. In the west, only England is deemed worth negotiating with, and even then, he concludes “there is little Turkey can do to coax England in the required direction.” Actually, negotiations with G concerning Swe, especially if you are attacking R are a must, and a difficult at that.

As for T-R, he says that “this alliance is worse than useless as a winning prospect unless adequate safeguards are built in.” And so virtually the entire discussion deals with the safeguards. And I question the practicality of some of these. Russia has to demilitarize all the way back thru Ukr and Gal, while T can occupy Alb and Gre? Good luck talking Russia into that! The A/T pairing is labelled “hopeless”. Thus, “a long term alliance between Austria and Turkey is just not possible, unless quite exceptional circumstances dictate it.” To his credit, he presents a detailed example of how a short term liaison might work. But his heart just isn’t in it. The example doesn’t go beyond F01. And when it gets to the bottom line – should T stab A in F01, the decision turns primarily on whether Eng lets Russia have Nwy. You’d think that Italy’s stance would be a lot more important in such a decision but in the example, its barely mentioned.

The reason for this is immediately apparent in the next paragraph: “Between Turkey and Italy there can be little but out and out hostility.” Oh, he gives an exception, but calls it “So rare as to be hardly worth recording.” It is not that he thinks that I/T is too pro-I: In the Italian chapter he’s just as down on it. So there it is: T has very little to say to the west, a solid alliance on equal terms with R is difficult and complicated, and with A and I, impossible. Its apparent that Sharp just hasn’t figured out how to play Turkey.

With the chapter on Austria, Sharp is definitely back on his feet. He has good account of the “Balkan Gambit” openings (A Bud-Ser, F Tri-Alb), although he comes down a little too hard on A Vie-Tri, methinks. He rightly points out that while the move is designed to defend against Italy, that attack is more likely to come via A Ven-Tyr than A Ven-Tri. Thus, A Vie-Tyr is much more likely to block the attack than A Vie-Tri. But this ignores the fact that not stopping A Ven-Tri is much more serious than not stopping A Ven-Tyr. The most useful section in the openings is his explanation of the little used but very handy Hedgehog opening, recently seen in the World Demo game going on in DW.

As for strategy, Sharp again brings up the Anschluss, this time with the perspective of what it can do for Austria, with some very precise tactical discussions. He advocates a rather hard attitude towards Italy – don’t even bother trying to persuade him to demilitarize Tyr of Ven. More will be said on this chapter later.

The next chapter begins with a bleak assessment of Italy’s performance record, a prudent start –don’t play Italy with illusions. He’s a little _too pessimistic: “In a high standard game I would put Italy’s chance of winning at Zero”, but this ignores the Birsan win in a recent DW demo game. Next comes an absolutely perfect synopsis of Italy’s position, using (in part) the offbeat method of describing how the rules might have been, but aren’t.

In discussing the Tyrolia attack (A Ven-Tyr, A Rom-Ven) he has an unexpected recommendation: If there is no Rus A Gal, break off the attack and hit Germany. The discussion of the Lepanto is routine; regrettably, Calhamer’s “Superpower” opening (A Ven-Tyr-Boh) isn’t mentioned. He sets out the Key opening, but does not discuss the classical, and to my mind, superior form of the opening. Sharp has the army move A Ven-Tri-Ser, but then tacks on the convoy to Tunis. However, Italy shouldn’t need the second build in 1901, and ought not give up the big advantage of the Key, viz. the ability to move F Ion-AEG/EMS in F01, critical if Turkey opens F Ank-Con.

When it comes to strategy, Sharp is very down on an early attack on France, suggesting you not even bother to try to enlist English aid. Indeed, it is only advisable if Germany promises A Mun-Bur and expects to get in. In practice, Ger entry into Bur in S01 is pretty rare. And I don’t much care for his refusal to give any case for the T-I alliance (except in the Stab-Austria Key opening context). But aside from these points, this is a very good job with a difficult country for Sharp’s free-for-all style of play.

An equally good product appears for France. Sharp does a superb job with the wealth of very diverse openings that France has. My only objection is his discussion of the F Bre-Mid, A Par-Pic openings. He views A Par-Pic solely in terms of keeping “a French finger in the Belgian Pie.” In fact, the move also provides some insurance against F Lon-Eng, guarding Bre while s still gaining 2 builds. Alternatively, A Mid-Bre, A Pic-Bre guards Bre with the near certainty of Bre being open for a build. This is followed by a rather short discussion of strategy; alas, some blinders are on. He doesn’t like E-F from the French side either: “England is unequivocally an enemy in the long term”. The case for war with E is made: the case for an alliance is not. Another oddity is that he repeatedly states that you must not even try for 3 builds in 1901, but never says why. The closest he comes to an explanation is to label 3 builds as “embarrassing”. The rest of the discussion is more balanced. I particularly enjoyed his setting out the different types on ambiguities that mark France’s relationship to G, I, and R. And I was amused that even Richard Sharp has trouble figuring out what France should say to Turkey.

Next is “An Introduction to Postal Diplomacy” beginning with a short history of the hobby, which manages to mention Belgium, but not Canada. Along with good coverage of the mechanics of postal play, he gives some thoughtful suggestions about the first letters, in the process saying some things that I just don’t agree with. “The letters you write to other players before S01 are likely to determine your fate, assuming that you are reasonably competent at tactical play” considerable overstates the case. Or this: “By the time I write my first letters I have a clear vision of what I would like the moves of all six countries to be in S01”. Unrealistic. I certainly don’t have such clarity of vision. For example, if I am Italy I cannot tell what I’d prefer for A Mos until I hear from A and T. Players should avoid having fixed ideas about their intended alliance structure so early. For example, as England, if you have determined that G makes the “best” ally for E, you can easily be blinded to the fact that this particular French player will make a better ally.

One mystifying statement made is that E and A have “nothing whatsoever to say to one another in 1901” — what about Russia? It is frequently in England’s interest for Russia to be odd man out in the Balkans. Austria may well prefer an English convoy to Nwy, rather than a fleet. Letters will be required to move things along in the proper direction.

The final chapter is a description of 30 variants, ranging from 1 1/2 pages (for Abstraction, which he considers the best, and Rod Walker’s Abberation) to one sentence descriptions of some of the sillier ones. Regrettably, quite a few have been included solely because they are so bad. This means that some of the more sensible ones (like Colonia, Anonymity, Chaos, Armed neutrals), which have been played, are ignored. Also, this is a reading, not a playing chapter. Very few variants which keep a normal board and make just a few key rule changes are included (for those the reader is directed to a fine collection in Costikyan’s “1977 Diplomacy Handbook”). The chapter includes quite a collection of different types of convoy rules.

The book ends with a short appendix, dealing primarily with notation. Some of the recommendations for departure from the usual first-three letters rule have no apparent reason, such as ADS for Adriatic. And recommending Nor for Nwy is downright foolish, and unacceptable in some zines. Along with its multitudinous strengths, the book has two serious weaknesses. One is the wretched chapter on Turkey, The other is more pervasive and fundamental – indeed, its really a philosophical objection. This is not, appearances to the contrary, a comprehensive text on Diplomacy. Instead, it is Diplomacy as Richard Sharp thinks it ought to be played. There is a world of difference between these 2 concepts.

If Sharp dislikes something, he (properly) subjects it to devastating criticism. But the reverse proposition isn’t so fortunate. That case is either not presented, given superficially, or defended in terms of obvious straw men. This attitude results in fundamental deficiencies in the text. As this is a rather serious charge, some examples to follow.

1. The alliance style of play. He is unabashedly opposed “Fundamentally, I do not believe in alliances,” preferring the free-for all, which he calls “the opposite of alliance play. While he does give some discussion to alliances, many topics are unmentioned. How do you assure that your view of the alliance’s objectives will be more controlling than your ally’s? How do you keep an alliance together when things get bogged down, or when your ally has lost interest in the game? How can you structure secondary alliances so that they do not strain the primary alliance? Specialized types of alliances are not mentioned. One is race-for-victory, a type of permanent alliance not designed to produce a draw. Triple alliances are not discussed per se — indeed, only one (GIA) is even mentioned. The fine art of carefully selecting the conditions which formally end an alliance is not touched on. Ignoring these and other topics is a serious weakness. Even if you don’t prefer that style of play, the odds are that a majority of the other players do, and you darn well better understand what is going on or you will be wiped out.

2. The S01 NMR. This is certainly one of the most vexing problems a GM faces, for there is no perfect solution. Sharp naturally touts his own system, which is to appoint a fresh player and reset the S01 deadline. By way of contrast, he sets up two straw men. The first is for the GM to have a random third party create S01 orders without regard to their neutrality. The second is to have one player submit orders for all 7 countries. Both are subjected to (justified) criticism. But these 2 procedures are seldom used. But what is by far the most common practice in North America, and probably the most common in the entire hobby history, is the use of “neutral” orders, often listed in the House Rules. This system isn’t even mentioned, which a shame, not only for the gap that is left but primarily because the creation of such orders presents some interesting questions – with e.g. A Vie.

3. Perhaps the most serious omission is that unapproved attacks or alliances are given the cold shoulder. The chapter on Austria provides several good examples. Richard does not countenance Austria attacking Italy or Germany, so there is absolutely no discussion of either. In fact, Austrian attacks on Italy as early as S02 are fairly common in games in which R-T begin an early war. If Italy has convoyed to Tunis, Ven can often be seized in F02 with an army or two left over to participate in the R-T war. Second, not a single sentence is devoted to the advantages of the A-T alliance, although there is a sizable paragraph devoted to its drawbacks. Third, there’s the matter of the Key Opening. Over and over again he repeats that Austria should never permit this to proceed. There is really no excuse for such a narrow minded approach to such a flexible game as Diplomacy. Let’s suppose A is faced with a solid T-R alliance. No help is forthcoming from the west. Italy writes: “T-R is solid against you. Lepanto is out because I anticipate F Ank-Con. You have two choices; the Key opening, with F Ion-AEG, or I join the Blitz. Pick one,” Under these not-exactly-unheard-of circumstances, the prudent Austria may well decide that the Key is the lesser of the two evils.

A gap of a different sort appears with Germany. If everyone played “by the book” she would do fantastically well. One reason is of course the magnificent chapter on Germany. The other is that Richard just cannot bring himself to recommend anyone actually attack Germany early on. Of his reluctance to have England or Austria attack I have already spoken. An early French attack is likewise not mentioned, and providing assistance for an early Russian attack on G is labelled as “madness”. The only French attack mentioned as if “the naval power of England has been broken” (i.e. G as second victim) and the ally is Russia. As for the chapter on Russia, he states flatly that the attack on G must wait “until such time as the south is sown up”, which’ normally does not occur until at least 1903. The sole exception to all the above is for Italy to attack Germany. However, as Sharp points out, that requires French assistance (which isn’t even mentioned in the French chapter). Italy is not well placed to continue the attack, and the early destruction of Germany is not usually in Italy’s best interest (see DW #19, p29).

There are plenty of other examples – like the I-T and E-F alliances, which he won’t give the case for from either side. These omissions detract from the sense of completeness that one desires, and limit the usefulness of the book.

Not to end on a negative note: This is a superb book, and will become the single most important dippy publication to date. Almost regardless of your level of competence, you will improve your play and your enjoyment of the game. And no one will be immune to the sheer pleasure of reading such a well written book.

Reprinted from Diplomacy World No.22 (Summer 1979)