Alliance-Breaking, Double-Crossing and the Balance of Power Principle

by Gene Prosnitz

One of the most neglected areas in Diplomacy, especially in the postal game, is the art of alliance-breaking. A player who is in the process of being conquered by two or more enemies will frequently make no effort to change the power line-up, but will just sit back passively and await the inevitable defeat. Of course, alliance-breaking is not easy, and it’s usually wiser for the allies to stick together until they’ve completed the job (for reasons to be discussed later in this article), but there are various techniques which can be tried.

First, the one-sided offer. Usually, agreements between powers should be on a 50/50 basis, or close to it, but when one side has a much better bargaining position this is not soThen you’re trying to break an enemy alliance, you may make headway by offering one of your foes a deal which is tremendously one-sided in his favour, and is just too good for him to turn down. For example, suppose that, as Turkey, I’m fighting Austria and Russia. I might offer to support Austria into both Rumania and Sevastopol (both belonging to Russia), and ask nothing in return. There’s nothing wrong in being very generous with a third party’s possessions.

If you are in the unfortunate position of being the victim of a three-way attack (as seems to happen to Austria, for example, very often these days), the three powers will undoubtedly have to fight among themselves after they’ve wiped you out. Try to pick the enemy power that is most likely to end up on the short end of the stick, and detach him from the alliance. For example, if two of your three enemies are from the same city, and the third is from a different geographical area, the two neighbours are likely to stay allied – so this should be pointed out to the third. Or suppose one of the three aggressors stands to get the smallest portion of your territory (e.g., in a three-way attack on France, England usually comes out without too much – i.e., just one supply centre, Brest) — work on him, trying hard to get him to shift sides.

Sometimes one of the powers involved in a three-way attack seems very likely to be “caught in the middle” because of the position on the board. For example, France, Germany, and Russia all attack England; afterwards, Germany is in between France and Russia – therefore, England should probably concentrate its efforts on detaching Germany from the alliance.

When you are the victim ofa two-way alliance, it’s often more difficult to convince one of the allies to change sides. For one thing, two powers working together closely are more likely to stick together, even after you’re defeated. Also, if they’re successful, the rewards are greater – the pie only has to be cut two ways. With either a two-way or a three-way alliance, things frequently work out so that one ally emerges much stronger than the other(s). If things are pointing in that direction, show the weaker ally how his compatriot is taking advantage of him. Very often one of the allies will have engaged in double-dealing, making a phoney agreement with you and, at the same time, an “honest” agreement with his true ally. Point this out to the other party, and perhaps the two of you can get together against the double-dealer.

Suppose all rational methods of persuasion fail. You might them try “kamikaze” tactics. This entails concentrating your forces in one direction, as a way of showing one particular enemy that, no matter what happens to you, you’re going to make sure he doesn’t get any of the spoils, and the lion’s share goes to the others. This may convince him that he should make peace with you. Of course, this tactic often means that you leave your rear unguarded and get wiped out even more quickly, so it should be treated as a last resort.

Closely related to this is the threat to throw the game to one of your enemies if the other doesn’t co-operate with you. I consider this a legitimate tactic, as you’re just trying to save your own neck, and it’s up to the party with whom you’re trying to deal to preserve the balance of power, since he can do so by making concessions to you, or making peace, and still remain in a good position.

What about multiple-game alliances? This raises serious ethical questions. Obviously if someone double-crosses me or shows himself to be a selfish ally in one game, I’d be less likely to deal with him the next time we cross oaths, other things being equal. However, when it gets to the point of saying, “Unless you change sides and join me in game A, I’ll attack you in game B”, I feel the boundaries of proper Diplomacy have been transcended, because deals of this type give an unfair advantage to players who are in a lot of games. However, it seems to me that thinking of this type, even if not expressed, will at least go on subconsciously, and is difficult, if not impossible, to curtail.

Turning to the question of when, and how, to double-cross — when contemplating a “double-cross” (or, to put it more euphemistically, a “shifting of alliances” – which may be a lesser category of backstab), one must weigh the immediate gain against the following considerations: (1) Will you need to deal with the victim again in this game? (2) How will this affect your dealings with him in other games (concurrent or future)? (3) How will this affect the other players’ opinion of your trustworthiness?

First, the question of first-move strategy. I’ve noticed that a number of players enter into inconsistent alliances at the beginning of the game – e.g., Austria forms an anti-Turkish alliance with Russia, forms an anti-Russian alliance with Turkey, and breaks one of them. The argument is that if you write to everybody, you’re more likely to get an ally.

However, this reasoning is somewhat faulty. Suppose, in the above example, that Austria writes to Russia and gets turned down. Chances are that Russia and Turkey are already allied and a letter to Turkey at this point would do no good. On the other hand, maybe Austria would have gotten results by writing to Turkey right away, before the Turks and Russians got together – so there’s no clear answer. I consider the question of what negotiations to enter into at the start of a game to be the most difficult problem in Diplomacy.

On balance, however, I think that the practice of making inconsistent alliances and following them up with first-year (or second-year) double-crosses is unwise. For one thing, once you get a reputation for doing this, players are less likely to deal with you at the beginning of a game, and this can be disastrous. Also, the backstab in this case does not have the effect of knocking your enemy out of commission; you may need his help later in the game, and have a tough time getting it.

In a game in which I’m playing Italy, for example, Austria made alliances with Italy, Russia, and Turkey the first move, and immediately double-crossed both Russia and Italy. He gained a momentum – i.e., he acquired Galicia and kept Italy out of Tyrolia, which he could not have done if his intentions had been known in advance. However, this compensation was not nearly enough when compared with the price he paid concerning his chances for future dealings with the Russian and Italian players. The result, which could be foreseen, was that, shortly thereafter, Austria made what he thought was a deal with Russia. However, Russia, feeling that one good turn deserved another, double-crossed Austria, who was then almost completely destroyed in a short time.

Another point – if you enter into inconsistent alliances, the players may let each other know about your double-dealing. Or, worse yet, they may prove your double-dealing by sending each other copies of your letters.

In my opinion, the best time to double-cross another player is not when it’s a question of a small gain, but rather when the backstab will cripple him beyond repair. Thus, you won’t have to worry about whether or not this player will ever trust you again in this game, because you’ll have no need to deal with him anymore; he’ll be in no position to hurt you. If your ally is foolish enough to leave himself wide open for this sort of thing, it’s his own funeral.

On the other hand, it’s best to be scrupulously honest in the small-scale promises and deals which go on all the time between allies. If you lie to an ally or a friendly neutral in a small matter, where you don’t actually intend to declare war on him, you’re sowing seeds of mistrust without gaining any great benefits. My philosophy is to be completely truthful in about 95% of my dealings and correspondence, and to hope other players become aware of this. However, the other 5% of the time they’ll get hit with everything but the kitchen sink. Similarly, it’s unwise, in my opinion, to offer false promises to an enemy who’s trying to make a deal with you and is already on the ropes, if you can defeat him by straight-forward play.

With respect to the balance-of-power principle – this is mentioned because of the disturbing tendency, in many postal games, for a player to ally with a strong neighbour against a weak neighbour, instead of the other way around.

My understanding has always been that the object of the game is to win (or tie), or, if you can’t do that, to prevent someone else from winning. If you permit another power to conquer Europe, you should get no credit for finishing second. However, this does not seem to be universally accepted. For example, I was playing in one game where Russia had 17 supply centres, yet the other six powers were all squabbling among themselves!

The situation where two allies attack a third, and continue the attack until the victim is obliterated, is quite common. If the two allies in this situation expand at equal strength, it’s quite feasible. However, if one of the allies is getting much the better of it, the logical thing would be for the other ally to switch sides, to prevent the first party from winning or gaining a significant edge. When one country becomes significantly strong, all his neighbours should rally against him.

Sometimes a single expeditionary force can help restore the balance of power. In a recent over-the-board game wherein France was doing quite well, Italy, who was not really fighting France (being engaged primarily on the Eastern front), sent a solitary fleet into the Mid-Atlantic. This manoeuvre didn’t really help Italy at all (at least in the short-term sense), but, by harassing France considerably, it helped to restore the balance of power in Western Europe.

Many players feel they can wait until a power obtains 14 or 15 supply centres before uniting against it. However, this often proves fallacious, as difficulties in communication and co-ordination, as well as lack of trust, usually result in giving the front-runner an easy victory at this point in the game.

Reprinted from Diplomania No.18 (October 1967)