From Here To There : Grand Strategy

by Bob Olsen

The object of the game of Diplomacy is, obviously, to win, or at least to wind up with a share of the draw that ends the game… preferably with as few others as possible. A lot can happen between Winter 1900 and the end of the game, and even the best players occasionally hose one away. But your goal in starting a game is to come out on top, and, no matter which country you play, the overall principles are the same. You need allies; you need to stab as necessary and within reason; and while juggling all this, you also need to prevent anyone else from winning. 

All countries start the game about equal in strength, and after the neutrals are picked up, everyone is still in rough parity. In order to grow, you must attack another player. But since everyone is of roughly equal strength, a one- on-one battle is useless unless the enemy is exceedingly incompetent (i.e., the legendary Don Williams). Therefore, you must make an agreement with at least one other player against a third party. A strong diplomatic effort at the start of the game is crucial and not to at least try is not only suicidal, but makes your participation in the game pointless at the outset. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will wind up odd-man-out, but if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. 

The European countries sort themselves out into the western powers (England, France, Germany) and the eastern powers (Austria, Russia, Turkey) with Italy sort of a swing vote. Your object early in the game is to be on the winning side of the war in your sector–for example, by allying your France with England against Germany or vice versa. Once the odd-man-out has been eliminated or crippled, and you have received your share of the spoils (no less than two dots for sure, three preferably, four if you have a very foolish ally, or five if you are Kathy Caruso) it’s time for a decision. You and your ally are in the range of 6-8 centers, but the quick spoils are gone, and you will be looking for other worlds to conquer. 

There are several ways to proceed. You can continue close alliance with your initial ally against the other power. You can put that alliance on the back burner, go for a neutrality pact with your ex-ally and combine with a third party against a new victim (example: E/F wipe out Germany; F then attacks I with A help), or you can stab your dot-stuffed ally and try to take his centers. The advantages of the latter tactic are that if you succeed, you have emerged supreme on your part of the board; though you can be attacked by a more distant power, nobody is going to build nearby and be able to get to you quickly. 

Growth is the key to the game. You can start with 3 or 4 centers; you have to end with 18 to win (unless the other players give up and vote a concession or all players agree to a draw). But growth has to be controlled. It’s totally senseless to stab an ally for one unit. He’s not seriously hurt (at least against you; you may well make it impossible for him to defend against someone else), but your credibility with the other players is shot to Hell. For example, if France stabs Italy for one dot and Austria winds up with the other three, France has hurt, not helped, her own position. Sometimes it may even be necessary to loan a dot to a hard-pressed ally; to drop from, say, 9 to 8 for a year to two is no disaster as long as the loss is eventually made up. 

If you are patient, tactically competent, reasonably shrewd in your assessment of the sort of rudimentary human character Diplomacy players exhibit, and reasonably lucky, you will succeed. But it does no good to get to 16 centers if somebody on the other side of the board gets to 18. It’s very important to watch what is happening elsewhere. If France sees Russia or (horrors!) Turkey emerging as the dominant eastern power, she should do everything possible to stop the eastern juggernaut. A large amount of viewing-with-alarm in your negotiations is useful. You might try to act as intermediary between Austria and Russia, say, and help them patch up their differences, if both are in danger of being swallowed up by the Turk. 

If the country you are currently fighting can be induced to join the stop-the- leader cause you might even back off him for a while…plenty of time to stab him again after he’s given his all on the other side of the board. Generally, it is probably best to be second in total supply centers in the middle part of the game. Then you can engineer stop-the-leader alliances against someone else more easily, unless the other guy is so charming that nobody will believe he could be such a scoundrel…in which case, he is very dangerous. Later on, when everybody is busily putting down the menace on the other side of the board, you can make your move. It’s often easier to get from 10 to 14 units than it is from 5 to 7; not only do you have much more to work with tactically, but the other players tend to become discouraged if they don’t believe they can stop the leader. 

Hobby legend relates a game wherein the Austrian player was reduced to one army, dislodged from a home center in a Spring turn, and who still managed to come back eventually to win the game. I’ve seen games in which 15-center countries have gone on to be totally eliminated. Anything is possible; maybe someday you’ll have your own mildly preposterous tale to tell of your most interesting game. In the meantime, with your hands grabbing for dots, one eye on your eventual goal of victory, and the other eye firmly fixed on the main chance, maybe you too will be able to get “from here to there.”