Strategic Diplomacy – Generalities (Part 1)

by Harry Drews

The winner at Diplomacy must cultivate many talents. He must develop good knowledge of tactics, by which I mean being able to maximise the usefulness of each individual playing piece every turn. He must have a good sense of prediction: to predict the most probable train of thought of every opponent and their most likely course of action. He must also have the ability to: 1) coerce, 2) lie, or 3) stab as appropriate for the moment while displaying, respectively, 1) unerring friendship, 2) dismay and annoyance at the mixup, or 3) mournful regret and a promise to reconsider. But perhaps the most essential talent is the one least written about and the one least understood by the novice: establishing your game goal and methodically fulfilling it.

Too often a player plays the game as if it were a series of accidents. A neighbour leaves a border lightly defended so you stab him; you see a couple of supply centres that likely can be taken so you grab them; you are flooded by correspondence from one player so you are influenced by him; some other turkey is a poor communicator so you say “I’ll pick on him”. It is as if a staggering drunk played billiards; he could win but it would have to be through a piece of tremendous luck.

Let us assume that our goal is to win a game of Diplomacy by capturing 18 supply centres. There are some general rules which should be broken only on good cause. Communicate regularly and in friendly and informative fashion with all players. Reply to any letters you receive. Do not give up after a try or two if a player does not answer you. Don’ t wait for the other guy to start things up. Establish lines of communication with even non-neighbours. There will likely came about a time when you can use the services of even the most distant country. If you break a promise or if you stab, apologise and always explain why.

Now let let’s move to some more concrete ways to achieve your objective. Never have more than one opponent at a time. If you have an enemy already, be careful not to make any more. If two or more players come after you then try to come to terms with all but one. Be prepared to swallow your pride; vengeance can wait. Establish one player as your ‘game long ally’. This will be the player whom you will sacrifice only if it is necessary to get you the hump’ to eighteen centres. So, now you have determined your one enemy (the target) and your ally. All others fall in the class of neutrals who must be continuously wooed. Try to make every player feel as if he is the one closest to your heart. Develop a love—hate relationship. Hate your one enemy and love everyone else.

Diplomacy is an amoral game. The winner will be the one who is most intelligently ruthless. Friendships may arise during the course of play; good press may be written. But playing Diplomacy is analogous to making love. You can have a lot of fun in the course of it, but you must not forget what the original intention was: procreation or winning the game, as the case may be.

What to do in the early stages of the game. Get a feeling for how reliable and intelligent each player is. Weigh this with the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the country he is playing. For example, when playing Russia you may have an instinctive urge to ‘get Turkey’. Submerge this urge to an evaluation of the characteristics of the guy who is playing Turkey in that game. If you don’t know the players from past experience then don’t be in a hurry to commit yourself by your moves. Wait until you have some idea of your fellow players’ intentions. Always be aware of short-term expansion and long term elimination. Never work yourself into a corner diplomatically or geographically. Pick the direction of expansion so that the thrust can be maintained for the duration of the game without need of reversal. An alternative is to expand from a central position in a series of directional impulses. Each impulse when complete will serve to secure a portion of your frontier.

Who should your game long ally be? This will vary. If the country is intrinsically strong and potentially damaging to you then the player must be submissive to your intentions. Can you dominate him and feed him moves? If not, then you are dealing with a potential time bomb. On the other hand, is the country basically weak? It then requires a capable experienced player to make the most of an inferior position. You don’t want ally with a losing cause. Finally, is the player head strong and impulsive? Ally with him only if he is not a direct neighbour, let him wreck havoc within the enemy camp while you pick up the pieces. Who should your first enemy be? Clearly the player who is overall of most danger to you and against whom you can round up a coalition. Don’t do things by yourself unless there is no other way. Think of the wolf pack picking on one victim. 

(Reprinted from Paroxysm 2, April 1974.)