The Dialectics of Diplomacy

by John Wilman

Firstly, a quick resume for anyone unfamiliar with the term “dialectics” The dialectic method of argument is generally attributed to Hegel, although it can be traced back as far as Socrates. Hegel was a 19th century, German philosopher of dubious pedigree, whose works were so impenetrable that he has been claimed as a source of inspiration by both Fascism and Communism – hardly a record to be proud of. But the dialectic method of argument is undoubtedly a good one if used properly, as it is dynamic, progressive and evolutionary (as opposed to being static, reactionary and revolutionary).

The framework will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken part in a formal debate. We start with a thesis, which can arise from anywhere – accepted wisdom, a new theory, a draft constitution or a set of rules. A simple example would be the widely held view, in medieval times, that the world is flat. The arguments for the thesis are carefully set out, then the antiĀ­thesis is advanced, purely in order to prove the thesis wrong and to advance the opposite view. From the clash of opposing ideologies and beliefs, which is not always as swift and bloodless as we would like it to be, a synthesis emerges – a combination of the best parts of the thesis and the antithesis.

The important and evolutionary aspect of dialectics is that the synthesis then becomes the “new” thesis, enabling the process to start all over again, but from better informed positions. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, there are certain things that even the greatest of scientists, philosophers and other thinkers find it hard to do, such as:

1) Learning from our mistakes,

2) Admitting that we’ve made a mistake, and

3) Admitting the possibility that someone with opposing views may be right

whereas we find it very easy to:

1) Talk when we should be listening,

2) Spot other peoples’ mistakes, and

3) Tell them what they are doing wrong.

All of which mitigates against progress being made by rational debate. Given that we have all played Dip at some time, however reluctantly, it is, undoubtedly, a game, a game of strategy, like Go, Chess and Bridge, but – uniquely for its time – a game for 7 players. Most classical games of strategy cater for just two. Bridge allows 4, but one player is always dummy and relegated to making the coffee. If you are trying to make or break a contract, it’s either you against two, or you and your partner against one. Solo Whist is a much better game, but who plays it nowadays?

Scrabble is best played with two, as is snooker, and tennis. Adding a third or fourth player is frivolous, and, in some cases, just ridiculous. Poker is the only game that can deal with any number of players, but it’s a gambling game, and not for the faint-hearted or folk with emotions deeper than pockets. Most multi-player games, before the era which we now know and enjoy, were card or dice based, gladiatorial, family style and basically, crap.

In this category, we must include Risk, Monopoly & Buccaneer, although they were probably points of entry for many – Buccaneer, in particular, cries out for slightly amended victory criteria and anticipates the hex map without employing it. It also introduces the wrecking tactic, beloved of rules freaks everywhere (play the derelict card), which I have also seen employed in “Formula One” (there’s a space where you can park) and “Mine a Million”, the game where you deliberately sink your own ships and win by smuggling units to Race Bay.

The ultimate non-game is of course Trivial Pursuit, which fails to meet all three of its relatively undemanding objectives. The answers are sometimes just plain wrong, and are also easy to remember, while the game mechanics make Snakes & Ladders look like a work of genius. It still annoys me that the “inventors” became millionaires, while the true greats of games design do it in their spare time for scant reward (Rex Walford is still alive and well and writing to the quality broadsheets).

But I digress – nothing new there. We are now fortunate enough to have a plethora of excellent games. Granted, it took a while. Diplomacy was finally unleashed in 1954, two years before I was born. Francis Tresham gave us “1829” , and all his other multi-player games, more than twenty years afterwards. Since then, we have had the great bonanza of “German Games”, and someone else will have to write about those, because my exposure to them, while pleasurable, has not been extensive. I have yet to play “Settlers” (Die Siedler von Catan), but I have played “Dune”, and I think I would always win as the Atreides (he who nukes first nukes most effectively, how depressing).

Games with many players now cater for the fanatical and dedicated (Gulf War and Conquest Europa can take upwards of two days) and for the dilettantes with only half an hour to spare, if you can stomach “Family Business”, though the best games, with players familiar with the game mechanics, can be knocked out in a flexible 2 – 4 hour time-frame. This is pushing it for Dip, which (at last!) leads to our first dialectic progression.

Diplomacy was designed as a face-to-face game, and this is still the way I prefer to play it, in a relaxed and social atmosphere. The difficulties of organising it like this, however, are formidable. Hence the growth of the antithesis: postal diplomacy. Like many graduates, I only got into this some time after leaving University, and only because I wasn’t getting enough ftf games. My gaming cronies were all into D&D and its derivatives, which I found a poor substitute, and easily taken too seriously. At one stage, I was probably playing in upwards of a dozen games at anyone time. You could do this at the time, because about half the zines folded and the games went into limbo.

Clearly, this wasn’t a great state of affairs, and some bright spark had the notion of a Diplomacy Convention, along the lines of a chess or bridge tournament. This was the synthesis – tournament play, which is fast, furious and utterly cut-throat. There is much current debate about scoring systems, but there was never really a problem here until a few wretched individuals began to “throw” games to their friends. There wasn’t enough skill around in those days for “the other 5” to prevent two scoundrels doing this, and so tournaments were won by players who were clearly acting contrary to the spirit, if not the letter of the law. (Very few things are actually prohibited by the Diplomacy rulebook: one of them is “negotiating during order-writing time”, but this has proved impossible to police with 7 hyped-up dippers staring at the board, so almost everybody does it now).

It’s advisable not break the law of the land in a public place, or indeed, try to argue with the tournament director, but you can do what you like with your own units, and if you elect to lose deliberately to benefit another, even for financial gain, behaviour that would get you slung out of a chess tournament, there’s not a lot that can be done about it. It creates a lot of bad feeling, and that’s the state of play at present with the synthesis – where do we go from here with tournament Dip?

My feeling is that we should keep it simple – go back to the rulebook and use the rules for the “short game”, just as Calhamer wrote them. 1908 would be a good cut-off point, and from there you can either use the simple (excessively so, in my view) C-Diplo, or something a bit more testing that encourages enterprising play – tournament Dip is exceedingly “tight”, and the 1st player to take a risk nearly always gets shot down in flames.

2nd Dialectic: Win, Place or Show?

When Diplomacy was first introduced, it was clear that the objective was to win, by getting to 18 centres. This is bloody difficult, and I still get a real buzz when I get a “solo”. I’ve wrapped up two in the last 6 months, but not anywhere I’d be noticed if I didn’t brag about them (neither false nor true modesty is numbered among my virtues). Failing that , players tried to prevent anyone else from winning, and, by avoiding elimination, participate in a draw. Such is our simple thesis: You either win, lose or draw, and since a notional “Calhamer Point” comes with a win, the fewer players in the draw, the greater your share in it. Besides, it is obviously more satisfying to be in a 3-way draw than a 6-way, because you can claim to have “beaten” more players – they were eliminated, while you survived.

At various times, however, the philosophy of “Strong Second” has been advanced. This is argued by alliance players, who claim that if two of them, acting in concert, charge across the board together and wipe out ALL the opposition, with one ending on 18 and the other on 16, this is a better result for the player on 16 than a “mere” draw. As many folk cynically observed at the time, including me, if you want to win games, find a “Strong Second” player to ally with! The trouble is, such players tend to stick together, on the grounds that “if I always ally with x, who is my friend, at least one of us will win”.

This is, to my mind, a very vegetarian attitude. Diplomacy is a game for sharks, not dolphins. OK, so I’m happy with a draw if I’m playing a much stronger player, whatever the game, but a loss is a loss and I get enough of those anyway without trying for them. The way I look at it is, if I win one game in 7 and draw a couple, I’m clearly better than average. I’ve recently seen a list of “priorities” that I think most modern players would agree with, with a suitably robust American title; I believe it was “asshole diplomacy”

1) Play for a win, for as long as it’s possible to get one.

2) Play for a draw, if you can’t

3) Screw the guy that screwed you

4) Survive until the end, or at least until after the guy that screwed you has gone

That’s a good, tough, no nonsense stance, and should not be confused with refusing to deal with a guy who has stabbed you. If it was a good stab, and justified, keep talking! Just don’t let the same thing happen twice ….. Stupid stabs that hurt the attacker more than they do you, however, are the hallmark of a weak, indecisive player, who should certainly be taught a severe lesson, if it’s at all possible. And that’s enough dialectics for one issue.

First published in The White Cat