To Stab or Not to Stab

by Keith Hazleton

Diplomacy is a rich game with many interesting facets, but for some players the ultimate satisfaction – indeed, their raison d’etre for playing – is the backstab. The ultimate proof of one player’s intellectual superiority over another. Many articles have been written about this aspect of the game – one of the earliest American postal zines was called sTab, with the ‘T’ replaced by a vicious-looking dagger.

You’ll have a hard job patting a Diplomacy player on the back – there isn’t much room amidst the forest of knife handles.

Or so the myths would have us believe. In actual practice, a real backstab is rarer than you may think. Of course, this depends on what you define as a stab. We’ll have a look later at what may be described as the four basic types of stab, but the real tour de force, the stab that completely changes the whole pattern of a game, is a rare bird indeed. It may be likened to chess when the annotator adds a ‘!’ to a brilliant move. For spectators following a game, much enjoyment is to be had by watching a top player setting up a stab, manoeuvring until he is in just the right position, and then gently sliding the knife in, with no possibility of meeting resistance.

Why do major stabs happen so rarely?

Probably three reasons. Firstly, many games involve a majority of inexperienced players, who just don’t have the knowledge or timing required to execute a major stab. Secondly, many players are content to perform minor stabs and then revert back to previously agreed friendships and alliances, having gained a bit of ground. Finally, and perhaps most commonly, many players are concerned about their reputation, both in the current game and in subsequent encounters when some or all of the players may be involved.

Some players consider stabbing an ungentlemanly act and never partake in the dastardly deed. These players rarely win games. It takes confidence and a certain amount of soul-searching to perform a major stab, of that there is no doubt, but if you join a Diplomacy game with the intention of winning it, you must be prepared to stab if the opportunity presents itself.

Essentially a stab is a betrayal of trust, and usually consists of an attack by player A on player B, when player B has good reason to assume that such an attack would never take place. Sometimes a stab is an overt piece of aggression visible for all to see, but there are more subtle ways of achieving the same aims.

The Four Main Types of Stab

The Big One which breaks an alliance. Players A and B have had a long-term alliance advancing shoulder-to-shoulder against the common enemy. When the moment is right A (or B) attacks B (or A) and goes on to win the game.

The Little One normally involves breaking a non-aggression pact. A typical example is France and Italy agreeing to keep Piedmont unoccupied. Whilst France is away concentrating in other areas, Italy marches into the demilitarized zone and threatens to take some of France’s home centres.

The Breach of Contract, which may be called the ‘legal’ stab. A and B have a signed written agreement which may specify the conditions when an alliance may end. If these conditions are met, one or both players may then attack the other. If you enter such an agreement make sure you read the small print.

The 3rd Party Stab is perhaps the most subtle and effective of all. A and B have a non-aggression pact or indeed a full alliance. Player A secretly persuades other parties to attack B and can claim that it wasn’t his fault. He had no knowledge of the evil act and only wishes that he had the firepower to rush to B’s aid! Whether B believes this baloney is another matter.

The 3rd Party Stab is an extension of one of the game’s fundamental principles – set the opposing players against each other, whilst you build comfortably in the background. When the others have finished slugging it out, you emerge as both the strongest nation and the most innocent…

When to Stab?

There is just one simple golden rule. Never stab unless you are sure your opponent cannot retaliate. If your stab fails to cripple the enemy guess what his next moves are going to be? It is no good just gaining a small foothold – the enemy must be put into a position where he will not be able to recover, either on his own or with the help of other players.

Understand that if a stab merely turns all the other players against you, it probably isn’t worth the effort. The other players must be convinced that you are working for ‘the common good’ – and you can take that to mean whatever you like!

Who to Stab?

It is easy to stab a small neighbour who relies on you for his continued presence in the game. Indeed, it is hardly worthy of the name ‘stab’, more a mopping-up operation. But the gains are minimal.

A ‘proper’ stab is one against your strongest opponents. But beware; if the attempted stab just turns your most powerful ally into your most powerful enemy, the objective has not been attained.


This, without doubt is the most controversial area of the stab question. If you play in more than one game and you run into the same players, your reputation as a ‘stabber’ will precede you. Carrying over alliances from one game to another is considered by many to be unethical but, nevertheless, it happens. Similarly, if you have committed a major stab against a player in one game and you meet him in a later encounter, he will naturally be very wary about allying with you again.

What can you do about it? Diplome! Use your negotiating skills to pour oil over troubled waters. Assure him that you have cleansed your soul and seen the error of your ways. And then, if you get the chance, put the boot in again.

There are many other ‘dirty tricks’ that you can try – some legal and some definitely not. The “Oh What a Silly Mistake” stab is perfectly acceptable. You agree to move a unit from A to B and instead send it to C. Easy to misunderstand an agreed move in the heat of battle. Or you make a small typo in your orders so that an agreed move say F(Kie)-HEL turns into F(Kie)-Hol. Oops, sorry about that, must check my orders more carefully in future.

There are a multitude of opportunities to misunderstand agreed actions. It’s all part of the game. The fairly complicated convoy orders are probably the easiest to misorder and therefore the easiest to explain away to a sceptical ally.

Tampering with Her Majesty’s mail or falsifying emails is definitely illegal. Most GMs will immediately disbar any player found guilty of trying these sort of tricks. But there are other ways of blaming technology for committing a stab. For example; “I had a sudden change of heart about our agreed plan (blame a late communication from a third party if you like) just before the deadline, I submitted the amended moves and then, would you believe my server went down and emails were offline for over eight hours. I tried everything to let you know, hope you understand”. If your opponent falls for that, he doesn’t deserve to survive in the game!

Finally what do you do after the stab. Do you write to your old ally apologising for what you just did? That’s up to you to decide. Some players do write and try to justify their dirty deeds, maybe to salve their own guilty conscience. Others may try and rescue their previously spotless reputation. Others just let sleeping dogs lie.

Without doubt, the stab is most difficult part of the game to master, but at the same time it gives many players the greatest pleasure. Just make sure that a) if you stab it does the maximum damage and b) you’re not the one on the receiving end.