Preventing the Stab!

by Tom Hurst

We were good allies. We were sweeping the board together on our way to  the draw, when suddenly he stabbed me and took the win all by himself.  That untrustworthy SOB. I’ll never ally with him again! 

I have heard the above, or a similar statement more times than I care to  think about. The speaker is, of course, bemoaning the fact that his  chosen ally ended up being someone he couldn’t trust. Can you blame the  guy for being upset that all the hard work he put into the game has gone  for naught? Well, in most cases, you can! I find that most stabs are  caused by some failure on the part of the stabee. Ah, let me count the  ways (all five of them): 

1. Failure to communicate with your ally. 

 This can often happen from overconfidence late in the game when one ally  thinks everything is in hand and stops writing. That person, then, is  amazed that he gets stabbed, but he shouldn’t be, because he was asking  for it. In postal Diplomacy, most people stop writing their ally when  they are planning to stab him. The reasons for this are varied. Some feel  that they will ensure “surprise” if they tell their ally nothing. Some  feel that it is a waste of postage to write anyone who’s an enemy–even a  future enemy. Others are uncomfortable lying, and feel that not writing  is technically not telling a lie. Well, you may not have intended to  convey the impression of a pending stab by your silence, but Diplomacy  players in general are a paranoid lot–and generally with good reason.  Being paranoid, they tend to read sinister intentions in everything that  happens (or fails to happen). Given your failure to write your good ally  might well reason, “if this guy is preparing to stab me, why don’t I get  in first with a pre-emptive strike?” Don’t blame your ally for being  human. Write and continually reassure him, particularly if you are  planning a stab. What have you to lose?…only an ally and possibly the  game. 

2. Failure to understand an ally’s legitimate needs. 

We are allied, you are Austria, I am Russia, and we have just co-operated  in the conquest of Turkey. You then propose a deal whereby you attack  Germany and northern Italy while I attack England and Italy. You are then  surprised when I stab you next turn. Again, you deserved what you got! Just how far did you think I would get when I have to support two offenses from a single home centre each? A Mediterranean and English  offensive both require fleets, and your proposal would have made a large  portion of my forces–armies–useless. Where is my future growth to come  from? You! Be careful to ensure that you remain roughly equal with an  ally in strength and potential. All of us like to feel safe, but don’t  try to make yourself safe at your ally’s expense; treat him like an  equal. 

3. Failure to C.Y.A. 

C.Y.A., of course, stands for “cover your ass!” I also call it the Silver  Platter Doctrine. Don’t expect your ally to have the restraint of Job.  Humans, and especially Diplomacy players, are not so constituted. Take,  for example, the case of a Franco-German alliance. You have just knocked  out England, and are starting to turn east. You, as Germany, send  everything you have east, leaving all your possessions in central Germany  totally uncovered. Well, regardless of your alliance, you are handing the Frenchman the game – or at least all of your home centres – on a silver  platter. Keep a few units back. A judicious use of garrisons is  essential, but don’t expect your ally to hand you the game either. He’ll  be keeping garrisons too. And if he doesn’t, you stab him. He deserves  it.

4. Failure to study the board dispassionately and plan accordingly. 

Here we get out of the purely one-on-one relationship between you and  your ally and look at the game as a whole. Diplomacy is a board game, and  it stands to reason that what a player intends is reflected by his  position and moves on the board. Study it! Your ally can protest to high  heaven that he is with you, but if his armies are heading toward your  provinces, don’t be surprised if they attempt to find a home there. Where  can he move? If he can hurt you, take steps to ensure that it is more  profitable for him to move elsewhere. Don’t get blinded to reality,  either by your ally’s pretty phrases or by your own grandiose plans.  Studying the board will tell you a lot that your ally won’t. 

5. Failure to communicate with the rest of the board. 

This is your D.E.W (Distant Early Warning) line. Who better to warn you  of the machinations of a potentially dangerous ally than those whose best  interest it is to do so? The other players will give you all sorts of  warnings about your ally, but expect that you will have to sort through a  lot of chaff to find a kernel of truth–particularly if you have a  potentially winning alliance. But if you have statements from your ally  against  which to check other information, if you have looked out for  your ally’s legitimate needs, if your ass is covered, and if you have  studied the board position, such information does not exist in a vacuum.  Again, you have no one else to blame if you get stabbed by another player  who had it in his best interests to warn you, but who was put off by your  failure to ask him. 

There will always be stabs in Diplomacy–can you imagine the game without  them? The important thing is to be sure that the dagger always points  elsewhere. But if you are surprised by a successful stab despite every  precaution, don’t condemn the perpetrator as being “untrustworthy.”  Rather, praise him and learn from the experience. Enjoy! 

This article was reprinted from the US Novice Package Masters of Deceit.