The Art of Negotiation in Diplomacy

by Lewis Pulsipher

It has been six years since I ran a major Diplomacy feature in The General. It has taken that long to get up enough courage to try again. There are those who don’t consider Diplomacy a wargame. Indeed, the very practitioners of the art would take exception to the term. Diplomacy enthusiasts have always been a breed apart from the mainstream of the hobby. In fact, long before Diplomacy became an Avalon Hill product the wargame hobby was generally conceived to consist of three branches: board games, miniatures, and Diplomacy. Although dwarfed in comparison to the other two branches, Diplomacy enthusiasts made up for their lack of numbers by being highly visible. Diplomacy players by their very nature are a political and argumentative lot who have always made more noise than their numbers would warrant, and more often than not they would refer to wargames in the past tense: “Oh, I used to play those until I discovered Diplomacy.”

Well, the years have been indifferent to Diplomacy and although that sense of snobbery still exists among its faithful, their ranks are, if anything, even smaller than they were in days gone by and they have relinquished their hold on the “third branch”of the hobby to fantasy Role Playing Games which have also surpassed the other two in sales volume. Yet the game still has a cult following which persists in publishing a form of underground press in which they officially recognize every postal game with its own identifying serial number and add it to a sea of statistics kept on game play, top players, etc. The game seems to thrive on the fact that it requires seven players and is better suited to postal than live play; factors which would certainly have condemned a lesser game long ago. And despite its age, every ORIGINS convention seems to have a Diplomacy tournament with a hundred or more entrants. To that end, we hereby start a four part series on the game with no luck element by a longtime diplomat. You decide whether it is a wargame or not.

Diplomacy is a multi-player board wargame known to most strategic games players, probably the most widely known conflict game in the world if one excludes traditional games such as chess. It is presently marketed in the native tongues of Germany, Japan, Brazil, France, Holland and Argentina, and in English in most western European countries. About 300,000 copies have been sold since first publication in 1959. It is one of the few boardgames, and the only proprietary board wargame, so well-known that a book about the game has been published.
The heart of Diplomacy is negotiation between the seven players who represent the Great Powers of World War I: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Turkey. (This is not a simulation, of course; Turkey and Germany were not comparable in the war but Turkey is as strong in the game.) Facilitating the negotiations are the simple mechanics of simultaneous movement of a total of 34 armies and fleets, with no luck involved. Deals and alliances are made and broken during the game, and no one can be certain whether other players will react as expected; in other words, the players themselves provide the chance element.

In the mid-1960s science fiction fans organized postal games of Diplomacy, players negotiating by letter and sending movement orders to a non- playing referee who reproduced the orders and sent a copy to each player. Wargamers soon became involved, and today about 2,000 people worldwide play postal Diplomacy. Over 500 recorded postal games have been completed, each requiring two to three years or more. About 100 people act as referees, most editing and duplicating their own fanzines.

One of the attractions of Diplomacy is the simple but flexible game system. The rules can be adapted to construct a strategic game on almost any subject requiring more than two sides. No other game, except perhaps chess and D&D, has engendered so many variations. Diplomacy variants, as they are usually called, differ from variations of other wargames in their scope, insofar as many use a new mapboard and many of the rules of the parent game may be changed. The result is often virtually a new game. In fact, certain Diplomacy variants were the first fantasy and science fiction games to be played nationwide.

This is the first of three articles about how to play Diplomacy well. If response is favorable, other articles may discuss postal Diplomacy, publications, and variations, especially fantasy and science fiction versions of the game.

It is a mark of a great game, such as chess, that “experts” cannot agree on a best way to play. Diplomacy is no exception. Consequently, the advice below is my view of how to play successfully; others would disagree, as I sometimes indicate. Some points will be expanded and clarified in the articles on the other two major elements of Diplomacy play, strategy and tactics, which will appear in future issues.

Telling someone how to negotiate well is a difficult task. A person’s attitudes toward life and toward the game have a strong, immeasurable, and probably unalterable effect on how, and how well, he or she negotiates in any wargame. Literally hundreds of pages have been written about this subject. There are, however, certain principles and common failings which can be described, and which no player can ignore. These are the subjects of the following paragraphs.

The advice below applies to any well-played Diplomacy game, but it is necessary to recognize the differences between face-to-face (FTF) and postal play. When you play FTF with people you don’t know you will often encounter attitudes and conventions very different from your own. In the extreme, what you think is perfectly commonplace might be, to them, cheating. In postal play with experienced opponents you’ll en counter fewer “strange” notions. Incompetent players can be found in any game, of course. Postal games suffer from failure of players to submit orders before the adjudication deadline—”missed moves”. A failure to move at a crucial time usually causes significant if not decisive changes in the flow of play. Both FTF and postal games suffer from “dropouts”—people who quit playing before their countries are eliminated. Part of a good player’s range of skills is the ability to keep his allies (and his enemy’s enemies) from dropping out. In a top-class game none of these difficulties occur.

In FTF play it is easier to coordinate routine attacks, and to form coalitions to stop the largest country from winning—communication is more rapid and more frequent than by mail. More elaborate and brilliant tactical play is found in postal games because each player has hours, if he desires, to look for the very best moves. Time- pressure often causes tactical mistakes in FTF games. Finally, dogged persistence of argument is valuable in FTF, where a weak player often does whatever he was most recently told to do. In postal play, persistence (via numerous letters and long distance phone calls) is valuable, but written negotiation requires a more careful, more logical approach than oral negotiation. Every player has time to think things through, to notice holes in arguments, to hear from every player—no one can monopolize his time. For that reason a top-class postal game probably requires greater skill than a top-class FTF game.

When you begin a game you must first learn something about each of your opponents. Sometimes you will know quite a bit to begin with, but you can also ask people who know the opponent better than you do. You want to know if your opponent is generally reliable or not, what his objective is, whether he is a classical or romantic player, and whether or not he is good at negotiations, strategy, and tactics. (This is a controversial point, insofar as some players—usually the notoriously erratic and unreliable—say that a player’s previous record should have no effect on the game. However, the more you know about another player the better you’ll be able to predict his actions. It would require a peculiar view of life for a player to knowingly ally with someone who has never abided by an agreement in 20 games! Nor would you offer to draw with a player who would “rather die than draw”.
However much some players wish to pretend that they are really government leaders and that World War I is happening just this once, most Diplomacy players recognize that it is primarily a somewhat abstract game of skill, and act accordingly.)

Let’s consider each point you’re trying to learn about, beginning with reliability. Novice players, urged on by the rulebook introduction, usually believe that the winner will be the player who lies, cheats, and backstabs most effectively. Perhaps if you never play more than once with the same people and never acquire a reputation this would be true. But in the long run players learn to treat liars and backstabbers as enemies. Why invite disaster in an already difficult game? Obviously, for one person to do well in a game with six others some cooperation is necessary, and cooperation is easier and more effective between those who can rely upon one another to some extent. An expert player rarely lies, and then only because the lie is likely to radically improve his position. He prefers to say nothing, to change the subject, to speak of inconsequentials, rather than lie. When he agrees to an alliance of some kind he usually abides by the agreement. By specifying a limited duration—until 190x or until X country is eliminated or reduced to one supply center—he won’t back himself into a corner which would require him to break one agreement or another. When he backstabs (attacks an ally) he stabs to virtually destroy a country, not merely to gain a few centers. The stab leads directly to accomplishing his goal, not merely to increasing his supply center total. He wants to be known as a reliable player because this will make other players more willing to cooperate with him.
Some players say that only mutual self-interest should determine whether an agreement is kept, or a lie told. When the agreement is no longer in one player’s interest he should break it. In the short term this might be true, though a lie or backstab early in a game can be remembered later in the game to the detriment of the perpetrator. The expert player looks at the long term, since few people play just one Diplomacy game. It is in his interest to maintain an agreement, to avoid lying, in order to establish and maintain a reputation for reliability. There is no altruism involved. (Incidentally, the reliable player is less often on the receiving end of an emotional barrage of anger from a disappointed player—no small gain.)

Though it is surprising to some, not every player wants to accomplish the same thing. Some play for excitement, not caring if they win or lose as long as the game is full of wild incidents. Most play to win the game, but there the ways part. Many players (the “drawers”) believe that, failing to win, a draw is the next best result, while anything else is a loss. At the extreme, even a 7-way draw is better than second place. Others (the “placers”) believe that to survive in second place while someone else wins is better than a draw. At the extreme are those who would “rather die than draw”. (I should say that I am an extreme drawer, and find the placers’ view intellectually and emotionally incomprehensible, but surveys show that a large minority of postal players are partial or wholehearted placers.) Such a fundamental disagreement in objectives can have a decisive effect on a game. If you propose a plan to establish a 3-way draw a placer won’t be interested. If you offer to help a player of a weak country to attain second place if he helps you win, you’ll get nowhere if he’s a drawer but a placer would be favorably impressed. Placers make better “pup pets”, but drawers can be just as good as allies. In some situations they are better, for they won’t abandon you (when they feel they can’t win) in order to try for second place instead of a draw. When you’re winning you’re better off with a placer ally, who is a little less likely to attack you than a drawer would be.

Whether a player’s style is ‘‘classical’’ or “romantic” is hard to define. Briefly, the classical player carefully maximizes his minimum gain. He pays attention to detail and prefers to patiently let the other players lose by making mistakes, rather than try to force them to make mistakes. He tends to like a relatively stable alliance and conflict structure in the game. He tends to be reliable and good at tactics. The romantic is more flamboyant, taking calculated risks to force his enemies to make mistakes, trying to defeat them psychologically before they are defeated physically on the board. (Many players give up playable positions because they’re convinced that they’ve lost.) He tends to try to maximize his maximum gain, though theoretically this is less effective than the classical player’s method. He can be unpredictable, relying on surprise and the Great Stab for victory. Tending to be an unreliable ally and a sometimes sloppy tactician, he likes a fluid, rapidly changing alliance and conflict structure.

Finally, it’s useful to know whether your opponent is a poor, average, or good player, and what facets of the game he is better at. You can risk a one- on-one war with a poor tactician but not with a good one. An alliance of limited duration with a player who is deficient in strategy can leave you in a much better position as you outmaneuver him in dealing with the players on the other side of the board. Some players like to eliminate inferior players early in the game, while others try to use the poor players to eliminate strong opponents.

To reemphasize the point of this “sizing up”, the more you know about your opponent’s tendencies the better you can predict his reaction to a given stimulus. As you negotiate you should attempt to learn more about his preferences. In the extreme case you can try to make yourself appear to be a particular kind of player in order to gain the respect or sympathy of your opponent, but this is hard to do. Even if you begin a game with six unknown quantities you should be able to learn something about their styles before you write your spring 1901 orders. If necessary, talk about yourself and your own views in order to draw out the other players.

There are five other principles of negotiation beyond “know your opponents”: 1) talk with everybody, 2) be flexible, 3) never give up, 4) explain plans thoroughly, and 5) be positive.

1) At the beginning of the game, and periodically throughout, talk with all other players, even your enemy. Someone on the other side of the board may know something of interest to you. Trade information, when possible, with those who haven’t an immediate stake in what you do next. Don’t be too free with the information you obtain or it may get back to your source, who will decide he can’t trust you with more. As will be explained in the upcoming article on strategy, an expert player takes account of, and tries to control the actions of, every player in the game—and he can’t do that if he doesn’t talk with them.

2) Be flexible. If you expect everyone to play the way you do you’ll surely lose. Don’t get emotional, though it isn’t necessarily bad to simulate some emotion in order to change an opponent’s behavior. It is only a game, and stabbing is a part of it. If you are stabbed, or someone lies to you, anger will do you no good. What you can do is make sure your antagonist regrets his action, with the idea that next time he’ll remember and won’t do it again. (The advocates of “short-term” Diplomacy go even further. They would say, forget about the stab—what is in your interest now? You could find that you should ally with the person who just betrayed you.) When you are at war, always think about possible deals with your enemy—especially if he has the upper hand! No rule says you must fight him to the bitter end. You might both fare better by doing something else, such as jointly attacking a
third country or separately attacking third and fourth countries. Always have an alternative plan in case things go wrong. Humans, especially Diplomacy players, can be an erratic lot.

3) Never give up. Keep negotiating with your enemy even as he wipes you out. You may be more useful to him as a minor ally than as an enemy. As long as you have a unit you can affect the course of the game. There have been postal games in which a player reduced to two supply centers later won, and in FTF games even one-center countries have come back to win. In the fluid conditions of many games dramatic reversals of fortune are common.

4) Explain plans thoroughly. When you’ve sized up your opponents and selected your strategy, make your approach. Explain in detail and at length what you expect both you and your potential ally to accomplish. If he can’t see any advantage in what you propose he won’t accept—or more likely, he’ll pretend to agree and then backstab. Some players prefer to be noncommittal, to get the feel of things during the first season or first game-year. Others like to form solid alliances as soon as possible. Whichever you prefer, be sure you put effort into your attempts to come to agreements with others; even if you intend to break them, give plausible reasoning. If things go wrong you may find yourself relying on an agreement you intended to break. If you don’t seem interested in the agreement when you propose it, the other player won’t believe you. For example, when you propose an offensive alliance don’t merely say “Let’s you and me get him”. This isn’t negotiation, this is an invitation to be treated as an inferior player. Instead, talk about why it is in the interest of both your countries to eliminate country X, how it can be accomplished (tactics), what other countries will probably be doing (strategy), how the spoils will be divided, and what each of you can do afterward to avoid fighting each other. If the attack doesn’t give both of you prospects for a win your potential ally will be suspicious—especially if the alliance appears to favor him, not you.

5) Be positive. Convince the other fellow, don’t tamely hope that his ideas coincide with yours. Negotiation is a strange mixture of aggressive per suasion and attempts to seem innocuous, to avoid drawing too much attention to oneself. People who are good at it in postal games may have difficulties FTF, or vice versa. However you go about it, don’t be discouraged by initial failures, and analyze why you succeed or fail. There’s no substitute for

Reprinted from The General Vol 18 No.1