The Good Ally

by Len Lakofka

Today a new playing style is beginning to emerge. It is the “good ally” style, Basically it says, “I will never tell a lie,” Thus, if you plan to attack, you announce it. If you plan to be an ally, you become one. Note that this philosophy is not the “holy alliance,” or the “cartel alliance,” and thus you may attack – but you must announce it. The fact that the “holy alliance” (sort of death-do-us-part) or the “good ally” alliance has little or nothing to do with the simulation or the real world does not seem to prevent these two styles from being In vogue,

Diplomacy is a war simulation on the Diplomatic and on the tactical levels. Since economics and political philosophy do not enter the simulation, any country may ally with any other country. Diplomatically, then, you attempt to create an atmosphere in which you can accomplish three goals: (1) survive, (2) draw, and (3) win. Note that winning Is not the first goal. If you play to win (without securing your position first) and then something does go wrong with your first alliance, you may have doomed yourself.

At the beginning you wish to grow by usually taking your neutrals first and then attacking a neighbour(s). Attacking in 1901 is only feasible when you have a complete knowledge of the overall diplomatic and tactical picture (i.e., the strategic overview). Countries that plan attacks in 1901 often do not live to see 1905 if they do so alone or if they forget that two countries in alliance can not defeat five. Thus you move slowly at first. You establish relations with everyone in your sector and at least introduce yourself to everyone else. Perhaps you may ask what a sector is and even what neutral(s) you are entitled to. Let me digress – you say that is all I ever do?–and explain those terms.

  1. The Belgian Sector of the beard is composed of England, France and Germany. England will normally take Nwy and has an interest in Bel. France will normally take Por and Spa and has an interest in Bel. Germany will normally take Hol and Den and has an interest in Bel. This interest is the key to the Sector’s name. Everyone wants Belgium. For France or Germany to take it in 1901 could call attention to their 6 centres and thus they just might wish to avoid a 1901 grab, England would like it in 1901 but a 5-centre England is stronger than a 5-centre Germany or France. Thus we have a dilemma both diplomatic and tactical in the Belgian Sector.
  2. The Balkan Sector of the beard is composed of Austria, Russia and Turkey. Turkey normally gains Bulgaria, Austria takes Serbia and Greece and Russia gains Rumania. While everyone gets something, there is still an imbalance. Russia, Turkey and Austria can not conveniently go their separate ways without crossing over each other. Thus two usually ally against the third in the Balkan Sector,
  3. The Iberian Sector is composed of Italy and France and possibly England. Italy gets Tunis and France Iberia. If the area is peaceful, both countries can have a chance to grow. If the area is violent, the balance of power can shift in the opposite direction. This is because Italy is the balance of power nation between the Balkan and Belgian sectors. These two major sectors always activate (i.e., have a war in them), Thus, if Italy causes a 2-on-2 situation to occur in the Iberian Sector / Belgian Sector, two countries in the Balkan Sector could profit.
  4. The Ionian sector is composed of Italy, Austria and Turkey. The prize is usually Greece but Turkey itself can be the target if this sector activates. Italy gets Tunis and Austria gets Greece. Again note that if Italy goes into the lonian, then the Belgian Sector could profit. If in the lonian or Iberian Sectors Italy causes a 3-on-1 situation to be created (the target being France in the west, Turkey in the east (not Austria)), then Italy could go with the majority and gain. (Why not Austria? It is too early for Russia and Turkey to stay allied and just keep going, crushing Italy. The tactical situation heavily favours that alliance.
  5. The Tyrolian Sector is composed of all the countries that border on the neutrals Tyr. Boh, Sil – i.e., Russia, Germany, Austria and Italy. This sector, if activated early, is almost always at the expense of some centre(s) in the classic Belgian/Balkan Sectors and is thus often ill-advised. When a country bypasses his basic neutrals, he is toying with instant death! NEVER give up your classic neutrals without a fight, Rarely bypass one classic neutral in 1901 for activation of the Tyrolian Sector – although it is possible and can pay dividends if you know the entire board and have formed good alliances.
  6. The Scandinavian Sector is composed of Germany, England and Russia. Germany gets Den, Russia Swe, and England Nwy. Everyone gets one and everyone can go their separate ways for a few game years. The problem is to disentangle the pieces in Nwy, Swe and Den. Everyone is afraid to move out and everyone hates to waste a piece guarding the place. Another interesting tactical / diplomatic problem.

Taking all this information, let’s again look at the “good ally,” remembering that we are playing a war simulation, When a player negotiates his little heart out in 1901 without backing up the negotiations with sound 1901 tactical play, he has failed to accomplish the very goals of negotiation he has set for himself!

Let’s say that Russia, for example, does nothing about Rumania, playing instead F(StP)sc-GoB, A(War)-Sil, A War-Sil, F(Sev)Std., while also saying he is allied with Austria versus Turkey. Tactically he has blundered by (1) not taking Rumania, (2) leaving his “ally” to face off Turkey alone, and (3) allowing his “enemy” to gain the Black Sea and/or Armenia and perhaps even bounce him in Rumania in Fall 1901. Do you see the incongruity between the diplomatic and tactical portions of the 1901 play?? If not, then reread the sector analysis. If you still do not see it, then your days in Diplomacy could be numbered.

Now, let’s go farther and say that you are a “good ally” player. You will tell Austria you are allied with him and tell Turkey that you will attack. How long do you think it will be before Turkey and Austria attack you? Will Austria tell you of his attack? likely he will not, if he is a good player, he will surely abandon you as an ally because of tactical incompetence. Some “good ally” players become piqued when someone actually attacks them without warning. What has upset them is their own error, but they do not see it that way. Diplomacy is irrevocably connected with tactics, The simulation is designed that way, If you screw up the tactics, all the Diplomacy in the world will not save you. If you then compound the problem by being upset with your “ally” who attacked you, you are not aware of the way the game is played.

I have emphasised the word play twice now because Diplomacy is only a game. It is a game for people who enjoy thinking. It is a game for people with golden tongues who also know how to command armies. One asset alone not be good enough. When you are stabbed, you must ask, “Was it a good stab, did I have it coming’?” If the answer is “yes,” then chalk it up to experience. Do not say, “I’ll never ally with you again in this or any other game.” First, this game is not over, and second, vendettas profit no one, A vendetta player will not last long because he gets the reputation for playing the players and not the game. That reputation is far more onerous than one of stabbing when it is correct and necessary.

If the answer to the stab question is “no,” then you have been stabbed by someone who does not know how to play well and allying with him again should not be considered for a long period of time. My point is that the “good ally” concept is a long way from the way the game is designed. The game is designed for stabs. The rules clearly imply that a stab is possible – you can say anything but then do whatever you want. To throw that ability away is folly!

When is a stab a good stab? A stab should do one or all of the following: (1) increase your holdings, (2) insure a draw or win, (3) cripple the country being stabbed. If a stab does not give the prospect of long-term gain, then it is almost always a bad stab. If you only wound an opponent, you have not accomplished anything.

A “good ally” can not stab because he can not tell a lie. Do you usually go into a fight with one hand tied behind your back? Top players will all stab to draw or win. Does this mean that others will not ally with them? It does not. Quality begets quality. To prevent yourself from being stabbed you must always keep your guard up, never let it down. If your back door is open, someone will walk in. Don’t blame him for it, it is your poor play,

Now be sure that this does not mean that you should become an outright liar. That does not work either. You tell the truth to the best of your ability, being candid and evasive as need demands. One of the most valued tools in a good player’s arsenal can be evasion. Imply as much as you can without saying anything. If you must lie to accomplish something, then be sure the result of that lie will be almost certain death to the player you are lying to.

There is nothing immoral or even dishonest about lying in a game designed for lying: Some of your best plays result from stringing a player out and then leaving him / her there to hang all by himself. That is how the game is played. A “good ally” is too worried about being lily white (and I don’t mean that ethically) and is missing out on hours of good play. When I get stabbed, I scream and yell for a while, especially when It is a “bad” stab. But if it is a good one, I can enjoy and applaud the experience that got me out on the limb to be stabbed. That is what the game Diplomacy Is all about. You are playing to win, not to be a good guy. Good Guys only win in cross-game alliances and I find that to be reprehensible.

(reprinted from Diplomacy World No.11, 1976)