Articles for the Novice

How To Play Diplomacy

... wherever you play it.

by Rick Leeds

It's been a while since my idea for a novices section for The Diplomatic Pouch was first aired. There are reasons for that which I won't bore you with but, as Mario prodded me into action, I knew it was time to get up and do it.

I mentioned in the introductory article [​The Embassy The Diplomatic Pouch, S2016R] that there is a big difference between playing face-to-face and remotely, specifically on the net. Is any advice on playing ​Diplomacy​ sound no matter ​how you play it?

The Basics
I don’t know about you but I’ve never liked: “We need to get back to basics.” It always seems to be patronizing. It’s like the guys passing on this sage advice think that we don’t know what ‘the basics’ are, and that they’ve conveniently forgotten that they were the people who buried the basics beneath a mountain of complications.

So I apologize, but the articles in The Embassy ​are meant for novice Diplomacy players, so *deep breath* “Let’s get back...” – oh, you know.

Not a war game
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck: it’s a duck.

Diplomacy ​may look like a war game: it has armies and fleets and it’s set on a stylized map of Europe at the turn of the 19th Century. It may play like a war game: players conquer spaces to win. But it definitely doesn’t ​sound like a war game.

The clue is in the title after all: ‘​Diplomacy’. Diplomacy is about jaw-jaw not war-war. That is why Diplomacy is not​ a war game.

You can play as if it were a war game; the Gunboat variant is the version for you if you’re not prepared to play it properly. No communication between players, all you do is simply move your units about. I’m told it’s great for practicing and learning the rules. Personally, while I acknowledge the latter, if you want to practice it – play it properly; you won’t learn much about the game if you play without communication.

There are two or three phases in each turn, with some exceptions. In the first turn, Spring 1901, the game has a full half-hour of communications built in; in each successive turn players get fifteen minutes to chat.

Here’s another clue: communications are built into Diplomacy​; if you aren’t communicating well, you’re not playing well.

Cartoony Diplomacy players

There are two broad types of play: you may play face-to-face (FTF), which was the way the game was designed to be played. There’ll be a group of you, sat around a table, with a board in the middle. Alternatively you may play remotely, from a distance. This is likely to be on a website these days (or using an app); you might communicate using an in-game messaging system or by email. If you’re one of those guys, you may even play by mail (some people still do, I’m told).

In the FTF game, communicating with every player can be difficult. And yet, if you speak to, or read articles written by, good players you’ll hear/see that talking to everyone is important.

In the remote game, communications become exaggeratedly important. On a website, you’ll have ​much longer deadlines, stretching into multiple days or even weeks. Communicating with all other players is therefore not only possible but crucial. If you’re not chatting with Austria, someone else will ​be.

So, at the very least, communicate! Even is what you have to say is entirely unsubstantial, talk.

A step-up from communicating, being able to negotiate is important. Which means knowing how to negotiate is important. If you want to learn about negotiating in Diplomacy, chat with Mario.

There’s a classic idea about negotiations: Always negotiate from a position of strength. Bovine fecal matter (BFM).

Good negotiators will simply negotiate. The important thing is to know your relative strategic positions. This may or may not relate to your comparative strengths.

If you’re comparatively weak, don’t threaten your opponent. If you’re comparatively strong, then threats are OK if they will gain the result you’re after. However, threats are not a great strategy in general, certainly not stated explicitly.

Being subtle is an art – practice it.

The best way to negotiate is not to be confrontational, though. Anyone who knows anything about negotiating will tell you that the best way to get what you want is to find common goals. This allows you to negotiate with players who potentially want the same things you want. That leaves the details.

This is the key to ​Diplomacy​. Dip is a social game; it may not be one of those daft MMRPGs, which tend towards playing on your own while being aware of others. It is a genuinely social game; you need the help of others to succeed.

Put some effort into building relationships with other players. This takes us back to communication; if you don’t communicate in any​ relationship, that relationship is going to fail. You may only have basic, nothing-to-do-with-the-game chat to offer; you may simply swap rumors (or pseudo-rumors), but do communicate.

OK, so what can Austria offer England, tactically, in Spring 1901? Bugger all. What might Austria be able to offer England, tactically, in Spring 1905? Possibly something more. Spring 1910? Well, if both are still active then probably quite a lot.

So let’s jump forward to Spring 1910: you (England) haven’t spoken much to Austria. There are four powers involved in the game. You and Austria are middle-ranking powers; France is doing two or three centers better than either; Russia is a little smaller. At this point, you and Austria have common enemies: the strong France and the weak Russia.

You want to work with Austria to stop a French solo. However, France has been chatting to Austria since the start of the game. They’ve shared some jokes (at Italy’s expense); they’ve chatted about Germany (a pain in the ass); France even complimented Austria on how she dealt with Turkey.

Who is likely to be better able to work with Austria, you or France? Which player has the better relationship with Austria?

You’re hopefully playing the long game. Don’t be short-sighted.

So, OK, tactics – how to move the pieces on the board – are important. This aspect of playing Dip can’t be ignored. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

Strategy is about combining tactical knowledge with diplomacy. Read, practice, play: this is the way to learn both strategy and tactics. You don’t learn chess by playing it – you need to understand it. And you don’t learn anything by reading or listening alone – you need to do it to understand it.

I have something of an issue with strategy articles: I don’t necessarily think they are sound in different formats and in today’s game. Thinking and practice move on: is the Juggernaut alliance as devastating today as it was in the mid-1970s? Potentially, yes; realistically..? As soon as Russia and Turkey look like they might be cooperating two or three players start screaming: “JUG!!!”

Is a strategy article written by a successful tournament player going to be as useful in a regular game of ​Diplomacy? Possibly... but tournament games often have unnatural ends and are often more like a scramble for supply centers (SCs) than a regular game. Is being aggressive the best thing to do in all​ circumstances? Is caution a bad strategy consistently? On the other hand, knowing about stalemate lines is always going to be useful – not necessarily to ensure a draw but also to understand how to​ avoid​ a draw.

Ignoring writing about being a ‘good second place’ (nothing to do with the game and an abhorrence), reading strategy articles is great, but do so thoughtfully. If nothing else, it will give you a deeper understanding of how players are likely to approach a game. But apply this knowledge, don’t simply copy it.

And remember the golden rules of using strategy articles:

  1. They’re written by people who have found success using the strategy – just because it has worked in some games doesn’t mean it’s going to work in all ​games.
  2. They’re written by people who may have a different style of play – not everyone is aggressive/cautious/opportunistic and not everyone is experienced.

When you enter a game of Diplomacy, what do you want to do? Keeping your priorities in mind is going to improve your play. So what are these priorities?

Have fun!
You know, Diplomacy is a game. If you can have fun playing it – which is the idea​ of a game then – you’ll play better.

Pouting child.

So, yeah. You got stabbed. That’s bad. It’s disappointing. (You should probably be asking, by the way, why you got stabbed...) But it’s part of the game (or should be – see below!)

If you can’t take being stabbed without feeling betrayed, if you can’t suffer defeat without tipping the board over, there’s always Twister.

Win, draw, or lose; stab or be stabbed – enjoy it! Learn from it and get better.

Play to win
... or, at least, to get the best result possible.

Personally, I dislike the philosophy of the draw-monger (or the care-bear, if you prefer). Why go into a game of Diplomacy looking for a player with whom to build an unbreakable alliance and keep that alliance until the sweet end? What has that to do with this game?

The objective of the game is pretty damn clear: own 18 SCs to win. Ending the game in a draw was described by Calhamer as an adequate secondary objective [Objectives Other Than Winning, Allan B Calhamer, 1974 IDA Diplomacy Handbook. Reprinted in the Diplomacy Archive.]

This isn’t the place to have a huge dig at players who do play this way. When it comes right down to it, each player can play the game the way they want. Look at combating draw-mongering as a challenge!

Winning, then, is the primary objective of playing the game.

End the game when it’s over
The published rules suggest ending the game before someone wins might happen if all surviving players agree, in which case they all share a draw equally. The idea is that games have reached a stalemate (real or effective) or that players have run out of time.

This is suggested in the context of an FTF game. It is common in tournaments because to complete a tournament within the time a convention has available is all but impossible realistically if games are played to a natural finish.

It is also applicable to remote games. There may not be time pressures in the same way when playing remotely but there are, nonetheless, issues which mean games may not end with a winner.

If the game isn’t likely to end in a solo win, accepting a draw is the right thing to do. If this doesn’t happen, the game is going to fall into the abyss of despair.

There are some peculiar ideas about a draw out there:

  1. It’s a loss. No – a loss is when someone wins; if no-one wins, it’s a draw.
  2. It’s a win. It might feel like a win: if you’ve struggled through the game, surviving on a small number of units, scrabbling around to find help, then it might leave a good feeling to have achieved the result. But neither you, nor anyone else, achieved the winning objective. Dressing a pig in a wedding dress doesn’t make it a bride.

There is also a terrible strategy in online play which needs to be smashed. A game has reached an impasse. This might be a genuine stalemate, where both sides simply can’t break through the defensive lines. It might be a deadlock, where a leader is being held at bay by a Grand Alliance (or Stop-the-Leader alliance), or where two alliances can’t break through and no player dares to break off.

What is the best way forward? Accept the game is over and take the draw, surely.

Well, some players simply won’t do this. Instead they refuse draw proposals and hold out. For what? For a change in alliance structure? Well, fair enough – but there has to be a point where this is obviously not going to happen.

These players are usually holding out for something else – for a player to get tired of the ridiculous situation, throw up his hands, and drop out.

OK, it’s a way to play but it’s destroying the priority of having fun. Grow up and accept the draw.

Be resilient
Diplomacy is a game where it is easy to quit. There are seven players. For one player to win there needs to be six losers. Even if the game ends in a draw, there will still be players eliminated.

There are three outcomes to a game: win, draw, or lose. Few players will drop out of a game simply because they realize they’re unlikely to win outright. Some players will quit a game if they’re struggling to survive.

When you enter a game – any game, but especially Diplomacy ​ – you are entering a contract with the other players. The extent of this contract may be debatable: I believe it is to play the best you can, but it may be simply taken as participating.

What the contract clearly is, however, is to play the game. Quitting at the first sign of trouble should mean you’re not wanted in another game.

I’m not going to say a lot about planning here – it’ll be another article! However, it would be silly to leave planning out of the discussion.

If you like, think of a game of Diplomacy as a project. A project has a series of goals; it is planned in order to ensure those goals are met. The goal in Dip is to own 18 SCs; it makes sense to plan how you’re going to achieve this.

Come back next time...

Playing Well
There are different formats in which Diplomacy is played, and each format has some impact on how games should be approached. Scoring systems can change the game, especially when the game is part of a tournament or a league. Playing to a short end-game date will mean you might approach the game differently, perhaps more aggressively. Simply playing on the net might change the way you play.

However, if the basics and the priorities are right, you’ll do well no matter the format. I’m not claiming you’ll win but you’ll play better for sure.

Email writer thumbnail Rick Leeds