Gestalt Diplomacy

by Elkin C. O'G. Darrow

Originally appearing in the “Diplomacy World After 40” Issue

This article concerns a major barrier to the best diplomacy in Diplomacy. Most players (if not nearly all of them) seem to develop a sort of tunnel vision. They narrow their concerns to the portions of the board nearest them. Articles on the game in Diplomacy World and elsewhere tend to encourage this narrow viewpoint by concentrating on military-tactical considerations, such as openings. These are entirely useful things, but we need to consider more thoroughly how our diplomacy early in the game will influence our own later progress.

Diplomacy is, or should be, a gestalt game. Every portion of the board is equally important to each player at all times. Most players ignore that fact; or they may even feel the statement is not really true. Even players who recognize may not be able to act on it. When Diplomacy is played in-person, time constraints mitigate against elaborate or sophisticated planning and negotiations. The tunnel vision is forced, and a player must see first to his own immediate survival and growth. In fact, long-range planning may be a dangerous boomerang in over-the-board play. For instance, if France is seen negotiating with Russia, that will fan the flames of suspicion in England and Germany, even if France's objective is only to get Russia to attack Turkey (in the hope of eliminating a major Mediterranean rival in the mid-game situation).

By-mail games are not so subject to the disadvantages of limited time and misinterpretations based on who's talking with whom. It is toward these games that my remarks are primarily directed.

I begin by discussing the general proposition already stated: that every portion of the board is equally important to every player. The initial strategy of a player necessarily implies a choice of follow-on strategies. Let's say, for instance, that England’s first objective is to eliminate France in alliance with Germany. The implied choice of follow-on strategies would revolve around Germany, then. One---continued alliance; support of Germany against Russia and a major thrust beyond France into the Mediterranean. Two---an attack on Germany, probably in alliance with Russia.

I will agree with anyone who says that setting: a future plan in cement is foolish. One needs to be flexible and change even overall strategy to fit the flux and tide of a game situation. However, that is not to say one shouldn't have any future plans at all. In the circumstance of England as described above, the player should have a good idea what his choice is likely to be..and should act on that probable choice.

Let's say the choice is continuing the alliance with Germany. What should England think about right off? That Mediterranean thrust, of course! The history of postal games suggests that England's most deadly competitor in that area is likely to be Turkey. In terms of this tentative strategic plan, therefore, it is important to weaken Turkey; which in turn means convincing Russia (most of all), Austria, and/or Italy to attack Turkey. Immediately, right at the beginning of the game, England's attention is (or should be) drawn to the exact opposite corner of the board, as far away from the home islands as it can get. It is precisely this far-away corner that is inevitably vital to English diplomacy. If England needs a strong Russia to create an easy mid-game target, then Turkey is again an important consideration. From England's point of view, there is really no evading the question of Turkey; and if that is true of England, how much more must it be true of the other Great Powers, none of whom is any further away? Conversely, if Turkey is that crucial, how much more crucial must be all the other Powers, each of which is closer to England than Turkey is.

This is the gestalt of Diplomacy. All the Great Powers' actions are important to the deep plans of each player. Contacts and understandings with even the most distant other Powers are vital as the game progresses; and success in the end-game may very well depend on one's words and deeds in the beginning.

Now, gentle (ha!) reader, you are no doubt saying to yourself (or ought to be), "That's all very well, but what do I say?" Aye, there's the rub. You probably can't use that ultimate bar bon mot, "Do you come here often?" (Well, it might work at a convention...).  Many gambits and devices will no doubt occur to the fertile imagination, the devious mind. I can suggest a few, anyway, to get the creative juices flowing.  

1. Getting to Know You. Even if you can conceive of nothing specifically related to the game itself to discuss, there is nothing wrong with a friendly, chatty correspondence. An atmosphere of camaraderie may net some important diplomatic concessions later on. Assumed friendship can cloud many an astute diplomatic mind, not to mention a lot of rather foolish ones; check out Woodrow Wilson some time.

2. Do You Hear What I Hear? Asking a given player about other players often elicits some very interesting responses. You might ask about a move that player made: "Italy's move to Tyrolia really surprised me. What do you suppose he's up to?" Or you might make a statement. about something you know: "Have you heard from Russia? I've written him twice but no reply." (This need not be true, of course; it's probably better if it isn't). Or, "Has France been bugging you about Russia? He's really egging me to go after St. Petersburg." (This too is better off untrue; the last thing you want to give Turkey is any information that is really useful.) If you can get a dialogue going with Turkey, trading chitchat and tidbits about the game, this makes you his confidant. He might ultimately volunteer some really important information...or in the end he may let you gain diplomatic advantage. That is, unless he is playing you for a sucker, too.

3. Help! Asking for advice is another good way to build camaraderie and also to learn things to your advantage. England could, for instance, write to Turkey to ask advice as to whether he should ally. He'd need some excuse; oh, like, "He's made a very attractive offer, but I keep getting this feeling I shouldn't trust him. What do you think'!'" If Turkey's advice falls in with the plans England has already made, so much the better. In a while, Turkey might even get the impression England is his puppet…which will make England, in the end, all the more dangerous. If Turkey's advice is not what England proposes to do, he can always praise Turkey and peg his actual actions on something Turkey said which put the problem in a while new perspective. England will have to be damn creative but, heck, isn’t that what's Diplomacy all about? If every player in the game thinks you are hanging on every word of their sage advice, they will be that much more reluctant to attack you. Ego-massaging is great diplomacy!

4. Shall We Dance? Offering a distant player a long-term late-in-the-game alliance is always a ploy to consider. This is a far more committing stance. The others above are relatively neutral, although emotionally binding diplomatic ploys, but he, if you make specific proposals you will be under some constraint to live~ up to them (especially if your bluff is called too early in the game). Your best bet, if possible, is to suggest an alliance without going into specifics; reach an understanding without definite commit­ment.

Exactly how you deal with distant players will depend on your assessment of them, and on your creative imagination. But H is vital that you must deal with them, the sooner the better. The diplomacy of Diplomacy should never be purely a local matter.

 


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