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Pushing the Right Buttons

by Paul F. Glenn

from Diplomacy World #69


What do you do against really aggressive players? I'm assuming you don't view yourself in that light, but you're concerned with how to get your share of wins, as well as some enjoyment. Where reputation is concerned, it's a decided advantage to froth a bit around the mouth, projecting fear and aggressiveness. It does work. But what if you don't see yourself in that image, or don't want to?


It doesn't take a board full of such players to dominate and define a game: look at the current DW Demonstration Game. There appears to be a committed AI understanding. As for the rest, it looks like a free-for-all. Agressiveness and shifting relationships constitute the operating mode. Why isn't the AI alliance carrying the day? Too many players are seeking the same short-term result: get centers if possible, and prevent any one player from getting too big too fast.


The latter is taking higher priority than alliance struc­tures. Fighting under an "idea" like that, loyalties change easily, long-term coordination is less attractive, and centers change hands with difficulty. When won, they aren't secured by the glue of trust Further evidence is the viability of all seven players in that game for so long in the game. With the same immediate goals, there's little room to conduct diplo­macy outside of immediate center count.


Consider a more typical postal game. There's more opportunity to deal based on differences between players. The postal dimension just cries out to us to expand the pool of satisfaction beyond the next center you seek.


So you want to win, or place well? Alright then, can you assume everyone else wants to do exactly that also? Really? Which players have you asked? What about the fellow who can tolerate slow growth yet criticizes lying loudly? The player who has no regard for tactics or strategy, shows little interest in learning either, and aches instead for a "press war”? Or even the fellow who wants to win, but is waiting for the first excuse to martyr himself against an attacker?


You have 3-4 weeks per season and freedom from prying eyes. Use it! Learn something about your fellow players, maybe even ask them outright what is important to them. See how they respond. What's to be lost? At worst, you're no worse off than when you wrote. But if they talk in terms that don't mesh with yours, well, you've got something you may be able to deal, and not make it center for center negotiation.


This can be a lot of work. With creative combinations you can throw obstacles in the way of stronger and aggressive players. This isn't "balance of power", it's "balance of inter­ests." The best defense really is persuasion. Consider that they may be faced with a "cooperate or die" ultimatum from a ten-center gorilla, while you offer something more palat­able. Maybe they'll like your style and buck superior odds. As long as they know what they want and you help them gratify it, well then, in exchange they might just help you "persuade" the sharp boys to pay attention.


When should you try this? The early and middle game. There's a strong likelihood of players still around who aren't solely concerned with "outcomes" and might trade position and assistance for a good time. By the Endgame, there are too many people all concerned with the next center, so creative proposals are less likely to bear fruit.


Here are some different interests that a player may have -it's your job to determine which button to push: (1) press, (2) revenge, (3)sense of personal honor, (4)experimentation, or loose cannon, (5)friendship, or cross-game relationships, (6) urge to do things own way regardless of outcome, (7) urge for elegant or clever plans, (8) winning, (9) humor.


I’ll illustrate with an example. In a particular game, I played Russia, and none of the players had been known to me previously. Five of the others did know each other, quite well, and made no secret of it I consider the following interests identified above dominated this game: (2), (5) and (6). Here is how Spring 1901 went:


A: A Vie-Bud, A Bud-Ser, F Tri-Alb

E: F Edi-Nwg, F Lon-Nth, A Lvp-Yor

F: F Bre-Mid, A Par-Bur, A Mar S A Par-Bur

G: F Kie-Den, A Mun-Ruh, A Ber-Kie

I: F Nap-Ion, A Ven-Tyl, A Rom-Ven

R: F Stp-Bot, A War-Gal, A Mos-Ukr, F Sev-Bla

T: A Con-Bul, A Smy-Con, F Ank-Bla


Then came the following Fall/Winter moves:


A: A Bud-Tri, A Ser S F Alb-Gre (A Tri)

E: F Nwg-Nwy, F Nth C A Lon-Bel (F Lon, F Lpl)

F: F Mid-Por, A Mar-Spa, A Bur-Bel (F Bre, A Par)

G: F Den-Swe, A Kie-Hol, Ruh S A Yor-Bel (A Mun, Ber)

I: F Ion-Eas, A Tyl-Vie, A Yen-Tri (F Nap)

R: F Bot-Swe. F Sev-Bla, A Gal S A Ukr-Rum (A Stp)

T: A Bul-Rum. A Con-Bul. F Ank-Bla (A Smy)


This developed into an AIR assault on Turkey, taking him out in 1903. England never fully committed to Germany, and they were ineffectual against France. In 1902-3,England took Sweden; Russia and England Scandinavia; Russia and Germany fought in Silesia/Baltic; and AIR freely exchanged centers for tactical need. This cooperation induced a voted AR draw in 1906, reflecting a collapse of resistance and will (we had 14 centers between us, and Italy had 4).  As far as other, non-win factors are involved:


(5) Cross and prior-game relationships were working here. From the beginning FI were "known not to fight each other", and Germany was concerned about that. The German and Turkish players were buddies, and the others knew it.  So what happened?  Italy fought Framce, and Germany didn’t press an attack on Russia to bail out Turkey.


(2) Revenge. Italy's move to the Eastern Med amazed me. In Winter 1901 he told me how the Turk had stabbed in another game, so he was real happy to do this. And Turkish player confirmed it.  This interaction had a profound effect on the game, as the Italian was very agreeable to ideas that didn’t interfere with Turk-bashing, and the pressure on Trukey with my Austrian alliance freed me to meddle in Scandinavia and in Germany.


(6) On the urge to behave a certain way regardless of outcome, France plodded on against EG, enlisting no help that I know of. Germany stuck to his initial impression of FI togetherness and stuck with England despite the latter's colorless moves. The German player believed he had no choice but to continue to pursue his course. The English player was distracted with pressures of his personal life. This lack of time for the game had its toll: static warfare. For my ­part, by the time AI had patched things up and invaded Turkey, I was set up to go the distance with them (whether or not we got a draw. I'd gotten enough gratification from the game to accept that).


Hard work doesn’t get you there.  The Turk and I were the most active players in the game.  The Turk clearly wanted to win, and would do whatever it took to get there.  Bad luck for one of us, considering the lack of ambition in the EFG theatre.  Reminds me of the NFC Central and East divisions: weak sisters win the Central, while an 11-5 record in the East barely gets you into the playoffs.


I might add (9), humor, to this.  I didn’t act with much humor in this game.  Both the Italian and the Austrian MUST have had a sense of humor, to convert a 1901 attack into a free and trusting relationship, with the Italians in Trieste and the Austrians in Venice.  I think the Italian was the most satisfied player in the game.  He told me how much fun he was having and what a great pair of allies he had in me and Austria.  Well, there’s a fellow I can satisfy by playing thoughtfully, win or lose, and there’s nothing better than satisfying other players (even enemies).  Else who’s going to play the game?


Satisfaction is what this is all about.  A homogenous board, as in the current DW Demo Game, puts a premium on cleverness, tactical skill, and outright deception.  A heterogenous board, as is the case in many play-by-mail games, introduces the unpredictability in opponents’ personalities, skills, and interests, thereby providing a basis for expanding our satisfaction.


The flip side, of course, is to examine your own needs.  I’ve entered some games with plans having nothing to do with winning and the results have not only amused me, but I’ve also been successful, better often than when playing only for the win.  Bizarre openings, just because I felt like it, stimulated my own game, as I saw how others would respond to an apparently “reasonable” neighbor behaving unreasonably.  Give it a try -we may all enjoy it!