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Mis-Orders in Face-to-Face Tournaments

by Eric Mead and Edi Birsan

On the first move of the World DipCon 2007 top board in Vancouver , Russia tried to move his fleet in St. Petersburg (south coast) to the Baltic.  A few weeks later, in the European Championship, a player’s last move (arguably the most critical because of the center count-based scoring system they use there) was: Fleet Constantinople to Bulgaria (No coast indicated). Both orders were written by world-class players, and both were totally unintentional. In the second case, the player was left without any defense of the supply center, and a single enemy unit walked in unopposed, costing him quite a few points in the tournament scoring system. In the first case, the player went on to have a fairly successful game (though he did not win).

It is an unpleasant reality of tournament Diplomacy: we all make mistakes under the pressures of the clock. We strive to put a long distance between them, but it is not unheard of for even elite players to make one or two mistakes per game.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when these inevitable mistakes occur.

When Somebody Else Mis-orders:

Obviously, any mistake that hurts the player making the mistake is a usually a real error on his or her part, as opposed to a deliberate mis-order done for diplomatic deception. If a player writes a nonsense order and, as a result, loses centers or fails to gain them, it probably was not intentional. These are not the ones to be on the lookout for.

In our estimation, mistakes which end up hurting a player’s “ally” (i.e. “Oh no! I supported you to ALBANIA ? I meant to support you to TRIESTE !”), or failing to hurt a player’s “enemy” (“Oops! If I’d only supported that attack I would have dislodged the evil German, but I screwed up and now he doesn’t have to remove a unit!”), are intentional probably 80% of the time, especially when done by veteran players. Obviously, new players are less likely to be so cagey, and are more likely to actually make an error that ends up hurting their ally, or blunts their own attack. So the important questions to ask when you are on the short end of a mis-order are: 1. Who benefited from the mis-order? And 2. Is the player who made the mistake clever enough to have done this on purpose?

Our feeling is that most players, even elite ones, are terrible actors. Watch for the exaggerated shock, the grandiose gestures of self-flagellation (“God, I’m sooooo stupid! How could I have written BUL when I meant RUM?”) On the other hand, if you happened to notice that a player was unusually rushed before the deadline, he might not have had a chance to proofread his orders, and might have made an honest mistake. Often, a player that hears his orders read aloud and gasps and/or turns red has just realized that he has made a true error, while one who seems to have had a speech ready has mis-ordered on purpose. As you play with the same opponents again and again, you may even learn to spot their reactions.

When You Mis-order:

The elite player’s response:  A real mistake can be a depressing moment, but that moment should last about a nano-second before you begin to scheme again. You must quickly change your focus to the new opportunities your mis-order may present. Someone may have gained from your mis-order in an unexpected way!  For example, in the case of Fleet St Pete failing to move in the Spring of ‘01, suddenly the German can afford to make a move to the North Sea, or make a shift to Sweden and gain three centers, while France gains three centers rather than fighting over Belgium (which is more of a threat to England than it is to Russia). Because of this threat, England may feel he has to react by canceling his idea of putting an army in Norway , instead opting and go to stand the Germans off in Denmark so that Army Kiel is backed up and Germany does not have a fleet build. Like magic, by sowing the seeds of doubt amongst your western neighbors, you have gotten them all more worried about each other than you. Now, suddenly, and English player who was originally planning on a Scandinavian push is suddenly running to you looking for a mutual defense pact against the threat of a giant France/Germany alliance.

 Always remember that if you are an elite player, your neighbors may automatically feel threatened by your reputation, and for that reason you should be willing to take more modest early gains in exchange for a solid alliance, particularly if you have a less-than-ideal opening year. We would not go so far as to suggest that you should mis-order on purpose just to make yourself look weaker, but we will say that many top players have contemplated the Yorkshire Pudding opening, or something equally ridiculous, simply to take the pressure off themselves early in the game.

The average player’s response: Average players are often the most shaken by their own mis-orders (and tactical errors), as they realize that if they were elite players, they would not have made that mistake.  We often see average players become self-absorbed and sullen, spending valuable negotiation/planning time trying to make excuses or simply apologizing too much for the mistake. They cannot let go of the error and look at the board anew, and simply go into “turtle mode”, writing defensive orders and making no effort to talk their way out of their predicament. Never forget your best line: “Don’t worry about me. I’m already screwed on this board! I mis-ordered, for Pete’s sake! It’s that guy over there that’s the real threat now! Work with me and we’ll cut him down to size. And hey, after we’re done with him, you can kill me.”

Of course, you don’t really plan on being killed next. You are hoping to hang on long enough that something happens that changes the dynamic of the board. We cannot count the amount of times that we have been dead to rights after a few seasons of play, but have hung on at 2, 3, or 4 dots simply by sowing chaos in our area of the board long enough that something good happened, and we wound up having highly successful games.

The new player’s response: In many ways, it is even worse to mis-order when you are new to the game, because since none of the other players know you, they may assume that you’re hopelessly incompetent and consequently wouldn’t make a reliable ally. In short, all too frequently at a tournament, if you mis-order, you’re meat.

On the other hand, you may have the perfect excuse: “Dah...I’m new.”  We have observed that most new players will not dwell as long, or torture themselves as much, as veterans do.  You can actually use this to your advantage if you are new to Diplomacy. Elite players may be willing to forgive a “newbie error” in exchange for a pledge of goodwill, and instead work with the new player to get him or her re-focused on the current situation.  In fact, we have often seen new players ask their allies to recheck their orders to avoid future mistakes. We suggest that you not offer this, because it obviously makes it trivial for your experienced ally to stab you.

In fact, if you are the experienced player, we suggest that you not accept such an offer either, and instead encourage your newbie ally to keep at it. The trust and goodwill that you will gain by being supportive of a new player is far more valuable than a peek at his orders, and will probably lead to even more success for you.

The Most Common Errors of Veteran Players:

 We conducted a highly scientific poll of top tournament diplomacy players (i.e. we sent them email and a few of them wrote us back), to determine what the most common mis-orders are. Take a moment to look at these, and pay special attention to what you wrote when your pieces are in these spots.

In Spring 1901:

The two most common errors people mentioned in the opening moves are: Fleet Trieste to Greece , and assorted creative errors involving Fleets St. Pete and Sevastapol either going backwards to the Black and the Gulf of Bothnia, or St. Pete trying to jump all the way to the Baltic, or even Gulf of Lyon (GOB, GOL, there is a difference!).

In Fall 1901:

For some reason, there are more English mis-orders getting to Norway than any other combination by a long shot.  We have seen things such as Fleet North Sea Convoy Army Liverpool to Norway, as well as both Fleets North Sea and Norwegian supporting Army Edi to Norway, as well as the fascinating Army York to London while the North Sea is convoying it to Norway. Also, continue to watch out for the dreaded TRI – GRE even if you did successfully make it to Albania in the Spring.

 In the game in general:

The two problems that plague experienced players the most are failing to write an order for a unit, and writing two orders for the same unit.  Most experienced players check their orders by quantity:  “I have 8 units and 8 orders so I am OK.” What happens is that they listed one twice and forgot one.  Then there is the forgotten coast, which plagues Fleets in Portugal and the Mid Atlantic Ocean as well as Constantinople . And finally, there is the morass of supply centers in the Balkans, and around Italy and Austria , which seem to torture even the most seasoned players. We cannot count the number of times where VIE tried to support VIE – TRI, or RUM went to GRE with BUL’s support, etc.

The Most Common Errors of New Players:

In Spring 01:

Don’t forget that fleets have to stop in their adjacent sea space before getting to their intended destination:  Fleet Brest to Portugal is never going to work. Also, don’t forget to look at the small spaces: Paris can’t get to Belgium , and Kiel can’t get to the North Sea .

In Fall 01:

The worst, of course, is forgetting that a piece must stay in a province in the Fall to get ownership.  So often the French will move Army Spain to Portugal and not put something else in Spain , thinking he has conquered both with one unit. Or the Germans will go from Denmark to Skaggerak, forgetting that he never claimed Denmark in the first place.

In General:  

Remember, you cannot support a piece in place if that piece has been ordered to move! And just as important, remember that to support a unit’s move, you must write both a move order and a support order containing the move you are supporting (i.e. PAR – BUR, MAR S PAR is no good. You must write MAR S PAR – BUR). And remember: if a piece can’t move to a space, it can’t support somebody there either! A VEN cannot ever support F TRI – ADR, because A VEN can’t move to the ADR.

Also, the following three are LEGAL moves that new players often fail to see:

Army Kiel to Livonia convoyed by Fleet Baltic

Army Spain to Tuscany convoyed by Fleet Gulf of Lyon

Army St. Pete to Norway

And don’t forget to build only in your own OPEN home centers, rather than anywhere in your country or in any non-home center.

Regardless of the extent or type of error that is made, the most important lesson for a tournament player is to shake it off, look forward, and try your best to recover from your mistake. Remember that almost no game of Diplomacy is won without some adversity, and the best players always know how to conduct themselves when they experience a setback.

Edi is basically a legend now in the Diplomacy hobby, and is still willing to grace us with his presence here in Diplomacy World.  We should all be grateful.  As for Eric, he’s the other guy who wrote this article: the one who isn’t Edi.  That’s how I’ve always known him, anyway.