A year or so back I had the opportunity to play test a variant designed by Tim Snyder and Jamie Drier. The variant, called Juggernaut, plays just like regular Diplomacy, except for the fact that there are only six players and one of the players secretly controls two powers. The game was played on the Internet using the Judge software so that individual press to each power was possible as everything was rerouted through a central computer and no names were ever revealed, however it could easily be played as postal Gunboat. The victory conditions were either a solo 18 center win by any power, or a combined 24 center win by the two Juggernaut powers.
I was lucky enough to be given the Juggernaut, playing Austria and Russia. Hiding the actual Juggernaut powers seemed like the most important issue, so I decided to try and forge strong, long term alliances for each power as soon as possible. The other players would all fear the Juggernaut and find a strong alliance attractive, and these alliances would appear as obvious choices for the Juggernaut to the rest of the players. The Italian player was friendly and wrote good press but did not put for a lot of strategic suggestions and seemed quite willing to follow my lead, so the Austrian player became a loud and boisterous player, participating a lot in the press, sending lots of messages and generally taking the lead in the A/I alliance. The German player was a quiet, terse player who seemed very strong tactically, so the Russian became a quiet follower type who was more than willing to get most of his moves from his German ally and rarely had a suggestion of his own.
These two alliances quickly became dominant, reducing the remaining three powers to a few centers at best, and both Italy and Germany were certain that the other alliance represented the Juggernaut. When the time came to make my move, Russia stabbed Germany viciously while the A/I alliance continued to hold together, maintaining a seesawing balance on the Russian front and continuing to press Germany. Based on the play of Russia throughout, the poorly thought out justifications he gave Germany for the stab, and some "mistakes" in the battle in the south, Germany continued to be convinced that Russia was acting alone, that A/I was probably the Juggernaut and that Russia was just being short sighted and foolish. He refused any advances by Italy, seeming them as a ruse of the Juggernaut and berated Russia for his stupidity. A sudden series of "lucky guesses" led to the collapse of the Austrian front and an 18 center Russian win. To the last, Germany never held a belief that Russia was part of the Juggernaut, and Italy had only a few suspicions.
Now, to the point of this story (yes, there is a point, actually two.) First is that this is a fun variant and well worth trying. second is that the methods that seem so obvious when playing as the Juggernaut can be applied equally well, to standard Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a game of psychology, and, although not literally as in Juggernaut, each player represents more than one power. If you are playing France, you are not just the glorious reincarnation of Napoleon heading inexorably towards your justified dominance of Europe as you picture yourself. You are also the despicable backstabber who violated the truce and grabbed Belgium, as seen by the German, and the currently peaceful neighbor who's growth is causing some concerns as viewed by Italy, the steadfast ally as viewed by England, and a potential partner against the treacherous Italian as viewed by the struggling Austrian. The face you present to each of these players should not be the same. Is your English ally and open and forthright type who seems to believe in game long alliances and trust between partners? Then certainly an open and trusting partnership is going to go over better than an armed truce alliance. Yet I have seem many honest and sincere partners suddenly stabbed by their allies. Not so much because the stab made good tactical or strategic sense, but because the other player "knew" his ally was up to something. A three way alliance I was in recently broke up when one of the players stabbed both the other players in conjunction with the powers we were fighting. While this effectively destroyed the alliance, it also led to the destruction of the stabber as he was crushed between his former allies. When asked why he had done it given how likely his destruction was, he said that he had to, because he knew that we were planning to stab him. After all, neither of us had even raised the idea of stabbing the other with him, so obviously we were planning together to stab him! The trustworthy and open face I had presented to partner one was certainly not the correct choice for partner two. Had I seemed wary and distrustful with him, insisting on frequent confirmations of the alliance and carefully negotiated balancing of our forces the alliance probably would have held together long enough to crush the opposing coalition.
The thing to remember about Diplomacy is that it is only partially a game of strategy and tactics. Each player is a potential ally and a potential enemy. A brilliant plan is not enough if the ally you need simply decides he doesn't want to be a part of it. Those opening letters are more than just a means of determining which of a set of stock openings you are going to choose. They are the way you form an opinion about the character of the other players, and most importantly, the way they form an opinion about you. Long rambling letters to the serious, stick to business strategist are not going to endear you or advance your position, nor are strident calls for revenge or long tactical analyses going to charm the player who's out for a romp and couldn't care less about a win. Remember, there are six other players out there, and they probably represent a broad enough range for you to write any kind of letter you want and receive a positive response. Not only is it good strategy to treat each player as an individual and adapt the face you present to them, it's likely to be more fun, and that is what the game is really about. Have a long tactical discussion with Sue, spend several pages talking about the ski conditions with Paul and suddenly remember to suggest a move in the postscript. You'll find that not only will your alliances last longer and your suggestions be better received, but you'll look forward to those letters more and start to develop friendships that go beyond the game you are in, and that's what makes this a hobby, not just a never ending tournament.