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On Conducting Diplomacy The Art Of The Possible

"Trust Me" (And Other Tall Tales)

by Brian Cannon

Strange as it may seem to say or to hear, the Game of Diplomacy is about Trust. Indeed this is true not only of the Game", Diplomacy - but also of real world diplomacy as well. As in the real world, it is the players who are able to engender Trust in their compatriots who find themselves in position to form a useful alliance, hold together a faltering and shaky alliance, and set up the stab that propels them to victory. And, as in the real world, Trust is not a commodity that grows on trees, nor one that can be bought and sold. Rather it must be fed and nurtured to grow and once developed must be watched and coddled lest it wither and die from neglect or abuse. But once developed and utilized, it is a tool that can make the difference between glorious victory, and ignominious defeat.

In this article, I will discuss several principles and techniques that I have found helpful in developing an atmosphere of trust in Diplomacy games.

The first principle is what I call the Golden Rule of Diplomatic Success." Namely, Treat each player with the respect you would want them to bestow on you." And while this may seem simplistic or laughable to some, it never ceases to amaze me how effective it is in helping to build alliances that further my position - nor how much damage can be caused by ignoring this principle. There are actually several aspects to Respecting" other players.

1. First is to deal with each player as an honored equal - even if they are materially or positionally weaker than you. For example, continue to consult with them on possible coordinated moves; try to find out what their objectives may be (short & long term) and see if you can weave those goals into your own objectives; be open and honest with them about any correspondence you receive which affects them; and openly discuss ways to reduce the threat they feel from your greater strength. Nor should this show of honor be just a facade, either. I find that if I truly DO think of another player as an equal, not only is it easier for that attitude to be seen by them, but they are also more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt in any questionable suggestions or moves I might make. And that makes it easier to maintain a strong alliance (or set up an unsuspecting victim).

2. Second is to avoid gratuitous lies like the plague. Certainly, there is a time for lying in Diplomacy, and a well timed lie can be the difference between victory & defeat (or a draw), but it is striking how often a player lies when it is not necessary and poisons a potential alliance before it even has a chance to form. I try to always remember (before lying to anyone) that (a) they are liable to discover my lie shortly, and (b) if circumstances change I may later find I need them as an ally (or at least not caring whether it is I or another who ends up winning). With that in mind, I try to make sure that any lie I tell will provide significant help in getting me toward a victory (or at least a strong draw). Then, I can at least claim with some justice that the goal of the game required that I lie at that point and that it was nothing personal. The alternative, lying just for the heck of, with nothing really to gain from a lie, tends to only tic off the other player so that they will react emotionally and decide they don't want to trust you in the future. And beware, they may, later, be in a position where if they can't stab you, they CAN throw the game to another player.

3. Third, don't insult another players intelligence by proposing a plan so obviously lopsided in your favor as to be a clear setup. An example here would be England suggesting to his German ally that their best plan is for England to land armies in Picardy & Brest (to help subdue France) while Germany cedes Denmark to an English Fleet (along with the rest of Scandinavia) as part of an attack on Russia (don't laugh, I had an English player suggest something like this to me in one game - he was the FIRST power France and I obliterated). Another example (from another game I played in) was France proposing to Austria that if I helped him thru a stalemate line Turkey & I were setting up (getting French fleets into Emed & Aegean) so that Turkey was defeated, that France would then withdraw across the Med leaving me (Austria) with the Turkish dots as well as the Balkans and even Venice - France did NOT win that game, or even finish in a Draw.

The second principle (or technique) I find useful is to use Truth to mask what lies I Do" tell. In one game, as Russia, I wanted to be able to take out Turkey (if needed) and so I justified my request to send a fleet through Constantinople by pointing out, quite Truthfully, that R/T was one of the strongest alliances on the board and that the fleet could do an R/T alliance more good in the front lines than twiddling its thumbs in the Black Sea. Given the board situation, the move actually made good sense and so was convincing. The only lie" in it was what was left unsaid - that with Austria gone, Italy was just as good a choice for operations against the West, and was easier to stab as well. The proposal had enough truth in it that it was believable, and when Turkey DID believe it the stage was set for the stab. I also find it useful, in setting the stage for effective deceptions, to be careful to tell the Truth, as much as possible. This means, in negotiating with both allies and victims alike, to point out the pros and cons of various proposals and to be candid about the risks each idea may pose to each partner. It is true that in so doing I may be tipping off a potential victim to some" stab opportunities I may have, but I have found that being candid and listening to their suggestions in return, fosters a strong sense of trust which more than pays for itself in the long run.

The Third principle (or technique) to use is to take the time to genuinely consider and understand the strategic and tactical needs and concerns of the player you are wooing - and then to plan moves that actually address those concerns. For example, if Turkey wishes to form an A/T alliance, he needs to make plain to Austria that he understands Austria s concerns about his vulnerability to a stab and is interested enough in the alliance to actually make moves that address and mitigate that vulnerability. Even if he later plans on stabbing Austria, this is a good way to start. As time goes by and Austria sees Turkey actually making moves to help Austria become more secure, he will begin to trust the Turkish player more and more, and that Trust, while necessary to a strong alliance, can also begin to blind a player to threats later in the game. And if the Turk actually wants to maintain a strong alliance with Austria over the long haul, mutual trust is the single best way to accomplish it.

Of course, I should point out that making these principles pay off in practice requires a fair amount of thought and attention to detail. At the same time you are working with your ally to devise moves that protect them against the obvious threats (like your units adjacent to their uncovered supply centers) you are also working to set up a situation which favors YOU (rather than them) in the long run. In one game, as Germany, I arranged an alliance with France in which I supported a French fleet into the North Sea at a time when Russia still had Sweden and England still had Norway. However, this exposed an unprotected English dot in Edinburgh and went along with the formation of an A/T alliance that was advancing on Russia. There were also plans in the works for Italy to hit the French underside, and England really had no recourse except to attack the French units. The end result was that France, tho being in a strong position against Germany, was distracted by other powers and ultimately had to open himself to a German stab simply as a part of defending himself against other threats (which appeared greater than any threat I posed). By the time I was ready to become a possible threat to me, I had already demonstrated by trust of him and maneuvered other countries into position where he was willing to take a chance and allow me near his supply centers. The stab that I was then able to perform was strong enough that even his attempts to throw his dots to the other side were ineffective.

So to summarize, three principles (or techniques) which I have found useful both in forming strong alliances and in setting up victims for a stab are (1) To treat other players with the respect I want them to treat me with; (2) To be careful to tell them the Truth practically all the time and to use that Truth to mask the lies I need to set up the fatal stab; and (3) To take the time to see each position and situation from their vantage point and jointly plan how to meet the needs and concerns of both our countries - and then gradually twist those plans so they give the advantage to me rather than the other player..None of this is easy to accomplish, it requires a lot of thought and forethought to bring it off. But then, who ever said that Winning in Diplomacy was easy? If you take the time and apply the effort to build a sense of trust toward you in the other players, however, and put in the thought to nudge plans into paths that favor you without violating that trust (at least not blatantly) you will find the efforts will pay off handsomely, possibly even with that rarest of prizes - a Solo Victory!