Meta-Gaming and Diplomacy
By Stephen Agar
I thought that this topic was worthy of an article as it is really the essence
of the fuss which I helped create over the "bribery" allegations bandied around
at MasterCon. The issue which has troubled us isnt really whether it is morally
acceptable to bribe players in a FtF game it is whether it is morally acceptable to
indulge in what has been called "meta-gaming".
So what is meta-gaming? Gary Pennington, a subscriber to rec.games.diplomacy on the
Internet has put forward the helpful definition that meta-gaming is "the process of
trying to force someone to behave in accordance with your wishes by using threats of
actions which will be taken/not taken outside the context of the current game."
As Gary said, an extreme example would be "You must support my attack on Warsaw
with your army in Galicia or I will call round your house later and kill you." A less
extreme example would be "You must support my attack on Warsaw with your army in
Galicia in this game or I will not support your defence of Moscow in game X (where X is a
different game in which both players are participating) " In both examples, the
protagonist is using knowledge that lie outside the domain of a game to try and influence
results inside a game.
My personal view is that layers who indulge in meta-gaming are too competitive for
their own good and have an unhealthy attachment to winning at all costs - but I may be in
a minority in holding that view. In email games on the Internet meta-gaming is fairly
universally condemned and being caught doing so is to risk being thrown out of the game.
In the history of Diplomacy in the UK hobby there have been many instances of
"meta-gaming", but usually they all reduce to three simple scenarios:
1. Come Up and See Me Sometime
Bribery has always been tolerated in postal Diplomacy to an extent, as it appealed to
the anarchic spirits who truly believe that all is fair in love and Diplomacy. Bribers
have not only usually been pretty small beer, but usually were beer. Of course, there
isnt much scope for this in the postal game anyway, as bribery suggests a slightly
closer degree of acquaintance than that usually enjoyed by the majority of postal
Diplomacy players. In any event, as the "bribery" was often frivolous, it was
more a case of someone being able to save face by saying that they were actually helping
Mr X because he bought them four pints of Wadworths, rather than admitting that Mr X would
have got their centres anyway. I know of no instance of "serious" bribing,
because winning a game of postal Diplomacy isnt sufficiently special in itself to
warrant all the effort. That said, I seem to remember that Richard Sharp bought, for cash,
the use of Sandra Bonds units in Armagnac in Megalomania, a game he
went on to win. And there are rumours about another postal game featuring John Boocock and
Richard Sharp. No doubt all will be revealed in time.
If John Boocock is to be believed, Mark Wightman, Steve Jones and Toby Harris have all
had occasions to give him money for favours in FtF Diplomacy games though I know
not if such incidents were the result of implicit threats from John or active bribes from
the others. Steve Thomas also related that Toby once offered him cash for help in a FtF
Diplomacy game, though for all I know that may have been done with jovial, non-serious,
2. The Big Stick
By which we mean threats such as "Ill tell your wife youre having an
affair" as opposed to "let me have Lon or Ill take Bel and Hol." Real
threats are, as you would expect, very rare indeed and not acceptable. In his book,
Richard Sharp recounted how one player (who was a solicitor) once sent him a £10 note as
payment for agreed co-operation and threatened to sue him if he backed out of the deal
(both bribery and threats!). However, that was almost certainly light-hearted as well,
part of the friendly banter that can mark such games. In any event, it is hard to make
real threats against other players in postal games because of the distance between the
We now know that John Boocock has turned this into a fine art by demanding a surety for
good behaviour from players next to him in a game. In a sense this is a threat as
non-payment presumably means war, though if one of the threatened players then comes back
to him and offers him more cash for specific favours then it is an example of bribery. We
know that Shaun Derrick thought that this behaviour was OK, and I would assume that is
because he believes that meta-gaming isnt against the rules of the game and
therefore must be tolerated.
In the latest TCP there are a couple of allegations that Toby Harris has
been known to employ this tactic in FtF games, though others have as well. First it was
alleged that he threatened to devote a whole issue of his zine to rubbishing the character
of another player unless he handed some centres over. Later in the same issue, Gihan
Bandaranaike recalls that Toby once threatened not to give him a lift home unless he
helped him in a game of Dip. I make no moral judgement as to whether this sort of
behaviour is right or wrong, and in particular if you were not there you cant tell
if it was serious or in jest. I only mention it as an example of meta-gaming.
3. You Scratch My Back
The classic "You help me in this game and Ill help you in that game."
Generally frowned upon, witness the general antipathy to the infamous "Karma
League" in the early 70s. The idea behind the Karma League was that members
would guarantee never to break agreements with each other in a Diplomacy games, and the
names of the other Karma League members were only made known to initiates. Universally
condemned and somewhat lost its purpose when the League was promptly infiltrated and the
names of members published. There was also the (alleged) deal between Mick Bullock and
Richard Walkerdine whereby they helped each other to victories in Dip games or agreed an
18/18 split right from the beginning known to readers of Dolchstoß
as the "Walkerbullock".
It is not difficult to see why this sort of behaviour is thought to be unethical, as it
cuts across the general presumption that each player starts the game with the same chances
of winning as Allan Calhamer intended. Obviously in a Tournament situation, this sort of
behaviour is even more damaging as there is more at stake than a postal Diplomacy rating
(something very few people would ever really concern themselves with).
The most frowned upon example of this sort of meta-gaming was the behaviour of some of
the French players at WorldDipCon IV, where some players helped other French players to
outright victories for no other reason than they were both French. Such antics were
roundly condemned by many, but most noticeably and most loudly by Toby Harris, James Hardy
and myself. As I said at the time, I think Toby, who this time was on the receiving end of
the complained of activity, was quite right to condemn the Fench meta-gaming in this
instance (which gave rise to the EDA Ethis Oath see later). Rather than accuse Toby
of hypocrisy, it would seem that he makes a distinction between different kinds of
So Is Meta-Gaming All Right?
That is the difficult question. I think that you really need to make up your mind on
this one if meta-gaming is OK, then cross-gaming, bribery and threats (provided they are within the law of the land) should
be permitted. Therefore, mutual help in different games is OK (though difficult to achieve
in a Tournament with a random draw), bribery is OK and threats are OK. If you think that
the game should only be decided within the boundaries of the game activity itself, then
meta-gaming is not OK, and neither is cross-gaming, favours or threats.
I dont think it is logically possible to distinguish a middle ground if
buying someone a pint is an acceptable bribe (£2), why not a £5 note? If threatening not
to give someone a lift home is an acceptable threat, why not threatening to abuse and/or
embarrass him in front of his friends? If helping another player just because you often
socialise with them at weekends is OK, why not help them just because youre both
The answer, of course, is that it is not OK. Mark Wightman reminded me of the following
excerpt from François Rivasseaus Final Report on World DipCon V.
"Quality of Games and Ethics
"The quality of the games played was quite high, this being illustrated by the
fact that no 18 centre victory was achieved in either the WDC or the Nation's Cup
competition. Although only playing until 1907 certainly does not help when you play
Austria or Italy, it is worthwhile to note that the best players did get their most
significant results when playing one of these countries: Bruno-André Giraudon managed to
win with both Austria and Italy, and the number of first places achieved with central
powers was uncommonly high.
"Three reasons may account for this satisfactory situation: the general level of
the players, the homogeneity of the level of the tables of each round (except the first,
of course), which was reached thanks to our player scheduling software, and, last but not
least, the ethic of play which we succeeded in promoting.
"One word about this; we made public during the WDC the oath of ethics designed
within the European Diplomacy Association for the next European DipCon (reproduced below).
Every player was warned that the referees would closely watch the ethical aspect of play
and would not accept playing for others rather than for one's self. Particular care would
be given to possible 18 centre victories which could have been attributed to ethical
irregularity in the competition. It was not necessary to do anything; merely making this
announcement proved sufficient. As a consequence, all players fought until the end as they
are expected to do at this level of competition, and we had no "collective
plays" to observe.
"The conclusion I draw from this experience is that advising the players in this
manner as to the ethical aspects of the game improves both the level of the games and the
atmosphere of the tournament, particularly for the travellers who, as a result, should not
fear a savage and uninteresting coalition of local players against them. This is why I
personally recommend, in my capacity of Chairman of WDC V, to the incoming WDC Chairman,
to adopt a similar position regarding ethics in Ohio."
EDA Ethics Oath
1.You should always play so that you maximise your own score and ranking in the
tournament, or in the game you are playing.
2.You should not engage in cross-gaming. That is, you must not give favours to another
player in exchange for assistance in earlier games or for the hope or promise of
assistance in later games. Every game is a new one and should be treated as such. You
should not try to take revenge for a stab or elimination that occurred in any other game.
3.You should act properly when conducting diplomacy with other players and must not
cheat or complain at the least provocation. You should act the statesman you are supposed
4.You should never attack or ally with any other player for purely ethnical or
Now I accept that this Ethics Oath doesnt expressly mention bribery, but John
Boocock can scarcely claim to have always been playing so as to maximise his own score and
ranking in the Tournament. I dont know if Shaun considers that the EDA Ethics Oath
was relevant to EuroDipCon this year, as his ruling does seem to contradict it.
My position is that meta-gaming is not acceptable in FtF games or postally. That said,
I accept it is likely to be tolerated in a mild and good-humoured way in a postal
Diplomacy environment where winning isnt really that important unless you have an
unhealthy obsession with winning.
One final point. Some people will say, you cant stop meta-gaming if people
want to do deals like this, then they will. That is true. But it is a sorry state indeed
if we fail to prohibit behaviour that we think wrong, only because to do so will not
reduce the incidence of the offence to zero. On that basis the whole of the criminal law
is a waste of time. I think such behaviour should be outlawed because to fail to do so
will make it a legitimate tactic and encourage some to indulge in
meta-gaming who would not otherwise do so (e.g. Mark Wightman). A refusal to say that
such behaviour is unacceptable is tantamount to saying it is acceptable.
For the sake of completeness, I would make a further distinction between what is
described above, which I will call "external" meta-gaming (involving two or more
players) and "internal" meta-gaming (which only involves one player). For
example, if you decide to attack Stephen Agar because you perceive him to be a weak
unreliable player, or to attack Richard Williams because he stabbed you last time, then
you are indulging in a type of meta-gaming, in that your decisions are based on events
from outside the game. This would be internal meta-gaming, but it is really human nature
and totally undetectable. It is easier to condemn actions than motives.