The Game of Diplomacy

by Richard Sharp



Chaucer clearly knew his Diplomacy. The events on the board can be exciting enough at the time; but it is away from the board, during the fifteen minutes or so of negotiating time, that the game is decided. I have seen people go literally white with shock when moves were read out; I have even seen punches thrown; but the stab in the back is only made possible by the big lie that sets it up.

The lots are drawn for countries, and the seven players wander away from the table and begin chatting in groups. England is happy enough - he has a good defensive position, with no immediate worries; Germany plans five minutes each with France and England; Russia is frantically active, Turkey determined, Austria panic-stricken, Italy bored, France confident. Let’s follow Russia, always the busiest player at this stage, as he moves about the room. He has three immediate neighbours - four, if you count England - and is uncomfortably aware that his four-unit starting position makes him rather conspicuous, to say nothing of the distortion inherent in the map. which makes him appear to occupy half the board before the game has even started.

He starts by sounding out England: ‘Any chance you might let me take Norway in 1901? I’m worried about Turkey and Austria look, they’ve got their heads together already, the rats. Did you know Turkey used to be engaged to Austria’s sister?’ Russia has made this up on the spur of the moment. England, who really is engaged to Austria’s sister, says he’ll think about it in the autumn, when he’s seen the spring moves, but he advises Russia for his own good not to risk moving to St Petersburg, leaving his southern flank weaker than it should be. Russia thanks him gravely and moves on, discouraged, to Germany.

‘Look, I’m in real trouble already. Turkey’s getting married to Austria’s sister next week and England’s going to be the best man.’ (These stories have a habit of growing.) ‘For heaven’s sake don’t stand me off in Sweden this autumn, or I shan’t be able to put up any defence at all. They’ll never let me take Rumania.’

Germany, too, will think about it. Of course, he’ll have to open to Denmark, for his own protection, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be unreasonable about Sweden. Yes, of course Russia can regard him as an ally. Demilitarized zone in Prussia, Silesia, the Baltic? By all means. Delighted. Russia is only slightly cheered - it would be a strange event indeed if Germany adopted a belligerent posture at this stage. He turns to Turkey and Austria, who fall silent at his approach.

‘Er ... could I have a word with you? Both of you? Well, yes, separately, that seems best.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ says Turkey. He says something to Austria in a low voice; Austria nods importantly and sidles away to talk to Italy, who has been drinking disconsolately in a corner. ‘Right,’ says Turkey cheerfully, ‘that’s got rid of that cretin - let’s get down to business. Now, I hope we’re not going to have any nonsense about the Black Sea.’

Russia explains his new idea for moving his southern fleet out into the Mediterranean, where it becomes a valuable adjunct to the Turkish forces. (The idea isn’t new at all, of course - its been suggested by several hundred hopeful Russias, and sometimes it’s even been accepted by Turkey.) Russia expatiates at length on the legendary beauty of the Russo-Turkish ‘Juggernaut’ alliance, before which the other five countries go down like ornamental grasses under a combine harvester; he omits to mention that this usually results in a runaway win for Russia, with Turkey a bad second if he’s lucky. Turkey is polite but firm: the Black Sea must be empty in spring, or it’s no deal. ‘OK, fair enough,’ says Russia, putting a brave face on it. Lying toad, thinks Turkey to himself.

Next Russia tries his luck with Austria: it’s not easy to paint a picture of Austria and Russia sweeping to world domination on level terms, but Russia does his best. Austria agrees that Turkey is a pathological liar who will have to be disposed of and agrees not to move to Galicia. He seems sincere enough ... but as soon as Russia moves away he makes a beeline for Turkey again.

The furtive features of Italy, slightly blurred with alcohol, peer out from behind a chair; he’s been eavesdropping. Russia desperately ransacks his short-term memory: did he say anything nasty about greasy ice-cream-eating wops? No. This is his big chance, then. Italy seems genuinely enthusiastic, touched to be loved by someone after all. He’ll attack Austria flat out from the start, and they can sort out the finer points later on. Has Russia heard, by the way, about Turkey getting off with Austria’s mother? No love lost there - yes, it’s absolutely true, he heard it from Germany not five minutes ago. ... Russia buys Italy a large, very expensive drink as a guarantee of good faith; Italy bursts into copious tears of gratitude. Russia is jubilant: a really good Italian alliance is the best any Russia can hope for. He puts it all down to his silver-tongued rhetoric and astute strategic grasp. With a friendly nod to France he retires to write his orders.

Come spring 1901 orders time, Italy has been taken home unconscious, and Russia finds he has offended Austria, Turkey and England; there is nothing he can do now but eat humble pie, try to become somebody’s puppet. look up times of the next train back to Potter’s Bar. ...

It is not easy to categorize the various devices open to players in the way of ‘off-board tactics’ in face-to-face Diplomacy. Certainly the postal game offers far more scope for originality, as we shall see later. However, here are some general points to be borne in mind when planning the campaign.


Of the utmost importance. First, it is essential to know what goes on among the other players in their private lives - who knows whom, who is related to whom, who hates whose guts. An American friend once told me of what must be the most perfect position a Diplomacy player could possibly find himself in: he was playing Germany in a game where France had for some time been enjoying the clandestine favours of England’s wife. Germany knew this, and France knew he knew; England, however, did not know. It was no surprise to me to learn that Germany won this game in record time, with the devoted assistance of France, and to the astonishment of the other players who knew France as a ruthless, win-or-bust merchant who would knife his old mother in spring 1901 if he thought he could get away with it.

Some non-players to whom I have recounted that story have expressed shock at the thought that Germany would have blown the whistle on his friend France if things had gone against him: ‘It’s only a game, after all.’ Is it, though?

That is an extreme case, obviously. But it is a fact that most people will trust a close friend or relative before a total stranger. In many games I have played, both face-to-face and postal, the basic strategy has been decided by such factors, and the player who is unaware of them is at a severe disadvantage.

It is important to know the other players, too, so far as possible. There are players who will never tell a lie (not many), and players who will never tell the truth (rather more). Some make winning their first priority; others can be led astray by dazzling coups and audacious stabs even when these are not necessarily beneficial. Perhaps the most successful face-to-face player I have ever encountered is Steve Doubleday, a large, genial character renowned for his vast appetite, prodigious thirst and inexhaustible good nature, a man whom it is (unfortunately) quite impossible to mistrust. Many a struggling novice has been cheered by his friendly advice, comforted by his genuine concern when things failed to work out as predicted ... and eventually shattered by the clinical, apologetic insertion of the knife at the one moment when no defence or retaliation was possible. After one particularly callous betrayal he was physically assaulted by an enraged dwarf a quarter of his size, an event which upset him considerably. It is no mean tribute to his benevolent aspect that several victims come back for more in subsequent games (I have myself); I do not recall that he has ever lost a game I have watched or played in.

It is an odd quirk of the game that certain players get a reputation for being untrustworthy; odd, because the nature of the game requires that all players are untrustworthy. Such a reputation will only count against you in a game where a stooge is playing - a stooge being a player who has no intention of winning, perhaps because he knows he isn’t good enough and lacks the moral courage to break an alliance, risking finding himself out on a limb, with victory slipping away and everyone against him. If you can spot one of these early on and acquire him for your own, the game’s yours: a quick smear job will undermine the credibility of your rivals, and you have the undoubtedly comforting feeling of an alliance you know will not be broken ... or not by the other fellow, anyway. If you can win without breaking your agreement with the stooge, so much the better; he’ll trust you all the more next time, the poor sap.

The genuine stabber is not often found: by this I mean the chap who stabs for the sheer joy of it, without regard to the long-term effects. Such a player is best wiped out, in my view, and indeed this usually occurs. He introduces an unpredictable element. Any player who will make moves that are clearly against his own interest upsets the balance of the game, and can cause havoc in well-laid plans. Very young players are almost always either stooges or stabbers, depending on temperament; finding out which can be a painful business.

I hardly like to mention it, but almost all female diplomats are stooges, and none in my experience are stabbers. This is strange, because as any trendy authority Will confirm there is in fact no difference between men and women; so the fact that I have never been stabbed by a woman in any game, face-to-face or postal, must be pure chance.


Closely allied to the personality problem is that of revenge for past humiliations. Few players will actually say in as many words, ‘You -let me down in our last game, so I’m out to get you this time.’ But it’s a common enough attitude. It seems to me to indicate a fundamental immaturity of outlook; good players treat each game as a new beginning, and though they will remember previous accidents and not be caught napping again, they will not bear grudges.

Even more significant is the question of revenge within a single game. There is one type of player who infuriates me beyond measure, the one I think of as the Armoured Duck. If you stab him, and later you yourself are stabbed from another side, he will never accept this as a chance to rebuild his position by realigning himself with you, but will insist on defending himself to the death, even though you have stopped attacking him. Even worse is his behaviour in the reverse situation, where he has stabbed you: he naturally expects you to react as he would, and if you try to negotiate a new settlement with him he will ignore you even when it would be in his best interests to accept. because he fears you. There is nothing one can do about the Armoured Duck except try to get him interested in some other game because he isn’t up to the cynical skills of this one. When I first learnt to play the game, with other inexperienced players, the Armoured Duck was naturally the rule, not the exception. It was in a postal game - 1973BG - that the True Faith was revealed to me for the first time: I had pulled off a particularly vicious stab (not even a very good one, as it turned out) on an ally who had served me faithfully for five game years. I waited, cringing, for the next development; and there in the next post was a letter with the familiar postmark. I opened it apprehensively.

‘Dear Richard,’ it began. ‘Ouch! That hurt. It looks as if I shall be playing a rather minor role in our partnership from now on. ...‘ And it went on to discuss some tactical possibilities for the coming season. Now, this letter had two effects: first, it made me feel like a louse; second, it induced me to let him off the hook, because I knew that in the last resort I would rather get a letter from him than from any of the other potential allies in that area. That is the way to treat a stab.

A further painful personal experience will make the point. In another postal game - 1974N, still continuing as I write and likely to be remembered as one of the best games played up to this time - I got off to a superb start and was feeling extremely pleased with myself; this was an international game, and the standard of the opposition was very high. As Germany, I was allied (after a fashion) with Italy, the Swiss-based wargames authority Nicky Palmer, demolishing my former ally France, played by the formidable American player David G. Johnson. The attack was going well, but it suddenly dawned on me that Nicky was going to get more out of it than I was. Dave, like the fine player I had found him to be, had already made overtures to me suggesting that if I would call off the attack and swing against Russia, he would be able to hold Italy off. I agreed to this, in a rather condescending fashion, enjoying being able to do the great man a favour. Alas, Dave promptly telephoned Nicky (expense no object in these games!) and told him I was leaving him in the lurch. Would Nicky also like to withdraw?... Nicky is nothing if not flexible, and when the moves came through they were an unpleasant shock: Dave had clearly tipped off Russia, who met my attack with contemptuous ease, and while the Italian fleet sailed away into the eastern Mediterranean the surviving French armies drove viciously into my unprotected rear. I never recovered. It was the perfect example of the most important rule of Diplomacy: never bum your boats. Keep the options open and don’t let revenge come before winning the wretched game.


Fundamentally, I do not believe in alliances. They make the game simple, but they also make it rather less exciting than the grand free-for-all I prefer. By an alliance I mean a semi-permanent affair, which will unite two countries in a solid bond lasting until one of them breaks it; this is a very different matter from the ad hoc arrangements I prefer, keeping on good terms (well, fairly good) with everyone and not putting all my eggs in one basket.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: the permanent alliance, intended to produce a two-way draw, is completely contrary to the spirit of the game. Such arrangements are quite common, among players who doubt their ability to win, but they are anathema to most good players because they spoil the game. Their ‘success’ record, if you regard a draw as a success, is very high - obviously, since any two countries who achieve complete mutual trust must have a colossal advantage, being able to leave their defences wide open on one front while using more units in attack than is normally possible. There is nothing much one can do about it. though, except to play with different people next time.

This is not to say that all draws are reprehensible: a two-way draw occasionally arises naturally, and draws involving more than two players are almost always honourable results, where all have done their best to win but the scale has not quite been tipped.

Alliances of the semi-permanent sort are perfectly ethical, though, as I have said, sometimes rather dull. I’ll be looking at some of the familiar patterns later, when considering the strategic aims and potential of individual countries. For the moment I am concerned with tactics - the methods of conducting an alliance.

In face-to-face Diplomacy, the problems of effective communication are not great. Players will simply sit down together to compose their orders in full view of each other, each eyeing the other surreptitiously to ensure that the orders handed in are the approved ones. The greatest difficulty lies in breaking this sort of arrangement once it has taken root. One familiar device is to scribble down the approved orders as fast as possible, clutching one’s stomach with the other hand, then bolt for the lavatory. Diplomacy has not yet broken down all taboos, and few players will go so far as to insist on accompanying their allies on such occasions. In that cloistered calm a fresh set of orders can be written, to be handed in at the last possible moment. It is, of course, vital for this coup that rigid time-limits be agreed. and adhered to, for the writing of orders.

An excellent coup that once caught me out can be used when one is actually changing sides from one ally to another. The new ally is provided with a signed sheet of paper clearly headed with the country name, season and the words ‘second set’. The new ally (who of course will be unobserved by the old ally) writes your orders for you and hands them in with his own to the gamesmaster. Meanwhile you and your old ally are at your usual convivial task of writing down your orders - in your case, completely bogus ones. I was really shattered for once when the gamesmaster began reading out my ally’s approved orders, only for the swine to say quietly, ‘I think you’ll find there’s another set there that supersedes those.’ Mind you, this leaves you open to a really lethal stab by the new ally. ...

It is also common practice to put one or more units under an ally’s control, so that he actually writes the orders for them, though some schools, especially in America, regard this as illegal. I shall have more to say about ‘proxy orders’ when discussing the postal game; suffice it to say for the present that they are quite legal provided always that the owner of the unit(s) involved retains the right to countermand the proxy orders at any time he chooses.

One important aspect of alliance play is camouflage: it pays to keep the alliance a secret for as long as possible. This is much easier in postal play, of course, where no one can see who is in contact with whom. In face-to-face games the intricate phoney attacks found in the postal game are not really practical - they take too long to work out, and are extremely accident prone under pressure of time. But some effort should be made. If Russia and Turkey decide to ally they should not begin with F(Sev) - Rum and F(Ank) - Con respectively. In any self-respecting game the danger signals would go out all over Europe: ‘Juggernaut building!’ Italy will throw everything into supporting Austria and attacking Turkey; Russia will find himself assaulted by England and Germany in the north, and the alliance will get nowhere.

This particular alliance, therefore, should begin with a stand-off in the Black Sea - or better still, a phony stab by Russia, who grabs the Black Sea for himself, while Turkey bellows with rage. (Not really, of course - overreaction is an easy give-away in these positions.) Keep them in doubt: it’s the only way. If Russia can persuade Germany, say, that Turkey is out to overrun Russia with Austrian aid, Germany is likely to support Russia until it’s too late for him to wish he hadn’t.

There are several famous camouflage traps, easily recognized by cynical old-timers. One such, for instance, is the Key Lepanto (discussed under Italian openings), where Italy moves to Trieste in spring 1901, spitting hate at Austria and usually fooling no one. Camouflage should be subtle, unless the opposition is very weak.

Long-term alliances tend to suit the ‘outside’ countries, England, France, Russia and Turkey, better than the central ones. The essential point when conducting such an alliance is to retain the initiative over your ally ensure that you are in a better position to stab him than he is to stab you. It is very easy for, say, England to hold the whip hand over Germany in this way:

Germany necessarily turns his back on England, taking the brunt of the heavy fighting, while England extends a net of fleets around the western half of the board which can easily be brought to bear on the vulnerable German territories along the North Sea; for Germany to strike first is almost impossible, since he cannot build fleets without making his intentions fairly obvious. The same applies in similar inside-outside alliances: Turkey - Austria, Russia - Austria, France - Italy. and so on. The central countries are rarely right to commit themselves to any long-term arrangements unless they are content to settle for second. It is this that has led to the widespread and two-thirds incorrect belief that Germany, Austria and Italy are substantially weaker than the other four countries. Alliance play, the most common style with inexperienced face-to-face players, simply does not suit them.

The one occasion when alliances can be guaranteed to hold firm even among good players is in the stalemates that arise late in the game. It is extremely common to see a situation arising where two pairs or sets of countries face each other across the stalemate line, no player being able to stab an ally without opening the floodgates to the opposing group. This is when absolute accuracy of co-ordination is essential. In postal games, where communications are often shaky, many a ‘certain’ draw has turned into a landslide for one group when the other gets its wires crossed. In the face-to-face game, however, this difficulty only arises if the games has been very long, and/or dissipated.


The opposite of alliance play is the free-for-all. Far more entertaining, it shows the game of Diplomacy at its splendid best. The essential difference is that instead of allying with A against B and ignoring B altogether during the negotiating period, one allies with both. It is immensely satisfying to see your two ‘allies’ cutting each other to pieces in exactly the way you have planned, while you stand by collecting the pieces that fall from their dismembered empires. The simple rule for this kind of play is: stay on good terms with everybody until the last possible moment.

Sometimes, of course, relations will become a little strained. Certainly it is necessary to ensure that your opponents are all of sufficient calibre to accept this style of play: it is sometimes necessary, for instance, to borrow a centre off one of your neighbours without permission, explaining it away afterwards with soft words and offers of refreshment. If he is the type to resent this to the point of launching a violent counter-attack, you are playing the wrong sort of game.

At the heart of the free-for all is the idea of the ‘balance of power’, the cornerstone of real-life diplomacy which is overlooked by a surprising number of those who play the game. You make it your first priority to ensure that no single country grows bigger than all the others.., unless, of course, it’s you. One easy example concerns the ownership of Sweden in 1901, which we have already touched on. Usually, Germany and Russia will each have a single unit adjacent to Sweden after the spring moves, but Sweden is traditionally regarded as a Russian area, and it rarely does Germany much good to occupy it even if he has the chance, since it would normally mean that he abandoned Denmark or Holland instead. So Germany’s control over the destiny of Sweden is a powerful trump. Some players automatically keep Russia out, without bothering to make any secret of their motives, but this is novice play. A good Germany will say to Russia. ‘You can take Sweden in 1901 provided you seem to be having difficulty in the south; but if you do well there I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to keep you out for my own protection. I’ve no intention of taking Sweden myself, but I must slow up your rate of building ...‘ and so on. A novice Russia will bluster and threaten; a good one will accept that Germany holds the cards, and will try to ensure that he appears to be in trouble in the south.

It is far better to tell an opponent what you intend to do, provided that the loss of surprise is not important. This is the way to play a free-for-all, juggling the other countries, giving offence here and there in small doses but never so much as to break off relations. There is almost no limit to what can be achieved with tact and persuasion: as England I have occupied Brest in 1901 with France’s permission, as Germany I have had two units staying as welcome guests on French soil in 1902, and so on. If you, as England, want to move to the English Channel in spring 1901, there are two ways of doing it: either arrange a DMZ there and promptly violate it, or ask France’s permission to go there, establishing a bridgehead in Belgium for a future attack on Germany. France can always say no, but at least you then avoid the stand-off in the Channel (horrible for England) ... and you have kept the door open for future discussions.

Like the alliance game, the free-for-all style is better suited to some countries than to others. Germany is the ideal country for it, which is why Germany is often the experienced player’s favourite country. I know of no keener pleasure in this game than sitting safely in the middle of the board, stirring gently, and shouting encouragement to the participants in the wild melee I have managed to create all around me. Austria is also well suited to this style, and so is Russia (which is adaptable to anything), Italy is not bad, Turkey alone virtually useless.

It must be admitted that it is more difficult to stage-manage a free-forall in face-to-face Diplomacy, because the moves involved often have to be very exact, and long discussion is needed with all the participants. A good player as Germany, say, should be able to predict with fair certainty every move made in spring 1901, all over the board, but this requires meticulously accurate planning of the finer details, not easy in the hurly-burly of a face-to-face game. It is for this reason, I think, that the central countries do so much worse at face-to-face play than at the postal game: their innate potential is certainly no less than that of the outside countries, but it takes more skill and more effort to capitalize on it.


This is the apotheosis of the free-for-all game, devised by Nicky Palmer, who started it as a joke but found it had more to it than he thought. The idea, briefly, is to scatter one’s units as widely as possible over the board, thus having a finger in every diplomatic pie. The disadvantage is obvious enough: the home front is left seriously weakened. Nicky’s theory, however, was that the single units in their far-flung outposts would be so valuable, their support so anxiously courted by the players in the area, that no one would want to offend the scatter player by attacking his home bases. Rather surprisingly, this has proved to be the case. A single unit in foreign parts is a tremendous bargaining counter: a French army, say, in Galicia can join in local quarrels on whichever side makes the best offer, without any fear of reprisals since none of the participants in the brawl has any units anywhere near France. In the end, the idea is to strike simultaneously in half a dozen places, grabbing for the win before the other warring factions have sorted themselves out. It’s fair to say that no one has yet carried the Scatter Theory through to its final triumph, and it may well be that the full blown theory is not ultimately sound.

The value of having one unit wandering far from home is beyond doubt, however, and perhaps the perfect answer will turn out to lie somewhere between this and the Scatter Theory proper. For the outside countries, in particular, a wandering unit has great value, as it enables them to join in the game in areas normally inaccessible to them. For instance France, which has such a restful beginning to most games, is particularly well placed to send an army into the distant east, or a fleet up into the Scandinavian sector. Looking at my own recent postal games, I see two such cases: a French army in Bohemia in autumn 1902 and a Russian army in Venice in 1904. Both these have proved enormously valuable from the diplomatic viewpoint, enabling me to exert pressure in places normally beyond my reach.

The value of a roaming unit also has a tactical side, as will be seen when we come to examine the question of stalemate lines.


The essence of good play at Diplomacy is to conceal your true intentions, not by telling lies, which simply irritates, but by making ambiguous moves for as long as possible, and striking hard and decisively when the moment arrives. Until that moment comes, make no promises you cannot keep, no threats you may not be able to carry out. If you find that you are consistently able to move as you have said you will move, without suffering any disadvantage, you are playing well. Other players may think you are a weak player, a ‘stooge’, because you habitually tell them the truth; they will come to expect you always to move as you say you will, and then they will become careless. Tell all the lies you like about the reasons for your manoeuvres, but not about the moves themselves. Above all, never let the game become a vendetta: it is all too easy to resent a shock attack from a ‘friendly’ country, but if you can laugh it off and renegotiate from weakness to make the best of your new position, you will always have chances to recover. There are recorded cases of players coming back from two units and winning the game: this is not achieved by obdurate defence in hopeless positions, but by flexibility of attitude and the willingness to swallow temporary humiliation for the sake of better times ahead. While you have a single unit at large, you are still in the game.

The Game of Diplomacy is (c) 1978 by Richard Sharp. It is reproduced here with Richard's permission.

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