How to Solo

by Joe Brennan

I asked a lot of soloists for their views. This is what I’ve compiled for you. Some of it flies in the face of “common wisdom”. There are many guidelines, but for each of them there are (invariably) exceptions. Accept these as guidelines rather than law.

This has been discussed in many worthy articles. In a nutshell:

Keep talking to all players.

Stay friendly, unless you are certain there is more to be gained with a chainsaw. Then re-think before going there.

Be prepared to make up a story to further your cause. "France told me you were going to do that." This is a great alliance breaker.

Try to engage each player on more than just the game level. Get in the head of each person, find out what makes them tick. Get them to like you, find common ground.

Realise that the other players will probably be trying to get into your head. Send mail which serves your purpose, not theirs.

Apologise when you offend. This is my first myth-breaker. There's a lot to be gained by admitting fault. Often fun to back up with, "Russia told me I should stab you, it was wrong and stupid but he kept talking about SCs and game balance, and I let him talk me into it. It won't happen again. "Especially when Russia said nothing. You've put the blame on someone else.

Never let another person's interests be more important to you than your own. Good diplomats will try to get you to see things their way. Ensure that you have better reasons (even if you have to fabricate them) for them to do things your way. Otherwise, "just say no". Don't be seduced.

Don't lie too much. Your credibility is more important than your honesty. Be credible – appear honest. Don't be honest. A soloist cannot afford morality. The Machiavellian approach is correct in this game. Be honest as much as possible, and, where you feel a lie will do the job best, ensure that the lie is unlikely to be unveiled for what it is. You must be believable. The amount of lying you can get away with is directly proportional to your ability to talk your way out of it (which is proportional to the gullibility of your opponents).

Be competent and observant. Seems simple, right? An error in writing orders, or sending a message to the wrong player can be fatal. Check and double-check. If you blow your orders, you might find your previously friendly neighbours sharpening their knives. Examine every set of orders to determine what you think each player intended – and what each player was expecting from his neighbours. See if that balances with what they said to you beforehand. Work out who is telling you the truth (but don't trust them implicitly).

Know the difference between Lepanto and Sealion. Know the opening moves of each country and why a player would choose which option. Read the articles at the Pouch. Players will often want to try anything new which has been written up of late. Know that your opponents will probably be wanting to solo more, after reading this article.

Know when to stab and when not to stab. I usually try to determine:

  1. Is my neighbour vulnerable?
  2. Do I need my neighbour as an ally, and, if so, for how much longer?
  3. Is my neighbour likely to grow uncomfortably large if I don't stab now?
  4. How will stabbing my neighbour affect the game balance?
  5. How many of my neighbour's SCs am I likely to get from the stab, assuming other countries may join the feeding frenzy?
  6. Is my neighbour likely to stab me, and should I strike pre-emptively?
  7. How likely is my neighbour to develop a vendetta with me and come after me with everything he's got? (This will greatly advantage countries other than mine.)

At the start of the game, vulnerability is a more important factor. Later, my decision is based on the big picture – considering relationships, the effect of negotiations, unit positions and the geography of the board.

There's a time when growing is bad and it is when it opens the door to another player's solo. – Romain Jacques

Spread dissension among your opponents. This isn't a must. Sometimes they'll do this by themselves, but even so you should always help it along. You want to be a good friend and confidante to each of them. But, in doing this, you must be very careful to ensure it doesn't come back to bite you. (You don't want to be too obviously stirring the pot.) Encourage wars and frequent stabs among your opponents, hoping that they will be so untrusting of each other they cannot bring themselves to work together against your solo. (Make sure that you are the one doing the solo bid when you get the other players to this point.)

Keep thinking freely, flexibly, imaginatively. If you don't, you'll be bored, and boring. Crack a joke. Think outside the square. Work out a variety of ways to win. Re-evaluate. Consider what would happen if you told another player about what your neighbour is up to. Always wonder if you can unsettle the current alliance structure. Be wary of pushing the same line every year. If the fish didn't take the bait the first or second time, try using different bait.

Be able to, mentally, become each of the other players at every point.
– Dan Shoham

Get a flunky. This is so useful. I'm defining a flunky as a person who will do your bidding against the best interests of their nation. How do you develop this?

Start up a strong alliance which generally works to your advantage because you can talk the ally into doing what usually works best for you. Use this player to get what you want. If they won't help you actually get a solo, stab them and take the extra SCs you need.

Wait for (or encourage) a vendetta between two other players, and then take advantage of whichever player bares his back to you.

Wait for the vendetta, and then attack elsewhere, knowing that these two countries will not both join a stop-the-leader alliance against you.

To keep a flunky who idolises you, just keep feeding him the occasional SC, and tell him how he's going to come second when you solo, and what a great learning experience it is for him to be playing with you. Some people actually buy this.

Victims make great flunkies. They've already given up on winning. Help them achieve their goal – usually the destruction of some other power.

Flunkies not only get in the way of stop-the-leader alliances, they also feed you SCs and info. I love finding out who's writing the anti-me messages, and asking them politely to stop. This is very frustrating for them to know that there's another player who is undermining them. They often give in and stay fragmented – and you can eat them up that way.

Know thyself. Understand where you're coming from, what you want from a game, how you respond to various people and countries – all your biases and behavioural faults, particularly with inter-personal communications. What are your buttons?

Know your enemies and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.
– Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Understand the psychological factors which support your solo bid. There are many more than I originally thought.

Idolatry - people look up to and admire a successful player

Fear - little guys don't like to take on big guys

Strength of arms - conquer an enemy mercilessly

Nobility - appearing helpful to others ("appearing")

Disunity - you only have to get one player back on your side to break the stop-the-leader alliance

Suspicion - always encourage suspicion of other players

Illusion - the flunky wants to believe that you're helping him to a happy ending for him – lead him on. Also, your neighbour doesn't want to believe you're preparing for a war with him. This is my favourite stab opportunity.

Idiocy - I've not seen much of this, but if you find one of these precious people, use them for whatever they're worth.

Greed - ah, such a favourite! "Yes, if you stick with me I'll ensure you get St Petersburg!" And then there's "We can get a 2 way if you'll only trust me a little."

There's got to be more. But it's probably enough to convince you that a solo is not out of reach.

"Illogical, irrational, but hell, we're human. People are not as logical or rational as we might like to believe." – Matt McLeod

Only accept a draw if you can't possibly win. I'm one move away from a solo as I write this. A few moves ago I was in what appeared to be a thoroughly stalemated 3 way. I promised a 2 way to each player, they laughed at me. I said I'd give either player SCs if they'd stab the other. They ignored me. I was France, facing Russia and Italy. My best option seemed to be in getting Italy to break the alliance. I pulled my units back, allowing him to take Marseilles. Then I wrote to Russia, laughing with pleasure, stating how Italy had rejoined me, that he had agreed to stab Russia for Mar, Spa and Por. Russia declared war on Italy. Italy finally agreed to try for a two way. A few years down the track, I stab him and tomorrow I'll get my solo. It's unstoppable. I got Marseilles back today – the 18th SC I needed for a French solo. I'm pretty proud of that. I broke the alliance.

Know where the stalemate lines are. This is for your own benefit, but also you can use them as bargaining chips in your negotiations if you have to, so that another player can feel confident that you are not going to solo, so that the draw gets whittled down, so that you can achieve your solo. Eg "Yes, I'll let you have that SC so you can stalemate that border so that we can both work on eliminating this other player."

Know where your 18 SCs are coming from. It's as simple as that. Well, let me give you an example of how to use this knowledge well. Let's assume you're France, and you know you are going to have naval superiority in the North soon. You should consider making a quick grab for Tunis while Italy is occupied elsewhere; then use your naval superiority to force your way up to StP. You can have an unstoppable solo when you've only just reached 14 SCs. That's funny, because when the stop-the-leader alliance forms, it can't stop you. Watch your opponents tear their hair out. If you know which SCs will most readily give you a solo, it can be very much to your advantage to go for the hard-to-get SCs first. As Russia, I once moved through Berlin in the Spring, allowing Germany to keep it in the Fall – it was more important to have my army in Kiel, next to Holland, and a fresh build in Warsaw could go and pick up Berlin later at my convenience.

Be solo-centric. Dan Shoham championed this. He got a solo 50% of the games he played. Impressed? I am! He wrote: You must have a CONVICTION that solos are the only logical outcome of a game to be able to get them on a regular basis. This is in contrast to the attitude of not-be-eliminated-at-any-cost (eg take the safe three way instead of fighting on). This conviction is what allows you to take the risks needed to win, and to be able to give other players their due chance at victory in return for their support in reducing the game down.

Recognise the flow of the game, and inspire it. A good player senses the flow and goes with it. A great player decides what flow would be most suitable to their overall strategic needs and makes that flow happen.
– Dan Shoham

Watch for drop-outs. Losing a player from a game can give you a great opportunity to get some quick growth, as they may trust you where another player wouldn't. Also, they don't have a big emotional investment, which lessens the opportunity for a vendetta, and heightens the possibility of an uninspiring defence.

Watch for players holding and supporting. They have lost the initiative entirely, and if you couldn't break their defence before, chances are they'll write the same orders again. Work out how to break the line on that basis.

Be prepared to take a risk against good players. Conrad Minshall was the first player to win a Hall of Fame game – hall95. His win made him the highest ranked active player. In his notes preparatory to that game, he observed:
Unusual & risky approaches will be needed to win.  Intend to maintain a high degree of chaos (unpredictability) and avoid simplifying the game.  Keep all players in! No strategic sacred cows - for instance the guideline of having only one enemy at a time is out the window from the start.

Pursue multiple 3 way & 2 way strategies from the start.  Maintain options at least until safe from a blitz.  Think I can create a 2 way endgame and outwit my partner to nab a solo.

Maintaining many options is a theme.  Thus many strategies, always looking
for a potential path to a win.

Be the most popular player in the game. More easily said than done. Make sure that your negotiating is considerate, polite, friendly, well constructed and to the point, insightful, encouraging and sympathetic. When other players feel really good about you, they'll open up so you can stab 'em. Further, they'll be far less inclined to stab you. I've seen players accept 4 way draws rather than attempt solos or 3 ways, simply because they won't stab their vulnerable allies. Let this work to your advantage.

Solo Stats

45% of all games on the Judges end in solos. In games with experienced players, that goes down to about 39%. Some countries are definitely more likely to provide you with solos than others. Here are the stats from 2317 games:

Russia 17.8%
France 16.8%
Turkey 14.9%
Germany 14.8%
Austria 13.1%
England 12.7%
Italy 10.0%

If experienced soloists spent more time playing Italy, its stats would improve – right? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the solo is made by the player, not the country. Sure, it's easier when you're France or Russia, but that only goes to ensure that great players keep putting IA at the bottom of their preference lists. So long as Italy can claim 10% of all solos, it's demonstrating that an Italian solo is a very real possibility. In fact, I'm half inclined to start asking for Italy, just to see if I can do it! (Well, maybe not this year.)


Eh? This article IS the conclusion! The original article was 18 typed pages long! And the research took months.

I hope you feel more equipped to not settle for more draws. There are times when a draw is a good idea – when you have two SCs, and each of your two remaining opponents have 16 SCs. But there' s a lot more fun in turning a fairly even three way into a solo than accepting a draw. My last six game results have been solos.

Go ye and do likewise.

First published in the Diplomatic Pouch


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