What is your strategy to solo?

I was browsing Reddit and came across this question (in a slightly different form). I’ve seen similar questions before. After all, it’s very usual for a game of Diplomacy to end in a draw.

This isn’t surprising. There are seven players, with seven approximately equal starting positions, all trying to achieve the best they can from the game. And the best you can get from the game is a solo victory.

Well, OK, not every Dip player tries to win. There is the pernicious philosophy of Carebearism with it’s adherents playing to achieve a draw. Frankly, they’re not playing Diplomacy; at least, they’re not playing the game the way it was designed. But I’m ignoring this ignoble philosophy for now.

And then there’re people who have almost the opposite approach to Carebears which I have decided to call ‘Unusism’. This is the idea that the only result that matters is a solo. Nothing superficially wrong with this but the players who play by this philosophy simply don’t accept, or don’t value, the draw. Read mike8111’s reply to the question… not that it actually answers the question.

So, what is the way to win a game of Diplomacy?

Well, read this article by William Herkewitz. He’s not a Dip player of any note (as far as I’m aware) but the article includes the thoughts of Andrew Goff, who is notable. Goffy is a 3-time World Diplomacy Champion. If nothing else, he has to be doing something right, don’t you think?

The truth is, there is no distinct strategy to solo. If you want to win a game of Diplomacy, it starts in 1901, when your strategy is very different.

Objectives v Aims

If you’re playing the game right, you enter a Dip game with the objective of winning. If this becomes an unsustainable objective, then you play to draw the game.

Here’s when it gets sticky: How are draws being decided in your game? The rules of Diplomacy state very clearly:

As soon as one Great Power controls 18 supply centers, it’s considered to have gained control of Europe. The player representing that Great Power is the winner. However, players can end the game by agreement before a winner is determined. In this case, all players who still have pieces on the game board share equally in a draw.

https://media.wizards.com/2015/downloads/ah/diplomacy_rules.pdf

This leads to an understanding that everyone who survives at the end of the game share in the draw. This is known in the Dip Hobby as the DIAS draw – Draws include all survivors.

However, this isn’t how all games end. In some tournaments, a draw can be agreed that excludes some surviving players. This is because, to accept a draw, everyone who is alive in the game (not eliminated) has to agree to the draw result. So, if there are four players left, a draw proposal might be that three of the four players are chosen as the ones who will draw the game, with the fourth player not included. This system is something I call DINS – Draws include nominated survivors.

DINS is a little controversial. However, in a tournament, for instance, it may be that there is some benefit to surviving but not being part of a draw. Unusual, but possible. And it can be a way to end the game without prolonging it. For instance, in the above example, if the three players can work together, then the fourth might be eliminated anyway… eventually.

Personally, I’m not sure why I’d agree to vote myself out of a draw; I don’t think I would. There are possibly better alternatives. But still…

So a third objective might be simply to survive… and this is true even in DIAS games. This is because, in a game where I can no longer solo, I might choose to draw with certain players; however, I might find that I can’t achieve this, so instead I play simply to survive the game and achieve a draw.a

These are very different strategically. If I’m looking to draw with certain players, I will play only to achieve this result. If I am simply trying to survive, my play is likely to be more chaotic, switching alliances regularly and often.

So, the objectives are:

  1. Win
  2. Draw
  3. Survive

Now, at the start of the game, these objectives become time-limited aims and are reversed in order.

In the Early game, I’m simply looking to survive. To win it, you’ve got to be in it. I may ally with someone I think is unlikely to be a long-term ally, because they offer the best chance of surviving the Early game.

If I’m successful, then I might well start to look at how I can achieve at least a draw. Which are the players with whom I need to ally? Which players do I need to make sure aren’t going to win? Assuming my first aim is achieved, I can play to prevent anyone else winning.

And, if all goes well, then I will seek the chance to solo. To win.

So, while my objectives are as stated above, throughout the game my aims are:

  1. Survive
  2. Be part of the draw at least
  3. Win

How to win

From this comes the secret to achieving a solo: diplomacy and alliances.

First, you have to enter the game with a hard-nosed, selfish, cut-throat attitude. You have to be Bismarck.

I’ve mentioned before that the original name of the game was Realpolitik. Didn’t know this? Have a look at the original rules of the game. See? Realpolitik. There are some notable differences from the rules we know today but it doesn’t matter about them.

Realpolitik is a reference to the international politics of Otto von Bismarck, a German Chancellor, who was ruthless. He would create a web of diplomacy across Europe, allying in secret with many of the major powers in Europe and intending to use each alliance to the benefit of Germany.

You need to be talking to everyone. This is diplomacy at it’s finest. Even the players who you don’t like. They all need to believe you’re their friend.

It’s easy to concentrate on your near neighbours at this point. After all, you need to survive. But you also need to go further than this: at some point, assuming you survive the early parts of the game, you’re going to need to consider working with people beyond your immediate neighbours.

The key is when to use these alliances to your advantage. The skill is doing enough to keep your allies happy as well. The art is keeping those allies from going all out against you when you begin to threaten to win the game.

But this is no different to any game of Diplomacy. This is the way I find I do best in the game. Keep your alliances active. Look to ally with everyone. Actually ally with the person – not the power – that is the best option. And don’t marry yourself to that alliance; by which I mean, don’t think it has to last the whole game.

If it turns out that I’m not going to win, then I play to draw the game. It’s actually pretty easy to spot this quite early in the game. There is often something that makes it clear that the win has gone. It could be a successful stab against me that means the game becomes about survival. There’s nothing wrong with playing for a draw when the win has gone.

There’s also nothing wrong with the first alliance you make being the one you take to the end of the game if that’s the best thing to do. Finding an ally and keeping them with you is the best approach, not only to draw but to solo. In time, a lot of players will grow accustomed to being allied with you and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

Turning the game into a solo opportunity is recognising when your ally is expecting the draw and believes you’re onside for the duration. This might be a number of things: it could be that they become lax in their defence towards you. Perhaps it’s when they are forced to rely on you for their survival. Maybe it’s that they stop talking about making sure you’re not going to stab them.

Getting the timing of the stab right is crucial. Andrew Goff will tell you – with some weight behind it – to never stab when you are at the low teens in terms of SC count. This is when it becomes tempting. You see a chance to raise your SC count to 16 or thereabouts and go for it.

The problem is that 15 or 16 SCs still leaves you needing to work for the last few SCs. You make the stab and then you’re facing an angry former ally as well as the rest of the board knowing you’re in a position to win. Suddenly, it’s a Grand Alliance (or Stop the Leader – STL – alliance) you’re facing. And the chance has gone.

I don’t disagree with this as a general maxim but I don’t completely agree with it. If I can see the way to grab those SCs at this point, I’ll start looking for how to take the last remaining SCs. And, usually, the worst that can happen is that the Grand Alliance forces you to draw the game anyway. Remember, I’m not a Unusist: I don’t see a draw as a failure. But I will only go for that stab if I can see how to take the last 2 or 3 SCs afterwards… unless I don’t think I’m going to get another chance.

And, sometimes, you just have to be brave.

Let’s end with an example

I may have used this game as an example before but it fits snugly into this idea of getting the solo.

I was playing Russia. I’m not a huge fan of playing Russia but there you go. You play what you get.

At the start of the game I was able to agree Non-Aggression Pacts with Germany and England. I decided, given the paucity of communication from Turkey, to ally with Austria. I was working with Italy, planning a pincer move on Austria at some point. France was on the other side of the board but I was sharing info with them.

I went after Turkey from the off. Turkey, who believed I was allied with them, wasn’t happy, as you can imagine. Austria was, though! After a small number of turns, Turkey dropped from the game (I despise this type of play – grow a pair) and Austria and I planned to take Turkey out.

However, I wasn’t overly happy with this. It would simply mean that Austria grew too strong to do anything about very quickly. And I would be tied down in the south, with a potential Western Triple developing. So I worked on persuading Italy to go after Austria and on getting Austria to attack Italy full on.

At this point, France seemed to be establishing their position. It turned out that France and England had established a strong alliance (and that France was a Carebear – but more on that later). So France wasn’t – at this point – going after Italy. And, with Austria’s potential strength looking likely to stop Italy’s chances, it didn’t take a lot to move Italy against them.

And so I launched a stab on Austria. Unfortunately, Austria was a good player and saw it coming. I’d obviously been too persuasive about them going after Italy! Austria prevented my stab, and carried Germany with them to fight against me. England jumped on board with this… and I was soon facing a struggle to survive in the south (although I wasn’t facing too much of a struggle in the north).

Austria’s position was helped by France attacking Italy which meant that any possible pincer movement on Austria would fail. Austria and Italy reached a rapprochement and Italy was able to turn and face France’s attack, while Austria got some small success against me.

My efforts then went on persuading England that they were better off moving against Germany (and failing to do so); on persuading France to move on Germany (with small success), and persuading Austria that there was a bigger threat than me to the game – France – and saying that I would not attack again because I now didn’t see that I could do anything other than survive.

It was at this point that Austria told me they were going to have to leave the game. They had a work’s trip coming up and they wouldn’t be able to commit the time to the game that they needed. Despite the fact that Austria was slowly strangling me, I persuaded them instead to request a game pause and they went for this. Thankfully we were playing with some decent people and they accepted the pause.

When the game recommenced, Austria was more amenable to my diplomacy. We’d kept the talk going even though we were locked in combat. This is something poor players don’t do. They’re stabbed, or simply at war with another player, and so stop communicating. Keep talking – you never know what can happen.

Admittedly, this was helped by Italy making a terrible mis-order which allowed France to break through. Italy then simply quit and France became a huge threat to Austria. Even though France would eventually inform me that they were a Carebear (still coming to that below), they broke the alliance with Austria and stabbed them in Italy.

So Austria and I were working together again. I honoured my promise to not attack them and finally managed to get England to work with me against the not-communicating-very-much-with-anyone Germany. France kept trying to make me attack Austria and we were talking a lot again even though I didn’t so it.

Again, Austria told me they would need to leave the game, this time because they had a family holiday coming up (somewhat neatly, given the game, in Croatia). Again I persuaded them to seek a game pause; they were more reluctant this time because they’d already had a week’s pause and this would be two weeks. Still, they asked, it was given, and the game stopped.

This pause didn’t have a lot of impact on the game. What did was England, a couple of turns into the game after this second pause, disappearing. It gave me an opportunity in the north. England was replaced by another good player, and we were able to get good communications going from the start. Still I stole Norway from them… and England then went after me (and got Norway back).

This was a problem because the alliance between England and France was still going. France was stymied in the south, and so didn’t really have many options. Austria and I were holding them back and making some slow – very slow – progress against them. We were even contemplating working against Germany.

But then the game changed once more, and England attacked France. The communication between the two countries and me was enlightening. The new England had decided that France was someone they just couldn’t work with. France was pretty pompous and demanding at times, so I knew what they meant.

France, however, was enraged. They told me that they were expecting the new England to honour the alliance they had agreed upon when they took over the power. When they didn’t, France simply changed tack and went after England, spitting venom.

France and I had a long conversation about the nature of the game. France was a Carebear (told you I’d get to it) who believed that a real alliance should last the game out. This was what they believed England should have done. France had been playing for a 2-way draw with England. (2-way draws are abominations, in my opinion.) I told them that this isn’t what Diplomacy is about and, although I didn’t persuade them, the conversation did nothing to harm our position.

And then France told me they were going to quit. Austria and I were now eroding their position in the south because they had turned their forces against England, to little effect. England and France were stuck getting nowhere against each other. This also meant that Austria and I were able to eat into the ineffective Germany and reduce Germany to three SCs: KIel, Holland and Denmark.

Once more I persuaded France to remain in the game, promising to help them against England. I took Norway again to show I meant it… although I wouldn’t be able to make any further progress.

At this point the draw proposals started. I think almost everyone thought we were at game’s end. France didn’t: they told me they would never agree to a draw with England under any circumstances. We’d need to eliminate France to end the game.

This allowed me to take advantage. I could readily agree to draw proposals because I knew France wouldn’t. And I had achieved an advantage in the south: Austria had got their units on the French border and given me the chance to attack her. So, I did.

In the season that effectively ended the game I took three SCs from Austria. This put me on 15 SCs. I knew I could get Kiel, and I knew I could take one more Austrian SC. The question was where I would get the last SC. Sweden (English) was unlikely because it was too well supported (I couldn’t get any units near enough to do anything about it).

Austria actually congratulated me on the stab (testament to our good relationship) as did England. England had seen it coming and Austria acknowledged that they’d been warned by England but just hadn’t believed I’d do it. So I now faced an alliance between England, Germany and Austria. France, attacking England doggedly, was no help and was able to work with Austria if they chose to do so.

England was pushing for the draw and now using the Public Press box (where communications between all players take place) to persuade others of this and to keep the alliance against me going. France, though, made it very clear that they wouldn’t accept any draw with England in their public press (and this became a bit of a slanging match between the two). In the meantime I took Kiel from Germany. I could get one other – Munich – from Austria and then I would be stalemated.

And then came the final change. With France being so stubborn, England gave up the fight to draw. They and Austria effectively conceded the game to me. Austria issued all holds and I took two Austrian SCs. England vacated Sweden in the same turn, and I took Sweden as well. And that was it – I soloed.

There was an element of luck in this. But luck must be utilised. I’d faced a lot of challenges and overcome them. I had launched a failed stab very early on and, if things had gone differently, that would truly have ended my game. But, by continuing to communicate with Austria, and by working on persuading Austria and France to stay in the game when they might otherwise have left, I was able to build a relationship with them. Austria could simply have turned around and acted like France – certainly after the second stab – and I wouldn’t have managed the solo. France could have taken badly to the harshness of my anti-Carebear conversation with them but – because I still communicated with them despite our different approaches – would rather lose to me than draw with someone they’d grown to despise.

Winning a game of Diplomacy is about playing consistently throughout the game. It’s about not making enemies who can stop you on the board, and about keeping the relationships going behind it. And it’s about taking a risk and going for it when the chance comes, even – sometimes – when you can’t see from where the last SC will come.

Published by Mal Arky

I'm a Diplomacy nut... if you haven't guessed. I write about the game Diplomacy, mainly as played online on websites, such as Playdiplomacy, webDiplomacy and Backstabbr. I write books on Diplomacy, too. First one to be published soon!

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