In a game like Diplomacy, where the real play takes place off-the-board, and you’re dealing with people whose objective is to persuade you that you’re going to be better off doing this rather than that, there’s a lot of bovine faecal matter flying around.
How can you spot it? How do you deal with it? And how can you make your own pile a glittery, fragrant, splodge of attractiveness?
Spotting the BFM
With some people, eventually, you know that if their mouth’s open, or if they’re writing to you, they’re BFMing. They just can’t help themselves. Their ego is bigger than their mouth and it just spills out of them.
This isn’t very helpful early in the game, especially if you’re trying to work with them, of course.
With others, they’re BFM artists, skilled in hiding their outpourings under a pile of sweet-smelling grass. You don’t realise it’s there until you’ve sat down to enjoy the chat with them. When you stand up, you’re walking around with a brown target pasted across your ass.
I was once in a game, playing Italy, and trying to ally with Russia. The player controlling Russia had commitment issues; if I were a betting man, I’d be prepared to put my life-savings on them being single – not that I’d lose much!
I’d successfully attacked Austria and there was, for me, a kind of 3-way alliance with Russia and Turkey in play to cement this attack. I say ‘kind of’ because that’s what was happening on the board. In truth, I was working with each one individually and, in fact, Russia and Turkey were going after each other, too.
In fairness to Russia, I was flirting with Turkey at the same time that I was flirting with Russia. What can I say? I was trying to be some kind of Lothario, getting them both onside while trying to keep control of what they were doing, especially towards each other. I know – shameless.
However, it was increasingly clear that Turkey was the weaker of the two players, both tactically and personally. They didn’t communicate well and they made a couple of silly errors. And, I have to say, Russia had reached the same conclusion.
Additionally, Germany and France were successfully crushing England in the north, so much so that they were becoming a danger to Russia and I respectively. We needed to get our act together to deal with this.
Russia, however, repeatedly refused to take any risks. I kinda get this when playing online. There’s nothing to go off other than the words you read: no body language tells, no watching the other person disappear into the far corner with the player you’re supposed to be allied against, etc.
Because of this, Russia kept coming back to me with: “You could stab me if I do that.” They were right – I could – but what they just wouldn’t allow is that by doing so I’d make myself the sacrificial pasta on the Franco-German altar. Russia was my only real alliance option if I didn’t want to lose the game.
This is an example of how to spot the BFM. Russia had to know that, by stabbing them, I was going to fall out of the game, but they kept using the excuse that they couldn’t risk being stabbed. In fact, they also played the “you’re rude” card when I called them out on this. Come on, don’t call me rude when I’m pointing to the pile of smelly stuff you keep leaving in my inbox!
There are other ways to spot the dung, though. If someone tells you to do something that carries no risk for them, there’s a reason they’re doing this. It might not be obvious but they’re not in the game to help you win. Work out what they get from your actions.
When someone seems to be attacking you on the board, while repeatedly and consistently telling you that they’re absolutely no threat to you, that’s a good sign. The board does lie… but it’s more truthful than the person who badly wants to make you believe what they’re writing. Look around the whole board for clues. Look back through the history of the game to see how they’ve approached the game before. Look at what would happen if they did attack you as well as what would happen if they actually did what they say they’re going to do.
If someone is promising to help you achieve something that relies totally on their support, but which is also putting you at risk, treat it with caution. Russia, in my example above, was right to point out that they were leaving themselves open to a stab from me. But don’t allow this threat to your security to blind you to what else is going on. What do they gain from stabbing you (apart from an SC)? What would that do to the balance on the board? It might not be BFM after all.
Dealing with the BFM
Spotting it is one thing; how you deal with it is another. The worst thing you could do is to kick it dismissively away in the direction of a fan. Not a good outcome…
There are, perhaps, two options, here: You can either shovel it up and chuck it back, or delicately step around it. Which option you choose depends on the situation you find yourself in.
If you decide to confront the other player, you need to make sure that you do it diplomatically, or you confront them so outlandishly that it at least makes them chuckle.
Diplomacy is the name of the game so being diplomatic is often my first choice. I’m not going to suggest that there’s a ‘right’ way to be diplomatic in the face of a big dollop of squishy evilness dropped in your messages but what I tend to do is try to be honest about it. Often it means stating that I can see where they’re going with their advice but, well, I think this might be a better thing to do. Yeh, I know – answering their pile with a pile of your own.
Confronting them can also work, especially if you’re obviously over the top with what you send to them. Humour isn’t guaranteed to keep them onside when you let them know exactly what opening their gift-wrapped pile of stinking promises means for you, but it’s better than being in their face with an accusation. If you can make someone laugh while you’re shovelling it back in their face, that’s at least not a total negative.
On the other hand you can pretend that you’ve not noticed it. You’re sending the message: “Ah, I love the countryside; such rich aromas.” You’re then left with what to do about it.
Lying is something to avoid, in general. However, when you’ve picked up the smell behind the sickly fragrance they’re selling you, lying is a good option. “Yes,” you say, “that looks good to me. I’ll have a shovelful of that, thanks!” Of course you’re not going along with it but the chances are that the other player will feel so pleased with their ‘success’ that they’ll assume you’ve fallen into it.
But what do you do on the board? Sometimes the effort spent in defending yourself from the coming stab is more harmful than letting the stab happen. What happens if you let them stab you? How big a disaster is this?
Diplomatically, being the victim of a perfidious stab is actually pretty good. “Oh my,” you cry to others, “did you see what they did? How can you trust them?” I know the sympathy vote doesn’t always work but this isn’t the point of this: getting others to see just how untrustworthy that player has been is the point.
But we’re talking on the board, not off it. So you have two options if you catch the BFM in time: (1) defend against it, (2) let it happen. What will either option do for your game plan?
If you can defend, can you afford to divert resources to do so? If you have the chance of taking two SCs and losing just one, then it may be better to let it happen. After all, you’re coming out on top.
This needs you to analyse the position after the event. Will you be in a position to stay alive, no matter the one unit net gain? A good stab will be such that you’re going to be losing ground after the fact, regardless of whether this doesn’t seem to be the case from the maths. Fortunately, few stabs are actually that effective.
Serving your own BFM
There are, of course, times when the BFM should come from you. Honesty is usually the best policy but, if you’re being scrupulously honest, are you going to win? You may not want to win, I suppose, although for me this poses the question: Just why are you even playing the game?
It’s possibly easier to say what you shouldn’t do, rather than what you should. Let’s start on the board.
If you’re thinking of stabbing, is this the right time to stab? It’s very tempting when you’re in double figures, or approaching it, to decide that now is the time to stab your ally. This, however, is often the time to not stab them! Your ally is likely to be in a position, in terms of SCs and units, of being approximately your equal; that’s usually how a successful alliance works. If you stab them, you could steal a lead on them but they could well be able to build an alliance against you. It’s no good stabbing them now if they can then prevent you from moving on to win the game.
It’s often better to stab when you’re on 5/6/7 SCs than when you’re on 10/11/12 SCs. Unless you can see clearly how to convert your 13/14/15 SCs to 18, then you’re probably better off biding your time a little. The fewer SCs you hold when you stab, the more forgiving the other players (other than the victim!) will be, if only because you’re not yet in a position to potentially win the game.
Preparation is everything. What I’ve found is a beautiful way to move towards the stab is to support your ally in progressing their units towards a common enemy while you have your units supporting them. A player who is reliant on your support to make progress is unlikely to stab you, of course, but – more importantly – you may be able to put your units into a position where you can gain by removing your support. If you can get your units between your victim’s units and their vulnerable SCs, this is perfect.
What you shouldn’t do is provide ‘tells’ through your correspondence. The best way to spot a stab coming is to recognise when your ally changes the style of their correspondence.
When you are preparing to stab someone, or to otherwise betray them, it is very easy for your messaging to reflect this. One way is to let your indifference to the alliance show is by reducing your commitment within correspondence.
It’s natural, when you’re going to throw something away, to not show it any consideration. In Diplomacy it’s all too easy, when you’ve made the decision to not continue to work with someone, to reduce the effort you put into your messages. If you stop discussing strategy in detail, then your ‘ally’ should be wondering why.
Equally, it’s easy to over-compensate. Oh, you say to yourself, I’m not going to let them see I’m going to stab them. I’ll put more effort into our discussions. The more I write, the more they’ll believe me. Actually, with some inexperienced players, you could get away with this; with a better player they’ll be wondering why you’re suddenly going into much more detail, or being much more emphatic.
Consistency is the key, here. If you’ve been openly discussing strategy, keep openly discussing strategy. If you’ve been less communicative, then don’t suddenly tell the other player what you’re going to do with your units.
Nobody likes change, really. In Diplomacy, when someone changes the way they’re corresponding with you, this should be telling you that something has changed in their outlook on the game. If you don’t want to give your betrayal away, then don’t change anything you’re doing.
On the board, have solid reasons for suggesting the orders you want to see happen. Don’t try to persuade someone that leaving two or three SCs unguarded against your units is a good thing simply because they’re doing the right thing. They’ve got to see that this is consistent with the game plan for the alliance, and they’ve got to see a way for them to prosper.
That’s an important aspect of getting someone to swallow your BFM: Avarice. If your victim can see that a set of moves, no matter how risky, is going to gain them an extra SC, and this is consistent with improving the chances of the alliance, a lot of players will go for it. Progress is progress, after all. With some players, they may need to see something even more attractive: just how many SCs could they gain from this? Wahey!!!
“Wahey!!!” almost always outweighs “Woah!” in someone’s thinking.