I recently began moderating games for players with high ratings on the JDPR system. As a privileged observer in these games, I have had the opportunity to watch the top players in our hobby at work, and have noticed a couple of trends that I believe are worthy of mentioning. Obviously, these characteristics are not necessarily universal, but I think that most players learn something from these games.
1. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH PRESS
My top rated games, at a rough estimate, generate about twenty to thirty times as much press as my normal games. Every player wrote to every other player at least once every turn. There were no exceptions. The volume of press was absolutely staggering. I remember coming back from a weekend and having about fifty messages from one of the games in my Inbox. (For those who are possibly unaware, the game moderator can receive all the private press if he so chooses. After that weekend, I learned to turn off the "all press" option when I am going away for a couple of days.) It did not matter if a player was doing well or not. Alliance structures were irrelevant; all players received press, every turn.
Silence never helps. Most players equate silence with outright hostility. In fact, I have found that there is a direct correlation between press volume and eventual success. Silent players are invariably killed. I remember I once played a game where the Russian player told me after that his "strategy" was to not send any press for the first year. He was also wondering why he never seemed to succeed in PbeM games.
Of course, not all of us have to time to send out thirty messages every turn, however, if you have a chance to send press, do it. It can never hurt.
2. QUALITY IS NOT THE SAME AS QUANTITY
Not all press is created equal. A message containing the words "Hi, how are you" ... while still better than nothing, is not really a press message. Every message sent out by the top players was specially crafted for the individual player. Press was designed to serve a purpose, either diplomatic or tactical. An English player writing to Austria, for example, referred to the Austrian situation, and attempted to show how the best course for Austria lay somehow in attacking Germany :).
3. SPECIFIC IS BETTER THAN GENERAL
Press messages were rarely vague. I almost never saw a message of the sort "Lets go attack Russia." Almost every press message sent contained at least one specific order, if not an entire series of orders spanning a stretch of two years. If Turkey wanted Austria to attack Russia the press would be something along the following lines:
Greetings my Austrian Ally!
The Russian hordes have begun to grow and threaten the security of both our nations. I propose that we act immediately to contain the danger posed by the imperialistic Czar. I am willing to order the following:
F Bla S Bul-Rum A Bul-Rum A Smy-Ank
However, I do not think that the above will suffice to hurt Russia, and I need your help. I had an idea, if you ordered...
A Gal-Ukr A Vie-Gal A Bud S Bul-Rum
Then we could be certain about picking up at least one SC from Russia. In the following year, I would use those armies to cut support from Mos so you could pick up War. These are just my first thoughts of course; do you have any other ideas or plans?
Yours in camaraderie,
The press shown above was specific, showing precise orders that Turkey wanted from Austria. It also gave reasons as to why it was in Austria's interests to join Turkey in the assault on the white armies. Relatively specific plans were mentioned concerning future events, but, since multiple messages would be sent between every turn, these could be fleshed out in future messages. Now, compare that message to this other (hypothetical) message regarding the same situation.
The Russian player has not been saying all that much to me, and I think that we should attack him. If we attack fast enough, we should be able to destroy Russia before he even gets off the ground! Then we could turn our attention to the Western powers and hopefully attack them before they get anywhere. I think an alliance between our powers would be quite strong, and I hope that you would agree.
An Austrian player receiving this press might agree with the content, but AT would require more messages to flesh things out. If Austria and Turkey are in different time zones, this loss of time could be disastrous. Furthermore, the Austrian player might not even be all that convinced by the above message. Is Turkey serious? Has he given the alliance much thought? In the first press, the Turkish player had obviously planned a means for an AT alliance to work. In the second press, it seems that Turkey is just trying to fill a void.
4. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BOARD
Diplomacy does not consist of separate systems. There is no "West" part of the board that is independent of the "East." The top players consistently reviewed action all over the board to determine the effect on their own powers. One Russian player got wind of a plan to attack France, and decided it was not in his interests for such an event to occur. He began a very large press campaign to discourage such an attack, and even went so far as to put some extra units in the North to slow down the EG assault.
All the expert players seem to immediately recognize the consequences that distant results have on their own situation. While much of this skill comes with experience (and I could write many articles on the interconnections that exist in a game of Diplomacy), the main trick seems to be to spend the time to put yourself in the shoes of each power, and try to predict how that power is going to act in the near or distant future.
5. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ALLIANCE
The alliance structure in all my top-rated games was extremely fluid. This is not to say that alliances did not last for many years or that stabs are very common. However, there is a recognition that, while powers will often temporarily work together for a common goal, there is no such thing as an alliance. In a top-rated game, players join alliances strictly for personal gain. All alliances eventually fail, and all the expert players are constantly trying to gauge the mood of their allies. More importantly, the top players are also consistently searching for new allies among their enemies, and they are willing to change sides.
The "carebear" alliance does not exist in the top rated games. A carebear player is a poor player. (I should note that this has been a topic of some discussion in the Diplomacy hobby for many years, and I do not presume to be a final authoritative voice. That said, there is a definite anecdotal correlation between a player's skill and his propensity to avoid a carebear alliance.)
6. PASSIVE DEFENSE IS NOT A DEFENSE
I have noticed a very interesting tactical point. The units of expert players are never still. It does not matter if they are on the attack or defending, orders are always of the movement variety. No player ever laid back and issued simple support orders. Supporting is a passive defense; you leave all the initiative to your opponent. The best you could hope for is the status quo. Furthermore, you lose the ability to surprise your opponent, he knows exactly where your units will be at all times.
Conversely, if the units are moving around, the defender could get a lucky break and exploit a hole in the opponent's attack formation. By constantly moving your units are altering your orders, your opponent is forced to try to outguess you, and they often fail!
(Just a minor clarification, the above might have been slightly unclear. A unit supporting another units move is not passive; it is part of the active move made by the unit. In general though, the more units you have moving, the better your defense will be.)
7. THE GAME IS NOT OVER UNTIL THE FINAL SUPPLY CENTRE FALLS
This almost goes without saying. Top players never give up. They write press and plan attacks right up to the point that they lose their last SC. A power is never completely without hope. There are certainly some cases where victory or even survival is a remote possibility, but the top players never sit back and let themselves die.
(In fact, the bottom player of our hobby has the exact opposite philosophy. He has a tendency to start a number of games, and then give up as soon as the going gets tough. His resulting rating is no accident. You have to work at a rating to get it to drop that low.)
8. A DRAW IS NOT A VICTORY
I would have thought that this would also go without saying, but it appears that this is not the case. If a top player has a chance to go for a solo, he goes for it. The only time a draw is acceptable to a top player is when a victory is no longer possible. The tendency to accept the "three-way draw" is a newbie trait, which disappears at higher levels of play.
9. DIPLOMACY IS JUST A GAME
The top players are all very sportsmanlike. In almost every Diplomacy game, most of the players are going to lose. Winning is exciting, but a loss is not the end of the world. I have not seen a single out-of-character insult leveled in any one of my top rated games. The top players are polite in victory, and gracious in defeat.
Write lots of press, and make it specific. Never give up; keep your units moving, and smile when you write press. Stab first, and recover fast when you stab second. Play for solos, and join my top rated games. There is no better game.
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.