Grudges in Diplomacy

By Simon Szykman


Grudge n:
Sullen malice or malevolence; cherished malice, enmity, or dislike; ill will; an old cause of hatred or quarrel.
     --Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

A resentment strong enough to justify retaliation.
     --WordNet 1.6, 1997 Princeton University

Although people can overcome their basic tendencies, it is human nature to hold grudges. Grudges are a natural part of life, but I think a Diplomacy game is no place for them. I think that understanding this is among the things that sets successful diplomacy players apart from those who are not so successful. I'm sure that this statement is not without exception, but I suspect it is generally true.

If you play Diplomacy, you will get lied to. You will get stabbed. Understand that, and accept it. Some people don't accept this, at least not well. Some people will refuse to work with somebody who has lied to them before. Some people will not even talk to (or send email replies to) somebody who has stabbed them in a game. And some people go so far as carrying these grudges to other games in the future, and won't trust or deal with somebody who has stabbed them even in other games. That's pointless. If you are going to talk to people when playing Diplomacy, chances are (with rare exception) that you are going to talk to somebody who has lied and has stabbed before, even if it wasn't you. If you refuse to deal with anyone who has stabbed you because they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy, but you are willing to deal with people who have not stabbed you before, then you are deluding yourself. Just because somebody has never stabbed you, it doesn't mean they are any more trustworthy than somebody who has. In my opinion, the holding of grudges in a game or across games is narrow-minded.

So I've wondered to myself why people carry grudges. I can think of several reasons. One reason is taking the stab personally or getting hurt by it. Come on, this is just a game. If it hurts so much to get stabbed, then don't play. Another reason is to teach a liar/stabber a lesson. The reasoning might be something like: "If I refuse to deal with them and they do badly because of it, it will show them that stabbing does not pay, and they will be less likely to do it in the future." The flaw in that argument is that stabbing does pay. For every hundred Diplomacy games, how many ended without any of the winners having stabbed any of the losers? Few. If you look at just solo wins and ask how many winners won without stabbing anyone, the number is probably even smaller. The fact is that it is extremely difficult to win a game without stabbing somebody, and as a result, you'll have a hard time convincing anyone that stabbing doesn't pay just by shunning people who stab you.

Another reason people might hold grudges is to teach them a different lesson, not that stabbing does not pay, but something like "I'll teach them not to mess with me." Don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting you should let people lie to you, stab you, take advantage of you, and ignore it. Vindictiveness has its place, and it is natural to want to see the downfall of somebody who has hurt your position in the game. But where the grudge becomes narrow-minded is when somebody lets a desire for vengeance drive them to do something other than what is in their best interests.

When you have the opportunity to watch somebody who stabbed you go down in flames, enjoy it. But don't, because of a grudge, act in a way other than in your best interest just to get revenge on somebody who hurt you. Sometimes your position gets damaged so badly that you just know you are going to be eliminated. In those cases, it is natural to want to take the person who caused this situation down with you. I don't have any objections to that... I do it myself. But taking somebody down with you when you are certain to go down is very different from letting yourself go down (when other outcomes are possible) just for the sake of revenge.

My view is that at any given point in the game, what happens from this instant on matters far more than everything that happened in the past, including lies and stabs, regardless of whether you were the offender or at the receiving end. When playing Diplomacy, I can set aside any and all differences with somebody who has attacked me, lied to me, stabbed me, if it is in my best interest at that moment to do so. What is my situation now? What is the best course of action? What will give me the best chance of getting into a better position than I'm in now? That's what matters. If the best course ofaction is to re-ally with an ex-ally, then I'm perfectly willing to do that.

I am not saying that you should completely ignore the past. Obviously, if you have been lied to over and over by somebody and simply can't trust them, that's a different matter. But when you start out a game with three to five neighbors, it's almost inevitable that at some point one of them will lie to you or will be lied to by you. But in many cases, having been lied to in a game doesn't mean that that player is any less trustworthy than a player who has not lied to you in that game. Keep in mind that even if those other players have not lied to you or stabbed you, chances are pretty good that they have lied and stabbed others in the past, so it's not as if you can expect to be dealing with people who are incapable of being dishonest. You can't trust that somebody will always tell you the truth, but you can trust that people will act in what they think is their best interest. So if your best interest and that of another power are aligned and you both agree on that point, then there is an opportunity for you to work together. That opportunity should not be precluded by a lie that happened in the past.

I said above that what happens from now on matters far more than what happened in the past. To provide an analogy, there's an old investing maxim that illustrates the same thing. Say you have some stocks that you bought at $100/share. The price is now $50/share. Some people focus on the past, the value of $100/share, and will refuse to sell their shares because they don't want to sell at a loss. But the investing maxim says that the past does not matter; only what will happen in the future matters. A logical investor will invest in their best interest, and what you paid for the stock is irrelevant in determining your best interest. You need to look forwards to determine what your best interest is, and let that guide what you do in the present. The stock is is at $50/share. If you think the stock will go up, keep it to recoup your losses. If you think it will go down, sell it to avoid greater losses. In either case, the way to minimize your losses act based on what you think the various alternatives will lead to in the future. The original purchase priceshas no bearing on whether you should hold or sell. Only where the price is going to go matters.

This example is a bit of a simplification, since one generally does not know with certainty where stock prices will go in the future. Also, in some circumstances people intentionally sell at a loss to offset gains for tax purposes, and are acting in their interests by doing so. I hope you'll allow me to slightly trivialize this issue for the sake of making a point. Shortsighted people have lost a lot of money holding on to stocks that were tumbling down farther and farther because they focused on the past (original price) instead of the future (where the stock price was headed), refusing to sell at a loss and losing even more in the end. By the same token, I'm sure that everyone here has seen a game end in a solo win when that win could have been prevented if only the other players could have successfully coordinated to stop the leader. This is not always the case, but it's far from uncommon. In many of those cases, the barrier to successful coordination was a grudge being held be one or more powers who had been stabbed or lied to, and are not capable of overcoming that grudge to re-ally with another player in the interest of stopping somebody else from getting a solo.

When I first started playing Diplomacy, I suffered from the same kinds of problems I am pointing out here. I would not trust people who had stabbed me, as if somehow the other players in the game whom I would be willing to deal with were any less capable of lies and stabs. It took me a while to realize that this wasn't true, and that I wasn't going to teach anyone a lesson by not dealing with stabbers... they're all stabbers! (Except for three people... okay, so if you aren't a stabber you don't have to write to me and say "You said everyone is a stabber, and I've never stabbed anyone!" I believe you. You are one of those three people.)

I've been playing Diplomacy for a while now. I don't recall exactly how long it took me to learn the lessons I learned about grudges. But now I know better. And I'm a much better player than I was then. I don't think either one of those two facts is a direct consequence of the other, but I don't think they are independent of one another. Having learned these lessons, I have been able to stop wins that would not have been stopped with a "younger me" playing, and I've been able to get into draws where a "younger me" would have been eliminated because of a grudge that prevented me from acting my my best interests. And although my current ability to realign myself with enemies when it's in my best interest (for example, to stop somebody from winning), and I have also been in games where I've faced people like the "younger me." I've been in games when somebody won who could have been stopped, if only one player had been willing to set aside differences with another.

I'll admit that it's not always a clear crisp situation. Sometimes, the outcome of the game is too uncertain for you to know for sure what is in your best interest. Sometimes there is no guarantee that opening yourself up to another stab will change things, and in those cases you can reasonably ask yourself why you should take the chance. But other times, it is completely clear to everyone that there is no choice but for enemies to work together to prevent a win by somebody else. And in these situations, sometimes even that fact is not sufficient to overcome the barriers created by grudges. Some people hold on to a grudge so tightly that they'd rather lose a game than forgive a lie or stab.

There'sa difference between forgiving and forgetting. I am not saying "forgive and forget." But there's a difference between saying "forget about what somebody did" (which I disagree with) and "forgive when it's in your best interest" (which is what I believe). A good Diplomacy player knows that even when things look grim, a game is rarely a foregone conclusion. If you cause somebody to lose and lose yourself in doing so, you aren't punishing anyone. Losing together with somebody else is by no means revenge. The way to exact revenge on somebody is to not lose, and when possible to beat them. Sometimes, you can't "not lose" without setting aside your differences with your enemies. Sometimes, you can't hope to reach a point where you can beat your enemies without working with them first. Somehow, the lesson that it's the future which matters most can be a hard one to learn. Hopefully this article will help give some people a new perspective.

Simon Szykman
(simon@diplom.org)

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