There's a board game called Diplomacy. As far as boardgames go, it's one of the best. Was designed by a guy at Harvard in the 1950's, and it's been distributed and played nonstop at a high level ever since, including regular international tournaments.
I won't talk about the game too much - I haven't played it in 10 years, so I don't remember the exact details. The only things two you need to know - first, it's a game set during the start of World War I, with the seven powers of the day vying for control. Second, there is no luck involved. No cards, no dice, no randomness, no chance. Success or failure is all dependent on what other players do and negotiation - no luck, no chance, no randomness. It's a game that's played and won purely in a social way.
This article is because I found this rather amazing piece by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher analyzing how to play Diplomacy well. I learned a lot from it.
I'll let Doc Pulsipher take over now:
Telling someone how to negotiate well is a difficult task. A person’s attitude toward life and toward the game have a strong, immeasurable, and probably unalterable effect on how, and how well, he or she negotiates in any wargame. Hundreds of essays have been written about this subject. Certain principles and common failings can be described, however, which no player should ignore.
The advice below applies to any well-played Diplomacy game, but it is necessary to recognize the differences between face-to-face (FTF) and postal or electronic play. When you play FTF with people you don’t know, you will often encounter attitudes and conventions very different from your own. In the extreme, what you think is perfectly commonplace might be, to them, cheating. In postal play with experienced opponents you’ll encounter fewer “strange” notions. Incompetent players can be found in any game, of course. Postal games suffer from failure of players to submit orders before the adjudication deadline -- ”missed moves” -- far more than FTF games. A failure to move at a crucial time usually causes significant changes in the flow of play. Both FTF and postal games suffer from dropouts -- people who quit playing before their countries are eliminated. Part of a good player’s range of skills is the ability to keep his allies (and his enemy’s enemies) from dropping out. In a top-class game none of these difficulties occur.
This is when I realized I was reading something really special - Pulsipher is aware that the meta-game and details effect everything, just like real life. Nothing happens in a vacuum, especially when other people are around. "Part of a good player’s range of skills is the ability to keep his allies (and his enemy’s enemies) from dropping out." - fascinating, eh?
When you begin a game, you must first learn something about each of your opponents. Sometimes you will know quite a bit to begin with, but you can also ask people who know the opponent better than you do. You want to know if your opponent is generally reliable or not, what his objective is, whether he is a classical or romantic player, and whether or not he is good at negotiation, strategy, and tactics. (This is a controversial point, insofar as some players -- usually the notoriously erratic and unreliable -- say that a player’s previous record should have no effect on the game. The more you know about another player, however, the better you’ll be able to predict his actions. It would require a peculiar view of life for a player to knowingly ally with someone who has never abided by an agreement in 20 games! Similarly, you have little to gain by offering a draw to a player who would “rather die than draw." However much some players like to pretend that they really are government leaders and that World War I is happening just this once, most Diplomacy players recognize that it is an abstract game of skill and act accordingly.)
Utter pragmatic! I love it. I love pragmatism and dislike idealism. Pulsipher is very pragmatic - he believes in gathering research and all available details to make decisions on. Before he ever talks about specific strategy, he tells you learn about the other players.
Let’s consider each point you’re trying to learn about, beginning with reliability. Novice players, urged on by the rulebook introduction, usually believe that the winner will be the player who lies, cheats, and backstabs most effectively. Perhaps if you never play more than once with the same people and never acquire a reputation, this would be true. In the long run, players learn to treat liars and backstabbers as enemies. Why invite disaster in an already difficult game?
Just like real life, backstabbing, lying, and cheating does not go over very well. I almost never break deals in any sort of game that has a cooperative element - I won't say never, but I can't think of a time I've broken a deal. If someone is unreliable, I just won't do long term deals with them, only very short ones, or I'll insist that I have an advantage in the area where one of us could backstab and that the opponent must trust me. (If they say that's not okay, I remind them that they're a person who breaks deals and I'm not - most backstabbers kind of grin sheepishly and shrug at that and agree)
For one person to do well in a game with six competitors, some cooperation is necessary. Cooperation is easier and more effective between those who can rely upon one another. An expert player rarely lies, and then only because the lie is likely to radically improve his position. He prefers to say nothing, to change the subject, to speak of inconsequential things, rather than lie.
"He prefers to say nothing, to change the subject, to speak of inconsequential things, rather than lie." True in real life negotiating as well. Lying creates bad blood. Why not just politely refuse to answer a question? Done tactfully it'll be respected, it's certainly better than making things up.
In the short term this might also be true (though a lie or backstab early in a game will certainly be remembered to the end of that game, often to the detriment of the perpetrator). The expert player looks at the long term, because few people play just one game of Diplomacy. It is in his interest to maintain agreements and avoid lying in order to establish a reputation for reliability. No altruism is involved. (Incidentally, a reliable player is less often on the receiving end of an emotional barrage from an angry player -- no small gain.)
Reputation is important. Be someone a person wants to help. Don't be someone that people want to screw over. "Incidentally, a reliable player is less often on the receiving end of an emotional barrage from an angry player -- no small gain." In real life, too.
It is often surprising to new players to learn that not every player wants to accomplish the same thing. Some play for excitement, not caring if they win or lose as long as the game is full of wild incidents. Most play to win the game, but there the ways part. Many players (the “drawers”) believe that, failing to win, a draw is the next best result, while anything else is a loss. At the extreme, even a 7-way draw is better than second place. Others (the “placers”) believe that to survive in second place while someone else wins is better than a draw. At the extreme are those who would “rather die than draw.” Such fundamental differences in world view can have a decisive effect on a game. If you propose a plan to establish a 3-way draw, a placer won’t be interested. If you offer to help a weak country to attain second place if he helps you win, you’ll get nowhere if he’s a drawer but a placer would be favorably impressed.
That whole above section is amazing. Go read it all if you're skimming. "It is often surprising to new players to learn that not every player wants to accomplish the same thing. ... many players believe that failing to win, a draw is the next best result, while anything else is a loss ... others believe that to survive in second place while someone else wins is better than a draw."
Amazing, amazing, amazing stuff. People have different motivations. Some people just like to be in deals, be a little crazy, mix stuff up. Some people want to maximize upside. Some people want predictable upside with low downside. People want different things. In real life, a very good deal might need to be presented and sold differently to different investors - focusing on the stable cashflow and buffer against the downside to someone cautious, and focusing on the chance for appreciation and cashing out for someone more aggressive.
Whether a player’s style is “classical” or “romantic” is tricky to define. Briefly, the classical player carefully maximizes his minimum gain. He pays attention to detail and prefers to patiently let the other players lose by making mistakes, rather than trying to force them to make mistakes. He tends to like stable alliances and steady conflict in the game. He tends to be reliable and good at tactics. The romantic is more flamboyant, taking calculated risks to force his enemies into mistakes, trying to defeat them psychologically before they are defeated physically on the board. (Many players give up playable positions because they’re convinced that they’ve lost.) He tries to maximize his maximum gain, at the cost of increasing potential loss. He can be unpredictable, relying on surprise and the Great Stab for victory. Tending to be an unreliable ally and a sometimes sloppy tactician, he likes fluid, rapidly changing alliances and conflicts.
Amazing insight here - "The classical player carefully maximizes his minimum gain... The romantic player tries to maximize his maximum gain, at the cost of increasing potential loss."
Really good stuff, again if you're skimming I recommend the whole above paragraph. It talks about reliability, flamboyance, how solid people are with tactics vs. psychology. This is definitely true in poker as well - there's the people who are primarily math/odds/solid/cautious, and the people who are primarily psychology/bluffing/crazy/aggressive - both can win (though it seems to me that being primarily solid wins more often, then sprinkle some crazy in as a spice).
Finally, it’s useful to know whether your opponent is a poor, average, or good player, and what facets of the game he is better at. You can risk a one-on-one war with a poor tactician but not with a good one. An alliance of limited duration with a player who is deficient in strategy can leave you in a much better position as you outmaneuver him in dealing with the players on the other side of the board.
"An alliance of limited duration with a player who is deficient in strategy can leave you in a much better position as you outmaneuver him in dealing with the players on the other side of the board."
Okay, now I've got to admit that Pulsipher is playing on a whole different level than me, he's greatly out-thinking me in terms of analysis and meta-strategy. Choosing an alliance partner based on the fact you'll optimize your strategy better and gain a bigger edge than him even as you both improve... I've never considered anything to that fine grain detail when playing a game, nor in real life. I need to meditate on this, this is fascinating to me. Pulsipher's on a whole different level of thinking and analysis.
There are five other principles of negotiation beyond “know your opponents:”
1. talk with everybody
2. be flexible
3. never give up
4. explain plans thoroughly, and
5. be positive.
"Never give up" - I agree with all his points, especially #3. Never give up. While massive comebacks are rare, they are the most satisfying and memorable sort of win. Remember, part of the value of any social thing is the shared stories you get out of them. Crazy comebacks make amazing shared stories - go down fighting your very best effort, right to the end.
However you go about it, don’t be discouraged by initial failures, and always analyze why you succeed or fail. There’s no substitute for experience.
Also fine advice. A great piece, very very good piece.
Dr. Pulsipher's blog is Pulsipher Boardgame Design - I highly recommend it to thinking people. There's some really, really good pieces on there. Very high quality thought.
Diplomacy map image courtesy of Wikipedia.