Preface: I originally intended to write this as a private message to Ted McClelland, but the empathetic reaction by the other players to his lament in Game No. 110 convinced me that it would be a good subject for this blog, so here it is. I hope you find it helpful.
The alliance fell apart in 1904. Up to that point, Ted McClelland’s Austria had worked earnestly with John Gramila in Italy and Christian Kline in Russia to destroy me. However, through the first three years, Ted had gained the only center—Bulgaria in 1902.
In 1904, frustrated by a lack of progress against me and needing a build to deter a growing French threat, John turned on Ted, taking Greece in the Fall. The following Spring, Russia piled on, prompting Ted to throw his notebook across the room and swear never to play the game again.
We scoffed at that, having heard it before, but he insisted he was serious.
“This happens to me every game,” he said. “I get to five or six centers, and then my allies jump on me in 1904 or 1905.”
When a couple of the other players acknowledged that the same thing frequently happened to them, I started thinking about an article I had read years ago by Jake Orion in which he referenced a phenomenon known as the midgame shake-out.
Here’s the link, if you’re interested. And here’s how Jake defines the midgame shakeout:
“The mid-game shake-out is when two or three powers have essentially been eliminated, leaving only four or five nations as potential victors. It is at this stage of the game that the remaining four to five powers often reposition themselves and seek a new course of action. Namely, they try to close out the game with a three-way draw or go for the rare solo.”
If you don’t see the shakeout coming, it will blindside you, and I believe that is what has been happening to Ted and other newer players. So, how do you spot it coming?
A typical game of Diplomacy will see battles develop in each sphere in the opening phase of the game. Usually it’s two vs. one in one sphere and either two vs. two or three vs. one in the other. Most Diplomacy writers agree that the midgame begins when one or two powers are eliminated or crippled. In our group, because we use a center-based scoring system, and even more so now that we’re using Sum of Squares, I’d say that the midgame begins when the first one or two wars end, and leave it at that. The wars can end when the target is destroyed, crippled or contained, or they can end because one or more of the attackers gives up.
When one or both of the initial battles wind down, the midgame shakeout is coming. It tends to blindside new players because they fixate on their initial goal of destroying their enemy. They take centers from their opponent without regard to whether they can keep them and under the assumption that once their opponent is dead, the alliance will seek another foe.
For new players, an alliance is often like a marriage: It’s for better or worse until death do us part. For those of us who are actually trying to win the game, an alliance is for better and for better only. We’re constantly assessing whether our current course of action is in our best interest. We’ll stick with our alliance as long as doing so is advancing our goal of winning the game, or at least preventing us from losing. (And I’m not suggesting that you should only participate in lopsided alliances. If you want people to work with you, you need to offer good, sensible deals that advance both of your goals.)
If you frequently find yourself on the wrong side of the midgame shakeout, try taking these steps.
- Try to picture what the landscape will look like following a successful campaign. What centers will you have? Can you hold them? Are you vulnerable to a stab?
- Talk to everyone, even the guy you’re attacking. You’ll have a better idea of what’s going on, and you may identify more appealing opportunities.
- Pay attention to the other side of the board. If that war looks like it will end before yours, the dynamic in your sphere could change quickly. You need to stay on top of that change.
- Assess your side of the board each turn. Is there a better course of action? One that will more quickly advance your goal? Is your current course still in your best interest?
- Remember that your friendly, cooperative allies are also trying to win the game and will also be assessing the board each turn.
In Game 110, John and Christian gave the A/I/R six turns, and all it got them was a build for Austria. The alliance had successfully contained Turkey, but it wasn’t helping them grow, and they needed to grow. France was emerging as a potential Mediterranean power in the West. Russia, meanwhile, was under fire in the North.
They needed builds, and they weren’t going to get them quickly enough from me. That made Austria a more appealing target.
Ted didn’t see it coming. Next time, I bet he will.