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Partner or Target?
This game was easily the most interesting of my three at Tempest. It was an 8 hour seesaw battle that featured dramatic reversals of fortune, a Rusty Blade-winning move, an epic temper tantrum, and, ultimately, a thrown solo. Despite coming away with zero points, I actually think my result more or less maxed out what was possible for me, given the board. Most games teach me something about my own strengths and weaknesses; this one taught me something about my approach to the game itself, namely, what I look for when evaluating an alliance offer. A simple question captures the idea: Am I being viewed as a partner or a target?
I played Russia and had been on my heels most of the game, fending off an AT in the south and not going anywhere in the north. In S05, Austria (fellow Weasel Jake Trotta) finally got the knife into my ribs, capturing Moscow and threatening to take me down to 2. I offered to janissary, and he accepted (with a look of supreme bliss) and then walked out of the dot. His stab of the Turk (Jay Heumann) didn’t go well, however, and he plateaued at 8.
In F08, I finally rebounded, going from 4 to 6 (home centers plus Ber and Kie). I had no northern fleet, Germany (Mike Johnson) was gone, and England (Mark Franceschini) and Italy (Andrew Bartalone) had carved up France (Brian Lee). Austria and Turkey were still fighting, with Italy going back and forth between them and becoming board leader in the process. I built two armies and figured I could talk England into moving into France and Iberia, where there were 4 lightly-defended Italian dots, while I moved south and took Austrian dots. It seemed a perfect opportunity for both of us; rather than fight over Stp, we could both expand in other directions and help each other out against Italy, who was poised for a big board top.
England had other thoughts. He convoyed an army to Nwy and moved fleets into BAR and BOT. I’m known in the local hobby as one of the calmer, more imperturbable players, but at this moment I was livid, angrier than I’ve ever been in a Diplomacy game. I can almost always eventually see the logic for my opponents’ moves. Even now, I’m still bewildered by this one.
This is the moment that “partner or target” started to coalesce for me. England and I had goals that aligned nearly perfectly: expand in different directions without letting the board leader run away with the game. If we fight, neither of us advances and Italy romps. It seemed an opportunity for a true partnership: we could advance together, each pursuing individual goals while providing support to the other. England, on the other hand, saw me as a target, a source of dots.
The moment that solidified the new rubric for me, and also pushed me to throw the solo, came the following year. Turkey, under assault from Austria and Italy for several years, had finally dropped from 4 to 3. I had no southern fleet and had armies poised to flood the Austrian centers. Since F01 — over 9 game years — Turkey had had two units on Sev. Usually in BLA and Arm, with one or two turns where a fleet was in Rum. There was a year or two where Sev had been Austrian, and it might even have been Turkish for a year, but there was never a point where I owned Sev and it wasn’t under threat from Turkey.
Now, ever since he and Austria had started fighting in 06, Turkey had offered to support me into Rum, which was Austrian. I made clear, each time, that I couldn’t ally with him until either Arm or BLA was cleared out. As long as he kept both, any gains I made at Austria’s expense could be quickly transferred to him through a back-door stab. Why would I throw away a functional (even if lopsided) alliance to work with someone pointing a gun at my face?
With “partner or target”, I now have better language for this idea. Turkey wasn’t viewing me as a partner that could advance alongside him. He had been viewing me as a target the entire game, even while offering help.
Back to Winter 1910, where Turkey had to disband one. He had fleets in Arm, BLA, AEG, and an army in Con. There were Italian fleets in EAS and ION, and an Austrian army in Bul. I was all armies, with an English army in Stp and another apparently on the way. Turkey and I had a lot to gain by putting our backs to one another and fighting outward.
Turkey disbanded F AEG, keeping F BLA and F Arm (a fleet, no less!). He was still viewing me as a target. Even as his home centers were about to be gobbled up.
It was then that I pulled Italy into the hallway and offered him a solo. I had the power to throw it, and the two parties who would need me to help stop the solo were both viewing me as a target.
Austria joined in the effort, for somewhat different reasons, which I’ll let him explain in his AAR (coming soon). Suffice to say that his reasons eventually earned him the Rusty Blade award for worst stab and also pushed England into such a rage that he threw a fit and stormed out of the hotel (eventually returning to write hold orders for the remainder of the game).
I should be clear that I was not merely exacting revenge on England or Turkey. They had left me with no chance of fulfilling any of my goals and had even put me at risk of elimination. My choice was between fighting to stay alive for a small score or putting them at risk of getting zero. The latter had the added benefits of making them pay for what I viewed then (and still view now) as major strategic mistakes and perhaps establishing a reputation for myself as someone willing to throw a solo.
Note that sum of squares encourages this kind of thinking. I was looking at a score of 5 points or fewer, which just isn’t that different from 0. I placed a value on teaching England and Turkey a lesson, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10 points. In draw-size scoring, I still have a chance at a decent score. I certainly would have had more incentive to stop the solo once it got close.
In this case, it didn’t matter; England never approached me about stopping the solo. If at any point he’d given me Stp and moved against Italy, I probably would have turned, even with sum of squares scoring. By the end, everyone except Turkey was throwing the solo to Italy.
Some might think that the notion of “partnership” is irrelevant to Diplomacy, where everyone is explicitly pursuing self-interested goals in a zero-sum environment. To me that attitude is shortsighted. There are many instances where two players have mutually compatible short-term or even intermediate-term goals. They then have a lot to gain by forming a true partnership, at least until the time comes when their goals are incompatible. Because Diplomacy is a zero-sum game and there is only one winner, that time usually arrives, especially if the partnership is successful. Partnerships in life differ only in that we usually don’t reach an endgame.
Am I being viewed as a partner or target? That’s a question I’ll now ask myself whenever I contemplate an alliance.