Get out of the box

What up Weasels? I wrote an article for Diplomacy World that I figured I’d pass around. Please note that at the time of writing, i was winning the league standings. Dammit, Brandon…

For the full mag, click here. 

Get Out of the Box: 10 Ways to Take Your Game to the Next Level

First, I should introduce myself. I’m Jake Trotta, a new member of the hobby and the Minister of Public Information (or “Speaky Weasel”) for the Windy City Weasels. Our club goals are to grow the hobby and develop championship caliber players. Both objectives require players to learn and develop their game, so I’d like to share a bit about my own development in the hopes that it may help other future players (and Weasels) with theirs. After winning my first tournament, I went through a very difficult 6-month plateau in the hobby. I wanted to get better and tried to improve at the 3 aspects of the game (negotiation, strategy, tactics). I was reading articles, playing gunboat games, getting a lot of games in. But the results weren’t matching my effort level. I lost the league lead, got slammed at WDC, wasn’t enjoying the game as much, and was certainly less fun to play with. After getting eliminated first in our club title game, the Weasel Royale, I asked another player on the board where I was going wrong. “You’re just not having fun anymore,” he told me. That moment made me realize something—a fourth (and perhaps most important) dimension to the game. Attitude. What mentality am I bringing to the board? How is that impacting my negotiation? Strategy? Tactics? If I don’t establish a defined, constructive relationship between myself and the board, it is, by necessity, going to be very difficult to establish constructive relationships with my boardmates. That realization changed the way I evaluate the board, my game, and myself, sparking a rapid period of growth. The following are a set of 10 insights that helped break me out of that mental box.

Hit the jump for 10 (10!) ways to elevate your game!

1) You are the only common thread on every board you’ll ever play

Let’s start with a blindingly obvious one. There’s so much that is out of your control in a Diplomacy game— openings alone have thousands of possible combinations—but the one thing you do control is yourself. Fortunately, you are also going to be involved in every board you’ll ever play. This means your focus should always be on you, developing yourself for future games. On every board, your primary objective should obviously be to win. But after that, your goal should be to LEARN—what may feel like defeat today is the bedrock of tomorrow’s victory.

2) It’s Always Your Fault

There is a danger when we do not share the same opinion as someone to blame them for our troubles. If they don’t do it my way, they must be wrong. But that is a cop out. Wishing someone else was better at Diplomacy will never make me better at Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a game of collaboration. In order to collaborate, we need to win others over to our way of thinking, or find a means to make their way of thinking work for us. Therefore, no matter which route we tried to take, the failure is our fault. So blame yourself! If you weren’t able to get on the same page with another player, evaluate your own responsibility in that after the game. You can always improve your negotiation, but you’ll never get the chance if you’re not willing to meet the other person where they are. Don’t reject their stance—move yours to take advantage of it.

3) But, don’t blame yourself if you don’t win, cause Dip ain’t fair and winning ain’t everything

Diplomacy does not always, or perhaps not even often, reward the player who performed best. You can’t force a victory in a Diplomacy board. Even solos involve someone else messing up. So in the majority of games, the rest of the board has to agree on who the victor is. Since it is impossible to control the result of the game, there will be times where you played better than anyone on the board and don’t top, and times you top when your play didn’t merit victory. Your objective is to play well enough to win and improve. Better to commend yourself for strong play that gave you a shot to win than to celebrate a win you didn’t really earn.

4) Get to the Dance

Right before I left Tempest (and just before my hot streak started), I overheard a conversation between Chris Martin, former World Champ and one of the world’s best players, and Brandon Fogel, another Chicago up and comer. Brandon asked Chris how he was so dominant, and Chris’s response was very insightful about his attitudinal approach to Diplomacy. “If I make it out of my theater, I expect to get first or second on every board.” Diplomacy World #138 – Summer 2017 – Page 6 Here’s what I gleaned from that comment about how to evaluate your Diplomacy game. The first benchmark is to evaluate whether you got out of the gate, or, as I say in my negotiation, “get to the dance.” (No relation to Chris’s ‘Dancing Queen’ nickname.) That shifted my thinking from “I need to be ahead going into the midgame” to “I need to be in the midgame, hopefully with decent position.” There’s also an element of self-trust: I don’t need to shark my way to a win by 03, I just need to believe that if I’m viable in 06, I’ve got a great chance. Early in my career, I felt the need to win all the time, both on each board and in each season. By shifting my mentality to simply getting to the dance, I’m less threatening and easier to play with… and I’ve made more dances.

5) Quitting is for quitters

You’re going to have games when things go wrong and prospects of victory are minimal. Sometimes, you’re going to be a 1 or 2 center country in a world of 8 center powers. Your primary goal-victory- is likely out the window. The bar (or sleep) will be calling you, and it may feel like the time to throw in the towel. But giving up will only prevent you from accomplishing your secondary objective- developing your game. The truth is, while major powers contend for victory, minor powers often decide who wins. In most games, support of a dying power will be a necessary condition to your victory- so being a dying power is a tremendous opportunity to learn how to work with them in games where you are a contender. So don’t quit—play your heart out! Try out different secondary goals that you’ve seen other smaller powers play. By doing so, you’ll gain a better empathy for the minor power, and be better able to leverage them in future games. Plus, if the board breaks the right way, you have a chance for a comeback. Quitters never come back.

6) No one gives a damn about you or your plans… but everyone needs a best man

One of the most common, but also pedantic, pieces of advice Diplomacy players give each other is “try to think of it from my perspective.” As a Diplomacy player, it is quite easy to get stuck in your own head. You’re going to develop a philosophy of the game, motivation for why you play, what you want out of each board. It is crucial for you to understand these things about yourself, but frankly, your ally won’t give a damn about your perspective. Don’t bother sharing it unless it helps develop your relationship. When people tell you “think of it from my perspective,” what you may hear is “talk about my goals and board dynamics to make them happen.” That may even be what they think they’re saying. But what they really mean is “I want to feel heard.” Five other players are going to be speaking to their functional needs—tactics, strategy, what have you. If you can identify your opponent’s emotional desires for the game and cater to them, they will feel they’ve got a friend on the board that understands and appreciates them. Players want a winner who made them feel good and enjoy themselves (if they cannot win themselves). So don’t talk only about yourself or logistics—be their best man. Which is to say, provide whatever emotional support they need to make the right choices.

7) Mold yourself to the culture

Every location you play in (and, to a degree, every board you play) will have a different culture to it. Some of this is scoring system based—if the broader incentives are to reduce draw size, people will play differently than in a center-based system. It doesn’t matter if you think drawbased scoring is a relic of a bygone era that should be eradicated or that 1902 is a little early to be thinking about the stalemate line. The culture won’t change to fit you—you need to move to meet the board/club/tournament/league where it is at. In our club, this can be particularly difficult. We play Sum of Squares, which some new players aren’t familiar with. To compound that challenge, half our games are timed bar games with a preset end time. This makes for a crazy, frantic, stabby final year in nearly every game. Some new Weasels struggle to adapt to this more fluid, less alliance based style of play. Conversely, some Weasels are excellent in the bar games, but struggle in our untimed house games. Instead of stewing over why your fastball isn’t working, try adding the changeup or a curve to your arsenal. The strongest players are able to play different styles based on the scoring system and culture around them. Diplomacy World #138 – Summer 2017 – Page 7

8) Paint with all the colors of the wind

Something I’ve noticed about the world’s best players is that their statistics are remarkably similar across all 7 countries. Even if they have a favorite, it won’t be too much stronger than the remaining 6. What this means is that the best players are adaptable. They can play any power, take any board situation, and make beautiful music to maximize their shot at winning. The reason most Diplomacy players stall out is because they only want/know how to play one or two notes. They know how to act under certain board dynamics, perhaps only as certain countries. These players tend to be boom or bust. When they play as their favorite country, or when board dynamics fit their style, look out. But in games where they can’t follow their script, they get eliminated. These players can take advantage when things break the right way, but can’t make things happen on any board. So step outside your comfort zone. If you know you’re weak at a certain country, ask to play it. If you always open to Armenia as Turkey, try playing patient. If you’ve never allied with a certain player, give them a shot. You can only expect to thrive in situations you’ve prepared for. You can only prepare for situations you’re open to considering.

9) Steel sharpens steel

It is easy to be bitter or envious when someone else wins (especially if they win frequently). But if we fail to recognize why they won and what about their game is superior, we fail to grow our own games. By admiring and emulating the competition, we can best become better players. To be fair, that can be a big emotional ask. Not only is Diplomacy a zero-sum game, it is also a game of personality. When we see our competitors select another player as the winner, it can easily lead to some resentment. In our club, we complain about other players being “dot-grabbing bastards,” but our club mascot is the Weasel: cunning, slimy, endlessly deceptive. Complaining about a Weasel out-Weaseling you is both counterproductive and against the spirit of the hobby. Instead of being bitter (okay, maybe give yourself a minute to be bitter), diagnose exactly how the other person bested you—and either seek to emulate it, or create a strategy to counter that in your next game. Competitors are not obstacles to victory, but the grindstone through which we sharpen our own abilities.

10) The pen is mightier than the stab

If you are serious about improving your Diplomacy game, write AARs. It is much more difficult to improve your game if you don’t analyze it. I’ve written an AAR for every game I’ve played in the past year or so. My longest was about four pages, my shortest was one sentence (“Don’t order Naples-Ion-Naples in 1901.”) Without them, I may not have discovered the prior 9 insights. Before I wrote AARs, I would learn something new every 4-5 games. Now, I learn something new every board and have a recorded history of all those learnings. Through AARs, you can really get a read on how your game is developing from tactics, strategy, negotiation, and attitude. It gives you an opportunity to diagnose what went wrong and correct it. Even if you don’t have time to write a year-by-year analysis, listing what the key moments and learnings from each game will improve your game faster than anything. 

Join the discussion!

Find out more about an upcoming event or article, talk smack before a game, brag about your board top, or most likely, ask what on earth your fellow Weasels were thinking!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jim O'Kelley

    Good and practical. Well done, Sir! (And look at you, all grown up.)

  2. Jim O'Kelley

    Made a rookie mistake last night. Never compliment a writer without being prepared to specify exactly what you liked about the piece. Sorry, Jake!

    As I said last night, No. 5 stood out for me. But I also really liked No. 2, especially as it relates to No. 10. Take the time to write thoughtful endgame statements, but if you want to derive the benefits of the process, focus on your mistakes.

    No. 3 also ties in nicely. Think about what you could have done differently (No. 2 and No. 10) but recognize that you’re playing a seven-player game. How many lions can the best tamer tame?

    No. 4 is also excellent advice, especially for lead foots like me.

    Lots of good, helpful advice in your article.

  3. Matt Sundstrom

    This is outstanding.

    And I learned about how to play against you :).

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