Diplomiscellany: A Compendium of Diplomacy Related Material

Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior
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Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior
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Both of the articles reprinted here appeared, in
slightly altered form, in the Diplomatic Pouch.

Translations of these Articles into French(!) may be found here.

Musashi, practicing.

Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior:

A Book of Five Rings,

The Teachings of Miyamoto Shinmen Musashi

          Many readers will have some familiarity with a classic military text, Sun Tzu's The Art of War. But there is another classic oriental military work, and the lessons in it are much more relevant to the play of Diplomacy. Miyamoto Shinmen Musashi lived in feudal Japan from 1584 to 1645. He wrote A Book of Five Rings shortly before his death, while living in a cave in the mountains. The slim volume is a distillation of fifty years of training and experience from a man who, in his youth, was the foremost swordsman in Japan, so it is written from practical experience.

          Musashi's writing is steeped in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which -- despite what many westerners might assume -- is not incompatible with the military arts. The final chapter of A Book of Five Rings, the "Book of the Void", concerns itself with some general aspects of the way a warrior should think about reality and its opposite. This is interesting but beyond the scope of my discussion, so I will confine myself to the first four chapters of the book.

The Ground Book

In the first chapter, the "Ground Book", Musashi opens with the statement, "Strategy is the craft of a warrior." For Musashi, strategy is mainly concerned with personal combat. You may ask what personal combat tactics have to do with the grand scale strategy involved in Diplomacy. The answer, of course, is everything. Personal combat tactics are similar to the type of action we have in Diplomacy, in the physical movement of the pieces, and even more similar when it comes to the psychological elements. Musashi believed in the Japanese proverb that one well-trained warrior can defeat ten, and we all believe when we sit down at a Diplomacy board that one can defeat six.

          Musashi speaks of the mental state of the strategist, as well as the mental state of his opponents. "You should not have a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well.... It is bad for commanders and troopers to have likes and dislikes." Applied to Diplomacy, this is a very important point. Having favorite tactics or known preferences can be bad if your enemies are aware of them. Do what is best in a particular situation, even (or especially) if you are not known for it. That means defending at certain times when your natural inclination is toward attack, or vice-versa.

          Musashi then discusses timing, which he states is the chief concern of all the parts of his book. "You win in battles...by knowing the enemies' timing, and thus using a timing which the enemy does not expect." Very relevant to Diplomacy, since a player can turn in a perfect set of orders from a tactical standpoint, but if it is done too early or too late from the point of view of the game as a whole, it may well be disastrous.

          Musashi enumerates nine points:

1. "Do not think dishonestly."

Self-delusion is a great danger in Diplomacy. Players often see the board as they wish it or fear it to be, not as it really is. Much of the time, your opponents will not see the board as you do. A good Diplomacy player must always step back and look at the game situation objectively.

2. "The way is in training."

As Musashi frequently emphasizes throughout the book, practice makes perfect, which is just as applicable to Diplomacy as it is to life.

3. "Become acquainted with every art."

The superior player has detailed knowledge of both the standard rulebook and the house rules of the GameMaster (if any). Learn about the little tactical nuances that other players may not realize are available. Cover a supply center and still have a unit available to attack elsewhere, through use of the prohibition against self-dislodgement or by causing a beleaguered garrison situation. Send a unit home quickly with a friendly dislodgement by an ally, followed by a disbandment. Use the house rules of the GM to your advantage. If the GM has modified the removal rules in the event that no moves or retreats have been turned in by a player, pay attention to the differences. There is no feeling worse than to be asked why you did not try something, after a game is over, and you can only reply that you did not realize it was possible.

4. "Know the ways of all professions."

Being well-rounded may not directly help you in Diplomacy, but it can't hurt. It may also help you to understand your opponents and to form a mental model of them, and thus help you in planning operations against them.

5. "Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters."

Gaining a supply center is not always a good thing. Losing a supply center is not always bad. Knowing when each of these statements is applicable can be a great aid in the play of Diplomacy. Knowing to look beyond the immediate situation on the board and understanding the big picture is one of the marks of a superior Diplomacy player.

6. "Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything."

A good Diplomacy player should try to understand what each of the players are thinking and doing, and relate this to their play, even when it has nothing directly to do with his particular situation.

7. "Perceive those things which cannot be seen."

In Diplomacy, it is vital to understand what is not being said. Is there something your ally could be talking to you about but is not? The reason for that omission could affect your survival in the game. Your ally may be discussing the split of centers in the upcoming campaign, but neglects to mention the center your enemy will be certain to take from another player in the coming turn. Perhaps a simple oversight; perhaps not. You think the center naturally belongs to you, but maybe your ally feels otherwise, and wants to leave it out of the discussion. Don't just pay attention to who is talking, either. Lack of communication by a player may tip you off to a change in policy.

8. "Pay attention even to trifles."

Little things can make a big difference. For example, say you are playing England, and there is a long-standing Russo-Turkish alliance you tried unsuccessfully to break up a few turns ago. Turkey is mopping up Italy, and had an option to build a fleet in Constantinople or Smyrna for that purpose. Why did Turkey choose to build it in Constantinople? Perhaps because (consciously or subconsciously) Turkey is a little less trusting of Russia these days. This could be a prime opportunity to engineer a breakup of the alliance.

9. "Do nothing which is of no use."

A mini-stab with a spare unit, having no real chance of success, could anger a potential ally. Is it worth it? Of course, if you are thinking about when not to do things, you should bear in mind that the converse is also true. Do anything and everything that is of any use. Rather than just hold, support yourself, even if it is not necessary. If you miswrote another support order (not that such a thing would ever happen!), that "unnecessary" support may save you. Or order a support for an enemy's unit to move against that player's ally. The hostile alliance could be slowed by the mistrust you might create.

The Water Book

          In his second chapter, the "Water Book", Musashi begins with a discussion of the influence of "Spiritual Bearing" before going into specific sword techniques, emphasizing the importance of the mental component of combat. "In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different than normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased... Do not let your spirit be influenced by your body, or your body be influenced by your spirit. Be neither insufficiently spirited nor overspirited. Do not let the enemy see your spirit."

          In Diplomacy, this would include finding the will not to dash off that angry message to the ally who just stabbed you, five minutes after the results are out. Look at the situation as it is, not as it might have been. Wild shows of emotion have their place at times, but if you can write that message when calm and detached, you will be able to say what you want to say, and leave out things which might be better left unsaid. It is often helpful not to let the enemy know what your true feelings are, but instead construct a "straw man," with feelings that you want people to think you have. The less the enemy knows, the better. This is an important difference between face-to-face and postal/e-mail Diplomacy. You can always control your reactions in an e-mail or postal game, and by doing so, you have a better chance of steering the actions of the other players toward a direction of your choosing.

The Fire Book

          The third chapter, the "Fire Book", discusses more fine points of individual combat, which, as he says, can also be applied to "large-scale strategy". For example, "Chase him [and] when the enemy gets into an inconvenient position...pin him down." If you can force enemy units into positions where movement or support is difficult, you are halfway to victory, even if no supply center is yet taken. If you can keep your enemy pinned down -- unless a stalemate line can be held -- the mobile units you have will eventually force the enemy position.

          Musashi later talks of the necessary corollary to this statement. "In large-scale strategy, when the enemy starts to collapse, you must pursue him without letting the chance go. If you fail to take advantage of your enemies' collapse, they may recover." Knowing when the position of your enemy is no longer tenable, and launching a highly fruitful attack at the right time is a very difficult thing to master. The quote can also be taken as referring to mental collapse, as well as physical collapse. The ideal Diplomacy game would have in it players who would all play out their positions enthusiastically to the bitter end, but this does not often happen in reality. A player in a losing situation will turn in sub-par orders, or no orders at all. A superior Diplomacy player will try to gauge this, and take into account these possibilities when writing orders. A good Diplomacy player will "become the enemy... think yourself into the enemy's position".

          Of course, surprise is also an important element of strategy. "Attack without warning where the enemy is not expecting it" is standard practice for any good Diplomacy player. Again, the mental element comes in. Knowing the mind of the enemy, and misleading the enemy as to your own intentions are vital objects in determining whether an attack really will be a surprise.

          In addition, when an attack is not working, it is sometimes better to break off than pound your head against a wall: "...where there is no possible resolution, we must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit, then win... through a different technique." If you take three years to grab a single supply center, other powers may have found easier pickings and developed more rapidly, making you weak in comparison. To be truly successful in Diplomacy, one should look simultaneously at the flow of the game as a whole and at the tactical situation of the moment. "Whenever we have become preoccupied with small details, we must suddenly change into a large spirit, interchanging large with small."

The Wind Book

          The fourth chapter, the "Wind Book", concerns itself with the faults of other schools of combat. The fault on which Musashi comments most frequently is that of the emphasis of style over substance. As he states in the close of the previous chapter: "The true way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing other than this." This is exactly true of Diplomacy as well. What everything comes down to is that the best move is not necessarily the prettiest move. The best move is the move that wins.


          This was only a brief overview of the lessons that can be taught by A Book of Five Rings. The full text of the book is available online, and I encourage all the readers of this article to read it in its entirety. I am sure there are passages I have not discussed which you would find enlightening, but I hope that my discussion here will help you to improve your Diplomacy play.

Munenori Yagyu

Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior II:

Munenori Yagyu's "Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War"

          This is a companion piece to the first Diplomacy and the Way of the Warrior article, above, in which I discussed the applicability of Miyamoto Shinmen Musashi's writings to the play of Diplomacy. The book I discuss now comes out of that same Japanese martial tradition. Yagyu and Musashi were contemporaries, and the Book of Family Traditions was written approximately eleven years earlier than the Book of Five Rings. I do not believe that either man read the work of the other, especially since Yagyu advises specifically in his book that his teachings should remain "in the family". One exception to this was that in addition to being the head of the Shogun's Secret Police, Yagyu was the martial arts instructor to the Shogun and the Shogun's family, so that while his writings were not widely disseminated in his time, they were certainly very influential.

          I will try to stay away from direct comparison of the two works, though readers are welcome to compare the two, either through reading my other article, or by reading both texts in their entirety (in fact, the two works have been published together in one volume more than once), but I must say Yagyu's writing is just as heavily influenced by Zen philosophy as Musashi's, and just as Musashi did, Yagyu concludes that there is no irreconcilable conflict between Zen Buddhism and the study of the martial arts. For this article, I will mostly de-emphasize the Zen philosophical aspects of the work, and concentrate more on the application of the precepts of the book to the play of Diplomacy. I will also take Yagyu's teachings out of the order in which they are presented, and arrange them so as to increase their relevance to Diplomacy players. The book is divided into three parts: "The Killing Sword", "The Life-Giving Sword", and "No Sword", symbolizing respectively the use of force, the ability to anticipate problems and prevent them, and finally the ability to influence events without the use of force, by employing other resources. In Diplomacy terms, mastering the teachings of the "Three Swords" is equivalent to mastery of tactics, strategy and communication, which are all vital to the play of the game at the highest levels.

          One thing that must always be kept in mind when reading the Book of Family Traditions is that Yagyu consistently equates individual combat with grand strategy, and considers the mental side of the art of war more important than the physical side. "Just as one faces off with two swords, executing most ably the well thought out plan of combat, using one's hands and feet skillfully so as to gain victory, in the same way the martial art of the commander, properly speaking, is to successfully employ all forces and skillfully create strategies so as to win in war." The equivalence works in Diplomacy, as well. The units represent hundreds of thousands of troops each, together with the associated materiel, yet the factor of overriding importance in Diplomacy, just as in combat, is the mind of the opponent.

          Among the mental aspects of the art of war stressed by Yagyu is the necessity of always thinking about the plans of the enemy, not only one's own plans. While combat itself is "a matter of course, one who is a commander pitches two battle formations in his chest, mentally leading a great army into battle".  Knowing the mind of the enemy is vital. "To see with certainty how an adversary's sword is working, how he is handling it, and to discern what is on his mind.  When you know your opponents moves and manners well, you can make your own maneuvers freely." Obviously, in Diplomacy, if you know your opponents, and can use that knowledge to help predict their strategy and tactics, you have a large advantage over another person who lacks such knowledge. So see if they have written anything on the subject (Though it won't do you any good against me!) including any End-of-Game Statements, observe games where they are presently playing, and ask around with regard to their past games. Always attempt to determine the intent of the other players. "Footwork and disposition of the body should be such as not to miss the location of the quiescent sword", with "location of the quiescent sword" meaning the intent of the opponent. The exposition of the vital importance of perception of the abilities and intentions of opponents forms a large part of the Life-Giving Sword book. Just as it is important to use deception and subterfuge, it is equally important to cultivate the ability to see through the deception and subterfuge of opponents. "If you misperceive the abilities and perceptions, even if you use a hundred techniques to the fullest, you will not attain victory." To succeed in Diplomacy, concentrate on being able to see your opponent's situation from their point of view. The more you are able to predict the moves of your opponents with accuracy, the easier it will be to turn in the best possible set of orders.

          Just as you need to determine the intent of your opponent, it will help if you are able to conceal your own intent. In the context of Diplomacy, your arsenal of deceptive tactics may include (but should not be limited to) the spread of disinformation to third parties, seemingly odd or useless orders (i.e., "To do something unexpected as a ploy to startle an opponent is also an appearance concealing an ulterior intention, an art of war."), intentional misorders, multiple feints, sustained and detailed negotiations with players you intend to attack, and to the extent the house rules of the playing forum and/or GM permit, attempted deception as to your identity in both public press and private communication. The emphasis on the dichotomy between thought and action continues throughout the book. Yagyu's next point could be taken directly from a Diplomacy handbook: "Appearance and intention are fundamental to the art of war. Appearance and intention mean the strategic use of ploys, the use of falsehood to gain what is real. Appearance and intention inevitably snare people when artfully used, even if people sense there is an ulterior intention behind the overt appearance. When you set up ploys and opponents fall for them, then you win by letting them act on your ruse. As for those who do not fall for the ploy, when you see they will not fall into one trap, you have another set up." 

         Too much of a good thing, however, in Diplomacy just as in combat, can be bad. Do not become overly fixated on concealing your intentions. To do so may cause you to misjudge the intent of another player, since they will constantly be responding to your feints and ruses. Indeed you may lose a potential ally, if you make them too nervous, or unsure of your true intentions. Obsession about anything, whether it be deception or any other particular tactic, offense, defense, revenge or anything else is a weakness. By freeing the mind from such obsessions, by refraining from becoming fixated, you can act freely, and you will not prevent yourself from finding the best plan of action. Perhaps the most common obsession in Diplomacy concerns the stab. Obsession with the employment of the stab is the greatest failing of many players, with another popular flaw being the obsession of obtaining revenge after a stab. When a player can keep these obsessions from influencing their play, effective play becomes much easier, especially if a player acts in an unexpected manner, given the "natural" response of most players after being attacked. Of course, revenge often coincides with the best course of action, but that is not always the case. The opposite tendency, obsessive maintenance of alliances, is also a hindrance to superior play. To Yagyu, part of the art of war is "knowing when there will be disruption, and preventing disturbance before it happens", which leads to a discussion of group dynamics quite familiar to any Diplomacy player who has witnessed an agreement faithfully continued by one side, and broken by the other: "mindfulness to observe the dynamic of situations in a group is an art of war. If you do not see the dynamic of a situation, you may remain too long in company where you should not be and get into trouble for no reason". You must constantly observe opponents, directly and through information from third parties, and look for signs of change in intention. If your opponent is not fixated on keeping agreements and you are, the results are almost inevitably disastrous for you. If you slavishly adhere to agreements, even if you are lucky enough to have found someone as maniacally faithful as yourself, you will likely pass up opportunities for victory unless you are willing to break agreements at the opportune moment.

          The importance of the concept of not becoming fixated or obsessed, important enough when fighting an opponent or opponents of equal or lesser strength, becomes crucial when facing a more powerful opponent. "The important thing is what happens when you are hard pressed, make sure you do not get caught in a pinch, unprepared. This is the concentrated attention you exert at such times as when you are being attacked with your back to the wall. It should be understood as a most critical and difficult situation." Therefore, the "margin of safety is quite impossible to maintain if you fix your eyes upon one spot, let your mind linger in one place, and fail to keep up sustained watchfulness".

          Much of the discussion in the book concerns a related topic, the subordination of mood to will. By that, Yagyu means that outward expression, whether physical or verbal, should be subordinate to the inner attitude. He writes "It is essential to control your mood by means of your will, calming down so that your will is not drawn by your mood". A fighter should always try to remain calm, not excited, and always try to plan strategies and tactics and observe the enemy with a calm, normal state of mind. Applied to Diplomacy, the superior player playing either face to face, or by written communication, is not ruled by emotion, but by the ultimate objective, to win. Emotion, or at least the appearance of emotion, is merely another tool to influence the adversary. You can have the appearance of being angry, happy, worried, and so forth, but you should not let your emotional state influence your planning. The point is extensively elaborated upon in several sections of the Killing Sword book. It is not a problem to have emotions. Emotions only become problems when they steer a player away from the best plan of action.

          Yagyu is generally in favor of letting an opponent take the initiative, but he does not mean this in the way it is ordinarily understood. The opponent is allowed the initiative only to the extent that they make the first move. After the opponent has made the first move, and therefore committed to a course of action, it is time to counterattack. Once the plans of the other player or players are known, the superior Diplomacy player will then seize the initiative, and successful strategies can more easily be formulated. In Diplomacy, this type of play is most often seen in the opening phase of the game. Some players may make various non aggression pacts and alliances, which require no immediate positive action, spending the early going picking up neutral Supply Centers and setting up flexibly, so that their next course of action is not obvious. If a patient player is not immediately attacked, and the other players commit to particular courses of action, that player can jump in at an advantageous time in one or more conflicts. "A hasty attack is an exceptionally bad thing. The thing is to press aggressively only after having properly prepared yourself mentally, and after having observed the situation thoroughly." Sometimes, of course, opponents may need to be encouraged to commit: "When opponents are secured in a passive or waiting mode implement strategic maneuvers with covert intentions, inducing adversaries to tip their hands, and thus using this to enable you to gain victory".

          Yagyu feels that flexibility, the antithesis of obsession, is a key to success. Once an attack is begun, it is important to remain attentive to the target of the attack, since you will become the focus of your opponent's attention, and may encounter massive, even irrational opposition. You must be prepared either to press home the attack while the opening can still be exploited, to shift the attack to another area, or to abandon the attack completely. To know when to change direction, in Diplomacy just as in combat, is "a supremely effective state of mind".

          Just as it is important to be able to refocus in attacks, so as to remain tactically flexible, it is also important to maintain flexibility in overall playing style, so that opponents cannot predict your moves because they may categorize you as a daring or conservative player. In addition, reflexive adherence to the "usual" or "ordinary" is bad. Masters of the martial arts know when to depart from standard thought patterns and practices, so that "People who have attained supreme mastery are beyond them; they act freely and independently". For example, attempting to obtain good position with the Spring move, in order to capture Supply Centers with the Fall move is often a wise guideline to follow, but if an opponent leaves an opening, and you calculate that gains from the attack would be sustainable, a Spring attack on Supply Centers may be the best move. Similarly, a move for position in the Fall can be worthwhile as well, if the positional advantage leads to later material or strategic gains, as is demonstrated by the enduring popularity of the Lepanto and Sealion openings.

          Though there are often numerous tactics that can be employed in a given situation, through study, practice and game experience, finding the best tactic becomes almost automatic. "There may be a hundred stances and sword positions, but you win with just one." This is the essence of the "Great Learning", a guiding principle of Zen Buddhism. When someone has "learned all there is to learn", the optimum strategy and tactics often come without effort, almost instinctively, and it will become difficult for others to guess in advance the strategy and tactics you will employ. Yagyu concludes that this is the ultimate level of mastery in the art of war. In Diplomacy, frequent practice and positional analysis, along with extensive game experience can lead to a similar result. Some experienced players can take a position in at a glance, grasping the tactical possibilities, thinking multiple turns ahead. For example, such a player may move to circumvent a possible stalemate line before others even consider attempting to form one. This can be a vital advantage in face to face Diplomacy, where a superior player would have options worked out quickly, leaving more time for negotiation, while other players need more time at the board to plan their moves, and therefore will have less time available to communicate with and influence others.

          I hope that you will think of the various bits of advice I have related here as an integrated whole, and to apply the advice to all facets of the game. A player who does not perfect their knowledge and use of strategy, tactics or negotiation skills will never be able to play Diplomacy at a consistently high level. If Yagyu were a Diplomacy player, and were asked to give one brief piece of advice, he would probably say: Be sneaky, be observant, be calm, be flexible, and be all of these as often as you can.