05 May 2005

Diplomacy and Life

One of the greatest pleasures The Jenius experienced in college was playing Diplomacy, a game that ranks with chess and poker as a matching of wits.

In the game, up to seven players represent one of the Great Powers prior to World War I. The object of the game is to capture at least 18 of the 34 “supply centers” on the board (a map of Europe stretching from England to Russia.) Each country begins with 3 pieces (armies or navies; Russia begins with 4) and to win, you must have allies...and beat them, too.

The brilliance of the game is that no matter what you say, promise, threaten, negotiate, deal, offer, agree to, state, promise or swear on a Bible, the only thing that matters are the written orders you give your pieces. No dice are involved and nothing is left to chance. In simple terms: actions, and their results, are all that matters.

If anything, Diplomacy brings out the traitor-level in all of us. But in Diplomacy, as in real life, the end doesn't justify the means. If you only play once, whether you keep your word or not means nothing in the long run, simply because it was just a game. But if you play regularly within a group, you quickly learn that lacking integrity is a weakness…and that always keeping your word is too (if you expect others to do the same.) The lack keeps your from forming strong alliances as nobody believes you and being too straightforward and trusting often makes you the patsy with a knife in his back.

The Jenius played well over 40 games with the same group of 18-20 players and when you consider each game can take several hours to play, you can see it was a considerable investment of time. Happily, The Jenius can report that He won almost half the games He played in, a very respectable effort in such a competitive and unpredictable game.

What The Jenius learned about this cooperate-but-compete balancing act can be summed up in these four points:

1) Integrity makes the difference between winners and losers. By and large, winners were players who almost always kept their word. Understanding that it is a game, the occasional “betrayal” was still used, but when the situation was doubtful, the more skillful players would choose a path of integrity rather than toss away goodwill and trust on a gamble. Players who vacillated between “betrayals” and “commitments” were usually eliminated first (reduce the variables) or in the middle of the game when clear thinking and strong communication skills were needed. (Negotiation phases were almost always 10-15 minutes long, placing a premium on speaking your mind well.) Cheaters and people whose integrity is "convenient" get bounced or trip themselves up in real life too.

2) Winners created compatible short-term and long-term plans, but remained flexible. Diplomacy openings are less variable than in chess, but quickly expand into literally millions of possible variants. Good players took short-term goals and linked them to a long-term plans, but as the game progressed, they would constantly re-evaluate short-term goals and long-term plans. Some players reacted emotionally and skewed their short-term plans to gain revenge: we called them “rabid dogs” and they were easy to take out. Others set a distant goal, never varied it and once a good player figured out what it was, he or she could outmaneuver them easily. Every short-term goal required reassessing the long-term, but good players made sure they adapted short-term goals to their long-term plan as long as possible, and if they changed their long-term plan, it had to be for a better final result.

3) Where you start is not as important as where you finish or how you get there (provided you kept Rule 1 firmly in mind.) The seven Great Powers in Diplomacy are not equal. Two of them (Italy and Austria-Hungary) are so close to each other that trust seldom really develops and they are often eliminated fairly quickly. However, good players could play any Great Power and achieve wins or top finishes simply because they combined integrity, planning and flexibility. By doing so, they combined predictable behavior with unpredictable strategies, making themselves attractive allies and fearsome opponents. Remember: No one can play their best or compete at the highest level if they are limited to reacting to you.

4) The best players expanded the board. This single insight vaulted The Jenius to being the best or second-best player in the group. The true “battlefield” in Diplomacy was much larger than the gameboard: it encompassed the mind and heart of every player in the game. Some players simply did not have the drive or passion to win. To these players, an offer in which they could finish second or even third was as good as gold. It wasn’t manipulation: they got what they wanted and The Jenius got the victory he had to have. In fact, most games boiled down to determining who would accept what and then finding the simplest path to achieving those desires. And if two “gotta win” players were involved, the best strategy was often to team up, reduce the board to just the two of Us and then go at it. In any case, by looking beyond the confines of the situation, a myriad of options opened up that could lead to greater and more satisfactory results.

How does Diplomacy apply to the Internet industry in Puerto Rico?

1) Your word is your only coin: it is best when golden.

2) Planning and flexibility beat improvising and lunging.

3) The achievement is in making progress, not in waiting for progress to come to you.

4) Forget slicing up the pie: aim to make a bigger pie.

5) Cooperate until you can compete for bigger results.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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