Dispelling Meta-Gaming Myths

By Nathan Barnes

Not long ago, an issue that had been brewing among tournament Diplomacy players, slowly stoked by the fires of competition and ruthlessness that are so much a part of the tournament experience, finally came to a rolling boil. While the tumult that prompted this written intervention was isolated to the Northwest, this issue effects all tournament players, especially now that the tournament circuit is becoming more popular and competitive. Specifically, this issue has the very real potential to ward off new players to the tournament scene as well as retarding the flow of players from distant lands, both of which are vital to the health and continuation of quality Diplomacy tournaments.

The problem is, of course, “meta-gaming,” which means many different things to many different people. Specifically in this article, I wanted to dispel some of the misconceptions about “pre-game alliances,” “old boys clubs” or, as they have often been dubbed, “CareBear Alliances,” among groups of players. It is my hope that this article will enable individuals to understand this phenomenon so that they may recognize, cope, and transcend meta-gaming hurdles in tournament play. With that goal in mind, I will try to illuminate the dark realities behind the nature of “meta-gaming.”

First, foremost, and most centrally, there are fundamentally different understandings of what Diplomacy is within the hobby. The recognition of this simple reality is both the first step on the path to successful diplomacy and the genesis of all the emotion generated by “meta-gaming.” I am under no delusions that my opinions and observations are somehow so unique as to require my two-cent additions, on this occasion, however, some clarification is in order. Both for the good of the hobby, and for the good of tournament play.

There is, has been, and will continue to be, a robust discussion on the existence, infestation, and definition of "meta-gaming." I think perhaps, that this is the crux of the divergence between less experienced tournament players and players like myself who have been to a number of events. A newer player, who might be an excellent Diplomacy tactician, may often have real difficulties understanding why some players will not readily exploit weaknesses of their allies, why they will preserve smaller powers for years before eliminating them, or why certain players often work together in game-long alliances that often involve one power completely exposing themselves to another, seemingly without fear of attack – the prototypical "care-bear" alliance.

Let me try to shed some light on these practices, at least from my point of view, and the relation of these activities to the hobby as a whole.

First and foremost, I think it needs reiterating that the game itself, fundamentally, and at it's most basic level, is called Diplomacy. It's not called "Tactics" or "Push the Wooden Blocks" or, to delve into reality, "Risk." We all know clever definitions of what diplomacy is, gleaned from the annals of history, but we also know what it means -- the art and practice of conducting negotiation and relations between people. I think the last bit is the most important. The game is about the interaction between people. Not the interaction of blocks, hold and support orders, how to convoy, or arranging the pieces prettily. People are the center of Diplomacy.

That said, we can turn to "meta-gaming", which has always been a confusing concept for me. Perhaps a definition is in order. My understanding is that "meta-gaming" describes relationships and play beyond (meta) the scope of an individual game. Therefore, I cannot, nor have I ever been able to, understand how anyone can be surprised by it's existence. Moreover, I don't understand the negative connotation that it has been seen with. And this is the point of divergence between myself and many other players.

Diplomacy, in the real world and in the hobby, is about knowing and understanding your opponent, a living breathing human being, plagued by all the trappings of society and human nature. Your task as a diplomat is to outwit, outmaneuver, and predict the behavior of your enemy, feats only accomplished by unmasking the motivations and agendas of your opponent.

Let's take some random examples of play behaviors. Player A will stab his ally within three years. Player E has perfected the art of vacillating between allies until he has a clear advantage. Player F takes more pride in a well-played alliance than a solo. Player G, once scorn, will often go down in flames pounding against an enemy rather than allow them to succeed. Player I is extremely gifted at using his fame to his advantage. Player R will gun for Player E with everything he's got, right out of the gate. Player T is very effective at firmly coercing his opponents.

Now, when these 7 players, AEFGIRT, sit down at a Diplomacy board, their task is to discover these play behaviors as soon as possible, in order to exploit them to their advantage. This is not always possible within a single round of Diplomacy, and you will gamble and take risks that may yield victory, or, your consolation prize, knowledge of a particular player’s style. Once you have learned these things by playing with these people, you will adjust your play accordingly the next time you meet up with them. Your failure to remember and keep central player F’s very real desire to have a well played-alliance over a solo could cost you a draw, a solo, or the tournament.

Is this meta-gaming? Can anyone claim that they play each Diplomacy game in a vacuum? No, certainly not, people approach a table with any of AEFGIRT on it, they think certain things and play a certain way. They have learned behaviors, preferences and agendas by playing a game or two with some or all of AEFGIRT, and they adjust their play accordingly.

In short, events and experiences outside the Diplomacy game in front of you will effect the way that particular game is played. Given that, we need to look at these "pre-game" alliances, which I assume, is what most offends some players, and creeps into that vague and gray area that is "cheating." First, I have yet to confirm a case in which two or more people have come to a Diplomacy board with a preconceived plan for an unbroken, game-long, care-bear alliance. Not to rule the phenomenon out of the realm of possibility and into the “this never happens” bin -- simply that I've never been able to prove it. There is always talks during and after tournaments, where, upon reflection, players detect a pattern. Perhaps the same players were always in a draw together, or a certain pair of players never seems to attack one another. We can all remember examples from tournaments where this seems plausible. I would argue, however, that most of these cases are, most likely, misperceptions of the dynamics between the individuals involved.

Some have even claimed to have been invited into elite groups, as it were. Perhaps they were. Or perhaps they misinterpreted the "offer." I know that I personally have said things like "Maybe we will be able to work together." Or "It would be great if we were on the same board and could work together." Etc, etc. Is this a cabal? Is this a hard and fast treaty or pre-game alliance? Not in my opinion. Quite frankly, I say a lot of things, what I actually do depends a whole lot more on the game -- who's playing, the distribution of countries and what my agenda is. A lot of players say a lot of things, it’s just good play. It never hurts to start working on an “in” as soon as possible. Sure, that person may not been a board with you, but then again, he might; maybe not at this tournament, and maybe not the next -- but someday, and that’s the angle you’re playing for. A wise man once said that at a Diplomacy tournament, the diplomacy starts the instant you walk through the door and/or meet another player. How true, how true.

Let's take a personal example: DragonFlight 2001. I took 8th, and it was pretty miserable for me. The first 3 rounds I was in a four way draw with the SAME players. Did we set it up this way? Does anyone really believe that these 4 players would find three 4-way draws somehow desirable? Personally I felt rather bored, achieving the same result over and over, despite never aligning with the same person in those games, but still, somehow, finding myself locked in that 4-way. As many know, I chose to break the trend in the last two rounds, not because it was better tactically, not because it was the better move, but because I couldn't stand another 4-way. This was my agenda.

Moreover, the rumblings of the repetitive 4-way involving the same players were already rolling though the tournament player, causing a lot of friction and more than a few accusations. That being the case, it behooved me to follow my personal agenda of not accepting another 4-way: I got what I wanted, while publicly divorcing myself from the “meta-gaming” accusations. We will return to the importance of an individual agenda later, it is important for now to note two things: 1) there was no pre-game understanding on my part, and I am convinced that there was no "pre-game shenanigans" on the part of the other players, as round 4 so vividly showed. And 2) those details, of course, do not matter. It is the perception of a “pre-game alliance” by other players that’s important. Sometimes you may need to make moves that do not advance you on the board, but dispel perceptions that pave the road to victory on another day.

So why do these trends exist? Why do we have pages and pages of documentation that can prove that a relatively small group of people often align with each other? I think this is rather easily explained. Once again, let's look at some examples. Jeff Dwornicki and Jerry “JT” Fest often align, and they have, for some, and for quite some time, been the poster-boys for care-bear alliances. But if one looks a little deeper, it's unsurprising that this would be the case. Jeff and Jerry built a hobby in Portland together, the PiggyBack Society, and spent a lot of time playing games with each other, culminating in a high comfort level within a game. They know how the other plays better than almost anyone else, they know when the other is lying, understand the circumstances that will motivate the other to stab, and each knows the agenda of the other very well. In short, to beat a dead horse, they have learned from each other and have ADJUSTED THEIR PLAY ACCORDINGLY.

This applies across the board, you see it all the time. Round 3 at DragonFlight 2002, a couple of guys beat the snot out of veteran Andy Bartalone on the bottom board because they were friends, they knew each other, and were comfortable working with one another. In the end, a ONE-CENTER Germany was included in a two-way draw. Is this a pre-game alliance? Did they plot to form an alliance before the boards were called? Not in so many words, no. But when they came to the table, they probably had a pretty good idea that they could work together and extract a result from the game that fit their agenda.

And now the problem lays exposed. Some people are very upset that others will come to the board knowing some people better than others. Human nature promotes a fear of the unknown and a comfort for the familiar. It is your job as a diplomat to overcome the tendency, to overcome people's natural attraction to the familiar. This is NOT something that rules can ever prevent. We are dealing with people, human nature, and personalities that have lives outside of a Diplomacy board, it is not possible to make enforceable rules that can alter and shape people's motivations.

Not only is this something that is inescapable, but it is also one of the most exciting aspects of the game. What makes this game so great is that you must address people with the knowledge that they are at least partially inclined to do something else. No victory is so sweet as to convince and motivate someone to move away from the familiar and into the unknown. THAT is diplomacy, and that is why I love this game.

Another issue that is swirling about is the matter of the personal agenda that I have continually alluded to. Beyond inclinations, Diplomacy players often have an agenda, something they want to accomplish that is beyond the singular game itself. Perhaps someone is playing simply to try something new that they have read about, perhaps they just want to work with a certain individual to see how they play, perhaps they want to try and form a particular alliance because they are more comfortable playing that way. Moreover, everyone has different values. Some people simply do not value a solo as much as good alliance play. Some people would rather try something bold, new, and fresh than to play it safe and increase their chances of survival. Some play just to play the game to talk to other people. Others don't value ratings or tournament standings at all, and would rather play without regard for them. The point is that everyone has a different agenda and not only is there no way to create rules that alter or shape an individual agenda, but once again it is part and parcel when playing a game with human beings.

Some will be quick to point to the rulebook and say, "The objective of the game is to pursue the attainment of 18 centers, no more, no less. These agendas have no place in the game." While this is very true, but I would contend that players that take this narrow view do not understand Diplomacy or the people that are the players. People will always have an agenda, often very different from your own. A good diplomat, in the real world and in the game, accepts this truth and seeks to discover personal agendas in order to use them to his or her own advantage.

Tournaments, it should be noted, are when agenda's run the thickest. This is because you are playing a tournament, NOT a single game. You can lose the battle and win the war and vice versa. Some lauded my solo in the first round of DragonFlight this year, but I paid for it with elimination the next round and 3rd place in the end. As noted, some people do not value a tournament and just want to play the singular game. This is perfectly acceptable, but one shouldn't slight those that ARE, in fact, playing a tournament. That's the entire reason they went though the time and expense of attending. Again, as an effective diplomat, it is not yours to judge these values, but to learn them and use them to your advantage.

The very fact that some want to try to construct rules with the intent of striping players of their agendas and motivations is tantamount of turning players into a faceless clones, effectively sucking most of the diplomacy out of the game, makes it clear that they don't really understand FtF play. It is thus understandable that they are the same people that prefer Email Diplomacy. PBEM, by its very nature, reduces Diplomacy down to faceless statistics and probability. You don't make moves or suggestions because you understand your opponent, or you know what his or her agenda is, but because it is statistically probable that X will happen. France only opens to the Channel 23% of the time. Italy only solo's some ridiculously low percentage of the time. What do these mean to a PBEM player versus a FtF player? The long and short of it is that to a FtF player these statistics are all but useless, because you perhaps know that the player in France might just be someone that likes to open to the Channel or the person playing Italy is a phenomenal player, having soloed with that country dozens of times at tournaments To the PBEM player, the statistics are very helpful, because body language, intonation, and tone are absent from email. And, as I'm sure we have all experienced, perhaps in this very message, that, as a medium, email is a poor means of expression.

Finally, I think it is important to remember that Diplomacy is a game. Because it's a game it should be two things: a fun, entertaining experience, as well as taken somewhat less than seriously. Specifically in regards to this message and meta-gaming, I want to point out that games are an activity you participate in with friends and would-be friends. Frankly, I like the majority of the people I play with. I like to visit with them, hang out, get a few drinks, and just have a good time with people that have some of the same interests that I do. We play this game because we love it, but one of the added benefits is the people you meet whom you share a deep passion with. If you have the dedication to show up at a tournament or house-con, full of people you don't know, you're going to meet many people that can identify and empathize with that level of commitment (addiction?). It's only natural that people, in sharing something that consumes countless hours of our lives, will become friends.

Many, at this point, would haul out the exclusivity banners and shout "cabal" or "elitism" from the rooftops. I don't think that this is necessarily the case either. Everyone has their first tournament or gathering or game where they know almost no one. And experienced Diplomacy players have an interest in promoting play and spreading the hobby -- an interest that I find self-evident, but to be on the safe side I'll take the time to state it firmly. First, experienced players WANT to play with new blood, to try new things, to break stale molds. Second, if you don't work to expand the hobby, there will be no one to play the game with. Because fun and exciting play is the goal of the game, many are actively working to promote the hobby. I think we all know who these people are, and should take some time to thank them.

I want to be clear that I'm in no way arguing that the “pre-game alliances” and “CareBear Alliances” described here are some sort of fiction. I'm arguing that they are often misinterpreted and happen to a much lesser degree than many suggest. Hauling out words like "cheating" and "care-bear" and "cabal" create a much more divisive environment, counter-productive to building up the hobby. The unwillingness of some to see beyond their own understandings of how Diplomacy should be played, coupled with their inability to refrain from applying their personal standards to other players, does much more harm than good, while at the same time betrays a certain level of misunderstanding about the game, as the previous passages have explained in agonizing detail. Solutions such as attracting more players are good, but they do not address the "problem", as there will always be familiarity on the board. Not only that, but it cheapens the constant work that people like Buz Eddy or Edi Birsan or Manus Hand are constantly doing to attract people to the hobby.

The above is how I, personally, approach this game. Others will have different agendas, values, and motivations. That's reality, and that's something that makes us each our own little diplomatic island. A lot has been said here, and I hope that the time I spent putting all this down on paper helps, in some small way, to shed light on an issue that seems to give rise to a great deal of emotion. If not, well, at least more people know my agenda, and I hope it opens new avenues to good Diplomacy play in the future.

Nathan Barnes


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