I like winning, but I’m discovering that the ethics of winning at Diplomacy are not very cut and dry.

The game ends when either one player has control of 18 supply centers (dots), or all players agree to a draw which involves some number of countries. For example, if Austria is down to 2 dots, while England and Germany have 16, then they might all agree that England and Germany share the draw and end the game.

The official diplomacy rules declare that one is a winner if they are the last power on the board - a “tie” is considered a draw, not a win. Therefore, in order to win, I must “solo”.

There are several ethically straightforward paths to solo-ing. Nobody has great communication and one country makes better moves than the others. Two countries consume each other in strife while a third swoops in and steamrolls them both. One person betrays their word and the other survives, comes back, and prevails.

But most often, the path to a solo involves a betrayal of your word, otherwise known as a “stab”.

Perhaps on the first turn you assure your neighbor that you will not move against them and they leave their dots undefended; you swoop in and prevent that player from ever taking off.

Perhaps there is an alliance of 3; two members realize that they stand to gain a fair bit for themselves by splitting up the territories of the third.

Most insidious is the stab where you’ve worked well with a player for a number of turns. You’ve told them that you’re happy with a draw and, as you both approach the 17 dots apiece that represent shared dominance of Europe, you move into their territories on the last turn and gain a single dot, triggering the 18-dot win condition and get the solo.

Stabbing has future implications, as well, for people who are viewed to be “stabby” have a hard time getting players to trust them in later games. Many would consider this “meta-gaming”, but it still happens.

A stab is also, perhaps, seen as a mark of intellectual superiority. By stabbing someone who trusted you, you have “bested” them. On the other side, you may feel massively guilty that you’ve tricked another player (often a close friend) into an alliance and then betrayed them. Certainly, having a friend stab you is a terrible feeling. You see the victory, you know you have someone willing to help, and then suddenly you’ve been cast aside so they can win by themselves. A terrible feeling indeed.

So you may be asking yourself, why stab? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. The point of playing games is to win, not play for a draw. Playing for a draw somehow cheapens the efforts of those who play to win. Two players who know from the beginning that they’d each be satisfied with a draw can form an unbreakable alliance that can often beat every other player on the board.
  2. They might stab you, given enough time and opportunity.
  3. To assert intellectual superiority (though this is almost certainly a heuristic problem of gauging intellectual capability, not to mention a petty endeavor)

I try not to think of this game as a microcosm for relationships, but there is so much that is analogous. You build trust, give and solicit advice, plan for the future, communicate, and (sometimes) betray trust. The danger is that this game can so closely mirror real life that it bleeds into real-life relationships. I’ve seen couples end up in heated arguments over games of diplomacy. Feelings can genuinely be hurt.

When I debate whether or not to stab, I’ll find myself staring at the screen or board for minutes thinking about it, re-entering my moves back and forth. Should I be content with a draw? Would I regret not going for the win? Do I owe this person something? In every game I’ve played lately, I’ve ended up pursuing the solo out of fear that I regret settling, but I must admit that I feel an almost-paralyzing sense of guilt.

I don’t see a clear-cut answer, so maybe the only winning move is not to play.

For more thoughts on stabbing, here are a couple articles I found interesting:

Diplomacy archive

Board game geek