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When is a good time to backstab an ally in Diplomacy?

Should I backstab if I can grab a Supply Centre or two, or should I wait for an opportunity to eliminate an enemy?

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    I hope this falls into "good subjective" Oct 20, 2010 at 9:19

10 Answers 10

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There are lots of good (and bad) times to back stab, I'm not sure there is an out and out correct answer. This is one of the fun aspects of Diplomacy: its variation.

However, early back stabbing is probably almost always best avoided, as you will probably lose credibility with the other players if they think you are unreliable.

Sometimes the best back stabs are against players you have had very long alliances with, when they least expect it.

I also sometimes wait until I have a (usually hidden) alliance with another player, against the same player I am planning to back stab. That way they get hit with a double whammy and you have an extra level of insurance.

Finally, just past the 5th playing hour, as the tiredness and alcohol kicks in, if my experiences are anything to go by, is usually a good time to back stab and lose friends ;)

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The rule of thumb has always been:

Never backstab an opponent in a way that leaves them capable of retaliation.

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I tend to find that beginners backstab too early, and do so to just grab an SC or two. Real experts seem to play with much more fluid alliance systems where it's not entirely clear what a backstab would be.

But as an intermediate player, my usual plan is to try to backstab just as we eliminate our first victim, or a little later - somewhere in the 7-10 SC range.

Time the backstab to cripple the former ally, so you can eliminate them pretty quickly, and you're well on the way to winning.

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  • A tried-and-true expert strategy is to make all alliances fixed-term rather than indefinite, often for just a single season or year. By the nature of the game, these short-term alliances will tend to direct their attention to all long-term alliances for self preservation, which rapidly eliminates those players who fail to engage n this strategy. Then the pros divvy up Europe for themselves and get down to the big ante game. Aug 21, 2014 at 22:28
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You should only backstab an ally if that means the difference between losing or winning the game. So you shouldn't backstab for 1 or 2 centers. Settle for 3 or more and be sure you can grab them and keep them too. And to mention the obvious, do not backstab in the spring.

If you backstab often, players remember and refuse to ally with you (or at least the aliances aren't that stable). If you never backstab, players remember too and just walk over you.

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  • I highly disagree with your last sentence ("If you never backstab, players... just walk over you"). If you play with enough of the same players repeatedly that inter-game memory matters, not backstabbing and taking vengeance on those that backstabbed you in future games is the best way to win (see the repeated prisoner's dilemma in game theory for more)
    – Zags
    Jun 30, 2023 at 21:56
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The problem with backstabbing in a "best time to backstab" is that your ally might also backstab you or be expecting you to backstab.

I once backstabbed France when I was England. We could have won a two way victory. But I saw He was getting stronger much faster than me, so I backstabbed him and evened our strenghts. The problem was that now I totally lost credibility and was in danger of having to fight my former ally and the third player who was left. We ended up in a three way victory.

So to provide an answer to your question. I think that the best time for a backstab is when you can make it look like to everyone else that you were doing the right thing. And/or already have other allies upon who you can rely.

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At Wikiquotes here we can get a lesson from the master, which is...

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

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Good question! Here are my thoughts . . .

First and foremost, is the game being played in person? Second, is the game played with the same group of people? And lastly, do you intend to win the game?

These questions are important to answer before even deciding when and how to back-stab! I will explain each one.

Playing in person is very different from playing online or through mail. This is because the personalities and emotions of the players are more evident and intense. That being said, it is generally more difficult to play harshly in person. Therefore, an effective back-stab in person must be quick, efficient, deadly, and unrecoverable. This is to ensure that the victim does endure prolonged harm and frustration. After all, it is only a game! (Do not be a bully.)

Next, do you play with the same group of people? This is the most important question to ask yourself. Why? Well, Diplomacy is a game of reputation. Your reputation ultimately decides whether or not you will the next game, and the game to follow. Simply put, no one wants to ally with that one player who always back-stabs early or prematurely. Players want mature partners, who play to win, not ruin the game for others. That being said, never back-stab early or prematurely when playing with the same group of players. (You do not want to ruin your reputation. Always give a good impression!)

Lastly, are you playing to win? If you are not, then why bother back-stabbing? Back-stab for the win.

Those are my thoughts on how to approach the subject. I hope I was able to help you.

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The best time to "backstab" is at the end of a three way alliance.

Let's say Italy, Russia, and Turkey are allied against Austria Hungary. After that country is gone, two of the allies might gang up on the third. (Unless there are "personalities" involved, Italy and Turkey against Russia is the least likely.) In any event, the old schoolyard proverb is applicable: You don't want to be the odd man in a three way fight.

And if it is TWO backstabbers against one, you won't get nearly as much opprobrium, either alone, or both put together, as if either of you had backstabbed individually.

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Perhaps I'm jaded from online play but I have found that reputation seems to matter little online (in person it makes a big difference). I have literally been the victim of 1st turn lies and betrayals in every online game I've played. I believe I've had about a 3 to one ratio of unkept vs kept early move promises. But as far as can tell no one seems less likely to work with these players because of it. The reason is simple: they are all doing the same thing and expect that everyone is. So it seems everyone is backstabbing near constantly and the only consideration seems to be who can offer immediate payback. If you can't offer much payback (especially central powers early), you get carved up quick.

So I feel like online people play as if trust starts out at zero and stays there.

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If you play many games of diplomacy with enough of a recurring play group, the question of timing actually becomes one of "in which games to backstab?" Better yet, the question is "should you backstab?" That boils down to a question of whether you want to win or want to have friends after the game is over.

In either case, the relevant piece of research to look into is the Repeated Prisoner's Dilemma, as that is essentially what a series of games of Diplomacy games with the same playgroup boils down to. Tit-for-Tat is a highly effective strategy in such a situation. That is to say, don't ever backstab first; only backstab to punish others for backstabbing you in a previous game, and make it very clear that is why you betrayed them. In such a situation, you want to backstab in a way that will cause that player to lose the game, as the key to the strategy is to punish them for the harm their betrayal inflicted on you. Doing so also does not require backstabbing at all; conventionally attacking them in an alliance can be just as effective.

In addition to Tit-for-Tat being a highly successful strategy in terms of winning more games, it's also a highly successful strategy in terms of keeping friends. I have personally played by the credo of "I will never break a deal in Diplomacy and I hold everyone else to the same standard" (including but not limited to taking vengeance later on players who break deals with me later) for over about 15 years. In doing so, I have friendships I have made from playing Diplomacy rather than friendships I have lost.

If playing online or in a tournament (i.e. with people you will likely never interact with again), save a backstab for when it will win you the game. Solid alliances are hard to come by, and if you break a deal to gain a handful of supply centers, you have lost credibility with all other players.

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  • The strategy you describe as working for over 15 years is not "tit-for-tat" but a variant of "grim trigger", trust until betrayed, then defect always after.
    – Nij
    Jun 30, 2023 at 22:27
  • @Nij While you are technically correct, the conditional cooperation aspect of the strategy is what's relevant. I've edited it slightly so as to not mislead game theory novices
    – Zags
    Jul 2, 2023 at 19:17
  • @Nij Tit-for-Tat and Grim Trigger have similar power to induce cooperation (especially if it is public what strategy you are playing). Where the distinction matters is over the long-term. But with enough games, even Tit-for-Tat has issues due to the chance of a betrayal being perceived when one was not intended (i.e. noise in the repeated prisoner's dilemma). I decided to keep it to the game-theory basics here out of consideration for post length.
    – Zags
    Jul 2, 2023 at 19:28

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