Geopolitics for Individuals

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at

I recently spent a month playing a board game called Diplomacy, and it turned out to be a surprisingly mind-broadening experience. Pretending to be the German Empire before the First World War, exchanging missives all day with the other “great powers” of that time, finalizing troop dispositions before the daily deadline, and then seeing everybody’s moves revealed at once, finding out who lied, who was betrayed, it’s all very dramatic and addictive. It took me a while to realize (rationalize?) why its hold over me was so persistent: it was because it was getting me to grow intellectually as only a few other games have done in my life. Chess taught me to think “a few moves ahead” past the immediate exigencies of any situation. Poker taught me to manage risk when the future is uncertain. Diplomacy is starting to teach me to extend these ideas past the “kiddie pool” of games where you’re playing against coherent opponents. It repeatedly exposes one, like a school of hard knocks, to stable situations that are rendered unstable by the entrance of a new player.

There’s a faint echo of this effect in the chess-like two-player game of Go.

Go position

“Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double-entry accounting.” — Trevanian

Learning Go, you repeatedly find yourself in situations that seemed stable, where you were holding your own, that are thrown into disarray by distant parts of the board.

This screenshot from yet another “game” — the single-player Conway’s Game of Life — gives a flavor for this feeling:


Notice how the 2×2 squares are stable until some distant turbulence licks at them and cracks them open. You can even imagine you’re looking at an ecosystem, with the squares as alien flora grazed on by various fauna. It seems like a fairly obvious idea, something we’re used to seeing all around us, but this dynamic is poorly explored in popular culture, which emphasizes either closed worlds and stable rules, or occasionally a single radical shift.

A successor to philosophy

Playing Diplomacy allowed me to verbalize much of what I have liked about Ribbonfarm over the years. It’s been hard to describe to my friends both this site and, this year, my posts on it. One common question I repeatedly get is, “So, it’s philosophy, right?” At which point I squirm and go, “kinda, but..” Playing Diplomacy, I finally have an answer that satisfies me. Philosophy is a kinda debased word, which has broadened over the millenia to mean any of:

  • What people do in philosophy departments and conferences, both because of its memetic appeal, and because of the incentives to “publish or perish”.
  • Scholarship of past philosophy.
  • A manner of debate, a “gladiatorial sport”.
  • Finding broad generalizations.
  • Making sense of the world, even in regimes allowing less rigor than science. Any sort of interdisciplinary thinking.
  • Helping people cope with changes to the meanings of words.
  • Transcending the here and now, focusing on the long-term rather than the short-term.
  • Deciding what to want.
  • Trying not to change, in some deep way, as things happen to us.

Ribbonfarm tends towards the lower end of this list, and I think a far better one-word characterization of it is geopolitics. We’re doing explorations of geopolitics here, simultaneously learning and teaching it to each other.

Philosophy has always seemed abstract and removed from the day-to-day, and “geopolitics” at first doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. The word conjures up kings and presidents, nation states and empires. Why should we care, except for fantasies and escapism? While geopolitics used to be a domain of the few, as they used the many as pawns, things have been gradually changing since the industrial revolution. An approximate date that common people needed to gradually start caring about geopolitics might be around 1588, the year the East India Company was founded by a group of London merchants. It grew to become an empire.

Closer to the present, the 19th century was the century of Bismarck, but it was also the century of Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and (barely) of Dale Carnegie. Reading Henry Ford’s excellent autobiography last year brought up for me the same question, “is this philosophy?” If so, what is Henry Ford doing practising philosophy? But when I switch the question to, “is this geopolitics?” the answer becomes clear: yes it is, and it makes sense that it is, because Henry Ford was a powerful man. Of course he had to care about geopolitics; it affected him on a daily basis.

The story of our modern world is a story of the proliferation of powerful men and women. As technologies come and go, and as the cost of many erstwhile luxuries have fallen, individual capabilities have risen in many areas. It may be just as hard to get a job, or to buy a house, or to live in a good school district, but we’ve grown used to the idea that actors or chess players can lead nations. Garry Kasparov feels far less remarkable today than Henry Ford did a century ago, and students can dream of sending rockets into space.

This dynamic is not restricted to just outcomes like Kasparov and Elon Musk. If everybody’s capabilities are growing, there’s a “trickle down” benefit to understanding geopolitics for every man and woman. It’s no longer sufficient for us to just know what the rules are and to abide by them, we have to question why they are as they are. Good fences make for good neighbors only until the day one of your neighbors can roll up the entire neighborhood with a tank.

With that lengthy build-up out of the way, I present three lessons from my first game of Diplomacy.

1. Alliances are precious.

When I first discovered Diplomacy it was through this article in Grantland magazine which made it seem totally cut-throat. As I immersed myself in playing it, though, it quickly became clear that betrayal was almost always a bad idea. Even though the game allows you to lie, lies have a cost and they impose a drag that affects your ability to navigate changing circumstances. I repeatedly encountered quotes like these:

“Novice players, urged on by the rulebook introduction, usually believe that the winner will be the player who lies, cheats, and backstabs most effectively. An expert player rarely lies. When he agrees to an alliance of some kind he usually abides by the agreement. When he backstabs an ally, he plans it so as to virtually destroy the country, not merely to gain a few centers.” — Diplomacy wiki

“If you as Turkey can influence the move of one French or English unit, it could mean the difference between a win and a draw many moves hence.” — Diplomacy wiki

The lesson here: In a world where everyone can go off and do what they want, the most precious commodity is organization. It may not be worth fighting your neighbor if it slows down your ability to compete with some distant challenger.

2. Overcommunicating is a matter of life and death.


In my Diplomacy game I quickly reached shallow agreements with two neighbors on opposing sides. On one side (with Austria in orange) we stopped talking at that point and proceeded to form our own plans. On the other side (with France in blue), however, agreement was harder to arrive at, and an early miscommunication made us both slightly wary. As a result, we ended up having to talk a lot more to maintain our agreement. We started showing each other that we were anticipating this or that move of treachery, then proactively showing how we considered this move against the other but it doesn’t quite work. Over time we started to gain respect for each other. We started sharing our troop dispositions before they were finalized, even going so far as to ask each other to look for errors in them. What started out as a tricky alliance turned stronger than competing ones. As empathy for each other’s goals grew, the prospect of betraying France gradually grew psychologically more stressful and painful. Eventually Germany and France rolled across Austria together.

The lesson here: dynamic equilibrium may trump static equilibrium, because there’s less chance of going lazy and not paying attention when things start to change. (A secondary lesson: it’s harder to invade countries the more you talk to them. But in the real world you interpose intermediaries that you can replace at will to “maintain your edge”..)

3. Watch out for signs that you want different things.

“Watch out for the player who wants to win solo.” — old Diplomacy wisdom

Germany’s conversations with France above was more successful in-game than in the real world at the time. This is partly because the game is far simpler than real life; the options available to either side are tractable for the other to think through. But the bigger difference lies not in what the sides can do as what they want to do. In the game there was no history before 1900, so it was as if both countries were being led by aliens from space. In the real world, of course, 1900 was preceded by 1899, and both countries were captured by past historical grievances. A better example to compare is the Munich Agreement of 1938, before a different World War, when strenuous arguments were presumably brought to bear to avoid German belligerence. But there’s no point trying to convince someone with game theory if they are fundamentally unhappy with their easy options, if they’re a “rogue state” rather than a “rational” player.

Orson Scott Card once described a hierarchy for aliens, organized by the difficulty of avoiding warfare with them. It starts with aliens who are easy to communicate with, who share some values at least recognizably akin to our own. But at the opposite end of the spectrum are the aliens so foreign that no meaningful communication is possible. Even without going to such extremes, history is replete with examples of groups choosing to be vanquished in battle rather than to peacefully submit. Usually because they’re anchored on some desired outcome, some aspect of a lost past that they can’t bear to lose, which makes the likely future unacceptable. This becomes an increasingly likely possibility in times of change, such as when an economy loses a bunch of jobs, or when a city sees a huge influx of wealth.

Putting these together, here’s what it takes to organize in an alliance when everybody is constantly inundated with temptations to cheat:

a) Players who want similar things.

b) Players with similar “fanout” of options. As the Mahabharata says, “friendship is for equals”.

c) Players who are fluent at assessing each other’s options, who have a willingness to get into each other’s business, and to tell each other what to do.

d) A willingness to be transparent and to make one’s incentives explicit. Only so far as they can be worked out from the outside, of course. You don’t want to give away information that others around you don’t have.

e) Resistance to the sirens of static equilibrium, as depicted by oaths, rules, promises, etc. Stick to dynamic equilibrium that requires constant tending to preserve.

f) Predictable circumstances. If your neighbors grow less predictable, it behooves you to snoop on them more to keep them in line. See b) above.


Geopolitics is a valuable way to look at the world when: a) there are many empowered actors with lots of options; b) the actors are heterogeneous, with wildly varying capabilities that require individual analysis; and c) the space of possibilities is volatile with lots of possibilities for both great reward and great losses. In such situations it’s worth seeing the infinite game of life as “finite games all the way up”, stacked to the heavens. (When is a finite game not a finite game? Now you know.) It seems pretty clear that we’re in such a situation in the world today. As we try to navigate it, let’s retire the term “philosophy” and focus just on geopolitics. So far, my favorite dictums to keep in mind have been:

  • Anticipate what others will do; be hard to anticipate.
  • Negotiations are never final; trust but verify.
  • When somebody wants to and can, they will. (With apologies to Capt. Ed Murphy.)

But the learning continues. These lessons don’t have to be learned through games, but gaining fluency with them requires repeated practice, which a game is particularly well-equipped to provide.

About Kartik Agaram

Kartik Agaram is a programmer based in the Bay Area working on a grand unified theory of software literacy. His ribbonfarm posts explore organizational dysfunction.


  1. I can’t recall where I read it, I think it was Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but there’s a lot of research on questions like whether “enemy of my enemy is my friend” … i.e. whether simplistic calculi actually work.

    This also reminds me of recent middle-east politics map of who hates whom.

    At an individual level, I’ve found it useful, on occasion, to make out an explicit social graph of my immediate neighborhood, with edges being annotated with “who hates whom” (a dynamic state of course, not static, unless it is truly ideological).

  2. Interesting post. I wonder if you have a citation for the quote from the Mahabharata “equality is for equals”? (Google turned up nothing)
    I’m interested to look into it further (context, etc.).

  3. I was very happy to see you mention Go.

    Playing several dozen games of Go over the past two years completely changed the way that I see the world. While I have not played Diplomacy, my wife and I are Eurogame fanatics, so I’m sure I will get to it eventually.

    Here are the big things that I learned from Go:

    1. Direct confrontation is often necessary, but it’s often not.
    2. Outgrowing your opponent sometimes means building your own strengths while ignoring (at least on the surface) your opponent’s strengths.
    3. Some situations are lost. Putting more resources into them only increases the loss.
    4. Overinvesting in smaller battles (this might be like countries putting everything on the line in one battle, as you mentioned above) can cause you to lose the global war.

    I learned much more, but I’ll try to blog about it sometime.

    Great post! Thanks!

  4. Very helpful … I started playing Diplomacy years ago and internalized the lessons you summarized well; I just hadn’t thought of it as personal geopolitics. Whenever I explain Diplomacy to people I restate your first lesson (“alliances are precious”) a little more dramatically and say that in a game in which you can lie, cheat and betray, you win by doing none of those things. Your perceived integrity turns out to be the greatest asset there is.

  5. Ah, Diplomacy. I can echo the sentiment that betrayal is costly. I recall a game many years ago, when I was trying to introduce it to a circle of law school friends who wanted something more challenging than Risk. I betrayed a newcomer in the early rounds of the game. He was utterly shocked because this was so contrary to my real-life persona. The other players colluded to punish me, not necessarily because it served their interests in the game but because they wished to teach a lesson about strategy in general. It was a very meta-game approach. Suffice it to say that Diplomacy is like crack to people who think like lawyers.