It’s spring, 1902. I receive a text. It’s France, thank God. My Russian army is cornered by a four-front assault from England, Germany, the Ottoman Turks, and finally, cruelly, Austria-Hungary, a nation I believed to be my ally and whose leader had just video-called me to discuss our ongoing alliance face-to-face. It was all a ruse. Unbeknownst to me, they had been organizing a joint assault behind my back to take me off the map, and now, it was working. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. After all, we’re playing a Diplomacy tournament through an app called Backstabbr.
I tell France the whole story. They’re under the command of three-time Diplomacy world champion Andrew Goff, 42. If anyone can help me, he can. Goff inquires about the terms of my (prior) alliance with Austria-Hungary before he implores me to negotiate individually with my attackers. He suggests moves and promises I could make to turn them against one another. “Keep talking,” he tells me. It’s my only choice.
Easy for him to say. Goff is cruising toward victory as the French, chatting affably with everyone, making subtle deployments against Germany, and maintaining steadfast alliances with two of his neighbors—one of whom will support Goff with their final, dying moves. I take the champion’s advice. I focus on flipping the Ottoman Turks to my side, but as I do, I keep trying to work out Goff’s winning formula. Why is he helping me?
This is the gaming world’s greatest contest of deception and duplicity, but so far as I can tell, Goff only carries two weapons: congeniality, and the truth.
Diplomacy has carried a prestigious reputation among board games since its creation in the 1950s. It counts JFK and Henry Kissinger among its historical enthusiasts, and it’s so beloved today it has its own fan magazine. The premise of this strategy game is simple: Up to seven players control a pre-WWI nation and compete for conquest of Europe. There are two types of pieces—armies and navies—which can do three things: move, hold still, or support another piece to move or hold. You deploy your forces across the board and contest for the map’s 34 special territories, called supply centers. Occupying these allows you to build more armies and navies, which increases your capability each turn.
Everyone takes their turn at the same time in Diplomacy. But the real action happens in between turns, when players negotiate with each other to determine what tactics they will take.
For example, if during a turn Goff and I both try to move into Norway with a single army and no support, our forces will cancel one another out and we’ll both have to retreat. But if during the prior round of negotiations, Goff had convinced another country’s navy to support his army, their sum forces would defeat mine and Goff would prevail. There is no random chance in Diplomacy. You need to croone, cajole, and collude with other players to achieve your ends. You either win outright by occupying more than half of the game’s supply centers (top-level players call such a win ‘a solo’), or win jointly with a few other players in a negotiated tie, after discussions calcify and the board stagnates. Most Diplomacy games end in a tie.
For its emphasis on interpersonal dealings, Diplomacy has become notorious as “the game that ruins friendships.” That’s because there are no rules requiring anyone to be honest during negotiations. Players can tell bald-faced lies, forge and fracture alliances, and strike and counter-strike game-changing deals. Fans have leaned into the game’s sinister reputation. Today you can play in public Diplomacy tournaments like The Boston Massacre and Carnage Tournament, where players so frequently betray each other the community has developed a shorthand for the act: a stab (for “backstab”). Every year, a player at the Diplomacy world championship wins the coveted “Golden Blade Award,” for the best stab of the tournament.
Yet sitting across the board from Andrew Goff, considered the greatest Diplomacy player in the world, it seems you’re neither facing the world’s best liar, nor the ultimate snake in the grass. After our game at the long-running Diplomacy tournament DixieCon (where he won not just our game, but every game he played in), I asked Goff about any major falsehoods or betrayals that helped him in his victories. He paused to think, then said in his soft-spoken way: “Well, there may have been a few deceptive omissions on my part but, no, I didn’t tell a single outright lie the entire tournament.”
Goff doesn’t seem to take a ruthless or mendacious approach to the game. Rather, he treats his relationships with other players like he’s a campaigning politician. He’s careful, considered, and—on his face, at least—always well intentioned. He says Diplomacy isn’t about twisting arms to gain what he wants now; it’s about building diplomatic capital he can leverage or cash in further in the game. “Diplomacy is ultimately about building trust in an environment that encourages you not to trust anyone,” he says.
At the time of our interview, Goff is residing in the charming country town of Benalla, Australia, two hours north of Melbourne. As a business strategist at linguistics startup Sleigh Group, his day job combines strategy and communication, natural for someone who’s amassed decades of high-level Diplomacy play.
Goff played his first Diplomacy game with high-school friends on a rainy day in 1992, when he was 14. He competed in his first tournament two years later, but it didn’t go well. “I walked in thinking I was a pretty good Diplomacy player, and walked out thinking: ‘No, I am not,’” he says. “I had a lot to learn.”
Goff says in those days he was a cockier player, charging his way through games with a stubborn, all-out-attack style of negotiation. “I would either win completely or fail spectacularly, and it was usually the latter,” he says. “I think my reputation back then was that I was either on your side or I was going to nuke your game.”
Goff says his more relational strategy developed as he matured. He realized, he says, that lying in Diplomacy is usually counterproductive, especially when used for immediate or short-term gains. Double-crossing someone might help you build another navy or shore up a front, but the moment you’re exposed as a traitor, you will struggle to build beneficial, trustworthy, and information-rich alliances with other players.
Perhaps this is dubious coming from Goff, someone who might be perceived as a master manipulator, but Siobhan Nolen, president of the North American Diplomacy Federation, aligns with the champion’s reasoning. She says despite Diplomacy’s notoriety, most of the world’s elite players eschew lies during games. Reputations linger at global tournaments. “If you’re not trustworthy, then nobody’s going to want to work with you,” she says. “You can be the best player in this game, with all the right tactics, but if no one wants to work with you, you can't win. Top level players pick their moments to be ruthless.”
DixieCon organizer David Hood agrees, but he says Goff’s style is remarkably convivial even compared to his most competitive peers. According to Hood, many successful Diplomacy players have assertive and commanding styles of play, and strong tendencies to whip out Golden Blade-worthy stabs, but not Goff. “[He] is on the far side of the spectrum of aggressiveness. He’s sort of Mr. Reasonable and Mr. Rational,” Hood says.
Nevertheless, by his own admission, Goff can become a ruthless liar if he sees an irresistible advantage in the outcome. “I’m no paragon of moral perfection,” he laughs. “At elite-level play you see a lot of subtle alliances, but the threat of a stab is often much more powerful than an actual stab.”
Goff’s top rival, two-time world champion Doug Moore, says Goff’s measure and composure set him apart from other elites. He’s not reactive; he’s responsive. “He doesn’t yell, he almost never has to lie, and he rarely has to threaten,” Moore says. “Rather, he listens. It is his superpower.”
Moore explains a great Diplomacy player must excel at three skills. First, they have to be a wizard in short-term tactics, able to chain clever turn-by-turn moves. Second, they must master long-term strategy, and position units in a way that both anticipates dangers and allows opportunities. Finally, great players must be high-caliber diplomats. “Can you persuade people to do what you want? Or can you confuse things so other players make mistakes?” Moore asks.
Moore says Goff is astounding in his tactical and strategic approaches (every Diplomacy expert I spoke to expressed awe at Goff’s foresight), but Goff’s master ability is the name of the game: diplomacy. To Moore, Goff provokes his opponents to share—or overshare—their plans with a combination of his genuine kindness and innocent-seeming open-ended questions: What is your plan to work with me? What’s the plan long-term? What will we do together next turn? The answers to these questions often expose potential threats to Goff’s endgame, so Goff heads those off accordingly. Likewise, Goff’s diplomatic approach nudges his allies toward committing to a plan, which gives Goff more insight into the mechanisms at work behind the scenes. The game becomes more predictable, and thus, more manipulable. “When you’re working with Andrew, you know he almost always keeps his promises,” Moore says. “You’ll find you want to follow through with a plan you created at his behest... it’s very disarming.” By the time you know how to stop Goff, he’s already laid the groundwork to hinder you.
It’s clear Goff leans into his affability. He sees the value in being someone opponents want to work with. Yet I wonder how much of his manner in a game of Diplomacy is a calculated adaptation of his real-life persona. Would he even admit if it was?
But his rivals say Goff—or Goffe (“Goff-ey”), as he’s known in tournament circles—remains friendly even after the game wraps. He lingers in postgame chats, discussing the nuances that shaped the battle with his opponents, and dispensing advice to new players. Is it all for the sake of future diplomatic capital?
I suggest to Goff that his amiability might be another means to an end: more Diplomacy glory. He laughs.
When I relay Moore’s assessment that Goff builds his success on provocative genuity, Goff first insists Moore is the true best player in the world, but then considers the evaluation. He agrees in principle, but offers some clarification. “This may sound counterintuitive, but I usually make deals where the other person gains slightly more than I do.” By itself, he admits such a deal would make for a poor strategy, “but if I’m making three of those agreements, I have the diplomatic capital. Everyone is working with me, and not with each other.”
In our game, Goff was the first player to speak, initiating the conversation before our group had even started playing. He broke the ice by introducing himself to all the players, beginning private chats, and making small talk. Goff’s not being overtly disingenuous, but he admits “often the negotiations start before the actual negotiations start.” Indeed, after the game, he explained: “I started feeling the players out as soon as the board was announced. A lot of it is just banter, but banter can give you a sense of who people are and what their motivations might be.”
In our game, Goff says his banter provided two key pieces of information: 1) Germany, who was guarded and aggressive in negotiations, was difficult to trust, and a likely candidate to attack him early. 2) Italy, on the other hand, was agreeable and receptive, so probably worth joining in a long-term alliance. “You’d be surprised how often people pick their allies not on some immediate tactical concern, but on the person they’d like to talk to for the next six hours,” he says.
Goff’s genuineness has a puppetry-esque effect, says Melissa Call, another tournament player and one of Goff’s oldest friends in the hobby. “He wants everyone on the board to feel comfortable with him,” she says, to the point where Goff will even suggest moves to other players. Of course, Call admits you might eventually find those moves “were not necessarily in your best interest.” Goff’s stabbed you without touching the knife.
Even Goff’s in-game tactics can disguise his long-term ends. In our game he made the unusual move to defer building additional armies and navies after capturing a supply depot, opting to grow his forces later instead. It seems this was a quintessential Goffe move: Delay an escalation, assuage his allies, and deflect attention from his opponents. Goff admits the strategy is misleading, but he avoids the word “lie.” To him, this is a “deliberate deception.”
Sometimes in Diplomacy, losing players can pick the terms of their defeat. If you’re being attacked on multiple fronts, you can decide which front to defend, in effect choosing which of your opponents capture your supply center. Siobhan Nolen says Goff’s attitude often makes him the beneficiary of such circumstances. “It hurts less to lose against somebody like Andrew,” she says.
After I lose against Goff, in which the surprise assault forces me to retreat while he pushes for territory as far as the Balkans, the two of us debrief. Naturally, I find myself revealing more than he does. I allude to my poor performance as Russia, but Goff stops me. He points out how several of my moves surprised and foiled my invaders, even as I withdrew. He says my negotiations and strategy ultimately turned my attackers against each other, so when I was left with just one supply center, I was able to win back a second and position myself to take a third as the game ended. “Even if it was for nothing, there’s strength in being able to stick it out, keep talking, and search for ways to improve your position,” Goff tells me. “You’ll get a reputation that will make tournament players think twice about attacking you next time. You should be proud.”
And I was. We finished talking (or, in light of future games, perhaps negotiating?) and I thought to myself: Yes, I’d like to lose to this guy again.
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