In Japanese martial arts, and other disciplines, there is a concept called Shuhari, which translates roughly as “obey, digress, separate” or, more loosely and in context, “learn the rules, question the rules, transcend the rules”. It is a continuous cycle that is the basis for expanding from the fundamentals to a higher level of ability, and usually returning to fundamentals again.
As applied to Diplomacy, I believe it applies just as well to players of varying skill levels. The serious player, the one who really wants to do well, will spend hours reading strategy and tactics articles, telling you specific details and rules of thumb, proverbs of a sort, that the diligent student will apply religiously. These are, of course, learned in a rather academic context, and while they prove effective, after some experience, the astute player will begin to wonder why certain openings work, and why others won’t. They try other openings themselves, they try radical tactics and diplomatic strategies, they create alliances that shouldn’t really work.
In doing so, the budding expert begins to see why certain rules are, and what they are good for, and when they are really applicable. Eventually, the player begins to flow freely, playing a game that is independent of any discernible tactics or strategy that were taken from a book or internet article. Perhaps they develop a few moves of their own that nobody else had really employed, or they begin startling other players with their adept play.
The curious thing about this last stage, Ri, is that it eventually cycles back to studying Shu again, but with new eyes. There are deeper and deeper meanings to the rules. Germany and Austria don’t go to war, and not just because it causes problems for them in 1902. English fleets in the English Channel aren’t just a problem because of France’s need to cover Bre. There are layers that are very situational, and which can only be appreciated with a high level of analyzed experience.
I think that’s the key point here, is that the experiences of each player must be analyzed. Many players pick up the game, play through, do poorly, pick up another game, play through, do poorly again, and never ask why they aren’t progressing. Some are too arrogant to even admit failure, blaming the poor play of the opposition when it is that player’s own poor positioning that led to their early demise. Once the individual tactics and strategies of the game are memorized, the real learning requires that the question “Why?” be asked ad nauseam, either from more experienced players, or by self-reflection and studying why the game went a certain way, where the turning point was, and how to sway it the next time. Only by assimilating this and then making such judgement calls in the live game rather than after the fact, by seeing the game for what it is, can real mastery be attained.
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