Allan B Calhamer designed Diplomacy to be played as a one-off game. As with all board games, it was designed to be played by friends and family. I’m not sure how great an idea adding the motto that used published on a Dip box was: “Destroying friendships since 1959.” (Well, OK, I am pretty sure it was a great idea; nothing like piquing a potential buyers interest, I guess.)
Then, Diplomacy launched itself into being a game that was played by enough people around the world that scoring systems were introduced. And that’s when things changed for how Diplomacy was played, and not necessarily for the better.
When enough people start to play a game competitively, and the number of people playing gets large enough, people want to compare themselves with others, including those they haven’t played against. The way to do that is to introduce a scoring system to games.
The Calhamer Point System
Calhamer himself introduced a simple system. If you won a game of Diplomacy, you scored 1 point; everyone else scored nothing. If a game ended in a draw, then the people involved in the draw shared the point equally. So a 2-way draw scored 0.5 points for each player, and the others scored 0; a three way draw scored 0.33 points each and the other four players scored nothing.
Calhamer’s system was based on the outcome of a game of Diplomacy. The game was designed to be played until someone won outright. However, the rules have a second way to win the game: if all the surviving players agreed to end the game early, then they shared the draw equally.
Other people, however, decided that there were other ways of scoring a game of Diplomacy.
Objectives other than Winning
In his article Objectives Other Than Winning Calhamer answered these other methods of crediting players for performance in games. One of these systems is known as the ‘Strong Second’ system.
This was when games ended in a victory (what is known in the Dip Hobby as a ‘solo’). A game that ended with this result would see, in most scoring systems, with the winner scoring all the points in the game and everyone else scoring nothing.
Within the Hobby, however, the idea grew of comparing the end results on the number of supply centres held at the end of the game.
Calhamer’s article focuses only on one aspect of this idea: the ‘Strong Second’ philosophy. This has it that, when the game ends in a solo, the performance of the players who didn’t achieve the victory can be compared based on the number of supply centres they hold. Calhamer points out that there are problems with this.
In the rules of Diplomacy, the objective is very clear: you play to win. That means that you play to take control of 18 supply centres, which is the majority of SCs on the Dip board. If you achieve that result, you’ve won.
The only other objective in the rules is that the game ends in an agreed draw, as described above. As Calhamer says, this is seen as a secondary objective.
What Calhamer argues is that, when someone gets into a position where they could go on to win, the other players face a choice based on what they do about this. The ‘Strong Second’ philosophy changes the way the game is played.
If you play to the rules of the game, which some people minimise as being “Calhamer Diplomacy“, then you should play cooperatively with the other players to prevent the leader from winning. This is often known as forming a ‘Stop the Leader’, or STL, alliance; I like to call it forming a ‘Grand Alliance’. This is the idea behind Calhamer’s design.
If, however, the ‘Strong Second’ philosophy is applied, then players may well play to secure a better result by helping the potential victor and grabbing SCs for themselves. This is based on the idea that finishing on the second highest number of SCs and losing is better than the game ending in a draw.
Calhamer points out that this makes no sense. If someone wins the game, everyone else loses. A loss is a loss. There’s no difference between the players who lost. Someone has achieved the primary objective; everyone else has failed to prevent this from happening.
The ‘Strong Second’ system is an aberration. I would go further: it’s a perversion.
Supply Centre Count
However, the idea that SCs matter persisted. I’m not sure just how much influence the ‘Strong Second’ philosophy has on the game today. Certainly in my experience nobody gives it any real credit. But it introduced the pervasive idea that the number of SCs a player has at the end of a game that finishes in a draw matters.
Today, many scoring systems are based on a solo victor gaining all the points in a scored game and everyone else scoring zero. However, when a game ends in a draw, a lot of scoring systems feature some form of SC count to allocate points. This is called ‘Supply Centre Scoring’. (I’ll focus on the differences between SCS and ‘Draw Based Scoring’ – DBS – in a later post.)
The basic idea behind SCS is that players who end the game on a greater number of SCs have achieved a better result than those that finish on fewer SCs. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first being philosophical and the second being practical.
The philosophical idea is that the number of SCs you end the game on is a measure of success, or performance, in the game. So, in a game that ends in a 3-player draw with the surviving players ending on 16SCs, 13 SCs and 5 SCs, then they should be placed first, second and third respectively.
Some scoring systems will award points based on the positions these players achieved, others will allocate points based on a proportion of points. In the latter, for interest, the first player has achieved control of 47% of the available SCs, the second player has control of 38%, and the third player on 15%. Points awarded will reflect that percentage.
There are many variations of SCS systems, not all of them based purely on the percentage of points, and I’ll discuss some of these later. Here, I’m simply looking at the basic principles.
Practically, when playing in a tournament featuring a small number of games, Draw Based Scoring (DBS) doesn’t effectively differentiate between results. The vast majority of tournament games end in a draw. If you’re only playing four games in a tournament, then a lot of players will end the game on equal scores using DBS.
Because of this, SCS systems are more practical. While you may well draw every game you play, in these games you will score varying points if SCS is used. It more effectively differentiates between players, especially if the system used is more than simply awarding points based on simple SC count.
However, this is also a perversion of the rules and design of the game. As the rules state that a game ending in a draw results in all players involved in the draw share the points equally SC count should have no impact on the game.
However, it is also true that simply scoring Diplomacy games is an aberration. The game wasn’t designed to be scored. So does this matter?
Well, as Calhamer designed a scoring system, albeit a very simple one, based on games ending in a draw, the above-mentioned Calhamer Point System, and that this is a DBS system, then it would indicate that DBS is clearly in line with Calhamer’s thinking.
As soon as you start score Diplomacy, it changes the game. If you want to get the best result from the game, then you’d be stupid not to play to the scoring system in place, certainly in a tournament.
The scoring system used has an impact, then, on how players approach the game. I’ve mentioned how the ‘Strong Second’ philosophy affects how players play as the game approaches the end. With SCS or DBS scoring this also has an impact.
Under SCS systems, the end of the game can come down simply to being a grab for SCs. This is especially true when a tournament game may end before it finishes. By this, I mean that a game finishes when either it is won or a draw is agreed. In some tournaments, games have a set Game End Date (GED) because, without it, a game could go in far too long to make further games in a tournament tenable.
With DBS systems, games are often seen as less interesting. The suggestion is that it causes players to play for a draw and not try for the win, or that games fizzle out. At least, this idea goes, SCS scoring will keep players looking to make gains. I’m not convinced by this argument myself but the potential is certainly there.
The problem, then, is just how much you are prepared to put up with tournament play moving away from the game design. Given that tournament winners, especially (for some reason) FtF tournament winners, being celebrated as being ‘the best’ at Diplomacy, does it make sense that Tournament play can be so far from Standard play?