What is online Diplomacy’s place?

The Diplomacy Hobby has a varied set of formats. There are two general formats: face-to-face and remote Diplomacy. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, was the appearance of a third format, virtual FTF play.

Face-to-face Diplomacy is the way the game was designed to be played. Well, one ‘sub-format’ (for want of a better word), anyway. FTF games could be a one-off game for fun, part of a league, or part of a tournament. Of these, only the one-off game is actually played the way Dip was designed to be played. Because the other two formats involve some kind of scoring, and therefore the games are linked, they’re variants of Diplomacy.

Remote play is certainly a variant. Remote play was originally in the form of Postal, or Play-by-Mail (PBM), Diplomacy. This has all-but disappeared now, with the exception of some throwback games.

Effectively, PBM Dip was on the way out when email was invented. Play-by-Email (PBEM) games could be quicker, and they didn’t rely on zine publication schedules. With PBM Dip, you would probably have to issue orders for multiple phases in one go, whether this was orders for the movement phase and provisional orders for retreats and builds phase, or vice versa. Email games didn’t need to rely on this.

Then came the Dip ‘Judges’, programmes which allowed orders to be entered and an adjudication would be produced. This meant, eventually, that a human GM wasn’t needed; “eventually” because it took some time for the bugs to be ironed out.

The Judges were then adapted to be incorporated within online sites, and Webplay emerged. If you’ve read some of the posts I’ve made on webDiplomacy or Playdiplomacy, or other sites, you’ve read about Webplay.

Then there came the Dip apps. If you’ve read any posts I’ve discussed apps in, then you know I personally find these disappointing. I think we all appreciate Diplomacy on the go, but these apps leave me feeling that something is missing. Probably the community feel that the websites have, I think.

When Covid-19 hit, FTF tournaments became ridiculously dangerous to hold. In saying this, I’m making a judgement, of course, about how dangerous contracting Covid-19 is. Having seen my partner die after she contracted Covid, not from the original illness but from complications, I think I can speak about this, rather than the idiots who seem to have believed the fantasy of Covid being some sort of conspiracy or who have absolutely no concept of community rights.

Anyway, Covid forced FTF players to adapt and Virtual Face-to-Face (VFTF) play emerged. The most impressive variants involved social webcam software combined with Webplay platforms. Backstabbr is the most useful platform for this, simply because it has a very accessible sandbox feature.

It’s difficult to discuss VFTF Dip properly simply because it is so new. I’d say, however, that the format has an immense potential. While nothing can truly replace FTF Dip, VFTF Dip can increase tournament and league participation hugely. Players can access the events without having to find longer periods of time and money to do so. Attending a VFTF tournament, for instance, might mean players giving up a weekend but, if they don’t need to pay for travel and they certainly don’t have to give up annual leave! If you’re not excited by VFTF, why not?

One reason people may not be fully behind VFTF Dip is that it could well lead to the lessening of the ‘community’ feel of the Dip Hobby. Doug Kent is a great advocate for FTF Dip. He is the editor of the longest running and most respected Diplomacy zine, Diplomacy World. He gave his opinion of online Diplomacy, specifically Webplay, in a Diplomacy Games podcast. Here he said that Webplay is too anonymous; that with the FTF Hobby there is a great community feel: you know the people with whom you’re playing. Webplay is too anonymous, he feels, with usernames rather than real names.

I get this but I think this is a very one-dimensional view of Webplay. Yes, players use anonymous names, as they do with every online game. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to know the people behind these names. Yes, you don’t get to share a drink and time with them after a game, but with the website’s Forum, you can get to know people pretty well. Of course, if you don’t take part in the Forum, then you’re going to struggle with this aspect.

Doug Kent’s opinion of might be used as an example of how snobbish attitude the older, FTF Hobby has about Webplay. I’m not saying Kent is a snob: how don’t know him well enough to say that, and what I do know about him suggests this isn’t the case. His position on Webplay isn’t based on the weaknesses of Webplay but on his love of the community of the FTF Hobby. Postal Dip managed to keep something of that community feel, despite being a remote format, because players tended to use their real names (except when they were cheating, of course).

But the FTF Hobby does have a snobbish attitude at times. It is often held up as being the superior format. The World Diplomacy Championships are, understandably, seen as being the height of Diplomacy play. If you’re named the World Diplomacy Champion that has a great amount of credit. The truth is, though, that FTF play and Webplay are different forms of the game.

Some people believe that Webplay’s place is to introduce people to Diplomacy, a Dip nursery, if you like. Find the game online, learn the game, and then move up to FTF play. There is even the feeling that Webplay isn’t as skilled as FTF play. Again, though, this shows a lack of understanding of the differences between the formats.

In his book The Game of Diplomacy, Richard Sharp said that he believed Postal Dip featured superior play to FTF Dip. This, he says, is because in the PBM variant players have the time to consider their play more closely. There isn’t the short period of time between phases that there are in FTF Dip. This idea, that players have more time to consider their play more carefully, is also true of Webplay. Deadlines aren’t as long as they were in PBM Dip, but they’re certainly long enough to give players this period of consideration.

I’m not sure that this means Webplay has superior play; in fact, in the majority of cases, I’m convinced it doesn’t! One of the problems with Webplay is that it is so easy to quit the game when things go wrong. Another is that it is easy to find players who don’t really understand what the game is about. I’d say that a lot of games on Dip websites feature pretty poor play. That, however, is the case with any online game. If you’ve ever played Poker online, or Chess, or any game, you’ll recognise this. A large number of people are simply experimenting with the game.

However, I think I can confidently say that the better players on the websites are as good a set of players as the best FTF players. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the better Webplayers would do as well in FTF play because the formats are notably different. In the same way, I’d suggest that the better FTF players wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete against the better Webplayers. Play in one format doesn’t necessarily translate to others.

Given this, which is – of course – my opinion, I disagree that the place of Webplay is to be a nursery for FTF play. There is an increasing number of Webplayers taking part in FTF play, which is great: the more players participate in different formats the greater the understanding of Diplomacy in its many a varied formats. And I think that VFTF Dip will probably increase this crossover. I also know that the Online Diplomacy Championships of the recent past, hosted by both Playdiplomacy and webDiplomacy, encouraged some FTF players to participate.

However, Webplay is a successful format on its own. More people have played Diplomacy on the websites than play FTF Dip. Many more games are played online than FTF. Size, though, doesn’t mean much.

What is more important is that Webplay has a degree of consistency with some of its players. There are people who play the vast majority of their games online, which means that it is established as a stand alone format. It doesn’t rely on FTF play, in the same way that the FTF Hobby doesn’t rely on the Webplay Hobby.

I would encourage anyone to try the different formats of the Dip Hobby rather than limiting yourself to one format. I guess we all have a preferred format in which to play Dip, but if you want to get a better understanding of the game, then playing in as many different formats as you can is the way to go.

Published by Mal Arky

I'm a Diplomacy nut... if you haven't guessed. I write about the game Diplomacy, mainly as played online on websites, such as Playdiplomacy, webDiplomacy and Backstabbr. I write books on Diplomacy, too. First one to be published soon!

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