The Grantland Discussions: A Clash of Styles

One of the reasons Diplomacy is so successful is that it is easily adapted to playing the game in very different ways. Designed to be played face-to-face, it has been played by mail, by email, on websites, on apps, on forums and, most recently, in the virtual FTF form. The rules around deadlines need to be changed to fit these various formats but the standard rules remain the same.

As the Hobby has grown and evolved, it has moved away from the FTF game it was designed to be. That’s not automatically a bad thing. The fact that it was quickly adapted to postal play was one of the reasons it became the success it has become.

It’s difficult to play a game of Diplomacy FTF outside of organised events, such as tournaments and conventions. Local diplomacy organisations have developed, with varying degrees of success, but as a game between family and friends, Diplomacy loses out to more ‘fun’ games.

An FTF game can take anywhere between 3 and 10 hours to be played. That’s a lot of time. Compare this time commitment to that needed with a lot of other board games and you’ll see why it is tough. And, if you’re unlucky (or not very good) you’ll find yourself eliminated early on. There’s not much fun to be had watching other people playing a game while you amuse yourself building towers of Monster Munch.

There’s also not very much happening on the board in all this time. The real game takes place off the board, in the small gatherings of players who disappear to discuss strategy and shout at each other. When something happens on the board, once every 15 minutes or so, then things get exciting. So you’ve got to want to play a game in which you’re going to actively take part in talking about what might happen within the next quarter of an hour.

It’s also a big chunk of time to invest for the game to peter out in a draw – which is the majority of game outcomes – or to be stabbed by your ally and see your chances disappear. You can see why people get so emotionally invested in the game.

it isn’t surprising, then, that the majority of games are not played face-to-face, or even in-person. The virtual FTF format is just as exhausting, perhaps even more so. At least FTF you can simply ask for a brief break in the game while you go pee; in the vFTF format, being AFK is something that could well lead to you missing something. Get yourself that Stadium Buddy!

FTF Diplomacy is widely held to be the highest form of the game, rightly or wrongly. The winner of the Diplomacy World Championship is held to be the best player in the Hobby at that time. I don’t think this is necessarily the case, personally: they’re someone who won one tournament, out of the many tournaments played around the world. Given that a lot of Dipmeisters may not even have been represented at that event, I think it’s a stretch.

Still, I get it. This is the way with any sporting event, after all. As I’m writing this, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar (I’m not going to comment about this fact) and the eventual winners will be seen as the best side in the world until the next tournament in 2026. It could be that this is the one tournament where everything comes together for that one team… and that they’ll show themselves as much less than the World Champions in other games. Having completed the group stage of the World Cup, no team has yet been good enough to beat every other team they’ve come up against.

There are lots of good Diplomacy players who won’t play in an FTF tournament at all. Does that make them less of a player than those that do? It doesn’t; it simply means they haven’t been tested against everyone. A World Diplomacy Champion can simply boast that they hold that title. Yes, they’ll be a great player – but they can’t say they’re the best Diplomacy player in the world at every type of play. Perhaps they’re hopeless at playing online? Who knows? And the winner of the Online Diplomacy Championship can boast that they may well be the best online Diplomacy player (at least until the next tournament) but not that they’re absolutely the best Diplomacy player in the world.

In his article “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds” David Hill interviewed some of the competitors at the 2014 WDC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His article raised a number of interesting talking points, which is why I’m using the article as the starting point for this series of posts. For this post, I want to look at the clash of styles between FTF tournament Diplomacy and others.

One of the Diplominati that Hill interviewed was Edi Birsan. Edi has been around since the start, pretty much. It seems he got into the game because his therapist gave him a Diplomacy game in 1966. Edi’s route into the Hobby was via Postal Diplomacy or Play-By-Mail (PBM) games. Still, he’s managed to enter numerous FTF tournaments.

For Edi, the transition from PBM to FTF Diplomacy doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem. I’m sure that there are plenty of players out there who have managed to cross the gulf in format with equal success. After all, PBM Diplomacy was the way most Dip games were played… and the players in that era tended to play both ways, at least the top FTF players did.

However, given the number of PBM games played – a huge number – compared to the smaller number of FTF games, I have to speculate that there will have been a lot of PBM players who didn’t turn up at FTF events.

There is a world of difference between FTF tournament games and other ways to play. Some of it is expectations. FTF players like talking. Siobhan Nolen pointed this out in her interview with Hill:

“This is a kind of alpha. It attracts very intelligent people. It attracts extroverted people. If you’re introverted and won’t put yourself out there, it won’t work out for you. It attracts people who like to talk. If you don’t like to talk, this game’s over pretty quickly for you.”

Edi Birsan recounted a story to Hill about this. He was playing in an email game, which had been organised to pit the best PBEM players against the best FTF players. Edi had received an email from another player (presumably someone from the email community) who had sent a message containing the phrase: “I do not accept your terms.” I’m guessing there must have been more to that email, but this was obviously the bit that Birsan wanted to do something about.

Edi then did something that you wouldn’t find in the PBEM community: he called the player. On the phone. He actually tried to talk to them. He’d started by saying he wanted to talk to them about the email. The answer was pretty short: “No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Edi asked.

“I can’t believe you called me on the phone! You can’t do that!”

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years!”

“I’ve been playing Diplomacy for over three years and I’ve never once received a phone call or even talked to another player.”

“Are you serious?”

“Don’t ever call me again.”

There’s the difference. Edi expected to be able to talk the issue through; the PBEM player couldn’t imagine talking about the game.

This gulf still exists today. On Playdiplomacy they even have a rule out-and-out banning players in some games from communicating in any way other than through the game. It should be pointed out that the game mechanisms allow players to communicate in the game itself. It should also be pointed out that this rule is to prevent cheating, specifically metagaming, where players team up to work together simply because they know each other, as well as to prevent information being shared in games where there are restrictions on what should be available. It’s not there to prevent communication per se.

Nolen explains what FTF games are like:

“Diplomacy is an incredibly uncomfortable game. Diplomacy is intense and uncomfortable and unsettling. There’s no two ways about it.”

It’s the FTF element. There’s something awkward about stabbing someone in-person that just isn’t there when you’re playing remotely. Playing remotely, you’re in your own little bubble, protected by a level of anonymity, where you can simply write: “I do not accept your terms,” and leave it there. You’re not confronted by an exasperated person. FTF play brings an immediacy to the game that isn’t there when you’re playing remotely.

There’s also a different level of experience. Many FTF players have been playing for a long time. Compare Edi’s experience – 30 years – to the rather pompous: “I’ve been playing Diplomacy for three years…” of the PBEM player.

I’ve been trying to imagine what I’d say if, when playing a game online, out of the blue I got a phone call from someone in the game. How would I react? What I should do is report it, but I wouldn’t. Yes, the site’s rules say that the only communication should be in the game, but I don’t cheat and, unless some suggestion was made about cheating I wouldn’t have anything on my conscience about it.

I’d like to think I’d handle it better than our unnamed PBEM player. I possibly have an advantage. Most of my working life the skills I use in a Dip game have been the ones I’ve used in work. Difficult conversations are a staple of the work I’m in. And I’m very good at separating my game persona from my real persona.

There is a huge difference in playing Diplomacy remotely and playing in-person. It isn’t impossible to span the gulf but it may be easier to do it from the FTF side then switching from remote play to FTF. Although the game’s the same, the way it’s played, and the impact it seems to have on players, is very different.


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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