The Grantland Discussions: A Feast for Carebears

By now, unless you’re just jumping into my blog here, you’ll know that Carebearism is not my favourite part of Diplomacy. For me, it has no place at the table, real or otherwise. For others, it’s the way the game should be played.

Let’s start by defining what Carebearism actually is.

There are, perhaps, three philosophies that define how a player will approach a game of Diplomacy. I’ve written about them elsewhere but let’s just define them again here:

  • Calhamerism: This is about playing Diplomacy the way Calhamer designed the game to be played: ally with other players as you need to, so that your own agenda is furthered, and then throw that alliance away. The aim is to win; if you can’t win, the aim is to prevent someone else from winning.
  • Unusism: This philosophy is about winning. The draw is anathema. If you’re not going to win, you may play to do better than anyone else who doesn’t win. There’s no value in a draw and therefore nothing to be gained by trying to prevent someone else from winning.
  • Carebearism: This philosophy is about aiming to draw the game. Winning isn’t important; all that matters is being a part of the draw at the end of the game. You can play to get the most points possible, by eliminating other players and reducing the number of players in the draw, but ultimately these players will seek to maintain an alliance no matter what.

Carebearism, then, is the art of drawing a game of Diplomacy. It ignores the fact that the object of the game is to win. It may ignore it for practical reasons: most games of Diplomacy will end in a draw; it may ignore it simply because players don’t like the idea of betraying an ally.

Now, you’d think that Carebears have an advantage. If you know your ally isn’t going to stab you, then you know you can make use of that alliance. You can push on, working together, eliminating other players. You know you’re not likely to be eliminated (unless both you and your ally both do something stupid). Job done.

However, in his article “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds” David Hill points out something surprising:

Of the players who expressed the most discomfort with the cutthroat nature of the game, despite their skills and their reputations, none had ever won a world championship.

Why is this? Well, some of it comes down to scoring systems. No matter what scoring system is used in tournaments, the solo victory scores more points than any other score. This is how it should be, of course. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Unusist, a Calhamerian, or a Carebear, the solo remains the object of the game. So the players who are prepared to stab for the solo are going to score more points than those who aren’t… if they succeed.

One thing Hill gets wrong in the article, for me, is the broad sweep that is used to define a Carebear. This may not be Hill’s fault; it seems that a lot of players almost self-identify as being Carebears because they are alliance players. For me, there’s a difference.

I don’t think you can get much more of a Dipmeister than Andrew Goff. Goffy has been World Diplomacy Champion on three occasions: 2009, 2011 and 2018 and has finished in the top three on two other occasions. So, he’s a pretty decent Dip player. I think it’s pretty safe to say that he’s an alliance player. Here’s what he had to say about playing Diplomacy, from the Diplomacy Games podcast in March 2020:

I convince myself not to stab a lot more than I convince myself to stab. Stabbing is almost always wrong. … If I have 30 seconds to think about it, I’ve a chance to do it. … Everyone is tempted by it. But if I have like 2 minutes to think it through, no I’m not gonna do it. “

An alliance player is someone who will form an alliance with one or two others, maintain that alliance for as long as possible, but will stab and go for the victory when the chance comes along. That’s Calhamerism, not Carebearism.

In Diplomacy, without alliances, you’re getting nowhere. However, it’s also true that if you keep with your alliance, you’re not going to win. You can’t. The only way to win is to betray your ally because no ally is going to simply give you the game.

So a player who is a good alliance player, someone you can trust to make the alliance work, isn’t necessarily a Carebear. A Carebear is someone who will never consider stabbing an ally.

I don’t really get the Carebear mentality, if I’m honest. I get the alliance player idea; that makes sense. The idea that a player would turn down the chance of a win, though, escapes me.

Some of the reasons for Carebearism are given in Hill’s article. Dave Maletsky gave one clear explanation:

“It’s emotionally brutal at times. In order to succeed you have to work with someone all game, then trick them and lie to them and send their score spiralling down from where they thought it was going to be. And all of those negative consequences come from working with you, and that’s not pleasant.”

So, for Maletsky, the reason is that the game brings a lot of negative connotations. Would you want to be associated with this kind of reaction? Probably not. Perhaps, though, this is more to do with the FTF tournament experience as a whole.

Again, Hill brings out some of this in his article:

“Don’t you realise that some of us travelled a very long distance to win this tournament?” a player from France said to me with disgust. “And because you won’t stab this guy, you’re going to die and bring all of us down with you.”

“Are you going to be paid for writing this story?” a Scottish player asked me. “Because I am losing three days’ wages to be here so that I can get screwed by you.”

In a regular game of Diplomacy, one that isn’t part of a tournament, it costs nothing, financially. Yet, when it comes to a FTF tournament, not only do players give up weekends – and possibly working days, as you can see above – but the games mean more. One bad game won’t ruin your tournament: going back to that Diplomacy Games podcast featuring Andrew Goff, he makes it clear that getting a number of mediocre results will likely get you a decent result from the tournament. Of course, if you’re Andrew Goff, those mediocre results are probably going to be accompanied by at least one great game!

However, the time, the cost, the competitiveness… all these can mean that, as Maletsky said: “A lot of times players just lose their minds.” Hill describes what this can lead to:

I saw this happen over and over again throughout the weekend. Players would get so angry because other players wouldn’t cooperate with them that they would take to shouting, browbeating, cursing, making insults.

This doesn’t sound like fun, does it? I’m sure it isn’t. And yet a lot of these players seem to think this is part of Diplomacy. Hill pointed out that he heard something a lot:

Every single person I spoke with at Dixiecon told me the same thing, that to enjoy Diplomacy you need to leave all of that stuff on the board. After the 10th person told me, “We always go get a beer afterwards,” I started to think it was less a practical maxim and more a personal mantra. It was a lot easier said than done.

Perhaps, then, Carebearism is a form of self-protection, a way to prevent this toxicity from affecting your enjoyment of the game and others’ enjoyment. Perhaps I can understand that position to some extent.

A lot of the frustration in Diplomacy is aimed at Carebears, and I’m no different from anyone else in that. But most of my Diplomacy is not played in tournaments. I tend to play in one-off games, albeit probably also scored games, part of an on-going series of games. So I don’t really see that Carebearism has the same justification in these games.

But there is something we all need to remember: How anyone plays the game is up to them. Whether they’re Unusists, playing only for a solo and throwing everything away when that doesn’t come to pass; or Carebears, playing only for a draw, refusing to attempt to win; or Calhamerians, playing to win, but playing to not lose. Whatever philosophy someone takes into a game of Diplomacy is their decision. I might not like it; I might deplore it. But it’s up to me how I deal with it.

I’m going to cover the nature of Diplomacy in a later post, and of FTF tournaments. The game is what it is, though. It is designed to be played in a way that encourages betrayal; that was the idea behind it. Perhaps, though, the Hobby needs to consider whether there needs to be so many tournaments, where the negativity becomes the focus for people. Perhaps there needs to be more conventions where the idea is simply to play Diplomacy, enjoy Diplomacy, and not be focused on tournament play.


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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