The Grantland Discussions: A Game of Novices

If a hobby such as the Diplomacy Hobby is to survive, then it needs fresh blood. Regularly. It’s like a vampire, except – hopefully – without the killing. Killing new players isn’t going to help things.

In his article “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds” David Hill spoke to a number of Dippyists at the 2014 World Diplomacy Championship hosted by DixieCon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One of the issues that came up was getting new players into the Hobby.

When they were discussing this, they meant the FTF version of the Hobby. Hill identifies the problem:

While tens of thousands play Diplomacy over email, the face-to-face game is struggling. That’s not just because of how much easier it is logistically to play over email. It’s also because the more emotionally traumatic elements of the game are intensified when you’re face-to-face with your opponent.

“This hobby has a real problem with player retention,” said [Dave] Maletsky. “It’s easy to get new players into the game, but it’s hard to get them to come back.”

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

Hill concentrates on PBEM Diplomacy. He could have said they play Online, on websites. These are the places that players play the game, probably more than by email. But the point stands: the face-to-face Hobby is comparatively small when compared to the Remote versions of the game.

When Covid-19 hit in 2020, FTF Diplomacy couldn’t help but take a knock, of course. People weren’t allowed to gather. Instead of FTF tournaments, Virtual FTF tournaments were held. These involved players entering tournaments online, but still in-person. And in-person Diplomacy took a boost as a result. Tournaments had higher participant numbers than ever before. New tournaments were forged. And, as a result, I think there’ll be some kind of increase in FTF participation, as new players get the bug.

However, the Hobby was quick to iterate that this was a temporary thing. FTF Diplomacy was still the way to play. It was how the game was designed to be played. It would return to FTF tournaments once more.

And it has. I’m not sure how these are doing. Are they seeing increased numbers? It would be brilliant if they are, of course. I feel, though, that they probably won’t see much change in the longer run. There is still the issue of cost, in both time and money. FTF tournaments are aimed at people who can spare the money to travel. As the newcomers to Diplomacy are younger, with less or no disposable income, FTF tournaments are, at best, going to be a case of pick and choose.

The Hobby can’t miss the trick, here. Virtual Diplomacy is one way to get people involved, and we can’t be precious about the sanctity of the FTF Hobby. And, in truth, I don’t think this is the case across the board.

If you haven’t seen it, give the Diplomacy Broadcast Network (DBN) a view. One of the major movers in the DBN is David Hood. He’s mentioned in Hill’s article. He’s a Diplominati of long-standing. He’s been involved in organising DixieCon from just about the start.

David Hood, a North Carolina attorney, arrived at the 2014 World DipCon opening ceremony driving a yellow Cadillac and wearing a seersucker suit. He arrived with Mrs. North Carolina, a beauty queen in full tiara and sash, in tow.

The organiser of Dixiecon, Hood had been a fixture in the Diplomacy hobby for many decades and was a two-time North American champion. Hood had been running Dixiecon since the 1980s, when he was a student at UNC.

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

Yep, he’s a showman! He’s the frontman for the DBN, and it’s clear that he’s very supportive of all ways of playing Diplomacy. The DBN features tournaments and events from all forms of play. There’s no preciousness here.

The point is that the Hobby is growing. New players join the websites daily. New players are drawn to the Virtual tournaments and leagues regularly. The key, perhaps, is selling the FTF Hobby to these players, if we want to get the FTF Hobby to grow. The way to do that is to continue to push FTF events – and to sell them – to get people to try the FTF game.

It isn’t, though, quite as simple as that. The FTF Hobby, the organised arm, is based on conventions and tournaments, and on local Dip communities. And, with almost no exceptions, these events are competitive.

Dave Maletsky has one possible solution to the problem:

Shorter games, less emphasis on solo victories, more incentive for players to vote for draws early on. … He said the goal should be to best simulate a “house game” of Diplomacy, where a group of friends sits down at home and opens the box and plays. To his mind, this is the way the game was intended to be played, not in tournaments where you keep score over several iterations.

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

Well, perhaps, but there’s a dichotomy in this point of view: with a ‘House’ game, you don’t score the game at all, you just play it. For a tournament, the games need to be scored. He’s right, this is the way the game was designed to be played; tournament games are a variant.

For me, if we want to get more people involved in FTF Diplomacy, we first need to look at the nature of FTF events. Thomas Haver, the winner of the 2014 WDC, pointed out that: “People enjoy the house games a lot better.” If this is the case, the way to get people involved in FTF Diplomacy is to reduce the tournament aspect of FTF events.

The simple fact is that, when Diplomacy players get together to play the game at an organised event, the central aspect of that event is competitive play. When local groups of Diplomacy players get together, such as the Windy City Weasels, based in Chicago, they do so to play competitive Diplomacy. Take a look at what this association has to say:

FUN TRADITIONS AND FIERCE COMPETITION

Founded in 2006, the Windy City Weasels are one of the most active Diplomacy leagues in North America. We are known for our fierce competition, strong traditions, upstanding character, and the propensity for Turkey to open to Armenia. 

LEAGUE PLAY

The Windy City Weasels average 1-2 games per month. Each player’s best scores contribute towards their league standings within a year long season. The top seven dues-paying Weasels at the end of a season qualify for the Weasel Royale club championship game and the Weasel of the Year award.

https://windycityweasels.org/about-us/

There’s nothing wrong with this at all. I’m all for competitive Diplomacy. The question is: Do WCW have any friendly games? If not, why not?

One of the questions on the site is “Do I need to know how to play?” Their answer is no: “Absolutely not, we love new players! We’ll arrange a quick walk through of the rules prior to the game. New league players are eligible for the Amanda Baumgartner Rookie of the Year award.” So, before you play a “fiercely” competitive game of Diplomacy, they’ll run through the rules. And, for a new player, you’re also in line for a competitive award!

My question is: Why not forego some of the competitive games for friendly games? Why the focus on “fierce competition”?

Again, personally, I don’t mind competitive games at all. But, when I got into Diplomacy online, I knew the game, I knew what it was about, and I knew what I was getting into. If I had been a complete novice, would I have been interested in playing my first game of Diplomacy at an organised event to be thrust into competitive games?

Now, I don’t mean to take a sledgehammer to the Weasels, specifically. It just happens that I’ve been to their site before, and I knew what I was going to find there. And I’m not a member of the group (they’re in Chicago, I’m in Mirfield in the UK) so I can’t tell them (and don’t want to tell them) how to run their group.

It’s an example, though, of how the FTF Hobby can seem daunting to novices. If you go to an organised FTF event to play Diplomacy, the chances are that you’ll need to play in a competitive game. Where are the friendly, introductory games?

This is the case with conventions, too. You can go to a Diplomacy convention and play friendly games. DixieCon, for instance, runs games other than Diplomacy. But, really, if you’re going to a Diplomacy event, you’re wanting to play Diplomacy, aren’t you? Are there any friendly games of Diplomacy? Are they given a slot in the timetable?

The practicalities of a Diplomacy tournament mean that running friendly, taster games, are not the priority, of course. A tournament is probably run over a weekend. You may start Friday night, play two games on Saturday, and another on Sunday. It’s difficult enough to get four games in over the weekend as it is.

Perhaps, then, the answer is shorter games? In Europe, the majority of Dip tournament games end in 1907/8. The chances of getting a solo in these games are minuscule. This means that the scoring systems used in Europe are aimed at differentiating between draws, even moreso than in other tournaments. I’d argue that these aren’t Diplomacy games, as such, but a further variant because the aim isn’t to solo.

There’s a strong argument that, if a Diplomacy tournament is going to crown a Diplomacy champion, then the game should be Diplomacy, and as close as possible to the way the game was designed. Some of that has already gone out of the window in that a tournament game is already a variant of Diplomacy. It doesn’t matter what scoring system you use, as soon as you score Diplomacy you’re playing a variant. But the further the scoring system takes you away from Diplomacy as designed, the less of a Diplomacy game you’re playing. To me, that defeats the point of the tournament to some extent.

I don’t, then, think that Diplomacy games in tournaments should be shortened except for practical reasons. You want to be playing Diplomacy – or as close to Diplomacy as possible. The winner has to be a Diplomacy player, someone who has excelled at playing Diplomacy, not someone who is excellent at playing “A Scramble for SCs.”

In some ways, the websites are better at trying to introduce novices to the game. Both webDiplomacy and Playdiplomacy offer newbie games, with mentors, as a way of introducing people to the game, and strong forum communities to support new players if they choose to join. Backstabbr doesn’t have the community – in the form of a forum – to allow this, but Backstabbr doesn’t include a ratings system, either: games on Backstabbr are not scored.

For me, then, the FTF community needs to think about how it presents itself. FTF events are almost solely competitive, and they don’t need to be. They call themselves ‘conventions’ – DixieCon, DipCon, etc – but they’re really tournaments or, at least, that’s how they sell themselves, as tournaments. If they want to reach new members, they need to offer introductory games, where people can taste FTF Diplomacy without the competitive aspect. Get people enjoying the game before getting them to play more competitively.

I want to mention two more quotes from Hill’s article, one from Siobhan Nolen, a Dipmeister herself, and one from Hill.

Nolen’s quote is going to be featured in the next post, too, but it has relevance here:

Siobhan Nolen has tried to recruit other women to play the game, to no avail. “I don’t know that it caters itself to men, but it’s a very intimidating game.” Nolen once brought her best friend to an event. “Bless her heart she tried, but when we were finished she gave me a look and said, ‘Never again.’”

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

Hill’s comment sums up his experience of playing at the 2014 WDC:

After all the anger, the manipulation, the frayed nerves, and the hurt feelings, I was left feeling something wholly unlike boredom, but something also unlike fun.

https://grantland.com/features/diplomacy-the-board-game-of-the-alpha-nerds/

No matter what you feel about Diplomacy, these are not positive outcomes.


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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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