The Grantland Discussions: A Storm of Daggers

Diplomacy is designed to encourage betrayal, there’s no getting away from that. The game is meant to be played by people who communicate; who can forge alliances; who can maintain those alliances long enough to get close to the winning line and then, when that line’s in sight, who are prepared to stab their ally in the back to win. Ruining friendships since 1959.

In this series, inspired by the talking points raised in David Hill’s article on the 2014 World Diplomacy Championship, “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds“, I’ve looked at how Diplomacy, specifically FTF Tournament Diplomacy, is affecting the Hobby in general. I’ve looked at diversity and inclusion; I’ve looked at difficulties in attracting and keeping new members, and I’ve looked at how Carebearism seems to draw the worst out of players (and not only in tournaments). I’ve also looked at how there is a gulf between remote play and FTF play.

One of the conclusions I’ve drawn is that organised Diplomacy events can be too focused on the tournament. If you want to use these events to attract people to the FTF Hobby, you need to be prepared to run friendly games too, where players can see what Diplomacy is about FTF without the pressure, and the pressurised play, of tournament games.

Hill’s article does a number of things. It shows that FTF Diplomacy is missing out and that Tournament play isn’t helping to encourage new players. If, like Hill, you are going to a tournament for the first time, hoping to play Diplomacy, and you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, you’re not likely to enjoy it.

In the Diplomacy Games podcast that featured Andrew Goff, 3-time World Champion, and Melissa Call, an accomplished Dip player and tournament director, the two experienced campaigners had some good advice for any Dip player going to a tournament: treat it as a learning experience. They made it clear that you’re not going to do well in your first tournament, and probably not your second and third, either. But, if you learn from the experience, and if you decide that you’re going to keep at it, then you will improve.

Chris Martin is a multiple Diplomacy Champion. 1998 World Champion; North American Champion in 1998, 2008, 2011 and 2015; North American Grand Prix winner in 1999 and 2011. He’s a Dipmesiter. He had this to say about Diplomacy:

“[Of] Every 10 people who like playing games, nine will not like playing Diplomacy.”

This sounds a little pessimistic to me. Martin may be right that 90% of those who try tournament Diplomacy don’t like it. And it’s probably not that far off to say that 90% won’t like Diplomacy, but I think it isn’t quite as high as that.

Some of that will be people who don’t get the game. When you’re playing board games, you’re used to things happening on the board. That isn’t the case with Diplomacy; the game takes place off the board. The game is won and lost on the board, given that this is where the SCs are, but I’d even say that the game is won and lost based on what happens off the board, too.

Some of those who don’t like Diplomacy won’t like the style of the game. Hill summarises this succintly:

Fans of role-playing games enjoy the social aspect but dislike the tactical elements. Eurogamers are interested in Diplomacy’s unique game mechanics but dislike the fact that there is player elimination and direct conflict with opponents. But for most people, the problem is always the same: Diplomacy is just too intense.

I’m not sure that Diplomacy is too intense. FTF, perhaps; FTF tournament play, probably. But – again – there’s an assumption being made here – by both Martin and Hill – that Diplomacy means FTF tournament Diplomacy. It doesn’t. Diplomacy is all types of Diplomacy. The remote game isn’t as intense as the FTF game.

So, do tournaments need to be watered down? Dave Maletsky seems to think so:

Maletsky’s solution? Shorter games, less emphasis on solo victories, more incentive for players to vote for draws early on. His system for scoring is unpopular among what he describes as “tournament sharks,” but he insists that it provides a better experience for new to midrange players. 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.

Hill adds his thoughts:

Why water down the game for the weaker of heart? Because 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. And when the game is for points in a tournament with ego and a title on the line? “A lot of times players just lose their minds,” Maletsky said.

The problem, though, isn’t the game and it isn’t tournaments, it’s that, in organised Diplomacy events, tournament play is the way the game is offered. It doesn’t have to be, as I’ve said before. Run conventions, run tournaments at conventions, but make it that tournament play isn’t the only form of the game on offer. Include “house” games, friendly introductory games, for those who want to experience FTF Diplomacy but don’t want the intensity of the tournaments.

Tournaments are what they are because the game is what it is. Chris Martin explains tournament play well:

“In a tournament situation, you encounter people who care a lot more about winning than [about] the emotional fragility of the person they’re sitting across from.”

And this is true. And this is the way of competition. Watering down tournaments, shortening the games, making winning less important… all these things take the game out of Diplomacy. The objective isn’t to draw, it’s to win… and if you can’t win to stop someone else from winning.

Hill presents two seemingly opposing views from two very good players. Thomas Haver won WDC 2014. He says:

“People laugh at me, they call me a care bear. If you’re a strong alliance player and it’s hard to break your alliances up, they say you’re a care bear.” The game is designed for cooperation, he argues. Every power starts out completely equal; every piece moves exactly the same. “By its very nature you need to cooperate, coordinate with someone else.”

He’s right.

Then, Hill tells us Brian Ecton disagrees:

“If you don’t play for the solo every time you sit down to play, you ain’t playing the game right.”

He’s right, too. Hill presents this as an opposing view to Haver’s:

The vast majority of the players I met at Dixiecon, American and European alike, agreed with Ecton. Alliances are meant to be broken. Draws are shameful. The only glory is in a solo victory, no matter how difficult it is or [how] seldom it happens.

Except that Ecton doesn’t say that: “Draws are shameful,” or that: “The only glory is in a solo victory”, or, if he did, Hill doesn’t quote him as saying this. I don’t believe the majority of players at the tournament would take that view. It’s a Unusist view, and the majority of tournament players recognise that draws are valuable because they’re the likely result.

No, Diplomacy is a game where you should be aiming to win when you play the game. However, as this is going to happen rarely, the view should be that playing to prevent someone else winning is the secondary objective, and that means accepting the draw. These aren’t opposing views, they are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same philosophy.

Tournament Diplomacy does contain toxic elements. Thomas Haver reported:

“There’s a guy here who last time we were together he was so mad he chucked a book at me. When I saw that, I laughed, because ‘I win.’”

Of this, Hill says:

For my part, I found it hard to laugh at rattling people to their emotional breaking point. As much as I was fascinated with this game, even the psychological elements of it, I was taken aback at how often players — even at the highest level — were pushed beyond their ability to think of it as just a game.

Throwing a book at someone is extreme. Abusing someone is extreme. Neither of these things should be part of a game, even a tournament game. But the nature of the game is that people will get rattled. It isn’t just FTF, either; I’ve played against players who have raged against others online.

I was once playing Italy and I’d agreed to an alliance with Austria at the start of the game. He’d let me suggest the Key Lepanto – whereby Italy orders A Ven-Tri in Spring 1901, then – with Austrian support – orders A Tri-Ser. However, I’d never intended to do this; Austria seemed like someone I’d struggle to ally with, and I turned the Key Lepanto into a Stab Lepanto, moving A Tri-Vie and A Ven-Tri in Fall 1901. The Austrian player sent a long, abusive message… and left the game. This didn’t bother me at all; it was a legitimate move and one he ought to have made more of an effort to discourage; he certainly should have made an effort to thwart me (perhaps he’d already burned his bridges with other possible allies).

There is no ‘right way’ to play Diplomacy. Thomas Haver would tell you he’s an alliance player, possibly even a Carebear. Yet, to win WDC 2014, he did something he says he’s never done before: he stabbed his ally. He found himself in a position to stab. The alliance had been going all game.

“This is a guy I worked with for the entire game. The entire game. In most cases I would have stuck out with that. Because I legitimately felt bad about it then. And I feel bad about it now,” Haver said. “It’s going to bother me the entire drive home that I did him wrong.”

With one stab, Haver took enough SCs from his ally, and other players, to make the solo. This is what won him the tournament.

To me, Diplomacy isn’t a game of deception and manipulation,” Edi Birsan told me on the final morning of Dixiecon. “It’s a game about trust.”

It is. But, when you have the chance to win, you should take it. This is the nature of Diplomacy, and it dictates the nature of tournaments. That can’t be changed without changing Diplomacy.


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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