What makes a good game of Diplomacy?
I’ve got to be honest, for me the DBNI didn’t seem to meet any of the thoughts I had about this. First, I wasn’t playing. Come on, how often do you really enjoy watching a board game as opposed to playing it? I was suspicious of the new format (see below); I mean, ‘winner-take-all’? In a tournament!?! Pfft. And that map..!
Well, I have to admit, the DBNI 2023 well and truly buggered my expectations. What makes a good game of Diplomacy? Go back and look at the broadcasts for this tournament and be prepared to walk away with a strange gait.
This image doesn’t do the map any justice. And, to be fair, I never really thought this would matter. (By the way, I know this is from the Virtual Diplomacy League, but it’s the same map as used by the 2023 DBNI.)
But, well, it’s beautifully simple.
It’s clear. The units fit in the spaces. You can see SCs and names even when the units are in their spaces. Like it or not, and some people won’t for the reasons I didn’t initially, it works.
I didn’t like it because, well, the blockiness. It doesn’t really look like a map of Europe. Where are all the fiddly bits? Look at Norway… where are the fjords? Well, yes, quite… but, let’s face it, what do those fiddly bits add to the Dip board?
Yes, the order arrows are clumsy looking but, frankly, I don’t see how they could be improved.
I’m going to be honest, I decided that I liked the map so much that I’d use it as the model for my Dip maps going forward… And that’s why I’ve my new map on the home page. (I hope the designer of the DBN map doesn’t mind… if you do, tell me!)
There are lots of ideas about how Diplomacy should be played, most of them ridiculous, frankly. But, when it came to this tournament, we saw quite a lot of them.
Is it about a balance of power: should players act to prevent another player from establishing a dominant position? Is it about going for the solo? Is it about staying ahead of the field?
In the DBNI there was a different idea for tournaments tried out: winner-takes-all. I say “winner” – perhaps leader is the better word.
The DBNI didn’t feature any scoring: the only thing that mattered was finishing ahead of everyone else on the board. If you won – soloed – you were through. If the game ended in a draw, and you had the most SCs at the end of the game, you were through.
And that was it.
Round 1 featured 4 games and 28 players. At the end of each game, only the soloists and board-toppers qualified for the final. Everyone else… almost… qualified for the Repercharge, the second-chance round of three games. And, again, only the soloists and board-toppers qualified for the final.
I was sceptical. This was a tournament without scoring. It was a series of one-off games, not really a ‘tournament’ – in the accepted sense – at all! How would this work?
Well, surprisingly (for me), brilliantly!
Again, if you haven’t seen it, go look at the games – they were brilliant!
OK, so with a field as talented as this, it was going to feature good play. The two previous winners of the DBNI were there: Peter McNamara and Jason Mastbaum. WDC winners were involved. This tournament featured Dipmeisters in each game!
But, I have to say, this was a combination of bloodthirsty Dip and balance of power Dip – a Dipfest!
Carebearism just wasn’t going to cut the mustard. No point playing to draw the game because that wouldn’t get you anywhere!
Now, those of you who have read my posts will know I’ve been somewhat scathing of ideas like Topping the Board in the past. And, frankly, I still am. When the game is over, if it ends in a draw, how many SCs you hold matters not a hoot.
But, you know what? After watching the DBNI, I can see that it has its advantages, if only in a limited way – for a tournament or a league. Because this is a good way to decide the outcome of the game? No. Because this is a good way of encouraging different ways to play.
In any tournament, solos should be at a premium. Riaz Virani, arguably the Dippyist of the moment, soloed his first round game. That was all. Eight games, one solo. Every other game was decided by who ‘Topped the Board’: when the game ended in a draw, the leader won.
Three games were ended when the Game End Date (GED) was reached, one of them being the final. Four games ended in an agreed draw, which actively eliminated players. Why should someone who placed ahead of another player on SC count qualify in a draw? Because this was a tournament with 8 games, in which most people played two games. Some differentiation is always going to be necessary.
So, as distasteful as SCS is to me, it has its advantages. And, in this format, it produced some amazing play.
But it wasn’t all risk-taking. There was a lot of balance of power play, too, with players taking on-the-board and – clearly – off-the-board decisions to ensure that someone didn’t run away with a game. With the exclusion of Riaz’s first round game, when he soloed because his neighbours didn’t manage to do enough to prevent it and, indeed, Bradley Grace threw the game, BOP play was clearly in evidence.
And, you know what? It inspired me to begin designing an online tournament similar in nature. There needs to be adaptations for the online format, but the idea of designing an online tournament that has the only guarantee of progress being the winner, or leader, when the game ends is exciting. “The Gauntlet” will be played on Playdiplomacy.
There is, perhaps, one question and Brandon Fogel, in his interview with David Hood on the DBN’s Deadline News March 2023 edition, addressed it: was the advantage given to higher seeds too great?
In the first round, the four lowest seeded players had to win the game or they were eliminated. They might have ended the game with the second highest SC count and still not get anywhere in the tournament. Combined with the fact that they probably drew the power nobody else wanted, because the ‘Paris Method’ (I’ll explain this below) was used in each game, and that, in itself, put them at a disadvantage, this was extremely harsh.
Perhaps the first round games might have assigned powers randomly. This would have given these lower seeds at least a decent chance of progressing. Perhaps the first players eliminated from each first round game might have been eliminated. Four players had to be eliminated because there would otherwise have been 24 players in the Repercharge games.
Overall, this was the best tournament that I’ve watched: exciting with a combination of tactics and strategies. All tournaments could benefit from these two positives!
NOTES – The Paris Method
This is used, most often in finals, to help provide a clear outcome should the game end in a tie – a drawn game in which there is more than one player topping the board.
It starts with power allocation. The lowest ranked player gets to decide when he chooses their power. The next highest ranked player then chooses whether they choose their power before or after the lowest ranked. The next highest ranked player then chooses whether they choose first, second or last… and so on, until all players have chosen the order in which they select a power.
The player who has first choice, then selects the power they want to play. The player with second choice chooses from the remaining powers, and so on until the player who is last in the order is left with the only remaining power.
The game is then played. If it ends in a solo, then the soloist wins. If the game ends in a draw, then the player with the most SCs at the end wins. If the game ends in a draw with two or more players with an equal number of SCs at the end, the tie is broken by the player who chose a power later winning.
If SC count isn’t used to decide the outcome, then if the game ends in a draw, the player who chose a power later wins, regardless of the number of SCs held.
It’s a simple method for preventing a final board ending in a tie, and gives a decision that, while it may appear disengaged from the game play to some extent, prevents a shared win, which is what every tournament should be aiming for!