Diplomo Ergo Sum

by John Quarto-vonTivadar

There was room for a "quickie" article in this issue of the Pouch and our noble editor asked me for some input and, as it turns out, Iíd had a rather hefty summer full of Diplomacy. So Iíd thought Iíd comment on the various topics Iíve been stewing about these past months. Plus I tend to have strong opinions and extra room in a Pouch edition means not enough people are writing in, so here, let me give them a reason to! J

This year I attended the convention formerly known as AvalonCON, held in late July outside Baltimore (USA), always a perennial favorite with the face-to-face crowd. I also had the good fortune to have a business trip to the West Coast and thus was able to fit in DragonFlight (Seattle, USA) during late August. Iíve attended these cons many times over the years but never both in the same year, and Iíd like to share some of my experiences this summer and at the same time comment on issues I liked and did not like about both.

AvalonCON as always drew a good number of people from overseas and Canada. The thing I like best about is that so many of the interesting characters in the hobby seem to attend. I had decided ahead of time that I was unlikely to play for the full weekend (AvalonCON has other games to play other than Dip) and I find a learn a lot by sitting through a Round and watching various boards that friends are playing on and "guessing" as to how the game will end.

I had passed on the Colonial Dip games (I find it too long a variant) and instead I played in the first standard Dip round, Friday evening. I drew Russia, which I never enjoy playing much, and the rest of the board consisted of a few strong players, amoung them Ray Setzer as Austria, and the infamous Englander, "Blue," as France. Looks like an R/A/F three-way from the start. J As the Italian and Turkish players were new to face-to-face, it seemed prudent to work with Austria right off and imagine everyoneís surprise when the Turkish Spring 1901 opening consisted of A Con hold, F Ankara Ė Armenia, A Smyrna Ė Syria. I told you he was new and when I suggested he might want to leave Smyrna open for a build I didnít think heíd take that advice literally in the Spring move. J Despite such an opening, the Turk stayed in the game until about 1908 or so which just goes to reiterate how strong that corner can be on defense. After the usual struggles, Turkey and England were eliminated and Italy and Germany ended up with survivals but were whittled down to small positions, leaving a F/A/R/G four-way declared due to the Round time expiration. More on this later.

I also decided not to play in the Saturday morning round, but I played the Saturday night "gunboat" game, where I ended up at a table GMíed by David Hood and with Simon Szykman in the game with five other players new to the game. What a chance to clean up! Or so I thought. I was England to Simonís France and despite (or maybe on account of!) not knowing which country the other was playing, we ended up being each otherís worst nemesis, essentially fighting to a draw. Many of the other tables chose to play their Round with press whereas ours was noPress. I think Davidís decision to push us towards NoPress made the game bland, but it surely made it easier for the newbies since the E/F rivalry would have disappeared had but a few choice tidbits been press-able. Davidís decision, though, proved correct insofar as a newbie won outright as Turkey. I think thatís a great result for a less experienced player to enjoy and get "hooked" with. One of the interesting highlights of the evening was one of the newer players arguing with David Hood about how to interpret a support-in-holding rules question: you had to be there to see the look on Simonís (and Davidís) face when the fellow argued to Hood, the top ranked American player and five(?)-time winner of the AvalonCON tourney, saying "but thatís how I always played it!"

At DragonFlight, where Chris Martin, Buz Eddy, and others were in attendance, I drew Germany in Round 1, with Chris as France. Perfect set up for a SeaLion which we got off to on a great start, except that Chrisí buddy was playing Russia and opened A MOS-STP. There isnít much use for Germany in a SeaLion that gains him but EDI so I swapped sides and after Chris's inevitable stab, we were able to force him to a six-way draw. I was helped greatly by Chrisí being a former World Champion, a fact I reminded the other players of (about once every minute). I played a second Round during the midnight Round and scored a solo as Italy in a 4½ hour time limit, a personal best. In this game Austria seemed interested in a Key Lepanto but was unsure of the details so I was able to not only get an army into Serbia in Fall 1901 but also an army in Trieste that same year, and actually talked him into the idea that this was part and parcel of the opening (after all, he got a build anyway). Hmm, who was it that said if youíre going to lie, lie big! J Again, I decided to opt out of playing any additional rounds even though a Final Round was required for placement in the tournament, due to family considerations. Chris got nuked during another round and then had another good round as France, again, giving lots of points to the East Coasters playing in Seattle. DragonFlight is definitely one of the better Dip cons on the regular circuitófor such a small con, the 4-5 rounds of Dip available during a three-day period are exciting and laid back at the same time.

Okay, well, on to something other than a diary. Something more to the point of the article. Iíve been playing less and less face-to-face Diplomacy over the years, especially at bigger conventions. AvalonCON this year crystalized in my mind exactly the reason for that. The scoring system sucks. I donít think there is a nice way to say it. It has nothing to do with the great people playing and running the tourney. But the scoring system sucks. First I'll tell you what the scoring system is (in case you don't know), and then I'll tell you why (IMHO) it sucks.

At AvalonCON, each game round lasts a set period of time known only to the GM, atlhough there is a set minimum and maximum time announced ahead of time. The game ends on the turn in progress when time is called. Players can also vote to end games, each player having one vote for each SC he controls as of the last winter adjustment phase, and 29 of the 34 votes can pass any such resolution. There are no restrictions on what proposal can be voted for as long as at least 29 votes are cast for it. You get major points for being in a N-way draw, where N is small, and then a modifier is added on for your SC count to that. In essence a three-way with a small amount of SCís scores much better than a five-way with a large number of SCís]

Iíve seen this system in operation for a number of years now. It works when the game itself is played as a game, but it does not work when there is a tournament taking place. This year had plenty of good examples: in the game I was in, as Russia I was up to 12 or 13 SC's at one point, neither a bad nor a good showing as Russia in a high level tourney. However, time was clicking away and we were deep into the warning zone on the time out. The push was on to eliminate one or both of the small powers remaining (Germany and Italy) since F/A/R could not yet reach the 29 votes amongst us to end the game. Little did any of us know that if time is called and it is the Spring move, then in this scoring system one doesnít take oneís last winter SC count but rather does one at the end of Spring (!), for occupied but not-yet-controlled SC's and uses that number for voting purposes which of course means attacks for position rather than for centers donít pay off in the end game. Thus there is every incentive for small powers to run the clock out, ask for draw votes to delay things tremendously, etc., especially since a large SC count as part of a large N-way draw doesnít score nearly as well as a lower SC count as part of a small N-way draw. And big powers donít have an incentive to attack aggressively for position since their own SC count is in jeopardy if the game ends during a Spring move. Fair enough, any of us could have walked over and asked further details about the scoring system, but the point is that the system is so geared towards what the result will do for oneís overall tournament score rather than for the game in progress itself that I think it perverts the entire procedure. Why should players be encouraged to walk over to check on how their actions will affect their tournament score rather than figuring out how their actions will affect the outcome of the game at hand?

But it is much worse. In a later round, in which I took a bye and simply observed, I saw what I thought to be one of the worst examples of meta-gaming in years. (If any other the participants are reading this I implore them to step forward with their own version of events; Iíd like to hear someone elseís take on what I saw, or maybe what I think I saw). At one table, a very famous player (to remain nameless), as Italy, was around 10 SC or so. The French player (IMHO not a player of any great or small skill, just an average joe), was at around 7 SC. Austria was about 7 SC and Russia around 5 SC. Turkey was out, and Germany was either at 1 SC or out. England was played by none other than multi-AvalonCON winner, David Hood, and he owned 4 SC's. A proposal was put on the table for a France/Italy two-way draw, and it passed! The supposed logic here, and I use that term loosely, was that Hood, with such a high national ranking as well as the previous yearís winner, was the prime target and the other players didnít want to take a chance that he would get a high enough number of SC such that he could veto any draw proposal. So they, Austria and Russia, voted themselves out of the draw!!! What is this, a second-grade playground? Weíre not talking about gunning for a big power leader who also happens to be well-ranked and scoring well for the tourney. Weíre talking about in essence throwing the game on account of a 4 SC power, because he might, might, do well in other rounds. Heaven help us all if David Hood -- or anyone for that matter -- is considered to be so good that we will play a game for six hours and then throw it just so that person gets a lousy score for that round to pull his average down and affect his overall Tournament score. Shame, shame, shame. And you know what? The French player, with this bastardized 2way, ended up with "Best France" for the tourney! This defines "best"??? No wonder all the kids are playing Magic. [This isnít a dig on the French player, itís a dig on the scoring system.]

But that example is not all! Yes, AvalonCON produced yet another example this year. This time on a board with a strong F/E alliance slowly pushing back A/I, although A/I sat firmly ahead of the 13 SC balkan stalemate line (and both players knew the actual line; in fact, it was discussed as part of the draw debate). Here, the Italian player voted himself out of the locked-in four-way draw, because he had to leave for another appointment. Never mind the fact that the four-way proposal was voted down. Since the Italian player had already announced he wanted to leaveóthere was no way for Austria, even with the Italian giving him centers, to produce the correct units in time to hold the line himself. Ergo, for the sake of moving on, the Italian voted for the F/E/A three-way draw, especially when his erstwhile Austrian ally told him how much better it would score for Austria in the tournament if it were a three-way instead of a 4way. Again, I say: shame. That was a four-way lock and one of those big powers should have done what, in this writerís opinion at least, was the "right thing" which was to insist on a legitimate ending. The four-way would have ensued when the GM called time since no three powers had the requisite 29 SCís, pure and simple. [Again, this isnít a dig on the Italian player, itís a dig on the scoring system.]

In contrast, the scoring system at DragonFlight, a much smaller and not nearly as prestigious tourney as AvalonCON, was semi-secret. All votes had to be unanimous and there was a definite end time for the game. If no unanimous consensus was reached before then, then it was DIAS, although players could unanimously vote to continue the game until its natural ending or until all surviving players called it quits. But one didnít know ahead of time whether the scoring system was going to favour small N-ways or favour high SC count or some variant in between. Who was to say whether a 17 SC power held at bay by six small fry would score better than an 11 SC three-way? This unknown meant each game had at least a modicum of focus on the game itself rather than the scoring system.

Well, Iíve ranted enough. It is probably incumbent upon me to suggest a solution for what I perceive as a broken system at AvalonCON, especially since it is to host next yearís World Diplomacy Championships. I think it is a easy and reasonable one: You canít vote yourself out of a draw. J Easy enough, huh? You still get to vote up to 29 SC so as to engender actual ends to the games, yet you canít create a problem in misbalancing the tourney by voting yourself out of a draw. Further make the scoring system somewhat secretive. Only the GM has to know the actual scoring system and it can be easy or hard to calculate. You know what folks, thatís where a laptop comes in handy! Without a severe fix to the system this author has doubts about bothering to participate in enough rounds next summer at AvalonCON to even play for contention. Iíve heard at least as much from two former world champs that I regularly talk with, the consensus being to go in and play a round or two for the fun of it but not rounds to compete overall, instead using the time to play variants or the like. And thatís a shame since the only thing sillier than driving away newbies is driving away hard-core contenders.

As part of a future article for the Pouch, I will outline a system by which all of the various (and differing!) methods of scoring can be accommodated in one normalized algorithm that measures all of the statistics that various scoring methods endeavor to hold as of prime importance. Maybe that will spark some debate over the winter and help make next yearís World Diplomacy Championships the best ever.

[On a separate note, if anyone is interested in there being some Dip variant tourneys to occur a day or two before the main event at next yearís World Diplomacy Championships, or a Bourse variant to run concurrent with the main games, please contact me directly so we can put the wheels in motion now and make the Tournament Directorís job as easy as possible.]

John Quarto-vonTivadar
(jcq@mindspring.com)

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.