I'll come right out at the start of this article and say that face to face Diplomacy is a lot different than e-mail Diplomacy, and the differences go a lot deeper than having to look your opponent in the face while you prepare to stab him brutally. There is only limited negotiating time, and so you have to say your piece and say it quickly while remaining convincing. Playing serious tournament face to face is a totally different experience than playing an e-mail game. Prior to attending World DipCon X, which was held August 4th-6th, 2000, in Hunt Valley, Maryland, I had only very limited face to face experience and no tournaments. And so it is from this perspective that I narrate my account of World DipCon X and how I got absolutely and completely hammered.
This whole saga began for me in the summer of 1999, when I discovered that the tenth annual World Diplomacy Championships would be held in Baltimore. At that time I was preparing to enter my first year at the University of Chicago. I had, however, lived in the Washington, DC area all my life and figured that unless I had a better offer in Chicago, I would be back there working during the next summer, and would almost certainly be able to get away for a long weekend to play some Dip. Over the course of the winter of 1999-2000 I learned more about the tournament. I decided that I wanted to go after hearing testimonials (interspersed with plenty of bragging) from former world champion Chris Martin and listening to others on rec.games.diplomacy who had attended other tournaments and had a lot of fun. Plus I couldn't resist taking the opportunity to meet many of the people I only knew online. So in early July I made my plans to attend.
After arriving in Baltimore and checking in to the convention hotel (I was surprised to have found a room -- albeit not at the convention discount rate -- after registering so late) I picked up my convention badges and prepared to do battle over the board. Before the first round got underway, the convention organizers honored those who had traveled the farthest to attend this DipCon. I was surprised at how far people are willing to travel to attend a world championships, as there were people from as far away as New Zealand and Israel who had come to play. The seven attendees who had come the farthest were given nice plaques. And then, after some brief preliminary speeches, it was time to go.
The first round was scheduled to start at 9 AM, but it was past 9:30 when we finally got started. For some reason I, probably the greenest face to face player in the place (despite my three years of e-mail Dip experience), was placed on a table with ex DipCon champ Mike Rocamura, Israeli player Shlomi Yaakobovich, Grant Flowers, Ry4an Brase of the DipPouch Showcase Section, hobby legend Edi Birsan, and last but certainly not least the aforementioned ex-world champion Chris Martin. I draw Austria, oh boy. One of the things that pleased me though was that despite the number of "legends" at the table, the atmosphere was laid back. The negotiation, however, was very fast paced and I quickly realized that I was way out of my depth. I quickly forged an alliance with Shlomi's Turkey. Mike as Russia never gained my trust, and he never trusted me, not that that mattered much in the end. Chris was England, Edi took France, Ry4an had Germany, and Grant Italy. Despite my friendship with Shlomi, I maintained cordial relations with Grant. Nonetheless, I often felt bewildered in negotiations, as the sheer number of stories flying around the table absolutely blew my mind.
And so, with my Turkish ally and a German bounce in Sweden, we had denied Russia any builds, and looked to be in good shape. At this point though, the western powers, who had formed a solid triple alliance (something that I had never seen in e-mail play) began pressing me to stab the Turk. So I did, though it was rather a weak stab. My big mistake in this game was that I did not act decisively enough. In e-mail, a player has the luxury to sound things out and develop real communications with his or her allies. Without that luxury, I was lost as to what to do. So I did stab Turkey, which had been part of my original plan anyway. I like the Austro-Turkish alliance in e-mail play, since it allows for quick gains for both parties, and then a quick rise to dominance for whichever side stabs first. This had been what I had been planning with Shlomi's Turkey. But since I stabbed wishy-washily, Grant's Italy decided that I was more a liability than an asset, and promptly stabbed me hard. He and Shlomi gutted me in just a couple of years, and I had received my baptism by fire.
I go into such detail about what happened in the first few moves of this game because it really highlights to me the fundamental difference between tournament PBEM and face to face Diplomacy, which can be very disconcerting to an e-mail only player. This is the necessity for quick alliance play. Since games ended at a preset time known only to the gamesmaster (anywhere from four to six hours after the official starting time), and a player's score was based not only on his result, but the number of centers he had at the end, there was a real impetus to shotgun ahead in the early game and then build on that. As an e-mail player, I'd always been taught, and have instructed others, not to wed yourself to an alliance in the early game. But the top tournament players do this because it fits well with the scoring system. So I decided to change my strategy to reflect this thought for the remaining three games.
So for the second round, which occurred on the evening of the first day, I was really prepared to get down and dirty. I drew England on my board, among whose players the only name that I recognized was Brandon Clarke, who often contributes in several ways to this very 'zine. He was Italy. I arranged peace with both France and Germany in the early game (the Western Triple seemed a very popular way to go in this tournament, as I guess it fits in well with the "slingshot" strategy that I mentioned above), however, events conspired against me very quickly. Russia, played by Chris Kulander, moved north in spring 1901, which meant that I had to devote all three of my units to taking Norway, meaning I had no stake in Belgium. Even worse, Italy had opened to Tyrolia, meaning that Germany had to scurry back to cover Munich, leaving France unopposed in Belgium. So by spring of 1902 I regarded both France and Russia as threats, and correspondingly, made a pact with Germany to attempt to gain the upper hand on them both. Nonetheless, with three French fleets and a continued Russian presence in the north, there was very little that we could do, and eventually we were forced to sue for peace with Russia, losing Sweden in the process. By this time Germany and I were reduced to 3 each, and we quickly fell to France.
It's at this point that I began to realize how much luck plays into face to face Diplomacy more than it does into e-mail. In PBEM, a player has a lot of time to talk and his skill as a negotiator really comes to the fore. In face to face, a player must say what he must say quickly, which takes a different kind of skill than PBEM negotiations, I think. I talked to Chris about not moving north to Russia, but I apparently did not convince him of my desire to fight in the north. He was legitimately worried about my convoy into Norway (or was that an act?), and he must have been putting the petal to the negotiating metal to get France to attack me in 1902. He wound up sharing in a three way, so it wasn't so bad for him after all, but still I wonder if there was any way that pure negotiation skill could have held off the Russian and French attacks in this environment, which as I mentioned before favors real slingshot lightning quick advances. In any case, I was learning quickly, and the lessons would continue into the next round.
So in the third round I draw Turkey, a nice safe country to play, you're thinking. Even the fool who is writing this article ought to have been able to survive until 1905 or so, you must be thinking. Nope. I was eliminated in 1903, the one event which probably more than any other qualified me for the "hammered" award. I was still playing with my "slingshot alliance" strategy in mind, and so I was prepared for a Russo-Turkish assault. Nonetheless, I did not want to show my hand to the rest of the board so early, and I suggested a bounce in the Black Sea to Russia. This is a move I would make 99.999% of the time in e-mail Diplomacy (the other 0.001% being when my grandmother is playing Russia) and I wanted to start safely in this game, and with reluctance that surprised me, the Russian player agreed to it. Boy did he shock me, moving to Armenia and Sevastopol in the spring. He said he wanted to give me a wake up call about the Lepanto alliance forming against me. And he was right, Italy and Austria had been plotting my demise. I quickly agree with Russia to vacate the Black Sea, I retain control of Bulgaria in the fall, and build in Smyrna, giving me two fleets on the Aegean. In the fall of 1902, after bouncing in the Aegean with Austria and Italy in the spring, I get surrounded by their fleets and lose Bulgaria since Austria had also cut the Russian support for it. And so in the next year Russia turns on me to get his share of the spoils, and I am done in 1903. Ouch.
In round four, I draw England again, and am actually doing quite well gaining Belgium and Norway in 1901, and have a solid Western Triple with France and Germany. This is an alliance that is seldom played in e-mail, probably since no German player in his right mind would agree to it. But with the shortened games and quick stabs of a face to face tournament, it becomes much more palatable. The quick turnarounds, however, caused me to make a decision that was I must admit, totally stupid. I had stabbed France and was looking quite good, but I built in the wrong place, and as a result gave Germany a forced capture of the North Sea. I don't know what I was thinking, but I guess I had gotten to caught up in my slingshot and built a unit that could only be used against France. I survived several years by teaming up very closely with France, until I was finally eliminated. This one was squarely on my own lack of concentration and/or comprehension.
So that's how I got hammered at World DipCon X. What this article cannot possibly express is how much fun an experience this was, meeting dippers from all around the world and making new friendships in the hobby. The DipCon society meeting also gave me a rather interesting introduction into hobby politics, as various aspects of the proposed DipCon charter and how it should be ratified were discussed. Since most of the conversation was beyond me, I won't try to replicate it here, but Brandon Clarke's proposal the charter be ratified in each of the three regions of the Diplomacy playing world eventually won out, and his bid to secure the 2002 world championships for Canberra was also successful. I had lots of fun, and look forward to learning more about face to face play and possibly even squeezing into a few draws. I'd like to congratulate Simon Bouton and all the other top finishers. Finally, I exhort people who play only by e-mail to try to make it to a con, any con as there are plenty out there. There's a whole new world of Diplomacy out there waiting for you to discover it...
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