Survive Diplomacy

Brendan McClure

It has now been a couple of months since Survivor 2 has ended, and finally we can turn on the TV without hearing that word "Survivor" umpteen million times. I apologize to all the people who are sick of that word, not to mention the "Reality TV" craze that is only going get worse before it gets better. The good news though, is that all this has spawned quite an interesting Diplomacy variant. This article is meant as an introduction to the Survive Diplomacy variant. If you want to learn of the background of the Survivor concept, read on. Otherwise skip directly to the discussion about the rules, and don’t worry if you don’t understand the jokes. Now, love or hate the TV show Survivor, you have to admit that when played well there is a fair amount of diplomacy involved. Anyone who reads posts on r.g.d. during the run of the show can attest to that. It’s all about eliminating your enemies and keeping yourself alive, even if it means stabbing your friends. Sound familiar? I did not watch the first season save for thirty minutes of the final episode.

For the last challenge, right before the penultimate vote, three contestants were required to hold onto a totem pole structure. Last one holding onto this pole received immunity for the next vote. Imagine my surprise when one of these contestants let go of the pole a mere hour into the challenge! Once I figured out why, I became impressed with the diplomatic nature of the show. Allow me to explain this in more detail. The three contestants at this point were: Rudy: A well-loved guy who would easily have won the final vote against anyone. Meaning he has a giant bullseye on his back that screams out "knife goes here". Kelly: She was not loved, nor hated in general, and had the best chance of winning the log challenge. Richard: AKA "The Rat". Hated by all, but his diplomacy skills are far above average, even among us Dippers. You see, Richard knew that if he let go of the log early, he was still safe from being voted off. Rudy would have voted Kelly, and Kelly would have voted Rudy. Both Kelly and Rudy wanted to go into the final two against Richard in the hope the jury would vote against Rich and for them. I was greatly impressed with Richard’s ability to size up this situation and manipulate the other contestants, right up until the very end. Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you probably know Richard won the first Survivor.

(For completeness I suppose I must discuss the second Survivor, which I did watch. All I can say is there was no diplomacy involved in this one at all. No strategy at all by any of the players, regardless of the millions and millions of times Tina said that word. When faced with an opportunity to most likely win, care-bear "Oedipus” Colby voted with his heart instead of his dagger. When the time came for Amber to assert her individuality and cleverness by switching sides, she stayed on her sinking boat blissfully unaware of rising waters. Also, I work at a gas station, and we can’t give away copies of the "Jerri" Playboy magazine. ‘Nuff said.

Once Survivor 2 finished, I imagined if I could incorporate the concept of "voting someone off the island" to Diplomacy. Thus, I invented the basic set of rules for Survive Diplomacy that are still used now. The entire rule document can be found here at the Survive Dip website. There aren’t many rules, and they can be summed up in three simple sentences: Every second year, during adjustments, the players of the game vote out one other player. The number of votes each power has to cast is the number of SCs they own. The player voted out NMRs the rest of the game.

This is basically all there is. The only other major thing you will find in the official rules is the definition of "NMR" and how to deal with tie votes. I had briefly considered to have "immunity" and other challenges in the rules, but I rejected those ideas for the sake of simplicity. It may also have added a randomness to the rules that most of us would hate.

Playing Survive Diplomacy

A number of Survive games have finished now, and all the bugs in the rules have been worked out. Some of the different strategies in playing the variant are now apparent and patterns can be seen from voting results.

On how to play this variant, Bill Cook of the very first Survive game summed it up quite well in his EOG: "The early negotiations surprised me. From what I read, I was playing a different game from everybody else. They were all playing Diplomacy, with some weird Survivor rules thrown in. I was playing Survivor, with Diplomacy used to allocated votes. Everybody was negotiating early moves, DMZ's and what not, and I wanted to talk about long term voting alliances." This cannot be stressed enough – whereas Diplomacy is a game where the diplomatic and strategic considerations drive the tactical, where the game is won, in Survive the tactical and diplomatic considerations drive the strategic, where the game is won. While it is important to get DMZs, neutrals and whatnot, as Mr. Cook says, you need to address voting alliances first. It helps if you are in an alliance that owns a majority number of SCs, obviously. But here is where the complexity and beauty of Survive Dip lies. Who is it good to vote against? If you are Russia, diplomacy will dictate whether to move against Turkey, but either way, is it a good idea to vote against Turkey? Or France? Or Italy? Unlike regular Diplomacy, where more often than not, it is a good idea for Italy and Austria to ally, there will never be a similar "common sense" alliance in Survive Dip. Votes know no boundaries. When it comes time to vote, the entire board does not separate England and Turkey, they have a profound impact on the outcome of each others game. To do well, a player must be aware of what all players on the board are doing. There is no need to discuss long-term battle plans against another power if you can manage to get them voted off.

The power in Survive Dip does not lie solely in board strength, it lies mainly in your political prowess. Okay, so you have a group of powers that promise to vote with you. Things are looking good! But then another aspect of Survive Dip rears its ugly head – RAMPANT PARANOIA. A big stab in standard is two or three SCs. Even then, you can always fight back, or throw your SCs to another power to spite your stabber. But what if your allies could stab you out of the game in one swift, decisive and efficient move? It is a most unsettling feeling that cannot be expressed in words. There is no ‘on-board’ evidence indicating an impeding vote against you. The vote is numerically dictated by the size of the participants, but how they will vote has no precursors. And thus in Survive Dip, your paranoia can make you change sides and philosophies many times within a single phase. And in the end, no matter how confident you are, there is always that chance the master will call your name when it’s time to leave… The pace of this variant is very fast. If you manage to make it that long, a standard game can reach end-game in 4 to 8 years. This catches most people completely off guard. Typically the vote in 1906 has two giant powers and one middle-sized power remaining. The middle-sized power is the Richard discussed above: he is unlikely to be voted out. He is generally the kingmaker, and in the position of most power. The common scenario is that the middle power chooses which of the giant powers is voted off, and races to beat the remaining power to a majority SC count. A sound strategy in Survivor, which is incomprehensible in standard Dip is to arrange to be the middle power in 1906. The larger powers must then balance whether to support you. This generally takes the form of them trying to become the middle power themselves, or at least presenting a case which makes them appear as the simpler power to fight when the battle becomes a two way battle following the vote. You cannot do well by racing to grab as many SCs as you possibly can, unless you can be assured of controlling the next vote. You need to find a balance between gaining strength, and avoiding unwanted attention. This is where most of the criticism of this variant is focused on. Why play a game where third place gets you a gold medal? I believe this criticism is misplaced. Survive Dip is not standard. In standard, the goal is to get 18 centers; in Survive the goal is to *ahem* survive. If your strategy is to race to 18 centers and hope not to get voted out, you are playing the wrong game. Your strategy must allow you to survive all the opponents; that is the winning condition. While getting to 18 centers is a means to win, it is not the only means to win, and not to be pursued to the exclusion of other considerations.

Standard is a game where tactics ultimately determine the winner, and diplomacy and long term strategy is used as a means to strengthen those tactics. Survive is the opposite. Long term strategy, using diplomacy and tactics as inputs determines the winner. Your orders are used help strengthen your long term strategy, and strengthen you diplomatically. Your diplomacy is essential in carrying the voting. The nature of the beast has been radically changed. Lessons you’ve learned in standard may no longer apply.

Tina talks strategy

Now, while I in no way mean to imply that I am a master of playing Survive Dip well, or that I know the "best" strategies, the following tactics (and pitfalls) are a good foundation to base your own strategy (or prevent your early elimination).

RAMPANT PARANOIA -- The "White Stuff" in the Oreo Alliance

Survive games usually feature many more triple alliances than standard games. This is a way to get powerful, but unfortunately, it can also be your downfall. Suppose you are Austria, and you are in a voting bloc with Italy and Russia. The three of you eliminate Turkey quickly and then decide to vote out Germany. Your bloc consists of maybe 20 SCs, so you have a majority, meaning Germany will be voted out according to plan. But then you begin to ask yourself: why would Italy and Russia want you alive any longer than necessary? After voting out Germany, they could very likely attack you from two sides. And why does Italy want to vote out Germany, when Russia and you are the obvious beneficiaries? This leads to the consideration that whether the vote goes against Germany or not, you are now between two large powers. Meanwhile you are being lobbied from one of the westerners to vote out one of your allies. You can’t help but consider it. Just like the white stuffing in an oreo is sandwiched in the middle, you feel sandwiched by your allies. So you listen to the western powers and turn on your allies.

On the other side of the coin, Italy and Russia are getting leery of Austria’s intentions, and finally decide to vote out Austria instead of deal with the risk of keeping him alive. Events like these are part of the growing pains of Survive Dip. In the example, instead of the dominant IAR defeating their enemies, the entire alliance collapses under its own growing paranoia. A good analogy of this is a rolling snowball. It begins small, rolling down a hill, but it gets bigger and bigger until it is destructive. Fortunately there is a cure, but you must first shed another instinct learned from standard – you do not necessarily need a neighbor as an ally. Think about who is the "white stuff" in these alliances: EFG? Germany. IRT? Turkey. FIA? Italy. Notice how all these triples are based on neighbors. Now try to tell me who is the "white stuff" in an ETF alliance, or GIR. Not so easy this time. These "unnatural" triples are immune to the early stages of paranoia that claim many of the normal triple alliances because no power is sandwiched directly between any other. The natural instinct of diplomacy players is to strike deals with one neighbor against another (to help strengthen your tactics). This is great for standard, but can lead to death in Survive. All players are equidistant when it comes time to vote. You must gain friends anywhere you can get them. (Unless you are so naturally paranoid you ask, "now why are these guys wanting to ally with me?")

The "I told you so" Factor.

"I told you so" is the most common phrase heard in Survive games. It has become something of a running joke since the first test game. When power A is voted out by his friend power B, if and when power B is voted out, it is customary to say this phrase. It doesn’t matter if power B’s stab was a good idea at the time or not, the phrase must be said nonetheless. The lesson I’m trying to give is simple. You need a paranoia filter. If the time comes to stab an ally, with units or votes, you must think very carefully about your motives. Are they strategic or emotional and paranoid? At the end of the game, would the stabbee have any reason to say "I told you so"? So you need to consider your stabs very carefully in Survive. The urge to stab an ally by voting him out is strong. It is like how a newbie playing Italy might try attacking Austria singlehandedly, because their short term desires for growth overpower their long term thinking. It is a mistake many of us committed as newbies, and something we learn from trial and error.

Rock the Vote

Survive Rule 5a) In the case of an n-way tie in voting, those 'n' players are eliminated.
Picture this scenario: EFG (14 SCs) agree to vote out Austria. ART (16 SCs) agree to vote out France. You are Italy and have four votes. You want to vote out France with your ART buddies, but you are also getting suspicious of Austria’s intentions toward you. You would like to have Austria and France voted out. So what do you do? Cast 2 votes on Austria and put the remaining two on EGR or T. Austria and France are then tied at 16 votes and both leave. Austria committed an error in this voting phase. He did not "rock the vote". Surely each side knew of the black-and-white nature of this vote (either France or Austria was going to leave). To prevent the Italian stab leading to double elimination, Austria needed to tell IRT that he was putting a random number of votes on a random power. By putting between one and five votes on England say, and the rest on France, Austria protected himself. He "rocked the vote" so that no one could manipulate the totals against him, while ensuring his enemy (France) gets voted out. So when necessary and possible, "rock the vote". Just try to make sure the rocked votes don’t accidentally push one power's total over the top.

What About France?

For some reason France has been a vote magnet in the test games. To date, there have been four standard, two crowded and one modern survive game. France has been the first one voted out in three standard and one crowded. Four out of seven games. Why? The only thing I can think of is France’s record in the standard Dip game. France is statistically the strongest power, so it is believable that in Survive, the other powers cannot resist taking down this Goliath early. France faces a tough "learning curve" until the Survive player base become better skilled, the same problem I imagine Austria faced early on in standard. In the other standard game where France survived, she almost soloed (in fact it came down to a 17-17 vote tiebreaker with Turkey beating out France). This too is similar to Austria in standard, they are both "make or break" powers. The other 6 standard powers are most likely changed by this variant also, but it is impossible to say how yet.

Why Should I Play Survive?

Many reasons! The rules are extremely simple to understand once you read them. You can play Survive Dip on any board, from Aberration to Zues IV. There is always a solo. There are very few 'hanging on' or mercy positions. If you are small, then the bigger powers are going to either eliminate you quickly (to get rid of your vote) or make you larger to avoid you being kingmaker. No corporate sponsors means no incredibly ugly Pontiac Aztec/Tent thing! But in all seriousness, the main reason to play Survive Dip is the same reason we’re all here: it’s a lot of fun. Think of Survive Dip as standard at warp speed. Everything happens faster, and the emotional ups and downs of playing Dip are amplified. RAMPANT PARANOIA needs to be experienced to be believed.

I have created Survive5 and Survive6 on USIN, WGP-, 48 hours. As soon as I notice this article is published, I will set them list. Feel free to email myself or John Pitre ( and we will most likely be happy to create any other game for you.

So go out and play Survive Diplomacy! Just don’t expect Mark Burnett to save you by snagging your can of rice on a twig for you to find.

DIPLOMACY copyright Hasbro Inc.
The Ancient Mediterranean map and rule variations copyright Don Hessong
Brendan McClure

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