The Blight on the PBEM Game

by Ian Raynes

This article concerns the seeming rash of abandonments affecting PBEM, particularly games on the DPjudge. In my last two games, eight of the twelve other players abandoned their positions, while the current DP Tournament has been affected so badly that the original scoring system has had to be abandoned, 68 replacements in 28 games. I am not referring here to players who abandon their positions involuntarily through illness, access problems or the like, but to those selfish individuals who simply walk away from a game because the position is not to their liking. The purpose of the article is to stimulate debate within the hobby regarding this problem, and to propose some measures that could be taken to control it.

I should note at this point that there has been a measure of recent debate on this issue on the Yahoo Diplomacy chat site. Check it out if you are interested. Also it is possible to avoid abandonments by joining the Vermont Group or Diplomacy Direct, which run games for players with a proven track record. My concern is with abandonments in open sites, in particular the DPjudge site. Newcomers to the hobby have to negotiate these before qualifying for the elite enclaves.

Let me state bluntly that I could be considered to be poorly qualified to write this. I am an educationalist and not a psychologist, and I have not been playing on the judges for long enough to get a JPDR rating. Nevertheless, I have played enough games for my enjoyment to be adversely affected by extremely inconsiderate players who seem either not to realize, or worse not to care how their abandoning can ruin the game for everyone else. I am sorry to criticize fellow diplomacy players, but if you donít like what I say, or have points of your own to make, I would encourage you to get involved actively in the debate.

I regard walking away from a game because your position has turned out badly as cheating. No other sport or pastime would accept this. It can have a devastating effect on a game, particularly if more than one player abandons. If Smart CD is invoked, the scope for diplomatic intrigue and manoeuvre is reduced and the tactical position becomes much more predictable. In other words the game becomes less complex and in my view, less interesting. Worse, some powers can find their carefully nurtured ally suddenly disappearing while others have all threats removed and are presented with an additional larder of poorly defended centres, enabling them to grow unexpectedly rapidly. If instead the game looks for replacements, time is wasted, momentum lost, and relationships overturned.

There is as always, another way of looking at abandonments. For the amoral and cynical player, abandoned neighbours are quite handy. They cover your flank without being any threat. They allow you to expand quickly, gaining centres across the stalemate line early, while leaving the abandoned playerís units in place, his centres to be picked off at leisure. The smart strategy therefore would seem to be to attack active players only, leaving abandoned positions to fester until the time is right. Is there scope here for a feigned abandonment? Could a player legitimately allow himself to go into CD, and then re-awaken to devastating effect once the heat is off? The point here is that abandonments happen, they will always happen, and if you anticipate them you can take advantage — perhaps unfair advantage. In my personal view it is one thing to play another out of the game through one's own skill, but quite another to take advantage of an abandonment when that advantage is not available to other players. If while playing soccer, the opposing goalkeeper abandons his post and leaves the pitch, you may find it easier to win; but it is surely neither fair nor fun to do so.

Why do players abandon? There is probably a research project for someone in this. I suspect that a proportion have difficulty in recognising that the Internet is not some vast game for their personal enjoyment, but a community of real people. They simply do not see, or care that their actions have an impact on others. There may also be a growing band of online gamblers who are used to throwing a losing hand in the hope of a better one next time. I suspect that many, if not most abandoning players are young and possibly with an inflated view of their own ability. This presents a problem, as the hobby will always need new blood, and there should be a route to rehabilitation and acceptance for these players rather than simply casting them into outer darkness. I believe that action should be taken to reduce the numbers of abandonments by increasing disincentives to behave in this manner, and to reduce the impact the abandonments have on games and tournaments. The following suggestions are my own, and may not all be practical for the DPjudge or other Judges. Still I hope that youíll find them worth discussion.

Firstly, I would like to see some form of dedication rating introduced to the DPjudge which could be used to exclude serial offenders from the majority of games. This already exists on the Ken Lowe judges, and the abandonment problem is not as severe there. I would also like to see a blacklist of offenders that game masters can consult before admitting a player to a game. Within a game, once a player has been found to be abandoned, a notice to that effect, including his name and possibly email address, should be broadcast to all players, irrespective of whether the game is gunboat or not. There will always be some who would be unfazed by this, or even see it as a challenge; but I believe the majority would try to avoid humiliation if possible.

As a preventive measure, why not try introducing players to each other before the game? A simple description giving age, gender, experience, location etc would make your opponents more human and more interesting. This could be done before power allocation to improve anonymity if so desired. This may be a bit too pink and fluffy for some tastes, but would not need to be used for every game.

I would also like to see more articles and discussion around the fun that can be had from weak positions. There is huge satisfaction in getting your one unit behind enemy lines and wreaking havoc, or in coordinating a Lilliputian Alliance halting the ambitions of a 17 centre bully. Perhaps a series of game reports, not as detailed as the Showcase games but enough to give a flavour of a game, could be used to show new players how games evolve and how to enjoy each stage no matter how poor your board position. On a separate note such a series could include variants such as Payola, which would remove some of the mystique and attract new players to them also. I have always been put off some of the more complex looking variants, and seeing how a game goes for real might give me the impetus to try one. In online competitions and linked series of games, it would be fun to acknowledge the achievements of small powers with awards such as longest survival as a single unit, or a Lazarus award for recovering after losing all your home centres. Perhaps the DP could run some such awards periodically, with players nominating each other at the conclusion of individual games.

Within the game, I believe that all players should also look out for those who are vulnerable to abandonment. As Austria, you may look on with quiet satisfaction as France and Germany pile into England. It is not so funny if England abandons and France swiftly stabs Germany, who also abandons. You may have a long delay while alternative players are found, who may have a different, distinctly anti-Austrian complexion. Worse, if Smart CD is enabled you are in dire straits. France may have only six units at this point, but he is well placed to solo, with no realistic naval threat and plenty of abandoned centres to pick up at leisure. In such circumstances why would you be attacking Russia? Why are you not helping Italy and Turkey secure the Med before France locks that area too? Indeed, why did you not forestall this situation by words of encouragement to England and warning of the possible stab to Germany? Of course, France will have a different view and may even be working hard to induce the weaker western powers to abandon, and would see the resulting favourable position as his by right.

There is clearly a role for game masters in forestalling and discouraging abandonments, or to put a more positive spin on it, to encourage players to play on. I am not qualified to comment on this aspect of mastering a game. Perhaps an experienced master would care to comment? The ideal mix of replacements or Smart CD is perhaps an area of interest.

To sum up I believe that there are three things to be done.

On this last point I should add that the two games I referred to in the first paragraph as having been badly affected by abandonments, both ended in a solo win for me. This may be good for my JPDR rating but it wasnít much fun. Iíd rather everyone played actively to the end than simply kick the ball into an empty net. There is so much that is good about the DPjudge and its superb and easy to use interface. That is why it is so good for newcomers to the hobby. If we can crack this problem of abandonments then it will surely help the hobby to grow and develop, to the benefit of us all.

Ian Raynes
(Raynes001@aol.com )

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