With Ken Lowe
Last summer I talked to Ken Lowe, the creator of the Judge, about Diplomacy
and his future in the hobby. Here is what he had to say.
- So, when did you first get involved with Diplomacy?
- It was around 1985. A number of our student consultants who were friends
of my office-mate were interested in setting up a play-by-email game so
I got swept up into it. They set a board up in the office across the hall
and we all sent e-mail to one of the students who then adjudicated the
orders by hand. We started in May and half the students left in June so
the game fell apart before the Fall 1902 orders were processed. As
Germany with six centers on the first build I thought the game was going
pretty good, though -- I won the toss with France, my office-mate, so he
supported me into Belgium rather than vice versa.
- What made you write the judge in the first place?
- After that first game dissolved, I volunteered to act as the PBEM
moderator of a game called StarLord -- a hidden movement galaxy
exploration game -- for the remaining people plus a few others. It
consumed a lot of my time and it felt as if a great weight
was lifted when the game terminated about 3 months later. It was about
that time that our CDC Cyber system was given 1 year to live, to be
replaced with UNIX systems. I was the campus's main Cyber honcho, so I
was given the UNIX system and was told "Here, get this thing running."
I needed to come up with some project to learn the basic workings of
UNIX and I had put together a number of tools to help me moderate the
StarLord game, so I decided that an automated adjudicator that would take
care of the whole shebang would be a good "learn-UNIX" project. The rules
to StarLord were too ambiguous, though, so I chose something with a more
rigid set of rules -- Diplomacy! I had played maybe two or three
face-to-face games, but it was nearly impossible to find seven people who
were interested in playing for three hours at a sitting. An automated
adjudicator that would let you submit your orders over a period of a couple
days would be just the thing!!
- When did it run its first game?
- In its first incarnation in late 1987 it handled one game with fixed
deadlines. When the students who'd played in that first game in 1985 found
out about the judge, they prompted me to put in the multi-game code so
they could have their own game without having to find their eighth player
to act as a moderator.
It adjudicated about 5 games, one or two at a time with just the local
people who worked at the Computer Center. This worked out most of the
early bugs. Word of it leaked out to the campus and it handled maybe ten
more games, with three or four concurrently, in the next six months. The
games were much shorter back then, especially without the NoNMR code.
- These days, I have been giving out Boardman and Miller Numbers to all
games on the Internet. To my surprise there are very few non-judge games.
I think I have recorded one non-judge standard start this year, and a
couple of variant starts, which are not supported on the judge. In 1994
so far (to the start of August), I have counted about 185 variant game
starts, and 105 standard game starts (about 110 of the variants were
standard gunboat). Did you ever imagine that your judge software would
become such a dominant force over the Internet?
- I had never heard of PBEM Diplomacy and Electronic Protocol prior to
writing the judge. One of my coworkers posted a couple messages on usenet
and sent a few to Danny Loeb and outside traffic began to pick up.
Curiously I lost nearly all of my local University of Washington clients
at about that stage. They trickled back in from time to time but there
were never more than about 4 local people active at any one time after
that. To answer your question, yes I did imagine it, but not at first.
As the clientele built and built, I knew that it was snowballing and it
would begin to travel under its own momentum soon.
- In November 1992 you announced the closing of the Washington judge, after
all its games had been finished, at that point it was running over 150
games (including unlisted games). The only other judge at that point was
South Africa, which was running 3. Today we have six public judges, and a
few private ones. The public judges peaked at a total of over 290 games
this Spring [see attached table].
When you first announced your retirement, some feared the collapse of the
judge portion of the Internet hobby. What actually happened is that people
were prompted into action, creating their own judges, and taking over some
of the slack. In March, the Morrolan judge smashed your (official) record
of 147 games, peaking at 185 games in April. Any urges to reclaim your
- The little microvax that I was using to run the judge was totally swamped
handling the Diplomacy load. I was also getting a bit burnt out. I had
given the code to many different people who had run it off and on over the
last few years, but none of them were taking much of my load away. I
announced the cease of new games on my judge with the very intent of
goading more people into taking over some of that load. It worked.
- There is now a small, but consistent, group of people contributing to the
judge code, and a mailing list where these people can discuss their
problems. Recently, much to David Kovar's dismay, patches started to
appear weekly, or even more frequently! Any chance of seeing you return
to judge programming in the future?
- In November of 1992, my intentions were to resume new games the following
June with a cap on the number of concurrent games, but when I saw that
there was an active body of judge maintainers I decided it would be better
for me to bow out of the business and let them take it on. In my
retirement from adding new features I have found that there are quite a
number of other things that I'd rather put my time into. No, I don't
think you'll see me programming more Diplomacy code.
- One of the strengths of the judge, is the ease in adding simple
variants. The latest release of the judge from Morrolan (6.0) supports
17 variants in addition to standard. (Recent additions include RootZ,
Aberration, Chromatic, Wraparound, Milan and Asian). Perhaps the most
ambitious variant ever added was Machiavelli. Even today bugs are
showing up in the Machiavelli variant, and there is no-one who
understands enough of the code to fix it. Do you regret adding such a
- Absolutely not!! Avalon Hill has terminated Machiavelli. The only
information I could find on the game was an old Xeroxed copy of the rules
that were in the bottom of my desk. If it weren't in the judge, it would
likely be lost forever. Well, I suppose someone might still remember it,
but there was no way that I was going to get to play it again unless the
judge supported it.
If I did come back to programming on the judge, it would be to finish
programming the "Deluge" variant. I really want to see that one played.
That would be the second most ambitious variant, due to the A/F rules --
not to mention a changing map every year.
- Do you read rec.games.diplomacy?
- No. Usenet news is one of the things that I find that I cannot keep up
with my current workload. Luckily I've got you to extract tidbits and
forward them to me when it's appropriate. [My extractions are about one
article every 2 months -Nick]
- Are you currently playing any Diplomacy? Will you ever play Diplomacy
- One of the real reasons I put the judge together was so I could play
without having to find six other players myself. Once I got the judge
going I soon discovered that the judge administrator simply cannot play
on his own judge due to the extra information he gains from bounced
messages and such. Sort of a Catch-22. Not being able to play, I was
able to put more of my time into improving the code. Unfortunately I put
so much time into it that I totally burned myself out on the game.
Yeah, I'll play again, but it won't be for awhile yet.
- On a judge?
- Of course!! I've made my position on two-way draws clear enough, though,
that I'd definitely need to play anonymously. So you won't know I'm
there until after the game is over. One of the things I really liked
about the "Deluge" variant was that there is a clear winner after a set
number of turns.
- Do you see any future for yourself in the Diplomacy hobby?
- I see a future for my adjudicator and that in itself is a future for me.
Andy Warhol says everyone is famous for 15 minutes, but I feel like I've
beaten that with the judge.
- Any last comments?
- I'd like to thank everyone who supported the judge in its infancy that
made it what it is today. In particular, Danny Loeb, Jamie Dreier, Dave
Cebula, Dave Wiseman and, of course, John O'Regan. Thanks, also, to all
those people like David Kovar and you yourself, Nick, who are keeping it
University of Waterloo
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