The Face-To-Face Variant
Due to my other commitments, I was only able to show up Saturday evening. The conference was in a most appropriate location: the International Confererence Center of the French Foreign Ministry. Even the bathrooms were fancy-schmancy with mirrors all over the place.
I was surprised when I arrived in the main hall. All the conference participants were seated together in groups of seven around small tables. On each table was placed a large reproduction of the Diplomacy conference map with a number of plastic pieces on top of it. Were they playing some kind of game? Intrigued, I approached a table for a closer examination. The people crowded around the table were writing Diplomacy orders. But they didn't have a computer. Instead they wrote the orders directly on a piece of paper. These papers, one for each great power in Diplomacy, were collected by one player. As he read the orders, the players moved around the pieces on the board, and determined the results of the orders manually -- without the aid of Ken Lowe's Diplomacy Adjudicator.
I looked around some more and located a long table at the end of the room with some computers, and people busy typing away. At last something that I was familiar with. I headed over to talk to the people there. As they explained to me, the people at the small tables were in fact playing Diplomacy. However, it wasn't the usual Diplomacy that you and I love, but a variant which they call Face-to-face Diplomacy. I thought that at least the people at the computer were playing real Diplomacy, but I learned that this wasn't the case either! The computers were not connected to internet, but served only to assign players to particular tables, and keep track of results.
The organizers told me to have a look around. In the next room, they had a small "Museum" in honor of the French Diplomacy Hobby. Among other things they had a large collection of French Zines. These Zines are pretty similar to the Diplomatic Pouch, The Spring Offensive, Diplomacy World, Diplodocus, and League of Nations which we are familiar with on the Worldwide Web except that absolutely nothing would happen when I clicked on highlighted items. (Must be a defective link somewhere...). These Zines run games similar to real Diplomacy except the orders are submitted by regular mail to a human GM rather than by electronic mail to the Diplomacy Adjudicator. One particular subvariant of PBM Diplomacy was so complicated that the adjudication of each movement took a hundred or so typewritten pages! The entire record of the game stood as an impressive tower on the table reaching several feet in the air.
Back in the game room, the organizers of the convention asked if I would like to join in. The English player had to quit and I could replace him. I am always interested in trying out new variants (heck, there is even a variant named after myself), so I said yes. I returned the following day, and played two full games. Once as England again, and once as Russia.
I am not the world's authority on Diplomacy, but I've played real Diplomacy for many years, and have tried many variants. By no standards do I consider myself a pushover.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. There are several important differences between Face-to-face Diplomacy and real Diplomacy.
The biggest difference is the time limits: Whereas I usually have a few days to a week to think out a move (or, in the case of DipPouch, six-months), here each move had to be negotiated, written, and adjudicated in only 15 minutes. (Ten minutes in the case of the last game which started late.)
I'm used to negotiating with everyone on the board nearly every turn. Even if I am at war with someone, it is in our mutual advantage to know how each other is thinking and to keep on good relations in case something develops which give us a chance to work together. I always take not hearing from another player as a very troubling omen. Yet here there simply wasn't time to talk to all my neighbors, let alone everyone on the board.
In the first game, the previous England had allied with France. I saw that France was benefitting from the alliance more than England, and might soon be in a position to stab England, but I had to submit orders immediately. France kept on talking with me. And I didn't know how to talk to Germany. I couldn't imagine stabbing France without at least some token reassurance from Germany, yet turn after turn France purposely wasted all the negotiation talking to me, or at least staying near me talking to third parties. If I couldn't talk to Germany, perhaps I could at least slip him a note. I wrote "Please support Ruh-Bur", and focused on trying to slip him the note without France seeing. I wasn't able to do it that turn or the next, but finally I did succeed during a moment of inattention by France. I was so happy until I saw the perplexed look on Germany's face. I then turned back to the board. Germany had been driven back so far that he was no longer in any position to support a move of mine. France was now poised to finish off Germany and stab me.
As in real Diplomacy the players came from all sorts of countries, mostly France, but also Sweden, Spain, Italy, England, etc. However, without the standard notation imposed by the judge, everyone spoke a slightly different dialect of "Diplomacy". And without the leisure of having a long time to digest a diplomatic missive, it was difficult to understand the other players references to "the 'Ilands" (Clyde) or "Benelux" (Holland and Belgium). These misunderstandings not only were a waste of time, but also sometimes led to involuntary nonverbal cues that could be misinterpreted as signs of treachery.
I often felt that any hesitation on my part could be seriously misinterpreted by my negotiating partners.
Another difference is that due to tournament time constraints, all games are concluded in 1906. Obviously this greatly changes the nature of the game. To take an analogy from chess, this is like having a chess tournament in which all game are terminated after 10 moves for each side and points are attributed to each player according to how many pieces he has left. At the end of the game, I might capture a protected pawn with my queen knowing full well that my opponent wouldn't have time to capture it.
One of the nice paradoxes in Diplomacy is how you can't get anywhere without an alliance, but every alliance is doomed to break down at some point, since only one player can win. In a six-year game, the point at which allies are forced to turn against each other might never be reached, so there was a fair amount of "Care-Bear" play.
On the other hand, standings are determined by the momentary supply center placement at the end of 1906. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to stab a player for one-center in 1906 even though he would be capable of inflicting far greater retaliation in 1907 were the game to continue. The last year of the game did in many ways look like a free-for-all, including transfers of supply centers between "Care-Bear" allies to maximize their total score / tournament rank.
I have the habit of taking over very weak abandonned positions and turn them around by taking advantage of the balance of power to keep the game going long enough for me to catch up. Here, balance of power considerations simply did not exist.
After two poor performances as England, I was happy to draw Russia for the third game. Perhaps I could try the Northern Opening that had been used against me in the previous game. Since play started late, there was discussion of shortening the game to 1905. I suggested stopping the game immediately so that I would be the winner with four supply centers. In the end, it was decided to maintain the original length but with shorter negotiation periods.
I was immediately approached by a very aggressive Germany. He demanded loudly that I commit two forces to the North and prevent England from taking Norway, otherwise he would stop me from taking Sweden. Despite his aggressive tone, I said I'd try assuming I could arrange a suitable security arrangement in the South. He took up a lot of my time, but eventually I got 30 seconds to speak to Turkey and arranged a DMZ with him.
1901 turned out to be a disaster. I was attacked by all my neighbors and end up with only three supply centers (and it could have been two had Austria guessed correctly concerning Rumania). I never recovered from this dreadful start.
Germany continued to deceive me turn after turn usually to little point. Once, while reading orders, I saw that Austria had supported a German move against me. I asked Germany if he had actually made the order which had been supported. He said no and approximately two seconds later it was revealed that Germany had indeed ordered that move.
My situation more or less stabilized after I ceded Sevastopol to Turkey in exchange for peace. However, I kept on reeling from one crisis to another, and in 1906, I was everyone's favorite choice when looking for an extra center to help them in the standings. At least in the end I was able to help England against Germany.
Oh well, it was an interesting variant, but I think I am going to stick with real Diplomacy.
University of Bordeaux
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the mail address above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.