Classib PBEM Diplomacy

Community Backstabbing

David Cain

Diplomacy is by all measures a brutal game, where attacks are often taken personally (because they may very well be personal) and revenge is only available to the skilled. Persuading and deceiving while guarding against falling victim to the same requires control and perception. Opponents must be quickly evaluated and manipulated using subtle tools of psychology, combined with strategic and tactical ability. Mistakes are often fatal, and grossly humiliating.

But Diplomacy where opponents never return for a re-match introduces a final period problem which distorts the control required of a practical diplomat. Anyone who has ever made an enemy knows that they don't simply go away; worse yet, they take pleasure in harassment and spoiling. A serious diplomat knows that the best way to deal with an enemy is to never make one. But alas, no greater challenge confronts an aspiring diplomat than trying to placate a Diplomacy player who has unexpectedly surrendered four centers to your greedy hordes. A diplomat who can accomplish that feat is formidible indeed.

I have played Diplomacy for five years now with the community called Cat23. Human GM's, weekly turns and a fairly steady membership of about thirty active players provide an enviroment which many believe constitutes the best forum, bar none, for facing diplomatic intrigues of that extreme level.

When most people speak of Play-by-Electronic-Mail (PBEM) Diplomacy, they are referring to playing on one of the many Internet judges. Aside from the use of e-mail to communicate with the other players, our style of play in the Cat23 community has little in common with judge PBEM. What we call "Classic PBEM" is really more akin to PBM Diplomacy, but at a faster pace.

As a dynamic group of players and volunteer GM's, a community provides long-term diplomatic relations which creates a heightened sense of accountability both in and out of games. We play against each other and GM for each other with a regularity that forces consideration of our fragile reputations when making any move. As such, NMR's are infrequent, as are dropouts, and substitute players are not only easily found, but players actually compete for the chance to be a replacement. (After all, there are few easier ways to accumulate political capital than stepping into a dying spot.) A game rarely stalls for more than six hours -- no time at all in the weekly-turn time frame.

Playing against some of the same players frequently -- mixed in with a few new players at the same time -- takes the diplomacy conducted to a higher level, as the styles and quirks of opponents are taken into account when framing correspondence and making plans. We know something about our opponents, and we use what we know against them, revealing ourselves in the process.

We also pay close attention to what goes on in the other games being played simultaneously in the community -- watching players who may someday be our opponents, cheering on the sudden demise of an old arch-rival. Peanut gallery commentary raises the stakes of the games and heightens the awareness that the game is a community activity, and that poor play or poor sportmanship will be noticed not only by the opponents, but by the entire group.

Orders are collected by human GM's, who take responsibility for setting and enforcing deadlines, adjudication and posting the results. Human adjudication means that variants can be played, and even created on the fly, merely by agreement of the players. More significantly, the players are required to correspond weekly with the GM, which fosters relationships on that level. This player-GM connection makes NMR's and drop-outs a personal affront to the person running the game, and reduces those discourtesies even further.

Cat23 plays Diplomacy with one week seasons -- orders are usually due on Saturday night, with summer/winter seasons falling on Monday night. While this pace may seem slow to those accustomed to the usual 24 hour to three-day pace of judge play, and while it may seem quick to postal players, the period has become one of the hallmarks of our play. A week is sufficient time for otherwise occupied players (i.e., with jobs) to exchange a half-dozen letters to cement plans with an ally, and two or three letters with every other power. No stone goes unturned at this pace, and because the correspondence can be so heavy, relationships become highly personal, and emotions run strong when stabs fall. When one game reaches a quiet endgame, with little to be said, weekly turns permit joining multiple games with reduced risk of over-commitment in any one week.

We are able to play at this pace because of the dedication of the group -- while new players arrive constantly, some moving along after a game or two, many remain to play for years and years. We enforce deadlines and other rules strictly, which appeals to people serious enough about the hobby to stick with a game until the bitter end, despite the fact that they have only had one army for six months, real-time.

To support our group we have established two specialized listservers and a growing network of web pages. The whole community is exceedingly vocal and has developed a system of play which fosters excellent Diplomacy, and a strong comeraderie. The members of Cat23 are among my very best friends, because I respect their skill, repartee, intellect, and (not least of all) their dedication to the greatest of games. On the other hand, I know better than to trust any of them with an open supply center. Friendship only goes so far.

Cat23 membership
Cat23 GM Lounge
Cat23 post listserver mirror
Cat23 chat listserver mirror
To subscribe to either list, send the message "subscribe" to: or

David Cain

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, click on the letter above. If that does not work, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.