We'll Inherit The Earth

Richard Adams

This article is inspired by Richard Mulholland's article in the Fall 1998 Movement issue, which concerned replacement players (Oops! I Didn't See That Coming. Now What?). It was a good article, but what struck me as odd was that it is the only one I've ever seen on the subject. Maybe there are others somewhere in cyberspace, but I've never seen any.

And that's strange. Almost every game of Diplomacy -- whether e-mail or snail mail, but especially e-mail -- involves replacement players. I don't know if there any statistics on the subject, but my guess is that the average PBEM game has around three or four replacement players joining it during its lifespan. That makes dealing with replacements a very common experience, but one that's rarely dealt with in these pages or elsewhere. It is also how a lot of new players start playing their first games. So, following Richard's lead, this article presents some thoughts on playing as replacement, how it differs from play as a non-replacement player, and how to deal with these differences.

The title and the sub-headings in this article are all song-titles by a post-punk era U.S. band called The Replacements. Their spirit was very "live fast, die young." But the band in fact did better than most replacements, and lasted for nearly 11 years (that's 22 movement phases), from 1979 until they distintegrated around 1990.

1. Learn How to Fail

I love playing as a replacement. The reason I like taking on sometimes hopeless positions is that it appeals to my romantic side -- like the lone gunfighter, taking on the bad guys, or the small band of warriors in the movie The Seven Samurai. I also play far more aggressively, on the grounds that I have less to lose; I'm less psychologically attached to the power since I haven't nurtured it from its birth in Spring 1901. (After reading Richard's original article we exchanged thoughts, and he said he reacts the opposite way: he plays much more cautiously taking over an abandoned position than when playing from the start.)

To me, getting knocked out as a replacement player doesn't feel as bad as being a starter. It's like baseball: if the starting pitcher loads the bases, does anyone really blame the bullpen for any ensuing runs scored? (Well, at least not the first two or three.)

2. Love You Till Friday

"The other players will be grateful for you keeping the game going." Oh yes. And the length of time of their gratitude is one of the shortest periods known to mankind -- often too small to be measured -- after which they resume plotting as if nothing had happened. In fact, after about one or two moves, they forget that you were ever a replacement player, and they blame you for whatever bone-headed foolishness the previous player(s) had committed.

Playing in one game, as a replacement Germany, after a couple of years I offered a sensible alliance to Austria. He refused, because of an earlier stabette performed by the previous German player. When I pointed out that it wasn't my fault, he replied, "it doesn't matter; you Germans are all the same"! I thought often of that as I watched him being crushed by Italy and Russia.

(Usually Austrian players are most likely to be mad, for some reason. Has anyone else noticed that Austria players are often not the sharpest knives in the drawer? Maybe it is just me. And are they bonkers before they play Austria, or does the country do that to them?)

The answer is to keep reminding them that you aren't the same player that stabbed them back in 1902. You're new. You're different. You're older and wiser. And you won't make the same mistakes that fool made, that's for sure.

3. Johnny's Gonna Die

The reason it doesn't hurt so bad being killed off, of course, is that most replacement players take over positions that have gone sour on the original player. In my slim experience, players drop out or are ejected at two points early on. The first is at the Spring 1901 move. (These are people that sign on to games and then decide they don't have time or whatever. They will go to Hell.)

The other major date is (roughly) 1904. That's when starting players who are at risk lose interest because the game's not looking too good for them. Alliances are forming against them, they have just been stabbed, they can't understand why everyone hates them, whatever. They cut their losses and run (like the yellow dogs they are).

In passing, Richard Mulholland summed it up well: "In face to face games, there always was a loser who got himself killed in the first couple of turns. Essentially these guys were just a bunch of extra neutral supply centers. In e-mail games you have fewer of those guys, but instead you get these guys who drop out early. At least we can replace them with a decent player and continue."

The next main drop-out zone seems to vary by date, but roughly it's when the game has been pared down to three or four powers, all biggish, and the starting player realises he's unlikely to win or be in the draw (or has been stabbed by his best buddy in the game who is now going to do one of those two things). That's the often attractive-looking replacement positions you regularly see on offer: "S1908M Turkey 8/8!!". Before you make those Homer Simpson-style "Mmmm, Turkey" noises, you'll probably shout "D'oh!" when you see that Russia has 12 centers, and France has 14 and has just convoyed an army to Armenia or something.

And of course there's the traditional just-about-to-die position, of only one or two centers. They come up at any time throughout the game. They are generally hopeless. A good way of gaining dedication points. But not one to lose sleep over.

4. I Bought A Headache

These positions are all different, and so are most of the methods of dealing with them. Taking over a 1901 power is pretty much the same as starting a game, except you have to be careful that the other players haven't had plenty of diplomacy time between them. You are still the newcomer, and it can take some fast talking to even find out who's ganging up with who.

But what all three positions have in common is that you are invariably the new kid in town. I don't know how many of you moved to a new town and changed schools half way through as a child (I did, aged 12). Its tough, not knowing how to react, while all the other kids eye you suspiciously. Being a replacement is much the same. The other players have fed this game and watered it from a small seed in the games queue, and now you come along. Especially if you upset the already established order:

"Player X was a complete bozo, we were going to wipe him out. Then this new kid arrives, he's much smarter, makes some interesting proposals.... but we are still going to wipe him out because we've invested too much in the plan now to change course!"
This happens a lot. Player X was either:
  1. An idiot ("Greetings from Herr General Lord Sigismund the Third of Australia-Hungaria!") [I tend to find that players who use elaborate royal titles and olde-worlde style forms of address, even if they do get the name of their nation right, are often nuts, and tend to drop out quickly. And it's a good thing too.]

  2. Hyper-aggressive ("Listen creep; touch the English Channel and you are dead meat, you worthless piece of dirt. P.S.: can you please support me into Belgium?")

  3. A newbie ("Hi! Turkey says I should attack Germany like all the good Russian players..."), or

  4. Used impenetrable English ("Hello, ally you I attack yes, now?").
So everyone else lines up to attack Player X just to get rid of them, through sheer annoyance. Player X then does the smartest thing he does in the entire game, and resigns. That's where you take over.

5. Stuck in the Middle

Once an alliance has been formed and set in motion, once that French fleet is in the Irish Sea and Germany has taken Norway, it takes on a momentum that is very hard to stop.

This is where Richard Mulholland's earlier article was spot on. Think where you are going to be if the worst happens and the two nasties keep coming at you. The answer may be "eliminated." So in that case, you have nothing to lose. My response is to go for broke and take big risks that offer big returns (as opposed to goofy-style moves). Cause havoc.

But this is also where Richard and I differ slightly. He thinks that when a replacement comes in, the game is in a fluid situation similar to the start of the game. I disagree. The game already has a history, a record, a past. Relationships have been formed and even broken. That's a very different position to pre-S1901M. I say: exploit that past.

In conclusion, here are my two cardinal rules for replacement play:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the game's history. Immediately call up the back moves of past years and old broadcast messages. Become very familiar with the record. After all, every one of your opponents has an intimate knowledge of the game's past, and you will be hindering yourself if you don't close this knowledge gap as much as you possibly can. See who stabbed who and when. Rub that in where useful. Play dumb where that's useful.

  2. Exploit your supposed ignorance. That ignorance is the biggest advantage you have, even as a one-center no-hoper. Play the "honest broker," the "detached, objective viewer." Encourage other players to re-evaluate their current positions. The mantra I repeat to myself and other players is: "Look At The Board." Come in and give an honest judgement of where you see the game going if it were truly unencumbered by past feuds and squabbles. Then stress to the other players that the power or powers who you see as benefitting the most surely have this same detached view of the board, and that they are probably behind every single skirmish that has so far directed the game his way. So often replacement players come into a game where the situation is blindingly obvious -- one player or alliance is cruising to a win, while the others conduct a petty squabble (usually in the Balkans) and miss the big picture. Well, paint it for them and see what happens.

Richard Adams
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