About the 1898 Variant, Part I
While there have been many articles written about Standard Diplomacy, there have been surprisingly few written about variants. This article is about my favorite variant, 1898. I hope to encourage people to play and GM this variant, and give you some familiarity with its nuances, so that you can have an idea what you are getting into. I hope that you will at least try it, given the chance. You may decide you like it, or may not, but I'm sure that many people would like it if they tried it. Of course, I also hope people will GM some 1898 games, as no one will be able to play them unless someone GMs!
What is 1898 and why is it called that?
The help file from the judges reads as follows:
In the 1898 variant the game starts in winter of 1898 with each power having one unit. Each country must capture its other home centers before it can build in them. The initial setup is:
The victory conditions remain 18 centers.
All right, this is all well and good, but why do they say the game starts in winter 1898? In fact, the game starts in spring of 1899. Your unit is already built. I have a theory that originally you may have been allowed to select the type of unit, thereby starting the game in winter 1898 as stated. But later, due to difficulties of implementing it that way on the judge, or possibly due to gameplay issues, the rule was changed. I doubt it would change much, but for anyone thinking of GMing this outside of the judges, you may wish to consider this option.
Jim Burgess asked me a reasonable question about this variant in the r.g.d. news group. After arguing about some of the nuances of the game, he asked me "Why play 1898 at all?" There are several reasons I like this variant. First, it is a simple variant, yet the simple change creates some subtle differences in the game. The change to the rules itself is very basic: you start with one unit instead of three (or four). You still have the same home SCs, although you now must take them before you can build in them. All other rules remain unchanged. So this is a variant that will not take a lot of getting used to, and any player that understands the Standard game should understand 1898. But this simple change has some subtle effects which players of all levels may enjoy.
Another reason I like 1898 is that it is more balanced. That's a pretty bold claim, and as you will see later there is some strong evidence that contradicts it, but nevertheless I will make this claim anyway. I say this for two reasons: 1) I feel that the game is "immature" as far as number of games played and basic strategy. Therefore, the results would (hopefully) level off over time. And 2) nevertheless is a really fun word to type.
Finally, there are some very real choices you get (have) to make towards the beginning which you simply don't have in the Standard game. This makes the game a little more fun.
About the differences
The first choice you will encounter is whether to "wander" or not. This is unique to 1898. Generally, the first two years is spent scooping up 3 home SCs plus one neutral. (Or, in the case of Russia, scooping up 4 home SCs.) This puts you in reasonable position to grow without being choked by your inability to build. However, this is not the only possibility! You may choose to wander, that is to go pick up an SC besides one of your own. Everyone has the option to wander as early as the first year, except for Italy who can get no farther than Venice that year.
However, very few players are bold enough to wander the first year. Doing so will have a ripple effect for several years to come. The next year you will only be able to build one unit, in the SC you originally occupied. But unfortunately the year after that, you will also only be able to build one unit! By this point, most of the other players will have ramped up their production capacity and yours is just beginning. Finally, the year after that you may be able to build more, but if your wandering has angered other players you may already be a target. I think it's fair to say that wandering in the first year is pretty risky. Still, I've seen Germany go wandering into Denmark the first year and do quite well. And it's also fair to say that most solo wins involved taking some risks.
Wandering in the second year is more attractive to most players. You can do so without crippling your production, and you may get an early jump on another player. On the other hand, if you are the only one to do so, then you may set yourself up as an obvious target (on the other hand, if you have confidence in your diplomatic skills, perhaps this is okay). Another thing which is interesting is that if you are the only one to wander, then it will probably either make you or break you, and unfortunately it will break you more often. But the more people that do it, the less likely it is that it will break you. So it is another version of the Prisoner's Dilemma, which we've all come to know and love.
The first and obvious difference is the 4 SC "unhandicap". That is, by the end of 2 years it is most likely everyone will have 4 SCs. But some empires would normally only have 4 SCs by the end of the first year anyway. So these empires, normally handicapped by getting 4 instead of 5, are now less handicapped since everyone has 4. That's why I call it an unhandicap. So England, Italy, and Turkey all benefit. France, Germany, Austria, and especially Russia, suffer.
Germany is an odd case though. Although it would seem to be handicapped by the 4 SC maximum, in fact the geography more than makes up for it! The reasons are fairly simple: by the end of the second year, France will almost always be heading for Iberia, since they haven't even gotten their first 5 SCs yet, and England will also most likely have at least one fleet that is badly out of position. But the German armies will be well positioned to pressure Belgium and/or Scandinavia. So while England and France are thinking about their 5th SC Germany will already be thinking about his 6th! Germany may decide to help someone else into Belgium but they certainly have more leverage there. Also, due to the positioning of the units, an EF attack on G is going to be tougher, slower, and far less likely to have support from the other side (remember, Austria and Russia are both weakened). So all in all, Germany's position is improved.
A general note is that because of the way the initial dots are picked up, the NW corner tends to resolve a little bit faster and the SE corner a little bit slower. The result of this has been that England, France, and Germany all have slightly higher win rates than the Standard game. This makes sense, because if two of them can take out the other, they will generally be well placed to turn South and West and get past the major stalemate line while the SE powers are still squabbling. This is a difference in the game that the SE powers have often not accounted for. But I hope this is something that will change with more awareness of the nuances of 1898. I'll have some more concrete suggestions regarding this in Part II of this article. In the meantime, I encourage you to think a little about this subtle difference and how you might overcome it, or use it to your benefit.
A more specific note is that Austria and Italy both do worse than in Standard. This makes some sense for Austria, but makes less sense for Italy. Remember, Italy was one of only 3 empires receiving the 4 SC unhandicap. I have a couple of theories for this. First, Italy and Austria fight earlier and/or more often, as it may be very tempting to do so. Second, Turkey is strengthened and that has to hurt Italy a little. Third, since the NW corner resolves faster and the SE slower, Italy gets hit faster from the West. (Okay, that's three theories.) Again, I will have some more concrete suggestions next time, but encourage you to think about this in the meantime. Surely this situation can be improved!
The Black Sea: there is a huge difference here as it starts out with no fleets around it. Generally, an early fleet build by either Russia or Turkey is considered an act of war. In theory, this would benefit both of them equally. In practice, it seems to benefit Turkey more. So far, anyway.
Building your "starting forces"
The other main difference is an option to build your starting forces differently, since you are building them yourselves and not just stuck with whatever is given you. For example, it is not at all uncommon to see Austria building only armies at the beginning, or to see England building only fleets. Italy may decide to start with three fleets and just one army. Russia and Turkey have the option to create a true DMZ in the Black Sea with no fleets, but T may build fleets on the outside right away. France may also opt for 3 fleets and 1 army.
In general, there are more options for more fleets to be built quickly. This is not that unusual in an 1898 game, and a game that starts out fleet heavy will definitely have a slightly different flavor.
There are tactical and strategic considerations resulting from this, but for now let me mention diplomacy. The bottom line is that in the beginning you must talk to your allies and potential allies about what their builds are going to be, and what yours will be. This is not an area to be ignored. Some GMs do not like talking during the build phase, and that's really too late anyway. You should be talking about it ahead of time. Some coordination at the beginning can be very useful, and on the other hand a squabble at the beginning can be disastrous. Of course any time you give out information in Diplomacy, it can be used against you. But I think the benefits outweigh the risks in this case. And I can guarantee you that other people are talking about them.
For example, France will usually want to build a Fleet Brest the first year. That is logical, and England should understand it. But still, it's better to let England know than surprise him with it. There are plenty of other examples but you get the idea.
I've talked a little about the mechanics of the 1898 variant and the reasons you should try it. I hope I've convinced a few people! I've also talked in a general way about some of the differences between 1898 and Standard: the chance to wander, geographical differences, and changing your starting forces. Also, I've pointed out some ways that the game is more balanced and others where the game seems to be less balanced. In the next article, I'll talk about all of these differences more specifically, and offer some concrete suggestions for dealing with the apparent imbalances I referred to. Along with that I will go into more detail about why I think the game is well balanced. Until then, have fun and try an 1898 game if you get the chance!
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.