It is a surreal experience, to say the least, sitting here beginning my first article as Editor of the DipPouch Zine. Over the last ten years, this site has been my Diplomacy Bible — through it I have learned a host of new strategies and approaches to the game that I never would have been able to ascertain on my own. It was also a hub through which I made all my hobby connections after discovering the game in the late nineties. It's an incredible resource, and as I'll probably say in dozens of other forums during my tenure as Editor, it is a true honor and a privilege for me to be able to sit at its helm, even if only for a brief time.
This is my first foray into hobby publication since the days of Naima Equinox, the postal zine experiment I ran when I was around fifteen years old. Of course, it was doomed to fail, if only because I couldn't afford the thirty dollars or so above my subscription fees that it was costing me per issue. The folly of youth, I guess, or just my own stubborn nature, gingerly guided me around these concerns during the time I was excitedly planning my zine, not paying much mind to the potential drawbacks. As far as I was concerned at the time, there were no drawbacks — I was going to be editing and publishing my very own Diplomacy publication, and there wasn't anything I would rather have done with my time.
Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, and unfortunately the best-laid plans of broke fifteen-year-olds are even less reliable. After a few issues I folded the zine and started devoting a lot more of my time to "normal" teenage activities. (I don't want to say the slight decline in hobby effort coincided with getting my driver's license, but I will anyway.)
Fast forward to 2007. I'll be twenty-four this year and am a recent college graduate, in English. I worked very diligently throughout college on my schoolwork, but I always found time to have an e-mail game of Diplomacy going here and there — while I may have fallen out of serious hobby involvement, I've been unable or unwilling to shake the addiction I developed a decade ago.
So when I saw Edi Birsan's posting that the DipPouch needed help, I thought I'd volunteer my services. I certainly wasn't expecting to become Editor as a result, but here I am. And as I've been dealing with the newfound duties related to the position, I've been musing on how strange and wonderful it is that I sort of just found myself in the middle of this hobby a decade ago — a kid who could barely hold his own against some of his friends in the game, much less the sharks that play this game on the Internet and at Cons — and am still in it, despite crushing loss after crushing loss (especially those I suffered in the beginning...)
OK, so probably like some other people involved in this hobby, I had kind of a hard time socially, especially in junior high. Most of the guys I knew in middle school were into football and not much else; the girls were into the guys who were into football and not much else. Me, I was content to read (fiction and history, which are the two areas of literature I still spend most of my time on), play chess, and practice my bassoon. While I no longer play bassoon and my chess game is seriously lacking, my life's theme had already been decided, to an extent: I was interested in anything that required the use of my mind. The more I was using it, the happier I was.
So I started hanging out with some guys all around my age — some older, some younger — at a youth group that attracted almost 100% nerds. We came from different corners of the school system, united for a common purpose: playing really geeky games. We had our AD&D, we had our Rifts, we had our GURPS. We had Risk. We had comic books. We had Super Mario Kart. We were ready to weather adolescence together.
That was all well and good, but there was one problem: the role-playing games seemed like a pointless exercise to me in many ways. OK, I admit, this is a loaded statement. I think the main reason for my aversion to the RPGs was because the two guys that owned all the role-playing books, Jon and Richard, ended up as GMs every time, and they delighted in sending some of the less experienced RPers on wild goose chases and sticking their characters in ridiculously over-the-top situations for hours on end. Here is a brief example:
And every time the turn would come back around to me during that game, it was just, "Okay, so you're still a goat... What Do You Do?" Of course, no matter what I did, I still remained a goat for the next six hours. (And as an aside, Richard ended up being my roommate for a year a couple of years ago, and I still ribbed him for the "goat debacle" as much as I possibly could...)
So needless to say, while I really enjoyed this new group of like-minded friends, I didn't really have the patience to play the goat-game for long periods at a time. But luckily, there was a game on the horizon that I would readily spend eight hours or more on any time I was asked. And that game ("get on with it!" the crowd begins to chant) was DIPLOMACY.
It's funny, that first game was just about ten full years ago, but I still remember it more clearly than many of the games I've played in the intervening time. It is also my perennial bad result, a game in which I made so many bad decisions that there is simply no way it'll ever be surpassed as my "worst game." Sure, I've had plenty of games since wherein I eliminated as Austria in 1903, but at least I can say that wasn't entirely due to my boneheaded choices and misplaced trust (wait a second... actually, I take that back, but this game was still worse.)
The game, provided by one of our constant role-playing GMs, Jon, was played on a rafting retreat somewhere in Tennessee. We were set up with cabins on a sort of campground during the times we weren't rafting. The whole ride over from Raleigh we passed conference maps around the van and discussed the rules so we wouldn't have to go over all of that once we got there. (Of course, as you'll see, we made up plenty of our own rules, too.)
This was one of the few games where we suffered from the problem of having too many players rather than too few. So seven of us claimed the player roles and everyone else was told that they could be "generals" for the other players or "spies," and this delicious choice was left to the unlucky few to make. (I think most of them opted to be "spies" for about thirty minutes and then found something else to do.)
We were playing outside, under the same sort of canopy of trees that I'd once found my golden amulet hanging from. The board was set up on the porch of one of the cabins — and the cabin had been set up as a place to negotiate, with the woods being the other alternative.
I drew Turkey. I was happy with this, as my quick study of the map led me to the conclusion that Turkey would be easier to defend than some of the middle-board countries. I was right in theory. In practice, I kind of dropped the ball.
Jon was Russia and Richard was Austria. A youth leader who RPed with us on occasion was Italy. I should have been more worried about the fact that by far the most experienced gamers, gamers who were best friends with one another, were surrounding my poor sovereign nation. However, I was more focused on the fact that my best friend, George, was playing Germany. And instead of working on an anti-A/R deal with him as I might try today, I decided ... well, that I wanted to attack him. George, if you're reading this, I'm sorry, but I had a score to settle from our days playing modem games of Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games!
So I went to Jon and asked him to grant me safe passage through Rum/Gal/Sil and, if he didn't mind, Sev/Ukr as well so that I could easily bring forces to bear on George. I can only imagine what went through his mind when I made this proposal. Either "this kid has no idea what he's doing," or "this kid must think I'm a complete fool." Probably both, actually.
I still remember how I opened: Ank - BLA, Smy - Arm, Con - Bul. Jon went ballistic, because he'd opened to the north. I told him that I'm just doing what I've wanted to do since the game started: attack George. He couldn't do much to stop me taking Sev, but I think he was hopeful that I might not have a strong enough grasp on the tactics yet to force my way in and took a forgiving tone with me. I took Sev that fall.
I built two armies because I had nothing to fear from the West. Which was why it was a huge surprise to see an Italian fleet take the Eastern Mediterranean the following Spring. At the same time, Richard's previously scattered and frankly uninterested-seeming Austrian forces had concentrated around Bulgaria, and Jon was getting poised to retake Sev and had obviously made nice with A/I. Suddenly, attacking George seemed like the utter folly that it had actually been from the beginning, and I began to scramble to figure something out. The first thing I figured out? Beg George for help. Hey, he didn't know I had carefully planned out his prolonged and painful death at the hands of the Turkish hordes. He agreed to help me — the West was strangely peaceful and yet non-aggressive toward the East, in another anomaly of this particular game — though there wasn't much we could figure out for him to do on the board to prevent me getting eaten alive by AIR.
So we went to Italy to make a diplomatic appeal. The guy playing Italy was a youth leader, someone we all looked up to, a very high-demand ally in Diplomacy as his prowess at strategy games was somewhat legendary. He knew this, obviously, and used it brilliantly to his advantage. Case in point: after listening to our pleas for about ten minutes, he finally agreed to help us — and not only to help us, to abandon his A/R allies for a new I/G/T axis. To say the least, we were thrilled.
In fact, we were so thrilled that we failed to make much of his caveat: in order to attain this alliance with him, we had to surrender control of our nations to Italy, and act as generals under his supreme command. This was just what we wanted, we thought — an iron coalition that would wipe out the rest of the board by the end of the day and a well-deserved three-way victory, snatched (in my case at least) straight from the jaws of defeat.
Sure, it's not allowed in the rules, but we didn't need no stinking rules. We were going to win this thing. That following turn, the announcement was made. I/G/T was now as one country. All black and yellow units were removed and replaced with green ones. Italy had jumped from a four-center power to a fourteen-center power in 1903. Sure, it wasn't fair to anyone playing, and it took all the fun out of the game for everyone. But as George and I saw it, it guaranteed ultimate victory over our former Game Masters. The look of complete disbelief and anger on Jon and Richard's faces was almost as sweet as the fact that we were about to enjoy a three-way win.
Remember what I said about the best-laid plans of fifteen-year-olds? Well, we weren't even fifteen yet. The complete idiocy of our decision to cede our territories to the youth leader was made apparent the following turn, when he announced "I fire my puny generals and become Pope Satan." The whole board got a good laugh, Jon and Richard especially, and while the game dynamics stayed the same — a 14-center power versus the world — George and I were suddenly out of the running entirely.
The funniest part of all this is that the youth leader got bored of the game before he could get those last four dots needed to solo. It was about eight hours or so after we'd started, and he was still only at fifteen or sixteen. Soon, he was begging George and I to come back and finish the game for him so he could go do something else! Of course, we barely needed to be asked — we were ready. We came back and eventually got the solo for Italy.
So in my first game I played only the opening and the endgame, was almost eliminated, then was eliminated by default, and eventually won a solo victory with the other eliminated-by-default power's help — and saw that if people don't complain about the rules being blatantly disobeyed, just about anything can happen on the Diplomacy table. I'd also developed a very faint understanding of the tactics of the game and was amazed at how deeply nuanced everything about it was. I had the bug. And I wasn't planning on losing that badly to my friends again.
After I got back from that trip, the first thing I did was to go to a game store and plead with my dad to get me a copy of Diplomacy. I used the quote on the back about President Kennedy's cabinet playing it and left off the bit about it being Kissinger's favorite game. My dad loves games like I do, and it wasn't hard to sell him on it — if I'd promise to teach him how to play. He got the game for me, and I spent some time teaching him and playing the two-player variant with him (useful when learning the ins and outs of the strategy, anyway). Most of my time after getting that set, though, was spent online — playing games over e-mail and voraciously reading DipPouch articles in a wide-ranging effort to become a higher-caliber player of Diplomacy. I suffered loss after loss. I got involved in every area of the hobby in my quest to learn: real-time play, e-mail play, postal play. The only wins I really got at first were a precious few against my dad in the 2-player variant, not exactly a badge of honor. But say what you will about me, I'm a persistent guy, always have been.
I guess I showed that persistence by signing up for the World Dip Con, held about twenty minutes from my hometown in Chapel Hill, a few months before my fifteenth birthday. I had been playing Diplomacy probably six months at that time, and was buoyed somewhat by a few FTF wins I'd racked up against the same group of friends (my practice was paying off, and no one else out of that group had tried getting outside experience in the game via the Internet or anywhere else.) I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me in Chapel Hill.
Just a quick rundown of the highlights from that tournament: my first game I played England with a British guy named Mark Wightman (who I would later find out was something of a hobby legend) playing Germany. He was really nice and was the only player on the table that I didn't feel was talking down to me because of my age. So of course I signed on to work with him in a quick takedown of France. Of course, you know what's coming: he had me push France back to Iberia, then once France was a two-center power and I was at six, he and Russia blitzed the British Isles with fleets. I was eliminated by 1906. There were a couple of other games that were quick eliminations and aren't even really worth writing about.
And finally, the most heartbreaking of all: a game where I actually managed to do something, only to be talked out of it in the end. As Turkey, (faithful Turkey,) I had managed an R/T juggernaut against Austria and had stabbed Russia successfully at the same time that France and I put Italy out of commission. On the other side of the board, E/F were steaming along, and in diplomatic discussions they told me that they were going to get a two-way, there was nothing I could do about it, and I should go ahead and vote for that draw now so that I could get points for the centers I still had rather than wait for them to wear me down slowly over the next several hours. I could make excuses: it was very late and I was young and tired. But the truth is I just didn't think about the position critically enough. I had the units necessary to hold Turkey indefinitely. I could have claimed a 3-way draw at World Dip Con. I could have been a contender! But instead I voted myself out of the draw.
I have to admit, I was feeling pretty bummed out by my experiences at the World Dip Con that year. In fact, I was starting to think maybe I'd gotten in way over my head by starting to play Diplomacy in the first place — these guys were good. I might have stopped playing for good, honestly, if not for the conversation I had with the one and only Edi Birsan after one of those eliminations. I knew what a luminary he was in the hobby, having read zines as widely as possible, and so I was flattered when he apparently noticed my long face and approached me with some words of encouragement. He told me, basically, that I'd gotten an early start, that I shouldn't get discouraged if I lost all my games at that young age because I'd eventually be old enough that other players would take me seriously at Cons and I'd have years of experience under my belt. I was really heartened by that and it gave me the impetus to play even more postal/e-mail games in a drive to gain more experience. Of course, if you'd told me that ten years down the road, that same Edi Birsan would be handing off the editorship of the Diplomatic Pouch to me, I'd say you were crazy. But I guess it just goes to show that persistence pays off in this hobby.
I'm not as fanatical a player as my newfound title with this Zine might lead some to believe. I am still learning the finer points of playing Diplomacy well, and I'm by no means a shark like so many of the players I've met. I can't play thirty games at a time like some people reportedly can, I can hardly keep up with three. I know this, though: Diplomacy is a hobby that has given me so much over the last ten years. So much excitement, so much intrigue, so many new friends all over the world that I now correspond with. It has been such a rich hobby for me, such a great distraction when I can take absolutely no more Shakespeare analysis or law-firm flunkying. I firmly believe it's one of the deepest games ever created and I have a strong conviction that this game could be much more popular if we worked on more ways to encourage new players to join our hobby. I have a few ideas on that topic, but that's for another article.
Otherwise, I hope you have enjoyed my tale of becoming a hobbyist at a pretty young age. I have more stories I could tell from that period, but since this article is already on the long side, I'll have to save it for another installment. Thanks for reading!
Though I haven't been to many Cons, I do try to make it to DixieCon every year (coming up Memorial Day weekend in Chapel Hill, NC!) Maybe I will see you there!
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.