My adventures with the San Francisco Bay Area Diplomacy Association, or B.A.D.Ass. to our friends, started unofficially when I stumbled into Edi Birsan looking for players at DunDraCon in San Ramon, California in early 2006. My reaction was "You guys play Diplomacy...? Cool!" but I didn't have the time for a game that weekend. As I learned later, Edi is infamously resourceful at recruiting new players during Bay Area events and has developed a teaching script for converting curious bystanders into novice players in record time. I'd played a few games in the mid-nineties but suffered from the too common problem of trying to make a game with fewer than seven players, whose enthusiasm waned a little after every turn. So as a semi-experienced novice, I resolved to play as much Diplomacy as I could handle at the next opportunity I could find. That turned out to be ConquestSF.
The Mentor Round at ConquestSF Diplomacy Tournament sounded like the perfect antidote to dissolve my mental rust. I'd brought my garishly colored Gibson Games UK set with me so I dusted off the rules and the few yellowed strategy articles that lay wrinkled under the plastic tray and started to read. I had played an online game as Germany and was re-reading my copy of Edi Birsan's Sealion article in the hope of playing Germany again... "now where had I heard that name before?", I wondered. A quick scan of the Program connected the dots, sharply raising the stakes for me. Was I going to play chess with Kasparov?
Drawing Turkey was my first challenge due to my less than stellar performance from my single prior tenure as the Ottoman Empire. It was a good group to play with and they helped me through some novice mistakes and listened patiently to my attempts at diplomatic intercourse. In classical Turkish fashion I spent the whole game boxed in and knife-fighting with a belligerent Austria in the Balkans. My break came right before the game ground-down to a draw. The Austrian player, Louis, asked for a ceasefire to deal with the menace of an Anglo-French alliance that was picking up steam and was about to swallow Germany. Nodding and with a grim smile plastered to my deceptive lips, I agreed to hold my units and maybe send a fleet into the Med. I ordered my first stab as the Austrians redeployed to face the new enemy, Turkish units quietly slipped into the Balkans, bringing me up to five centers and turning the tables on Austria who was now looking somewhat endangered. The game plunged inexorably towards the event horizon of what I would come to learn was typical end-game haggling. I had stabbed my way into a draw and was elated but exhausted. After the game, I caught up with the rest of the players in the hotel bar who were surprisingly affable in contrast to the prevailing tense atmosphere of the last five hours. My erstwhile Austrian stab-victim was surprisingly forgiving. Surveying my fellow powers for impressions of my return appearance, Louis offered the first golden nugget of advice that I carry with me to every game. "Talk to everyone, even if you are at war." Thanks Louis, now I do.
The play in each of the tournament rounds was skewed by the different scoring system used. I drew Austria in the first round, right next to Edi Birsan's Italy and learned a significant lesson about leaving Trieste wide-open. I ended the game with a single unit of Austrian tourists enjoying Ankara and Constantinople behind Turkish lines but survived to a full-scored win as part of a draw along with a bonus Pirate award. In the second round I drew Russia and initially did well as part of a confusing total-alliance with Turkey. The steam-roller looked set to conquer half of the board until Turkey became entangled with a very powerful Italy, superbly played by Andrew Neuman, that swallowed Austria then began to dominate the board. Another draw to stalemate and attrition.
The third and final round was a total disaster for me. As France, apparently I negotiated my way into a splendid Western Triple with England and Germany that somehow excluded France as I discovered in 1901, with England steaming through the Channel and Germany pouring through Burgundy. I was doomed from the first turn and could never quite find an eager ally to come to my rescue. I was left alone, the stench of defeat hanging over me, while the other powers went to negotiate in twos and threes. Sympathy from Russia and Italy wasn't enough to save the day so after being forced back into Iberia I sent my last French Fleet on a desperate dash through the North Atlantic, looking for an easy kill in the lightly defended North. Although ultimately futile, my last run at survival caused England to withdraw fleets from a lengthy convoy into the Med and quite possibly saved Italy from the guillotine. My scorched earth tactics added a second Pirate award to my growing collection.
Those three rounds at ConquestSF were an intense and exciting introduction to many different diplomatic and tactical playing styles. In addition to my Pirate prizes I was awarded the Outstanding Debut award, probably for being the only new guy to stick around for all three rounds and make it to the awards. By now I was hooked like a fish on a line. When Edi handed me a flier for upcoming B.A.D.Ass. Whipping tournament in Oakland I could definitely see more Diplomacy in my future.
One of my favored rituals in face-to-face games is shaking hands with everyone before the game. It's the start of the psychological game that makes playing in person such a rich experience. You see, I like to shake hands and look the other players dead in the eyes. Of course, it helps to smile too, unless you want to make an enemy before the first set of orders are read. The pressure cooker of closely-timed rounds creates an environment where there simply isn't enough time to engage in all the diplomacy needed. Personally my favorite part is when the orders for the first turn are read. The nod from an ally who appreciates your move, the look of blank surprise from your hopeful ally who just needed to be relieved of Rumania, right down to the frazzled looking player, head in his hands mumbling something about losing Trieste in '01. It's a rush.
If psychology plays a big part in the game then I think attitude is paramount. I had suffered a minor but painful back injury a couple of days before the B.A.D.Ass. Whipping in October. In retrospect I should have stayed at home, laying on the floor and generally not hurting myself. Instead, I swallowed my prescribed dose of Vicodin and soldiered my way into Downtown Oakland to play with some of the great names in North American Diplomacy. The level of play was simply outstanding and I was blown away by the casual coolness that seems characteristic of the elite at the table. I was totally out-classed, out-foxed and just out-finessed during both games I played.
I drew Austria in the my first game, the second round of the Whipping, right next to Edi Birsan as Italy again. I decided to play the Austrian Hedgehog opening that so impressed me when Steve Ross opened as Austria in the final round of the ConquestSF tournament. I hung in, with the classic Austrian strategy of first losing Trieste then Budapest. Holding out in Vienna and benefitting from the occassional support from the maelstrom of Italy, Germany, France, Russian and Turkey that surrounded me, I was finally taken out in 1904.
My second game, the third round, I drew Turkey and opened with a full-on Russian Attack on Nathan Barnes while Edi Birsan as England attempted to sneak around the top. I could never quite convince Buz Eddy's Austria to sign up to my plan and was slowly pushed back by a combined Austro-Russian offensive until Russia executed a superb stab on Austria taking him down from 5 to 2 centers. I threw away my chance for any kind of survival when I turned down an Austrian approach for an alliance against Russia on the basis that we didn't have enough strength to push Russia back. Foolishly I rolled over and played nice with the Russian who thanked me by giving me the elimination I so badly deserved. In the shoulda, coulda, woulda of post-game analysis I figured that a friend in need is a friend in deed; going with Austria would have been a better option.
Ultimately a losing combination of my lack of prowess and my extremely relaxed state led to disaster after disaster. Fortunately, I equaled my prize count from ConquestSF at the Oakland Whipping by coming home with three trophies; two of the infamous skull cups for being eliminated and the final humiliation of the Dead Meat hat for being eliminated the most - two for two games! For the record, Vicodin is not a performance enhancing drug in Diplomacy.
An engaging aspect of the Bay Area Diplomacy community is the frequency of games. There's usually a push to get a social game running once a month between the major tournaments. Since the Oakland debacle, I've made it to two social games. Once at EndGame, the very same gaming store in Oakland where the Whipping has held and another at the home of a local player: Louis, the Austrian player who I so viciously stabbed back in that mentor round at ConquestSF but I guess he's forgotten about that now.
Yet again I drew Austria, my new favorite power, next to Edi Birsan playing Italy. Again.
I played a houseboat opening, easily blocking a couple of anticipated probing attacks from Italy, while sending Vienna off to a prearranged bounce in Galicia while sneaking Budapest into Rumania. Somehow I managed to upset Condy Creek as Russia with this snake-like play. The bounce was agreed but I guess he expected a move from Budapest! Early on, I made an opposite theater alliance with Adam Silverman's France and David O'Leary's Germany which worked well by squeezing Edi's convalescent and much appreciated attempt at playing Italy over the phone. Then the unthinkable happened and I was stabbed by a German attack on Vienna while deep in Russian territory at very the gates of Moscow. Somehow I had missed an errant German unit creeping into Bohemia. I blame fatigue but it was careless nonetheless. The fall of Vienna to my German "ally" was rather embarrassing so I immediately made peace with Russia and helped him back into Warsaw while voluntarily withdrawing from Sevastopol to force Russia and Turkey to scrap over it. Turkey, played superbly by young Jordan Abramson in his first game, decided to annex Serbia leaving me crippled at two supply centers after losing Trieste as well. After a promising start I had ceased to be Austria-Hungary and was now just Hungary. Fortunately, my new Russian friend took pity and eventually helped me back into Rumania.
Taking advantage of chaos in Italy and along the central front against an emerging French juggernaut my plucky Austria managed to a grow to a healthy five centers, mostly due to the fact that everyone was looking elsewhere. I probably could have quietly taken a few more had the game gone on longer. The game ended in a grand coalition of survivors to stop another Adam Silverman solo attempt and with an unsatisfying seven-way draw. Through sheer diplomatic skill, Steve Ross who had inherited Italy from Edi Birsan managed to hold out with one Italian fleet in Greece for most of the game. I think Steve managed to stay alive by being instrumental in forming the coalition against France. I think the lesson from this game is never give up and always be useful to someone as a small power.
Now this may sound a little masochistic but I have learned to relish the dubious challenges of playing Austria. Perhaps playing is too strong a word. Staying alive is prime, picking up supply centers is a bonus in many games. The sheer danger of the position requires a herculean amount of diplomacy that will occasionally pay off wonderfully with a dangerous alliance, yet more often ends in tragedy with one's Austria like a little red salmon leaping bravely up-stream, only to be eaten by the Russian Bear. In my limited experience, an Austrian player needs a certain kind of calm, deal-making, stab-brokering pizazz, that I am still searching for in my psyche. Sometimes I can channel the mischief and there is something desperately thrilling about opening with the classic Austrian Hedgehog of F(Tri)-Ven, A(Bud)-Rum and A(Vie)-Gal. Serbia can wait.
Since playing at ConquestSF for the first time in Summer, I've reveled in the opportunity of sharing a Diplomacy board with some of the best players in North America and I might add the pleasure of meeting some very cool human beings too. Away from the table at least. Around the table, some compulsion of leading a Great Power brings out their inner viper... and I wouldn't have it any other way.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area or are just passing through and would like to play face-to-face Diplomacy, why not sign-up to the BayAreaDip group on Yahoo and get in touch? Stab you soon!
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