Wow. I didn't fully realize it until I began to write this column; but this coming autumn will mark twenty-five years since I first learned how to play Diplomacy.
How time flies!
It was a wild new decade. New forms of gaming had just been discovered, and had reached even my remote and sleepy corner of the world. There were these fantastic new games you could play on your TV, called (appropriately enough) video games, based on cutting-edge technology like the Atari 2600 gaming console. It was incredible! You could play Space Invaders right in your own home — and the resolution was so good, you could barely count the number of pixels on the screen!
But that wasn't all. These vast advances in gaming technology had been matched by conceptual innovations as well. Specifically, there were these things called role-playing games, where you would pretend to be a knight or a wizard or a space mercenary, and fight orcs or dragons or aliens or mutants, and take their treasure or magic or credits. If you did this often enough, you became more powerful, so you could fight bigger orcs/mutants/etc and get even more treasure or magic or credits. It was a fantastic exercise in creativity and imagination!
I'd tried and enjoyed both of these exciting new pastimes. However, now I was going to have to put all that behind me. I had just started attending what was for me a completely new school. I knew a few people there, but not many, and not well. And it was time to buckle down, and really focus on my academic work; because from now on, it was going to count. After all, this was high school! No time for fooling around here.
But after a few weeks, I'd settled in and had a chance to make a few friends. One of them, Dirk, invited me and a few others to his house to try a new game.
When we arrived, it was already set out on his parents' dining room table. The board was a large map, with brightly-colored wooden blocks placed on it. Dirk explained that each of us would be in charge of one color, and order those blocks to move in an attempt to conquer all the others. Everybody moved at the same time. And we could tell any lies we wanted to fool everyone else — it was all part of the game.
Naturally, we were fascinated.
I can't honestly remember how that first game turned out. There were only five of us (including, if memory serves, Dirk's poor dragooned younger brother), so according to the rules both Germany and Italy were left out — though Dirk did insist, with a commendable desire for historical accuracy (if not game balance), that the inert Germany should have an extra army in Prussia because Prussia was a significant military power at the time. Of course, since I was playing Russia that didn't exactly work out to my benefit. In the end it hardly mattered; before we knew it the afternoon was over, and it was time to leave.
I was entranced. What an amazing game! I could hardly wait to try it again.
And when we did try it again a few weeks later, I did much better. Playing Russia again, this time with six players and only Italy left out, I managed to grow to nine centers before we had to quit. At that point the Archduke had to leave, and signed over his six units to Turkey, immediately replacing them with yellow armies. [As you can probably tell, we weren't entirely clear on the rules...]
We soon found it was hard to get a full complement of seven players together on the same weekend, and hit upon the idea of playing it during the week at school. Every other lunch hour we would get together, set up the board, and play the next turn — and then spend the next two days arguing over the results. We'd write elaborate treaties in elevated diplomatic language, listing all our titles (and adding to them as we grabbed more territory). Strangely enough, I can't remember us actually completing a game. But that didn't seem to matter.
In time our group of players pretty much fell apart, as we developed new interests (as high school students do). The only time I was ever able to complete a game was when playing one of the three- or four- player versions as set out in the rulebook, with one of my friends and/or younger siblings taking on the role of at least two countries. So I soon turned to other board games. Dirk introduced me to several, mostly those published by Avalon Hill: War at Sea, Victory in the Pacific, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, Guns of August, Kingmaker, The Russian Campaign, Afrika Korps, Squad Leader, Empires in Arms, Frederick the Great — I still have a few of them buried in the attic somewhere. [A counter in one of those last two actually represents one of Dirk's distant ancestors — which may explain why he was so interested in wargames!]
A welcome side-effect of all this was that I developed a knowledge of European geography and history. It's embarrassing to have to admit it now; but even though both my parents are from Europe and I have hordes of relatives still there, I didn't really know what the place looked like on a map. I knew the names of some countries — England (is that an island?), Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Russia (or as we used to call it, "the Soviet Union"), Holland — but I couldn't recognize their shapes. I knew of some cities — London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Moscow — but little else. Diplomacy changed all that. I soon learned that yes, England is an island (or half of one, anyway); France has more cities than just Paris; and the Netherlands are (sadly) much smaller than any of those other countries listed above.
I also learned that there was more to Europe than I'd realized. This "Prussia" place was one example. How was it different from "Russia"? Was the similar name the reason why they had to rename one "the Soviet Union", just to be clear? And Austria-Hungary was a complete revelation. Before I'd only heard of "Austria" (which apparently was not the same as "Australia") in passing, while watching my mother's favorite movie The Sound of Music. I now discovered that in Diplomacy, Austria was a huge red blob in the middle of Europe — filled with exotic-sounding provinces like "Tyrolia" and "Galicia" and "Trieste". A little investigation turned up the fact that the people there spoke German; in fact, Austria had been a unified country when Germany itself was just a geographical expression!
And thus I also developed a deeper appreciation for history: I began to understand the significance of my province's flag, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth was still the country's Head of State. This was helpful in classes, since so much of Canada's history was tied up with Europe's. Unfortunately, it also made Canada's history seem boring in comparison. Only now do I realize how lucky that makes us…
I kept up an interest in boardgames throughout high school; and in my senior year when we were studying WWI, I did manage to get our history teacher to let us play a game for a bit. However, that too didn't last to the end. It wasn't until much later that I discovered how intriguing a full seven-player game could be.
I graduated. I went on to university. This time, there really wasn't much time for games.
Well, okay. Not really. Or rather; there wasn't time for games, but a lot of us made the time for games anyway. Unfortunately, Diplomacy wasn't one of them until I was almost finished. In my senior year, a bunch of us did get together to play one game on a weekly basis, just as I had in high school: but that too ended without an outright victory (though I was in the lead with a 12-center France!).
No, I really took up Diplomacy again due to a brilliant new invention: the automatic Diplomacy judge.
To my way of thinking, e-mail and Diplomacy were an obvious match. You could write as much press as you wanted, and carefully craft your negotiations before pressing 'Send'. There was no arbitrary time limit that kept you from talking to everyone as much as you wanted. Most importantly of all, finding seven players was no longer a problem! New games were starting all the time. All you had to do was sign up, learn some elementary commands (I sometimes use the old Judge syntax to this day), and you could jump right in. The University of Washington Judge even supported a few variants set in different times and locations. Bless you, Ken Lowe!
For a while, this did seem to work better (I did well in one game as Italy, and got eaten in another as Russia, though I still didn't win). Unfortunately, before long I had to move to another city and get on with real life. Once I arrived here in Montreal, I was (again) too busy looking for a job, and bereft of a computer of my own. I didn't play again for many years.
However, after a while I did settle down and get a dial-up connection at home, just about the same time that the Internet was really beginning to take off. One day I did a search on "Diplomacy" — just for old times' sake, of course — and discovered that there was even more to explore out there now. In particular, there was the Diplomatic Pouch.
In spite of myself, I signed up for a game on the DPjudge. I found the interface was easy to use, and the many articles in the DP Zine and Diplomacy Archive, which offered plenty of helpful advice no matter what country you were playing. Some DPjudge players didn't send a lot of press, which I found frustrating; but overall it was a great tool for playing the game. And in due time, I finally achieved the ultimate goal…
As I say above, I did win a few three- and four- player games early in my career. And maybe you could even count that game in college, if you interpret it as a concession. But honestly, I don't think those count. No; my real victories didn't come until I was thoroughly familiar with the contents of the Pouch.
I trust there's a lesson for all of us in that.
Anyway: there are two games that qualify as my first solo, depending on whether you count solos in a variant.
If you do, then my first solo would be as Russia in my second game of 1900, which was run by Baron Powell himself at a time when the Russian Steamroller Rule was still in effect (you can even read about that game on these pages somewhere…). I had already played 1900 once as Austria, eking out a mere four-center survival in a game that was ultimately won by France. However, under Baron's aegis (and with the excellent quality of the other players he had recruited for the game), I had had a blast. So the next time he was kind enough to invite me to play, I was motivated to put a lot of effort into it. I was not disappointed! The players were again dependable and skilled, and the resulting game was fast-paced and exciting.
The first year saw Austria and myself team up in what Baron very flatteringly called a "ruthless" attack on both Germany and Turkey, as we tried desperately to save France from being overwhelmed by an apparent British-German alliance. Italy joined us to make it a four-way pileup on poor Germany; however, Italy's progress made the Archduke nervous that he would end up squeezed between Italy and myself. He soon fell on Italy in a brutal stab, seizing three of the Pope's centers and threatening to grab the rest in very short order, especially with British help. Italy's only, slim hope for survival lay in my immediate intervention; so I completely reversed course. I made an uneasy peace with the remnants of Germany, and launched a stab of my own into both Austria and British-held Scandinavia (which was unfair to Britain, who had been very cordial with me — but strategically necessary!). It was a near thing, and for a while my French ally and myself were afraid that we'd have to abandon Italy altogether. However, we got a few lucky breaks. By the time the dust settled, France and Italy were assured of survival — and I was in a commanding position to grab a victory.
My first (countable) solo in standard Diplomacy came afterward. The win in 1900 happened in the very week before I was about to go back to school for a one-year program, and I didn't expect to have any time for Diplomacy games until my courses were over. However, by the late spring the Dip bug was biting again, and I signed up for a DPjudge game in Thorin Munro's Owls series. The POWER_CHOICE option was activated; and I deliberately chose to play Turkey, because I thought it would be a great strategic challenge. And it was.
My reading from the Zine and Archive came in very, very useful here. I began by counting off eighteen centers, and thinking carefully about which ones on the far side of the main stalemate line were attainable (Strategy for playing Turkey, by Dirk Fischbach). Unfortunately, I was immediately attacked by both Austria and Russia: I spent the first few game years reduced to three centers, working desperately to fend off an invasion of my homeland. Luckily for me, Russia was greedy and also attacked Germany at the same time, setting the stage for an anti-Russian coalition resulting from Early Leader Syndrome. Austria joined us; but the principal beneficiary was Germany himself, who recaptured his lost territories and grew to fourteen centers, making himself the new target. A four-way coalition of myself, Austria, Italy, and England (France having been eliminated very early on by a determined EG alliance) proceeded to cut the German down to size.
Thanks to the need to keep Germany from winning, Austria and I cooperated fairly closely in the mid-game. We forced the black armies back out of Russia while Italy and England did the same in occupied France. And then came the turn when I seized StPetersburg — the closest center on the far side of the stalemate line. I had achieved a major strategic goal: it was time to go on to the next phase. So I stabbed Austria, seizing most of the Balkans. Soon afterward, I floated the idea of a Janissary role to the Archduke, offering to keep him in the game to the end if he would be my 'minor ally' — and threatening by implication to eliminate him if he would not. After a year of fighting, he agreed. That left me free to try a risky stab of Italy, which luckily came off. The rest of the game consisted of an exciting race to see whether I could (with Austria's help) grab eighteen centers before the others could stop me. I managed to do so on the Fall 1914 turn, stabbing poor Austria one final time for those last two centers.
But he *did* survive the game, just like I promised.
Today, so many years after that very first introduction to Diplomacy, I'm still playing. And it looks like I'll be involved in the hobby for some time to come!
Having benefited so much from all the great advice in the Zine, I'm eager to see it continue to be such a valuable resource for Diplomacy players. So naturally, when Heath contacted me back in February to ask me to write another article (since he liked my contribution to the F2006M issue), I was glad to help out. I even offered to take on some of the editing responsibilities… and starting with the next issue, I'll be taking on the role of Lead Editor for the Zine.
And just today I bought my ticket for a two-week vacation in Vancouver this August. Guess what I plan to do while I'm there? Here's a hint! Looks like my "remote and sleepy corner of the world" has become an important center of Diplomatic activity. This will be my first Con, and will doubtless include my "first time meeting the luminaries of the Diplomacy hobby face-to-face" — quickly followed by "first time getting pounded to dust on the Diplomacy board by said luminaries". I look forward to it.
Thank you, Dirk, for introducing me to this wonderful hobby. And who knows — maybe I'll see you there, too.
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.