by David Norman


One of the things I still remember about my first Diplomacy Tournaments, is the deadline structure. It might seem an odd thing to remember, but it was memorable because, frankly, it didn't work!

The way deadlines worked in the UK at that time was, there was a deadline every 20 minutes. When the deadline arrived, the Tournament Director would shout deadline, and everybody would go back to their tables and write orders. Or more accurately, most people would go back to their tables and write orders, and a few would try and keep talking beyond the deadline, and the TD would have to go and physically separate them to get them to stop talking. The alternative was NMRing them, but NMRs were seen as such a game-changer for everybody on the board, that the TD never resorted to such solutions.

Back at the table, we then had 5 minutes to write orders — in theory. In practice, we had 30 seconds to write orders, and then 4.5 minutes sat at the table with 6 sets of orders in the box, and one player sat there just thinking, not writing anything, just going over things in his head (there was always one player on every table who did this every turn). And then as the 5 minutes were up, he'd put his orders in the box too (unchanged from what they had been 4.5 minutes ago), and we'd do the adjudication. And then there was retreats to order (and think about) and then adjudicate. And then adjustments if it was a fall turn. And then maybe we'd have a draw vote, and finally we could get on with the next turn — only to discover that there's now only 4 minutes left until the next deadline, and then the players would complain that the TD wasn't giving them enough time to negotiate!

As I said, it didn't work.

But not only did it not work, it also made for a pretty boring game. Especially the watching people think bit. And you couldn't use the time to go to the toilet, or go to the bar, because you might meet up with another player from the board, and start negotiating! You also couldn't talk about life in general — since you might be passing coded messages to your ally! And many players did try to cheat — whispering to their ally who they were sitting next to — "which unit was I meant to be supporting into Belgium?", etc. And unless the TD was right by that board at the time, there was nothing that could be done about it. TDs couldn't punish players based on heresay.

The obvious solution was to have a longer time between deadlines. Unfortunately, there was a limited time available to get the round in, and people didn't want to play less years, so this was not an option. And so people just put up with it.

Then in the late 1990's, I happen to hear about how tournaments were being run Downunder. Instead of having a deadline to stop negotiating, the only deadline was for when orders had to be in. If you wanted to ignore everybody for the last few minutes of the turn to think about what you were doing, that was fine. But everybody else in the game didn't have to stop to let you do it. And then as soon as the deadline fell, the turn was adjudicated, and you could move on. Downunder, they'd got this down to a fine art, with boards always using the people who could adjudicate the quickest to keep the game moving even more, which meant they were sometimes playing with deadlines as short as every 10 minutes by the end of a game.

I suggested this format to a few of the TDs in the UK, and one of them decided to try it at MidCon in November 1999. It was a great success. Not only for the players, who had a much more interesting game, but also for the TD, who now only had one deadline per turn to manage. And because it was the orders-in-the-box deadline, it was a lot easier — there was no unauthorised negotiation to watch out for, no having to tell people that they couldn't finish their sentence as they walked back to their board, etc. Either your orders were in the box on time, or they weren't. After the first round, the TD proclaimed it a success, and that he'd never be returning to the previous system!

In early 2000, the Downunder hobby were talking about spending money on a large clock to take to tournaments, so everybody could see the deadline. Based on this, I wrote DipTimer — a simple Windows App which displays the current year and season, and counted down the time until the next deadline.

With these two developments, the system spread around Europe like wildfire. DipTimer was updated to handle deadlines which shortened as the game progressed, meal breaks, time draws, and sound files automatically played to announce the upcoming deadlines. 2001 saw it used in Paris for WDC with DipTimer projected onto a 2 metre high screen so that all 15 boards could see it. By that time, it was already being used at most tournaments in Europe. Edi Birsan christened the system "Drop Dead Deadlines".

However, for all its success in Europe, DipTimer and Drop Dead Deadlines have never caught on in North America. That's not to say it hasn't been tried, but a significant number of people have tried it and seriously disliked it.

To understand why, you have to look at what it is replacing. As I said earlier, previous to Drop Dead Deadlines, in the UK we were already using deadlines every 20 minutes, but a large part of this time was being used for order writing, adjudicating, etc. So by switching to Drop Dead Deadlines, the players got more Diplomacy, and therefore more enjoyment out of the game.

Conversely in the US, the typical tournament setup is that each table does its own timing. And typically a table chooses something like 20 minutes to negotiate, and then writing and adjudicating time on top of that. Hence games would be played at an hour to 65 minutes per year, compared to 40 minutes per year speed used in Europe. This does make for much longer games. I've seen games played for 8 hours before the timedraw is called with the game in 1906. But at many tournaments, there is no time draw, games are played to a conclusion, so the only effect of the longer deadline settings is that games can be very long — many games running into the small hours of the morning, and some failing to finish before the next round starts the following day.

When DipTimer has been introduced into North America, the deadlines have typically been set to 20 minutes per turn, to match what is used in Europe. But this means that when DipTimer has been used in North America, unlike in Europe, it is speeding the game up significiantly. This leads to players finding they have less time to conduct their negotiations, not more. Hence they feel rushed, stressed, feel that they can't negotiate in the way they have been used to over many years. Hence it is seen as step backwards.

Of course, the obvious solution to this is to set longer deadlines. E.g. 30 or 35 minutes per turn, to allow the game playing at the same speed as the players are used to. Unfortunately, having tried Drop Dead Deadlines and seen the effect they have on the game, many players are not prepared to try them again, even with revised settings to allow a more leisurely speed of play. And so to this day, Drop Dead Deadlines are seen only sporadically in North America, despite being the norm around the rest of the world. I hope one day, someone will try using it with longer deadlines, to see if this really is the only reason why it hasn't caught on in North America.

If you want to use DipTimer at your convention, it can be downloaded from:

David Norman

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