by B.M. Powell

While writing the third installment to my In Defense of France series, I received a note from David Ackley. David offered a suggestion to improve French prospects that I found quite novel. E-mail exchanges ensued. As I was writing my last reply to David, it occurred to me that our correspondence might be of interest to fans of 1900 in general. With this in mind, I am presenting it here.

6 December 2014 note from David:

While I await your 3rd installment, I do want to briefly ponder a possible simple rule change to remedy the perceived imbalance here: allow the army in Paris to start in Burgundy.

You mentioned in the article the distance France’s starting units are from various neutrals. I think France's issue can easily be summed up by looking at the number of neutrals that are reachable for her in one turn. It is precisely one: Spain from Marseilles.

In vanilla, this isn't really an issue. Both Portugal and Spain can typically be taken completely uncontested, if the units in question don't need to defend elsewhere, even though the distance from neutrals remains the same. But now Germany has an extra continental unit, with a whopping four neutrals that can be taken in Spring 1900, 3 completely uncontested. And England [sic] now has F Gibraltar too (and F Egypt), which can now contest Iberia. I think the imbalance here does in fact derive from how Germany has been strengthened in this mod, while France has been weakened (or rather, not improved to the same degree). As you said, her colonial army isn't very useful, far less so than Germany's extra army in Cologne.

But, move that army into Burgundy and suddenly the balance of power on the Western Front has been changed drastically. As you yourself said, that is a very critical space for France, and with a strengthened Hun it is not unreasonable that she would place such a deterring force there. Alsace remains as the needed buffer space, but now France can influence Belgium directly on the first turn (which is historical too), or at least turn it into a useful bargaining chip now that she has direct power over it.

The only option that this now removes is Paris-Brest. I don't think that is too critical a loss. If a reverse Sea Lion is desired, it can still be moved to Picardy for convoying in the fall. And A Burgundy can also now be involved in talks with Italy about the status of Switzerland.

I think the goal with the strengthened Germany was to let diplomacy (what a concept) serve to keep her in check. It's been pointed out that the other countries will tend to gang up on an eight SC Germany in Spring '01, which is as it should be, but the Hun simply holds too many strong cards at the start, and even with six or seven units is going to be looking pretty good in '01.

Only other question is whether this weakens Italy. We certainly don't want to go back to having Italy be the weak sister again and I think having her get first dibs on Switzerland is to the benefit of game balance.

Let me know what you think. I think this could very well reduce Germany's strong showings while improving France's chances. It essentially boils down to giving her more viable choices, and more influence.

9 December 2014 reply from Baron:

I truly appreciate this note. It is quite clear to me that you are familiar with the variant AND that you have given this matter quite a bit of thought. This is an interesting idea you propose and one I admit I had not even considered. Feedback and insights like this are invaluable.

Even though France has struggled far too much in REM games (a GPR of 17.91...GAK!) and Germany has over-excelled in equal measure (a GPR of 36.65), I have been loath to do anything to beef up the Third Republic for fear of what the impact of a stronger France might be on Italy. Italy is currently playing above average in REM games (a GPR of 26.65). By moving the starting unit from Paris to Burgundy, France now has two units on Switzerland, a SC Italy claims first 78.6% of the time in the 112 REM games I have currently recorded (versus 0.9% for Austria-Hungary, 4.5% for France, 14.3% for Germany, and 1.8% unclaimed in games that aborted early). Have you given any consideration to this aspect of your proposed change? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter and to discuss the possible permutations of starting A Paris in Burgundy further.

BTW… You are correct in guessing the loss of A Paris to Brest would be inconsequential. That move has occurred only twice in the 251 game (pre-Steamroller, Steamroller, and REM) I have on record.

I look forward to hearing back from you. You have definitely given me something to think about while I wait for your reply.

9 December 2014 reply from David:

I did make one error. For some strange reason I didn't realize that Marseilles impinged on Switzerland. I imagined the Rhone Valley or such as being in between, thinking of course of actual geography and not the game map.

I'd hate to ruin the "symmetry" of Diplomacy in general, the "tradition" of having each home center with a matching unit that starts the game on it. Well, with F Gibraltar that tradition has already been violated in this particular mod, so what the hey. But in this case it might introduce more issues than it solves and, yes, Italy might suffer.

Other options:

  • Have A Paris start in Picardy. This avoids the Italy complication, but limits that army's options in the south. The army now presents a vague threat to Britain.

  • Move A Marseilles back to Gascony when A Paris moves up to Burgundy. It can still take Spain in the Spring or cover Marseilles in the Fall against Italian perfidy. But now we've violated the unwritten rule twice (thrice) here, which many people might balk at.

  • Bring that army in Algeria onto the continent to Burgundy, while changing A Marseilles to F Marseilles. Now F Marseilles cannot contest Switzerland, easing Italian worries there, though it could potentially threaten Rome in the Fall. But now France can't protect her colony. There is precedence here, as colonial troops I believe made up a decent part of her continental army and she did have a sizable fleet.

It's an interesting conundrum. Somehow or other I think France needs some sort of tweak a la the Russian Emergency Measures rule, which was crafted precisely to balance the Tsar's prospects against a strengthened Germany.

Or work on the Hun's side of things. Put a buffer space in between Kiel and Holland [sic] (province Bremen?). This precludes a Spring annexing of Holland [sic], thus making Belgium less secure from a German standpoint in the Fall, no possible support from a Dutch fleet. Recall the main issue was Germany's immediate influence on four neutrals at game start.

Let me know which option is most palatable to you, if any.

13 December 2014 reply from Baron:

You read my first two articles on France. In one of them, I mentioned how poorly Germany did in one particular interval of one hundred Classic games. Unfortunately, I no longer have my old AOL Diplomacy Club Great Power Reports (I curse the day I deleted them). I do remember, however, that Germany’s GPR was somewhere between 16.00 and 17.00. By comparison, France’s GPR of 17.91 after 102 REM games does not look quite so bad. There is more, though. I recorded the 103rd REM game last night. In that game, France was part of a three-way draw (an extremely rare B/F/G). The result of this one game was enough to raise France’s GPR for 17.91 to 18.32. If one 3-way draw can raise France’s GPR by 2.3% when 103 games are in the bank, imagine what a couple of solos in the next few games would do. Almost certainly, France’s GPR would catapult into the low 20s.

My overall point is that the sample size remains too small to truly determine what each Great Power’s “true” GPR is. When I have some time, I’ll brush up on my statistics and find out what the mean and standard deviation is for each Great Power’s rating. For now I only feel comfortable in saying that if the quality of the players is equal, which we know it most certainly is not, Germany is unquestionably more likely to succeed than France is, and both Britain and Italy are to some degree more likely to succeed than France is. Even given its stronger neighbors, France is quite capable of success. Beyond that I will have to wait for a better statistical analysis before I come to any conclusions.

As for changing the map or rules to help France, let us take a moment to look at this more closely.

Coming up with the equivalent of a REM rule for France is somewhat problematic.

For starters, there was historical justification for the REM rule. A large portion of Russia and an enormous number of Russian troops are not represented on the variant map. The Russians did, in fact, draw on their vast Asian resources after suffering reverses in 1915. There is really no equivalent scenario for France. All of Metropolitan France and the bulk of North African France appear on the variant map. Unlike the case with Russia, the portions of France’s colonial empire that do show up on the map had tiny garrisons. Even had France recalled all of these garrisons, my guess is that they would not have had an operational impact on the Western front.

The other problem is that the REM rule, though it works just like I hoped it would, is a fix I wish game results had not forced me to make. If we think France is struggling, consider that Russia’s GPR was a ghastly 8.74 in the forty-six games that took place before I implemented the Steamroller. [As an aside, France had a robust 27.78 GPR and was easily outperforming both Britain (24.98) and Italy (21.98).] I implemented the Steamroller because I could not find a justifiable map change that I thought would achieve the results I wanted. Unfortunately, the Steamroller did not work. Russia’s GPR soared. It stood at a gaudy 39.96 in the seventy-five Steamroller games I recorded before I implemented the REM rule. [The Steamroller did not have much of an impact on Britain, which maintained a 24.64 GPR, but Italy’s performance declined (19.36) and France’s performance slipped badly (19.96).] The question we must ask ourselves is this: is France’s current situation so dire that we need experiment with changes that might (or might not) make France do better, but cause an even greater imbalance someplace else? Right now I would answer this question with a “no.”

Please consider this too. One of my Dip confederates referred to the Steamroller as a “cluj.” He used that term to mean that it might [and does] work, but it strayed from the simple elegance that makes Classic the wonderful game that it is. I am forced to agree.

Finally there is the fact that 1900 is no longer a “new” variant. I introduced the variant in 1998 and it has existed in its current form (i.e., the REM form) since 2006. During that time, two different web sites that I know of, DPjudge and Play Diplomacy On-line, have automated the variant. Hundreds of 1900 games have taken place on these two sites. I have good reason to believe that Diplomacy enthusiasts have played hundreds of other 1900 games in FTF or PBEM sessions across the globe. I have been contacted by teachers who use 1900 in the classroom or in after school activities because they believe the variant captures the feel of period better than Classic does while being a good and exciting game at the same time. The bottom line is that proponents of Diplomacy have embraced 1900. It is no longer a fringe or niche variant. Instead, it has become established and mainstream. Given this, why tinker around with something the public clearly likes.

Helgoland Bight Removed

(Click for a full-size view in a separate window)

That said, the truth remains that 1900 was my attempt to improve on Classic. Why cannot we dream of improving 1900? Allow me to share with you three map variations I have toyed with. Each was designed to curb the strength of Germany without fundamentally altering Germany itself, which I want to remain as “first amongst equals” though not by quite as large a margin as it currently is.

The map shown above eliminates Helgoland Bight. The intent was to make Germany more vulnerable to British sea power and make the Prime Minister more concerned with minimizing (or eliminating) German sea power. I thought this would serve to make France, currently the weak sister in the B/F/G triangle, a more desirable partner to both the British and the Germans. I actually asked the folks at DPjudge and Play Diplomacy On-line if they would consider using this map on a trial basis. DPjudge said it was willing to do so, but expressed concerns that I was increasing French prestige by emasculating Britain. Play Diplomacy On-line was “less enthusiastic” in its response. They felt the variant was just fine the way it was and this change might actually do more harm than good. Perhaps they were right, but I felt the only way to know for sure was to experiment. Given the general mood of resistance, I dropped the idea, but I remain curious as to how it might have worked.

Redrawn Dual Monarchy

(Click for a full-size view in a separate window)

The above map redraws Austria-Hungary. The intent was to create more friction between the Dual Monarchy and the Second Reich, thereby reducing the pressure on both France and Turkey, which also lags a bit with a current GPR of 22.02. One aspect of this map I particularly liked was that it captured more accurately the demarcation between the Austrian and Hungarian portions of the Dual Monarchy, though I did merge Austrian Dalmatia with Hungarian Croatia. Trieste was undoubtedly important to Austria-Hungary, but Prague was one of the Empire’s three crown jewels (along with Vienna and Budapest).

I sent this map to another Dip confederate of mine, Chris Dziedzic, for comments. In his reply, Chris stated two primary concerns:

  1. Central European focus. If the variant was 1848 or 1866, I could see shifting the weight of AH to Central Europe and away from the Balkans. But I'm not sure how appropriate that is for 1900. By this time the Hapsburgs were pretty self-consciously pursuing Balkan ambitions.

  2. Galicia. AH will now be able to self-support into Galicia in S'00. While not as dangerous to Russia as the opening explored by Chris Connor as Austria-Hungary and Eric Greneoux as Germany [in the second 1900 play test, an opening that resulted in the redrawing of Galicia], because they cannot get three units on Rumania in F'00, it still makes me wonder.

Chris’s comments, particularly regarding the Dual Monarchy’s focus on the Balkans at the start of the 20th century, were sufficient to keep me from exploring this option further. Even so, I still find myself enthralled by the more historically correct Croatia this map uses and remain contemptuous of the mish-mash that is the current Trieste space.

By round-about means, your original note about moving the French army from Paris to Burgundy led to the map that appears on the next page. It did so by forcing me to look at Italy and how it interacts with France. I will discuss the general dynamics of this relationship in more detail in the third installment of my In Defense of France series, but suffice it to say here that Italy’s ability to claim Switzerland and place an army in Piedmont after the Spring ’00 turn, an opening that is quite common for Italy, puts enormous pressure on Marseilles right away. When combined with German pressure in the north, the strain on France can be quite overwhelming. The intent behind this redrawn Italy is to give the Third Republic that little bit of respite that might be sufficient to heighten its overall performance by just a little.

Rome with Two Coasts

(Click for a full-size view in a separate window)

I like this version of Italy because it restores both Tuscany and historical Venetia. It accomplishes the latter by separating Venetia from Romagna, Pentapolis, and Spoleto, and linking these three provinces with Rome where they more correctly belong (i.e., the former Papal States). These two changes not only prevent Italy from putting two units on Marseilles right away, but also subtly nudge Italy eastward. I believe that Italy’s restored ability to build fleets in the Adriatic Sea might facilitate F/I alliances, which remain surprisingly rare.

Of the three changes I discuss above, I think I like this one the most. I’m curious as to your thoughts.

14 December 2014 reply from David:

I'll just say one thing. There is often the idea, once people get comfortable with how a game or sport is played (the rules, the playing field, the typical strategies used) to think that the contest should then have said standards "locked into stone," when of course much of the contest rules and particulars, derived during the contest's formative years, were typically nothing more than "accidents" of history. I guess we human beings are creatures of habit and thus tend to be resistant to change. I get a lot of that attitude when discussing the rules of soccer with its fans. They are of the attitude that the sport is perfect as is, it has thrived for more than a century in its present form, and millions of people love it, so why monkey with the rules at this point?

Yes, it is true that there can be unintended consequences rearing their ugly heads on down the line. But similar consequences can assail any such contests with the present ruleset. In Diplomacy in particular, with the almost infinite geometrical relationships between the various provinces, centers, and sea spaces, it would take a Socrates to properly divine all of the possible permutations and outcomes.

So, that said, I am fully supportive of any change that you see as desirable here. When I initially noticed the map for 1900 years ago, I was in fact a bit puzzled why those two Italian provinces (from Classic) were combined into one. I think it would indeed lessen the pressure on France by a bit and get Italy more mixed-up in Eastern affairs, which I think is appropriate.

Allow me to close this article by stating the following: I believe 1900 is a wonderful game just the way it is now. Though the play balance is not as “perfect” as I hoped it to be, it is also not so far off that I consider the variant in any way flawed. All of the Great Powers have regularly demonstrated that they can succeed.

That said, from the beginning my objectives with 1900 were to increase the need for player interaction, enhance the historical accuracy, and improve the overall play balance. I feel quite confident that 1900 meets these first two objectives. Though the overall play balance is satisfactory, it can be better. My questions to the readers are these:

  • Do you believe the revised Italy would contribute to the variant’s play balance or do you think it would create more problems than it potentially solves?
  • Would you be receptive to the change?

I value your feedback and look forward to hearing from you.


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