By Brandon Clarke

You Wot?

Meta-gaming. The rights and wrongs of it are a hot topic in Australasia right now. No one denies that it has always gone on. Few deny that Diplomacy would be better without it. The guts of the issue is that it's difficult to police, impossible to prevent if players really want to do it, and it comes in so many shades and degrees that it's difficult to draw a line that everyone agrees to concerning what is acceptable and what is not.

I've just finished reading Stephen Agar's article Meta-Gaming and Diplomacy, in which he quotes Gary Pennington as defining meta-gaming as:

"the process of trying to force someone to behave in accordance with your wishes by using threats of actions which will be taken or not taken outside the context of the current game."
I read that definition with interest. A less stringent definition might be:
"Bringing into consideration during a Diplomacy game any factors which are external to that particular game."
The ideal is that each game of Diplomacy is as "pure" as is possible, and is not affected by external issues. Each player plays each game for the game's sake, and the winner of the game is player who played the best Diplomacy, not the one with the deepest pockets, or the strongest punch, or the car that is taking people home, or the one with leverage over another player due to knowledge they have about them in the world outside that particular game.

I agree with that. And yet, under that definition, I am guilty of meta-gaming! In fact, after the Don Challenge Cup in Melbourne, Australia, on November 26th and 27th, 1999, John Cain, the Tournament Director (and others) commented to the effect that I "took 'meta-gaming' to a new level." A little background is perhaps in order....

The Game, The Tournament, and The Cup

In DAANZ Diplomacy tournaments in Australia and New Zealand, in my experience, it is common practice for players to employ meta-gaming (at least) in the final round of a tournament. Often one player will be leading the race for a best country award and will either play to prevent the player playing that country in the game he is playing from doing well, or may even say to other players, "I'll help you get best Germany if you help me protect my best Austria by heading for Vienna" or other such deals. It's also not uncommon for players doing well in the tournament to play, sometimes overtly, to prevent other players who are doing well in the tournament from doing well in the final round so as to maximise their own finishing position in the tournament.

Most well-respected players (like 1998 World Champion Chris Martin) agree that winning a tournament is a higher goal than winning or even doing well in a particular round of the tournament. These players, then, cannot adhere to the exact letter of the definition given above.

DAANZ affiliated tournament count for points towards the Bismark Cup (see my article about the 1999 Bismark Cup). This is an award that is competed for across the eight tournaments in the DAANZ calendar and is awarded to the best tournament Diplomacy player of the year. Entering The Don Challenge Cup, the last tournament of 1999, all I had to do to ensure I maintained my lead in Bismark Cup points was to either finish ahead of Rob Stephenson and Tristan Lee, or ensure that neither of them finished either first or second at that particular tournament. So I played the tournament not caring about my own finishing position in the tournament, instead trying to ensure that other players got 18 centre victories (with my help) in the games that I played. In this way, I stacked the top of the tournament leader board and made it as hard as possible for Rob or Tristan to finish in the top two.

Clearly I played with factors in mind that were not only external to the games I was playing in, but that were also external to the tournament we were playing in. I didn't try to force anyone to act or not act in any particular way. I freely admit, however, that my aim was to try and get players other than Rob and Tristan to 18 centre victories. This is clearly against the spirit of the game, usually. The thing was I wasn't there to play the game, or even the tournament. I was playing for the bigger prize of the Bismark Cup.

Later in Stephen Agar's article, he wrote:

That is the difficult question. I think that you really need to make up your mind on this one – if meta-gaming is okay, then cross-gaming, bribery, and threats (provided they are within the law of the land) should be permitted. Therefore, mutual help in different games is okay (though difficult to achieve in a tournament with a random draw), bribery is okay, and threats are okay. If you think that the game should only be decided within the boundaries of the game activity itself, then meta-gaming is not okay, and neither is cross-gaming, favours or threats.

I don't think it is logically possible to distinguish a middle ground – if buying someone a pint is an acceptable bribe (£2), why not a £5 note? If threatening not to give someone a lift home is an acceptable threat, why not threatening to abuse and/or embarrass him in front of his friends? If helping another player just because you often socialise with them at weekends is okay, why not help them just because you're both English or French or Swedish.

The answer, of course, is that it is not okay. Mark Wightman reminded me of the following excerpt from François Rivasseau’s Final Report on World DipCon V.

Quality of Games and Ethics

The quality of the games played was quite high, this being illustrated by the fact that no 18 centre victory was achieved in either the WDC or the Nation's Cup competition. Although only playing until 1907 certainly does not help when you play Austria or Italy, it is worthwhile to note that the best players did get their most significant results when playing one of these countries: Bruno-André Giraudon managed to win with both Austria and Italy, and the number of first places achieved with central powers was uncommonly high.

Three reasons may account for this satisfactory situation: the general level of the players, the homogeneity of the level of the tables of each round (except the first, of course), which was reached thanks to our player scheduling software, and, last but not least, the ethic of play which we succeeded in promoting.

One word about this; we made public during the WDC the oath of ethics designed within the European Diplomacy Association for the next European DipCon (reproduced below). Every player was warned that the referees would closely watch the ethical aspect of play and would not accept playing for others rather than for one's self. Particular care would be given to possible 18 centre victories which could have been attributed to ethical irregularity in the competition. It was not necessary to do anything; merely making this announcement proved sufficient. As a consequence, all players fought until the end as they are expected to do at this level of competition, and we had no "collective plays" to observe.

The conclusion I draw from this experience is that advising the players in this manner as to the ethical aspects of the game improves both the level of the games and the atmosphere of the tournament, particularly for the travellers who, as a result, should not fear a savage and uninteresting coalition of local players against them. This is why I personally recommend, in my capacity of Chairman of WDC V, to the incoming WDC Chairman, to adopt a similar position regarding ethics in Ohio.

EDA Ethics Oath
  1. You should always play so that you maximise your own score and ranking in the tournament, or in the game you are playing.

  2. You should not engage in cross-gaming. That is, you must not give favours to another player in exchange for assistance in earlier games or for the hope or promise of assistance in later games. Every game is a new one and should be treated as such. You should not try to take revenge for a stab or elimination that occurred in any other game.

  3. You should act properly when conducting diplomacy with other players and must not cheat or complain at the least provocation. You should act the statesman you are supposed to be.

  4. You should never attack or ally with any other player for purely ethnical or geographic reasons.
Personally, I think the above oath has a lot going for it. I agree wholeheartedly with points 2, 3 and 4. However, Point 1 raises an interesting question: It seems to me that it condones playing in such a way that does not maximise your score in the current game you are playing, so long as it is in order to maximise you ranking in the tournament. That is, it is okay to not try and maximise you own score in a given game, if you are playing to protect your lead or position in the tournament or the race for a best country (tournament) award. As I said above, my experience is that this attitude is common throughout all the tournaments I know of in Australasia. By the sounds of what François Rivasseau wrote, it's not uncommon in Europe either. In America as well, it is an accepted precept of the regular tournament player that the tournament trumps the game. It seems an accepted facet of tournament Diplomacy play worldwide that players will play to maximise their position in the tournament.

My question is, if that is okay (and most people agree that it is), what is the difference between that and what I did at the Don? Surely my play at the Don was just taking that principle to the next level... instead of playing to maximise my ranking in the tournament concerned, I was playing to maximise my ranking in the Bismark Cup, which is a "tournament" made up of the eight tournaments throughout the calendar year. To me it's just a question of scale.

Now What?

Whether you agree with the way I played at The Don or not, it is undeniable that some players went away from that tournament with a bad taste in their mouth. That is unfortunate. In a hobby as small as ours in Australasia (118 players played in DAANZ affiliated tournaments in 1999) we cannot afford to scare off players over issues like this. So what do you do?

Some players have said, "if you buy an expensive trophy, honour it with hobby blood and ask people to fight over it, you'd have to expect someone will do what they can to win it. It involves doing well and/or stopping others. Usually it requires both; this time Brandon needed only to do the latter." Others see it very differently and say, "That's it. Brandon's play was a disgrace, and I'm never playing in a tournament in which he plays again."

So what are we doing about it? We are modifying the Bismark Cup scoring system to remove the incentive for this type of negative play.

Personally, I've experienced a strange change in attitudes this year. After the Australian Diplomacy Champs in January where two players meta-gamed to engineer a result that gave one of them a best country award, I spoke to Rob Stephenson, close friend, mentor and coach of mine. I said to him that what those two players did was wrong: they conceded centres, and did not play the position out. I said to Rob that each game should be played in isolation of the others and what we should be doing is testing ourselves to see how good we are in each game, within that game, and only within that game. Rob smiled, and told me he used to think the way I was thinking, but that eventually he realised that if you wanted to win anything you had to play them all at their own game. He predicted I'd come around, and I looked at him and told him I thought it was he who would come around if he sat down and thought about why we play, and was honest with himself, then he'd see I was right and change the way he played. Rob is the best player in Australasia, and I said to him: "Rob, you're good enough to beat them all without this crap. You ought to set the example and play properly...everyone respects you enough that they'll all follow you eventually."

Strangely, Rob and I sat down after the Don Challenge Cup and talked it over. It appeared we'd both been right. I'd come around to his way of thinking, played the meta-gaming" game better than the rest of them, and won the Bismark Cup in doing it. Rob, on the other hand, had changed the way he played following our talk in January, and was now telling me I ought to play each game on it's own merits!

And that to me is the paradox of tournament Diplomacy... ideally, people like me would refuse to Meta-game. The problem is that others will continue to do so. Having won the Bismark Cup and possibly lost two good friends doing it, I doubt I'll feel inclined to play that way again. It's up to each player to decide for themselves which set of moral standards they will play by. Until the day we all draw the line in the same place, I think these controversies will continue to occur. I just hope that if you end up in a situation like I found myself in this year that you don't lose valuable friendships over it; that you don't drive people out of the hobby in your area; and that you don't feel slightly hollow savouring your victory the way I do. Winning the Bismark Cup should have been the pinnacle of my Diplomacy career. Unfortunately, while some people have congratulated me, these moments have been by far drowned out by the bloodletting in the wake of my win.
Brandon Clarke

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