Martin On Diplomacy

I. The Top Table

By Chris Martin

I had the great pleasure of attending Diplonam in Namur, Belgium last year. It was a tremendously fun event, with plenty of action and excitement. But to me, the strangest thing was the idea of a “Top Table”. I had been told about it, but seeing it in action was a whole different experience. I thought I'd take a short moment to explore the idea behind it, and see why it is used in Europe, and not in the USA. One of my personal difficulties with the world hobby at the moment is the lack of uniformity in the way that tournaments are run, and it is my hope that through an examination of the differences, and the reasons for them, we might come a little closer together.

The idea of a Top Table in a tournament is a simple one. Whatever scoring system is used, the players with the seven best scores before the final round are placed on one board, where they fight it out. Additionally, in the system popular in Europe now, the top three places in the tournament are reserved for the “winners” of the top table.

Lets look at an example of a tournament with a top table.

Going into the final round of RebelCon, 100 players have finished two full games. Adam, Bob, Chris, Dave, Ellen, Frank, and Greg have the best seven scores. They proceed to play the final round as normal, but instead of being assigned boards randomly they play each other. The other 93 people in the tournament are assigned their final round boards, according to whatever system RebelCon is using. They know that the best they can do, in the Overall Rankings of this tourney, is 4th place.

In fact, with most scoring systems, someone not on the top table will get 4th place!

The scoring system for RebelCon will be as follows:

Points are awarded on final centre count when time is called – no additional points will be given for survivals or draws. (This is a very European system, by the way.)

(Yes, very simple. Yes, not really a good system. But hey, it's just used to illustrate a larger point.)

At the end of two rounds of play, we have the following results for the top ten:

Rank Player Results
1 Adam One solo, one 2nd
2 Bob One solo, one 3rd
3 Chris One solo, one 4th
4 Dave One solo, no other result
5 Ellen One 1st, one 2nd
6 Frank One 1st, one 3rd
7 Greg One 1st, one 3rd
8 Harry One 1st, no other result
9 Ivan Two 2nds
10 Janet One 2nd, one 3rd

Round three begins, and the top seven players are all on the same board, while Harry, Ivan, and Janet all (through a random allocation) end up on different boards.

Well, the going is tough on the top board, but after a hard fight, Chris has nine centres (1st place), Ellen has seven (2nd), Frank has six (3rd), Bob has four (4th), Dave and Greg each have three – Adam (being a target going in) was eliminated. On the other boards, Harry finished first on his board, Ivan finished second, and Janet got a solo victory

The final scores for RebelCon!

Rank Player Results
1 Chris One solo, one 1st, one 3rd
2* Ellen One 1st, two 2nds
3* Frank One 1st, two 3rds
4 Janet One Solo, one 2nd, one 3rd
5 Harry Two 1sts, no other result
6 Adam One solo, one 2nd, no other result
7 Bob One solo, one 3rd, one fourth
8 Dave One solo, no other results
9 Ivan Three seconds
10 Greg One 1st, one 3rd, no other result

*You will remember that these three places were reserved for the Top Table, regardless of overall points!

Ok. So we have the results, and we have the scores. Let's take a look at things, and see what this tells us.

If you go by scores alone, the rankings end up being very, very different. Ellen, in 2nd place, drops to 5th. Frank, in 3rd place, goes all the way down to a tie for 8th! Janet gets 2nd, and Harry 3rd. What's up with that?!?

The theory, if I understand it correctly, is that the quality of opposition on the top board is guaranteed to be high. Coming in second on the "Top Board" is worth more than the same result on any other board, and there is, I think, some merit to this. Most competitive events work on the basis that, in the later rounds of the event, the more successful players will face off against the better players, while the less successful ones will then play each other. This helps to ensure that no one gets an easy trip to a high ranking.

How So? In a tournament of any size, there will be:

The Top table will probably have people from categories D and E on it. Other tables will have the regular mix. So getting that solo victory on a regular table, while impressive, just isn't as impressive as ending on nine centres as Austria on the top table! (According to Top Table Theory, mind you.)

Ok, That Makes Sense

There are other advantages to a Top Table. In theory, and this has happened in the past, a club/group could come to a tournament with a “champion”.

A Champion? Yes. Let's take a look at a fictional scenario. The Arlington Beer and Dagger Society has decided, as a group, to win RebelCon. Fourteen of the club members make the trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, and they have decided that they are going to make Richard Timson the champ. So, whenever any of them are on a board with him, they will do everything they can to make him the winner – nothing too obvious, but when it comes time to stab, he somehow gets all their centres. On other boards, they play not to win, but to force draws – always ganging up on any leaders, preventing anyone from getting points. There are 49 people at the con, seven boards, and the AB&DS members are a significant percentage. At the end of the weekend, Surprise! Richard has the best score. The AB&DS laugh all the way home, and next tournament it'll be Morris Stevens who gets to be champ. Meta-gaming, and I highly approve of it, in spirit. (In the next installment of Martin On Diplomacy -- slated for the next Pouch issue -- I will discuss how I feel about playing to win the tournament, not an individual tournament game!)

But purists cry out, "No fair! I am a better player, but I cannot win against these allies who are allied before the game begins, regardless of diplomacy and board position! That's just wrong!" And indeed, no one could beat them – with regular scoring systems. The Top Table neatly solves this problem, by forcing Richard to actually beat six other players’ – six really good players’ -- heads up. It'll be a lot harder for the AB&DS force a winner when they can't use all fourteen players to affect the final round! This is, in
fact, one of the principle reasons the Top Table was created in the first place.

Okay. What Else is Good About a Top Table?

Then there is the Excitement factor. Who will be on the Top Table this year? Before WDC9, the speculation was rampant – how many players would the French have in the final running? Would an American be able to get on the top table, much less win it if they got there? Who are the "dark horses" who could surprise everyone? Don't forget the Swedes! Can't win if you aren't on the Top Table!

At the tournament itself, tension mounted as the rounds went by, as people with good scores desperately hung on to try to get better scores to make the final table. Stabs in the last season made and broke championship dreams! Players who had results that wouldn't allow them to make the top table rooted for their friends and fellow countrymen, as they played the penultimate round. (Everyone knew that you could still finish a very respectable fourth place, if only you could do well in the final round.) Seven players on the top board, and at least three of them would end up dropping out of the top five!

The seasonal results from the Top Table were posted on a huge board, so that everyone could come and see who was doing what, during furtive breaks from their own final games. The tension was palpable as they went into the final year of the game, and four players were still in the running! Christian Dreyer pulled it off, at the wire and by one centre! Beer for everyone!

There is no comparison in tournaments that don't have a top table. After the final round Sunday, everyone has a good idea who has won it; it's a simple matter of making announcements, handing out plaques, and modest applause.

So Why Doesn't Every Tournament Use a Top Table?

Now, in all fairness, there are plenty of good, solid reasons why tournaments in the United States and England don't (as a rule) use a top table. They like to play longer games, with fewer rounds. In the U.S., at least, they like to give everyone a fighting chance right up until the very end. It is hard for people to make every round of a Fri/Sat/Sun convention. Some people might not play the last round if they know they can't win the tournament. Valid objections all.

Longer games mean fewer games, and that means it's harder to tell at the end of the penultimate round who the best seven players are. Everyone knows that the random selection of players on a board and powers has an effect on the outcome. In the end, the cream tends to rise to the top, but do you really get the seven best at the end of two rounds?

I think what you get is the seven best of those two rounds. Everyone knew going in what the stakes were, and had equal chances to get there. Its easy to argue that the seven people on the top table weren't the best seven people at WDC9 – in fact those seven did not place 1st through 7th – but they had the best seven scores going into the final round, and no one can argue that.

I've noted (and used to my advantage) a tendency to drop the worst score from a three or four round tournament, or to only count the two best scores. The theory being, I think, that people who can only make two rounds have the chance to win as well – something they wouldn't have if there was a top table. This is a serious consideration – you don't want to exclude people who can't take Friday off of work to get to the convention in time to play Friday night. The distances involved in the U.S. make it hard to rush off to a weekend tournament. This is a good argument against a top table in a tournament that only has three rounds in it -- one game Friday, one Saturday, and one Sunday. This probably happens most often when the time limit on games is long or nonexistent. But many tournaments could have a game Saturday night as well, which would allow everyone at least two good chances to make the top table Sunday. Also, when I competed for the WDC in Chapel Hill in 1998, I didn't play in the last round because it would have hurt my chances of winning – how is a system that encourages a player not to play better than one which has potential rewards for everyone who plays every round?

Plenty of people feel for Janet (remember the example above?) – who, with a solo victory in the final round, scores points to get to second place, but has to go home with fourth. It has happened (in Europe) that the person who won a tournament had fewer points than the person who finished fourth. Most scoring systems at tournaments that use a top table reflect and minimize this possibility.

Would Janet really have stuck around to play the last round, knowing she couldn't win? I'd like to think so. Most people going into the final round of a tournament can't win – it's the nature of tournaments that there will be three people from every board who score points, and really only two of them score points that will probably count in the end. So why don't four or five people drop out from every board after every round? Because Diplomacy is a fun game, because they came a long way to play, and don't get to play a lot of FTF, because you can always get the satisfaction of a great result even without winning the whole shebang! There are always “Best County” awards to play for, as well as the other awards that each tournament has to reward spectacular play which doesn't make it to the finals.

Top Tables are Elitist

Yes, only the best players get there. But isn't that the point of a Tournament? To find out who, on this day, is the best player in the room?

Hmm, Chris. It seems you approve of the idea, then? Yes. Yes, I do. I would really like to see major U.S. tournaments try the idea on, if just for size. The advantages seem clear. Results are determined in a fair and unbiased way, with luck having as little to do with the final results as possible. Outside manipulation of the scoring system would be much more difficult. The excitement generated by the Top Table would be an excellent addition to any tournament. It would bring the World Hobby a little closer together in the way Diplomacy is played, at conventions anyway, and maybe then we can work on establishing a regular time limit for tournament play, instead of the mish-mash of systems we have now! But that, I think, is another article for another day!
Chris Martin

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