Eleven Judge Variants to Watch Out For

By David Norman

With all the variants now available on the Judges, I thought it might be an idea if a few of them were given some attention. So I got out the list of variants on USTR, and started crossing them out. Removing the ones that seemed to have died, the ones which don't look so promising, and to be honest, the ones which I don't know enough about to want to write about. Ten seemed a good number to get it down to. So out they went. Down to fifteen, then twelve, and then eleven. One more to go. Which would it be ? I just couldn't pick one out of them to remove. Oh well, I thought. Change the title. Its a lot easier.

So, eleven variants. Where do I start ? Well its fairly obvious really. Start with the most populour. The variant everybody knows. The variant which has been played more often than all the others put together. It is of course Standard.

OK, so its not really what this article is about, but never-the-less, just think about it for a minute. It is amazing. Forty years ago, Allan Calhamer invented Diplomacy, and as well as working out the rules, etc, he came up with a map to play on. The Standard map. He had no experience at designing variants, and nobody elses experiences to draw on. And yet, he came up with a map which is so good, that with forty years of play and experience, there is still nobody who has managed to design a variant to match it. It is still the most populour variant, and sees no sign of being superceeded.

So, if it is that good a map, why change it ? Well for the second variant, it is not changed. The only change is the starting position. The Shift-Left and Shift-Right variants have been around for a long time, but both have some fairly major problems. The biggest one being England. In Shift-Right, England starts in Italy, and somehow has to get his one fleet back, through the bottleneck at the Straits of Gibralter, and home to his island. He doesn't really stand a chance. And if that isn't bad enough, in Shift-Left, England starts in Austria, and is even worse off.

So, what can be done ? Well in the Shift-Around variant, the starts have been changed again. As in the others, Germany and Turkey start in each others homelands, and in Shift-Around, Austria and France also start in each others homes. This leaves Italy to start in England, Russia to start in Italy, and England to start in Russia. This may sound like it has made life for England a bit too easy. The fleet in St Petersburg is far too close to home. However, there is one thing which makes life a lot harder for England. The Turkish Fleet in Kiel. There is no way it is ever going to get back to Turkey, so what can it do ? Well its most useful task is to try and hold up the English. And it turns out that even if the English know the Turkish moves in advance, they still cannot get home in less than four years if Turkey plays to stop them. That is plenty of time for most of the other powers to get home.

For our third variant, we take another variant which has been around for quite a while, and improve on it. At some point, Jimmy Millington and Robert Schone must have decided that one of the problems with the Standard Diplomacy board is the edges. So lets get rid of them. How ? Well join the left edge to the right edge, and the top edge to the bottom. A few other minor modifications were needed to make it more balenced, and then Wraparound was born.

However, the variant still had one serious flaw. The whole of the left hand edge of the Diplomacy Map is sea. The whole of the right hand edge is land. So the Eastern powers would get to their edge of the map, and discover that they couldn't wrap around because they didn't have any fleets in the Western Seas. And the Western powers would move their fleets around the edge onto the Eastern edge coasts, and then be unable to move any further.

So what could be done. Well the Northern edge of St Petersburg touches the Northern Edge of the map. However, this is only true because of the map projection which was chosen for the Standard map. So for Wraparound 2, the projection is changed so that the Barents Sea now touches the Eastern edge of the map, and St Petersburg no longer touches the Northern edge. Suddenly this opens up a whole new range of options. As well as allowing fleets to sail right round the top of the map, it also joins the two coasts of Syria, and so you can move directly from the Med to Syria and out into the Atlantic. It also turns out that the variant is more balenced after this change, mainly because in the original version, Russia was too weak, due partly to the Turkish opening of A(Smy) - Syr, and then A(Syr) - StP. Now there is water in the way, Russia has a chance to get started before it is attacked from all sides.

So if the Standard map is so good, then what do we do next ? Well lets make it bigger and better. More provinces, more supply centres and more powers. Big is good, and bigger is better. You could almost be mistaken for thinking that the Vincent Mous, creator of the Modern variant was an American, rather than a Canadian living in Denmark :-). The Modern variant is designed to move the Standard map of Europe forward to the end of the twentieth century. The modern day superpowers of Europe and its close neighbours, such as Spain, the Ukraine and Egypt, replace the waning powers like Austria-Hungary. Now instead of seven powers, there are ten, but to make sure there are enough supply centres for everyone, there are 64 of them on the board, so you need 33 to win.

Since its release in 1995, Modern has been played more than any other variant except Standard. The additional complexity of three extra powers and the change in layout of the powers has made for a variant where a lot of the powers have far more options than in the Standard game. And with so much further to go to get the win, the game does not settle down to a predictable mid-game and end-game nearly as often as Standard does. The variant even has its own home page, hall of fame, and strategy articles for nine of the ten powers (the tenth one is still waiting to be written).

Having redesigned Europe, for his next variant, Vince moved across the Atlantic for the Fall of the American Empire variant (known simply as Empire on the judges). The idea is simple. The political structure of North America has broken down. Quebec has split away from Canada. The major areas of the USA, such as California, Texas and Florida, have separated to form their own powers. And with the instability, the major powers in Central America, such as Mexico and Peru have decided to grab their chance for expansion.

The Empire variant is currently only available on the USTR judge, but is ready for distributing onto the other judges as and when time permits, and once there, it looks like being as big a hit as Modern. The similarities are there to see. Once again there are ten powers, and around sixty supply centres between them. If you like the larger variants, then this is definately one to try out now, and is my prediction for the next variant to become very populour on the judges, once it is fully released.

Of course, there is no reason why a variant can only cover one continent, and for the War in the Americas variant (known as Americas on the judges), Macario Reyes has used the whole of North and South America. Set back in the 1840's, six powers in South America, and two in the North, fight it out with the Colonial British and Spanish.

The first thing to draw me towards this variant, was the layout of the Sea spaces. The coastal waters are no bigger than a normal province. But then outside these are huge ocean spaces. On a map of over 170 spaces, there are only 10 provinces which touch the edge of the map. Once you get a fleet out to sea, you can get to completely the other side of the map in just a couple of years.

However, to only talk about the sea spaces would not do this variant justice. It is a very playable variant already, and while it is still in the testing and revising stage on USTR, it is already showing a great deal of promise for the future. Once the playtesting and fine tuning has been completed, this should be a very populour variant.

So we've had variants on one continent, and variants on two. Where do we go next ? It has to be the whole world. The World variant by David Norman (yes, I know, I'm shamelessly plugging my own variant here) puts seventeen powers onto a map which covers the entire globe. With 86 supply centres, and over 190 provinces, it is the largest variant available on the judges.

Once again, this is a variant which is still being revised and tested, and with test games taking so long on a variant of this size, it is likely to be quite a while before it will be finalised. However, the first game of the second revision is currently underway, and it is already starting to look very promising.

Of course with this many players, the game takes a lot of effort, especially in a full press game, and with the chances of seventeen players all getting their orders in by the deadline being pretty low, it can be fairly slow to get going until the first few powers are eliminated. But despite this, the feedback from the players who have played in the test games so far has been positive, and a significant proportion of those who played in the first test games have come back to play again.

Enough of these large variants. I find it hard enough to compete against six enemies. Why would I want to compete with nine, or even sixteen of them ? The African variant has just six powers. Compared with Standard, it has several advantages. The powers are much more evenly balenced (although one of them is still slightly weak), and because you can sail all the way around Africa, there are a lot less stalemate lines caused by simply bottling up a large powers fleets in one half of the board while you freely control the seas in the other half.

The African Variant was created by Phil Reynolds back in 1990, and has been populour in the American Postal Hobby ever since. It is now also available on the USTR judges, and at some point, should become available on all the judges. If you enjoy Standard, but would prefer something where you don't get bottled up just short of the solo quite so often, then this is definately a variant to try.

Of course, there is no reason why you have to stop at six powers. A few years ago, Andy Schwarz observed that a lot of games end in three-way draws. One possible explanation for this, is that people feel they have done well to start at seven and end up in the final three, that they don't want to risk throwing it all away going for the solo. So he had an idea. How about a variant where you already have a three-way when you start, and play from there. People could learn to play out the endgame without having to play the whole of the rest of the game first. And so the Hundred variant was born.

In this variant, England, France and Burgundy fight for control of Western Europe, around the time of the Hundred years war. With each power starting on four or five centres, and only nine centres required for the win, it can be a very short game, although it is not unknown for a game of Hundred to go on for 20 game years and more.

When it was first introduced, the Hundred variant rapidly gained a fairly large following, and a significant number of games were played. More recently, due mainly to Andy's reduction in available time for Diplomacy, its popularity has waned. However, that does not make it any less worth a go. The current version of Hundred is H31, and there is also H32 available, which is a slight variation on the variant, intended to make England slightly stronger. Both are equally well worth a try, and if you want to play it Face-to-Face, you can buy a copy of the Hundred Variant, as well as a couple of others, from Stupendous Games.

Sticking with the small variant theme, we next move to a variant that was designed with the intention of encouraging more use of fleets and convoying than Standard does. Sail Ho! places four powers onto a group of islands, each of which contains between two and six supply centres. Some islands start with one occupying power, some with two, and some start uninhabited. With so much sea, the need for fleet power is much more important, but even so, the supply centres are all still on land, and so some armies are also required for a successful game.

Now in just its second revision, the Sail Ho! variant has been tested by a significant number of players playing over 80 games. Like several of the other variants mentionned, it has its own website, its own Hall of Fame, and there is also currently a no-press Sail Ho! tournament in progress. If you are looking for a shorter game than Standard Diplomacy, and especially if you like playing England, then Sail Ho! is definately recommended.

Finally, we come back to a seven player variant. The South East Asia variant has a bit of everything. In the Northwest corner is the landmass of South East Asia, where China, Thailand and Vietnam an get involved in a significant amount of land based conflict. In the centre of the map is a mix of sea and islands, where the island nations such as Indonesia and the Philipines fight it out in a battle which requires a style of play very similar to Sail Ho!. And in the South is the landmass of Australia, who have to produce the fleets they need to sail out and join in the contest.

Despite the small amount of playtest games on this variant, and the need for some rework to balence the powers out, this is a variant that I hope and believe can go a long way if the effort is put in. The mix of geographies makes for a variant which clearly stands out as different to almost everything else that is available, and I hope that in the future, this will be another variant that becomes widely played on the judges.

To conclude, I would like to thank all the people mentioned in this article, and everybody who takes the time and effort to create variants and code them up for the judges. I would also like to appologise to everybody who's variant was not selected for this article. Unfortunately I don't get the chance to play all the variants on the judges, and so there are a significant number about which I simply don't enough to write about them.
More information about the variants mentioned in this article are available from the following locations :

StandardAllan CalhamerThe Diplomatic Pouch is the home of Diplomacy on the InternetAll
Shift-AroundRon JacobsenUSTR
Wraparound2David Norman, based on Wraparound by Jimmy Millington and Robert SchoneUSTR
ModernVincent Mous The Modern Homepage All
Fall of the American EmpireVincent MousUSTR
War in the AmericasMacario ReyesThe War in the Americas HomepageUSTR
WorldDavid NormanUSTR
AfricanPhil ReynoldsUSTR
HundredAndy SchwarzThe Hundred Homepage DEDO, FROG, SEPO, USCH, USTX, USVG, USTR (H31 only)
Sail Ho!Tarzan The Sail Ho! Homepage USTR
South East AsiaAndrew ReddawayUSTR

Maps and Information for all variants can be found on the Diplomatic Pouch Variants Page and the Diplomatic Pouch Maps Page. Files for Mapper, Mapit, and Postscript maps, for the variants on USTR, can be found at The USTR Variants Page.

Game creation is disabled on USTR, but if you want to Master a game on USTR, simply send the following to the judgekeeper :

Variant :

David Norman

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