by Nathan Barnes
and David Maletsky

It's back! Frontline is a new column which will look at different contentious issues in Diplomacy, and attempt to examine both sides of the question.

In this installment, Nathan and David discuss the advantages and drawbacks of having a top board in the last round of a Diplomacy tournament.


Top Boards are Satisfying


Top Boards are Unfair

What is a Top Board? At its most basic level, itís the final round of a given Diplomacy Tournament in which the top seven players for that event are placed on a board together. There are a variety of variations on this theme, but I prefer that the results of that board determine the tournament winner, regardless of who has the most tournament points overall. For the purposes of this discussion, however, the minutia of which scoring system is being used, and how the overall tournament is structured, will be ignored. We will be speaking here of the concept of a Top Board itself, outside the various flavors of scoring created by different rules and regulations.

Before we can delve deeply into the merits of a Top Board at a Diplomacy Tournament, we should first ask ourselves what it is that we are trying to accomplish at a tournament. There is nothing inherent in the word ďtournamentĒ that suggests there must be an ultimate victor; however, we choose to have trophies and awards for at least the top three performers, if not the top seven. There is an expectation that there will be some sort of ďwinnerĒ when the dust settles after a weekend of pushing colored blocks of wood. The purpose, therefore, of every Diplomacy Tournament Iíve encountered, whether in attendance or through word of mouth, is to declare an event winner — to identify, through whatever structure has been set by the host, the person that played the best Diplomacy that weekend.

Attempting to somehow define or quantify an amorphous concept like success in Diplomacy is notoriously difficult, as there is no set path to success; very different methods can yield similar results. As a host, tasked with unenviable job of setting up parameters by which good Diplomacy will be measured, I find that a Top Board does most satisfying job of identifying a Tournament winner.

Satisfying? Indeed. Iíve chosen this word very specifically. Itís important to the prestige and creditability of a Tournament that the results make sense; that the participants tacitly accept the outcome as reasonable; that the winner is justified in taking home the title — in short, everyone should be satisfied with the results. A Top Board goes a long way in helping us accomplish these goals.

If we accept that the goal of a Tournament is to crown a victor, and we agree that victor should be the player who played the best Diplomacy over the course of the event, then it is difficult to shun the idea of a Top Board. Every tournament structure that I know of from tennis, to bridge, to poker, all work towards identifying the best contestants and pitting them against one another. To declare a champion without first throwing them into the ring against the other players that are excelling in the event leaves open the question of whether or not it was good Diplomacy that decided the winner, or simply a healthy amount of luck. Did the winner get a soft board, full of friends or inexperienced players? Would they have won if they had to ever face the second or third place finishers?

Neither the victor nor the tournament director should have to face these questions.

Beyond simply accomplishing the goal of identifying the best of the best at an event, a Top Board is also a pleasure to both participate in and observe. Some deriders of the Top Board concept will say that it is an aberration; itís a whole different game, with subtle differences that make it something other than Diplomacy. To some extent they are correct — there are some very real differences. These boards tend to be stacked with talented, seasoned players, who have seen and played out just about every scheme out there, creating boards that are almost entirely devoid of tactical errors, poor strategy, legitimate misorders, or logistical arguments. Players instead focus on the actual diplomacy, pieces fall to the wayside as massive amounts of effort are put into convincing others to work with you. In the correct setting a Top Board can be an extremely dynamic, very pure Diplomacy game with the fortunes of empires waxing and waning over and over again, as alliances fail or succeed.

This is a bit different from a more common game of Diplomacy, but I would argue that the Top Board is the purer form, in which the focus is on the verbal fencing of the players, rather than the mundane pieces of the board, wherein the most successful players of the event must best one another to claim a title. Players aspire to get on a top board, much more than they work for 5th or 6th place because not only is it an honor, a membership of a group that is earned and is immediately respected, it is also the guarantee of a very good game of Diplomacy in which you can be assured that your fate in the game is based entirely on your own skill.

Satisfying results, a good game of Diplomacy, and a worthy tournament goal. Top Board. Can you get on it?

In order to examine why top boards are less than desirable as a tournament structure, we must first grasp their nature. All of the rounds prior to the final round in a tournament, with or without a top board, have the same structure: each round is scored equally under a scoring system. Where the top board structure separates itself from other tournaments is that, while other tournaments continue the same structure they've employed all tournament long, a tournament running a top board stops prior to the final round, examines the current tournament rankings, and creates a "top board" of players from said rankings. The players on that board, and that board alone, are eligible to compete for the tournament championship.

I'm not going to list many different ways in which top boards are bad or wrong-headed, because there's only one, but it's important, and it rears its ugly head in many ways: simply put, top boards are unfair. So I'm going to list some of the instances where one can see the evidence of unfairness for oneself, and it's then up to the audience to decide whether or not they think that unfairness is sufficiently bad or wrong-headed.

First of all, top boards are unfair to the player with the best tournament score. Having a top board means that the player who best succeeds in the tournament, under the scoring system provided, may not end up as the tournament winner. Imagine a tournament where in the final round, the player who was in 8th place, a single point out of 7th under the scoring system, achieves solo victory, while the player who was in 7th place (and hence is on the top board) manages to eke out board leadership with a whopping 6 supply centers before time expires. Does anyone really want to say the player in 7th who topped his board with 6 centers in this example played the best in the tournament, and as a consequence, deserves to be tournament champion?

Second, top boards are unfair to the other six players on the top board, who don't end up topping it. All of the players who have had the best tournament results are arbitrarily forced to play against the stiffest competition possible in the final round. This frequently results in one or more of their scores plunging while other players, on boards with softer competition, leap forward in the rankings. Why punish players at the end of a tournament for performing well earlier?

Third, top boards are structurally unfair. Having a top board not only weights the final round of play differently than the earlier rounds of play, but moreover, it weights the play of a single game within said round more than all other games in the tournament. Why should one board be worth more than all of the others in the tournament? Moreover, why abandon the level playing field that existed in all previous rounds?

Standing against the intrinsic unfairness of top boards, proponents of top boards will attempt to dazzle an audience with perceived benefits that allegedly outweigh how unfair they are. So, since three examples of unfairness is probably sufficient, let's move on to revealing what's actually behind the smoke & mirror display of the top board salesperson.

  • Top board myth #1: top boards are good for tournament play, because they create a uniquely competitive spectacle. The flipside of creating a spectacle around a top board is that the importance of gameplay on every other board in the round is automatically diminished; enhancing one board's interest value while decreasing several others' value by a similar amount is hardly a fair trade, since there are many more players not on the top board.

  • Top board myth #2: the players who have played the best in a tournament going into the final round deserve the honor of being on a top board. The scores those players have earned, and frankly the scores all players have earned, in the tournament going into the final round, are their own reward, because those scores determine their tournament placement, and hence, if you've done well so far, you're already reaping the benefit going into the final round, since you have a leg up on many other players. There is no obvious reason to overamplify results going into the final round, when all that really matters is the final tournament standings.

  • Top board myth #3: having a top board allows the best of the best to compete for the tournament prize. More often than not, statistically weaker tournament players will find themselves on a top board while statistically stronger tournament players are left off. This is due to the high level of variance that occurs within any small sample of play, as in, say, a single tournament. While this might make at least a slight bit of sense if it was couched inside of a metatournament ranking system, and all rounds were seeded instead of merely a top board, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about the situation where on the basis of 2-4 rounds of play, scores are tallied & players are put on the top board as a consequence of said scores; so don't be fooled. To reiterate, more often than not, the best of the best are not on the top board.

So to conclude, in considering whether you want to run a tournament with a top board, or play on a top board, think. Think about what it means to have a top board. When someone argues alleged merits of top boards to you, think critically about the foundation of what they're saying. Think about whether or not top boards seem unfair, and why. And most of all, think about whether there's any positive value to top boards that would seem to trump any unfairness they may have.

Top boards only exist in darkness. Under the light of your watchful examination, their imagined virtue dissipates in a puff of smoke. It's up to you not to allow the proverbial wool to be pulled over your eyes!

Nathan and David
c/o The Editor

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