by Manus Hand
As any regular reader of the Diplomacy newsgroup on the Internet knows, one of the most frequently asked questions by new players is, “What if we don’t have seven players?” These questions are often accompanied by remarks like, “The suggestions given in the rulebook for play with fewer than seven players leave something to be desired; does anyone have any other ideas?”
In fact, the regular newsgroup reader will also recognize much of the following, which is adapted from my response to such questions. It is a description of Scott Kasch’s solution to this dilemma, which I dubbed “Missing Man Diplomacy” (or MMD, for short). Before getting into the selling points for the variant, let me go over the basics, which are very simple.
What’s It All About?
Missing Man Diplomacy sets up just like the standard game, with the players (some number fewer than seven) taking the normal roles, each as one of the seven Great Powers. The role of one or more of the Great Powers will therefore remain unplayed. These unplayed powers are also referred to as the “vacant” powers.
Unlike the suggestions for short-headcount play which are given in the rulebook, however, the units of these vacant powers don’t just sit and hold in position, waiting to be eaten up by the active players. Instead, the units of the vacant powers will receive orders for every phase, just like the units owned by any other Great Power. The catch is that the (played) power which has the privilege of issuing the orders for each one of the vacant powers changes from phase to phase in rotation.
For example, if Austria is a vacant power, then the English player might enter the Spring 1901 Movement orders for Austria, after which the French player would enter Austria’s Fall 1901 Movement orders, the Russian player would be responsible for Austria’s 1901 adjustment orders, etc., etc.
The rotation scheme should be set up such that the players taking their turns with the vacant power first would seem, to a disinterested observer, to have the most to gain by strengthening that vacant power. That is, if Austria is vacant, Italy, Turkey, and Russia shouldn’t really take the first three turns at the helm of the dual monarchy.
If there is more than one vacant power, the same rotation sequence is used, although it would begin, for each of the vacant powers, at a different point. For example, if the sequence of vacant power control in a five player game is:
then England might submit the first set of Austrian orders, while Turkey would issue the German orders in Spring 1901. In Fall of 1901, France takes control of Austria, and Italy has the German helm.
Advantages of the Missing Man System
That’s about it for the basic mechanics of the game. However, the above description is vague enough to provoke arguments about what exactly a “phase” is, and therefore when the control of a vacant power passes from one player to another. The different interpretations constitute different “sub-variants,” if you will, and I’ll get into these in a minute. First, though, some general observations.
In playtesting, it was found that the Missing Man system promotes the process of diplomacy. Not only did it give France good reason to talk to Turkey before the first Spring movement (other than the customary, “Hello down there,” that is), but it also became apparent that even the bitterest of enemies would negotiate with each other over the orders of a vacant power.
It was also true that the vacant powers tended to survive much longer in a Missing Man Diplomacy game than they would if their units were left to hold and hope for support. For example, in an all-day face-to-face five-player game, one of the vacant powers even managed to survive for inclusion in a DIAS draw, albeit with only a single unit.
Having the first powers which take turns with a vacant power be those which would seem not to be well served by the quick success of the vacant power’s neighbors assists in making for longer-lasting vacant powers. In addition, though, this forces a new wrinkle into the diplomatic relationships. At the beginning of a standard game, France can talk friendly to both Turkey and Russia, but in Missing Man, even in Spring, 1901, he must take a position in favor of one or the other, or simply anti-juggernaut, if he controls a vacant Austria. Talking out of both sides of your mouth is a more interesting feat, since you’ll be asked to put your money on one side or the other of your mouth when your turn to control a concerned vacant power comes along.
One might think that certain combinations of vacant powers would make for less than satisfying games, but this assumption is questionable. In the first non-face-to-face game for this variant (an e-mail game), Austria and Turkey came up vacant after assignment of powers by the judge based on the preference lists submitted by the five players. My initial impression was that Russia and Italy would certainly have a field day, and so the powers should be reselected. However, a bit of further thought revealed that if the players viewed the power assignment the same way, it would make for a strong (if not iron-clad) E/F/G to oppose I/R, and we all know how tough such alliances can be. The game began, and, like all games, it took its own direction — a different one altogether from either of those considered likely — and the game ended up to be a very interesting one. So it would appear that the choice of which power or powers are vacant makes very little difference.
Missing Man Diplomacy introduces many other new and different strategies into the play. To discuss these, though, requires that we look at the different “sub-variants;” that is, the different rules governing when control of a vacant power passes from one active player to another.
“Classic” Missing Man
In original Missing Man Diplomacy, control passes from one player to the next with every game phase. For example, consider a six-player Missing Man game with the rotation of control of Austria being
England has control of Austria for Spring of 1901 and France issues the Italian orders for Fall of 1901. Let’s say now that the Russian fleet in Rumania was dislodged in Fall 1901, causing a retreat phase that season (to handle only this single dislodge). In “classic” Missing Man Diplomacy, this would mean that the German player would have control of Italy during that retreat phase. Yes, the German would have very little (in fact, nothing) to do “as” Italy during that phase, but that’s the way it goes. In fact, in this particular situation, one might guess that Russia and Turkey actually arranged for the Russian dislodgement in Rumania simply to create that retreat phase, thus giving Germany the responsibility for the non-existant Italian F1901R orders, and allowing Turkey control of the Austrian build phase, during which he might then waive the Austrian builds.
As you can see, this method of play leads to planned dislodgements just for the sake of dislodgements (and planned supports in order to avoid such things, of course) — the intent being to gain for an alliance more advantageous control of a vacant power. Affecting which phase (movement, retreat, or adjustment) the next player in the rotation scheme — friend or foe — will control a vacant power, becomes an important part of the game, and there is constant fevered negotiation on these points on the parts of all interested parties.
“No Gyp” Missing Man
There are ways to play other than by these “original” rules, though. Some people argue that getting control of a power which has no orders to issue (that is, on a retreat or adjustment phase) is a bit unfair, and so the modification is made that control of a vacant power only transfers from one power to the next when that vacant power has orders to be issued for the upcoming phase. If this were the method of play, then in the example given above, the dislodgement of the Russian fleet from Rumania would not be enough to gain Turkish control of Austria for the build phase. (Although a single Austrian dislodgement — provided of course that it didn’t result in a forced disband — would be sufficient.)
Proponents of this second method point out that no one is forced to endure a “do-nothing” phase (“oh great, I have Austria for an adjustment phase, and it’s 4/4”), and that, since this method results in the rotation of control of each of multiple vacant powers happening independently, based on events which befall the units of each nation separately, the manipulation of the rotation itself could be part of a game strategy. A clever player, by arranging dislodges at the proper times, could, by planning and plotting, gain for himself or herself simultaneous control of two or more of the vacant powers at a key point in the game.
Countering this view are the proponents of “original” Missing Man, who argue that Turkey, a jillion miles away from England, should have as much ability to control who gets the vacant England for the next movement phase as do the powers who may happen to be in position to dislodge (or protect from dislodgement) an English unit. In “original” Missing Man, Turkey could cause (by arrangement or brute force) an Austrian or even Turkish dislodgement, thus sticking his enemy (Russia?) with useless control of England and his friend (Germany?) with England’s next movement phase.
None Of The Above
Another way to handle the rotation involves extending control of a vacant power in a movement phase to include control of that power during any retreat and/or adjustment phase following therefrom. That is, control only passes to the next power in the rotation before each movement phase.
You can mix and match, too, of course. That is, you could you could pass control to the next power in the rotation before each movement or adjustment phase. Or you could pass control for do-nothing retreat phases, but not for do-nothing adjustment phases. You could choose to dismiss eliminated active players from the rotation for control of the surviving vacant powers. Or you could continue them in it. Or you could….
As you can see, there is a plethora of sub-variants centered on when control of a vacant power is transferred. You might experiment to see which method of play you prefer, but in the main, I think you’ll find the scheme whereby vacant powers are controlled by the different active powers in turn a very very good one, and one which will lead to a very enjoyable game next time you find yourself with that irresistible urge to backstab which we all get, but when fewer than six potential victims are on hand for you to satisfy it.