Cox on OxCon 97

by Steve Cox

The Oxford meet is undoubtedly the premier (as well as the first!) qualifying event in the National Diplomacy Championship calendar, and the optimism displayed by its organisers this year in upgrading it to a convention by including tournaments for games other than Diplomacy was rewarded by a significant increase in the attendance. Let’s hope that the momentum is kept up after the current generation of students graduates. 

You’ll be fascinated to learn that I played my very first game of Dip at Oxford, way back in 1977 or 1978, but I can’t remember who it was who taught me the rules and took such delight in stabbing me – was it anyone famous I wonder? I also played my first postal game at Oxford, a Dip variant based on the Successors period of ancient history. Each province had an economic value, I remember, the money being used to buy and maintain cavalry and elephants as well as armies and fleets, and I still have the pieces I made for it. The game was run by a student at Durham University, but his zine folded after just one issue, before I discovered that it was part of a wider hobby. 

Following these two debacles, it was some ten years before my next game of Dip, and another five before I rediscovered the postal hobby. This was round about the time when the idea of having qualifying rounds for the NDC was first mooted, by John Dodds, and by the time the 1994 season got under way I was a regular visitor to conventions, so that the prospect of being able to combine a tour of my old haunts with a good thrashing at my favourite game seemed like an efficient way to plug the gap between Midcon and Mastercon. 

The first Oxford qualifier had been in 1993 – the first year of the new system – but it wasn’t widely advertised and attracted mostly Oxford students. The second was held in Wadham College, and after some abysmal play as a millstone of an ally to Steve Jones, I was surprised to learn that my 3 centre England had garnered me a best country award despite my overall 14th place (out of 21). The only opportunity I had to do any sightseeing was during the brief lunch break, which was nowhere near enough in the bright February sunshine, so the following year I took a day off work and drove up on the Friday morning, parking in Summertown and walking to the centre through Victorian North Oxford (well worth exploring if you have any interest in urban architecture). Quite by chance, in the late afternoon, I bumped into John Todd and Jeremy Tullett, who had travelled up by train from Dorset, so after they had checked into their B&B we went out to eat, rather unadventurously choosing Brown’s, which proved to have become too popular with family groups for my taste – in fact, they seemed to have completely driven out the students, who used to queue outside in my day, forcing them to retreat to a much better place just round the corner, which I discovered the following year. The venue for the Diplomacy was a room in Christ Church College, but the presence in it of several large and heavy antique tables left no space for those brief last minute huddles with a vacillating ally that are so essential to honest players like me for getting wind of an imminent stab. Fortunately Mark Sheiham’s France didn’t do the dirty on my Germany till near the end, and I finished 10th out of 28. 

In 1996 I arranged to meet John and Jeremy again on the Friday evening but, no doubt suspecting a trap, they concealed themselves in a nearby alehouse where they knew I’d never find them. The Dip was compered by Stephen Massey in a room in the old part of Keble College, and I managed joint fourth as Germany thanks to an alliance with Philip Hannay’s England. 

This year I tricked John and Jeremy into meeting me in the Lamb And Flag, an old pub which has the appearance of being just a roofed over alleyway between two grander buildings in St.Giles. After two brief but informative talks by Jeremy on the history of Castlecon and the background to his proposals for the Midcon scoring system, we repaired to a restaurant overlooking the High Street, which I had reconnoitred earlier in the day to ensure that there was no curry on the menu. 

I had booked a room in advance for a change, so was staying in a place that was more expensive and less characterful than those I had found previously by roaming the streets. There were more guests at breakfast though, one of them a Scot who I later bumped into at the convention. I wonder how many other people stay over? Perhaps for next year I’ll try and get Mark to include a suggestion in the convention flyer for somewhere we might all meet up on the Friday evening. 

When I arrived at the convention suite, which was again in Keble, but the new part this time (in a building that doesn’t look like it will last 50 years, let alone 250) there was still an hour to wait before 1901 so I joined a game of Ave Caesar that was just getting under way. My breakfast Scot led from the front in his first attempt at the game, never once missing a blocking space, but with one corner to go he came to a grinding halt, having only two 6’s left (in Ave Caesar you can’t play a 6 if you’re in the lead). Since no-one could get past, the game was declared a draw, as the rules only permit the leader to play a 6 in this situation if he has three of them in his hand (“Hat ein in Fuhrung liegender Spieler an dieser Stelle dreimal die ‘6’ auf der Hand, darf er sein Gespann ausnahmsweise mit einer ‘6’ vorwartsziehen” means ‘if the leading player is in one of these spaces (ie. the chicanes) and he has three 6’s in his hand, he may exceptionally advance his team with a ‘6”, n’est pas?). They must have thought I would win otherwise. 

After a couple of hands of 6 Nimmt! while Mark finished the draw for the Dip, I found myself playing France against Nick Parish (England), Susie Horton (Germany), Mark Sheiham (Russia), Chetan Radia (Turkey), Philip Hannay (Austria) and Mark II Wightman (Italy). In previous games, most played within the last year, I had been stabbed by all of these except Chetan and Philip, so I could see that I was in for an interesting afternoon. Would my neighbours be more likely to be good allies now, because I hadn’t stabbed them before, or would they assume I was out for revenge? And what had been their previous experiences as allies with each other? 

Spring 1901 didn’t bring any answers to these questions, as everyone wanted to be friends, which they always do. I ended up supporting A(Par) to Burgundy to establish my anti-German credentials with Nick, but I told Susie about it in advance, in the hope that she would understand. She did, I think, and when her A(Mun) found itself sandwiched between me and Italy’s A(Tyr), she not only proposed to support me to Bel with F(Hol) but actually went through with it. Now, some players would only do this in order to induce England onto their side by creating a six centre France as a common enemy, but Susie’s plan was that I should content myself with just two builds and order F(MAO) – IRI, and as this was something that I couldn’t remember trying so early on before, I was happy to agree. As it turned out, I had to content myself with just the build from Bel that year, as I misordered A(Mar) (A(Pie) – Spa!), but this was a blessing in disguise. With two builds, I would either have had to build F(Mar) or A(Par), in addition to F(Bre). The fleet would not have got into English waters any quicker than the F(Bre) that I built in 1902 did, and its initial appearance might have complicated my relations with Italy. The army would have been no help against England and would only have made it harder to persuade Germany that her future lay in the east. Nick seemed unprepared for my attack, even though he admitted that it was his own favourite tactic for France, and as he was having a hard time in Scandinavia after Susie’s Dutch opening had let Mark into Sweden, I was able to make progress against him despite the weakness of my forces. However, I was worried that Susie would think France an easier target than Russia in the middle game, so I tried to convince Nick that, as long as he was making trouble for her and Mark, I would grant him a long and slow death and in the meantime seek my fortune in the Mediterranean. This, I later realised, is a variation of the Janissary tactic described by Paul Barker in T2W3 1, and it seemed to work well. The biggest problem was that Nick was an ungrateful helot and took it upon himself to point out to Susie all of the routes by which her armies might find their way into my derriere. Fortunately, she was distracted at first by a brief ballooning of Russia’s strength, and then by the threat to her Austrian border from a short-lived Italian-Turkish alliance, so her one incursion into French territory was brief and easily dealt with. Nick continued to squirm, though, showing no sign that he knew he was dead (which rather spoiled my enjoyment), and twice managed to get a build. The first time was when he was dislodged from the North Sea and found himself with the choice of Belgium or Holland to retreat to, and the second was in the final season when he rallied from one to two units thanks to my decision to spare Edi for another year since there was a five sixths chance that the game would continue. 

Although I only had nine centres at the end and had yet to build an army, I don’t think I’ve ever been so well placed to get a high score. My second expedition to the Med was making progress (the first had been abandoned when Mark W anticipated my convoy to NAf), I owned Belgium and Holland and held the keys to Edi, and there was no sign yet that the others were aligning themselves against me. Good prospects don’t count though, and I had to content myself with another 4th – not shared this time – and a blank certificate. 

A new factor in the tournament this year was the presence of a large number of the managers and players from Mark Stretch’s Fantasy Dip League, a clever idea which other zine editors must be kicking themselves for not having thought of (in case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a sort of all reader game in which you ‘buy’ a team of seven players and then score points depending on their performance at conventions throughout the year). Although many people were interested to know whose teams their opponents were in, I don’t think the rivalry affected the play this time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the opening alliances in games later in the year show some influence, particularly if two leading managers find themselves pitted against each other. 

While we waited for the awards ceremony, I broke out my newly purchased copy of Medici and proceeded to come last of six by buying a lot of cards that I didn’t want at inflated prices, just to stop the leaders getting them – not a good strategy. Halfway through, the room began to fill up with unfamiliar faces from other parts of the building and a hush descended as Chris Dickson mounted a low platform and prepared to honour those who had distinguished themselves by their prowess in the various tournaments. 28 people had played Dip, 24 had played Settlers and 16 had played at pirates or musketeers or something (and been very quiet about it), which must count as a success all round. Vick Hall won the Dip, Len George won the Settlers and no-one won the pirates v. musketeers, because that’s not the point. Chris then announced a coup for the con – he had just received the results of the Rebel Zine Poll, and when he proceeded to read them out from 50 upwards, complete with scores to two decimal places, pandemonium ensued. Eventually, public opinion forced him to restart at number 10 so that justice was seen to be done rather quicker than of late when TCP emerged the winner. My drubbing in Medici mercifully concluded, I nipped out for a, erm, non-game related activity, only to find on my return one minute later that the others had forgotten all about me and started a strictly four player game of Settlers. This seemed like my cue to leave. I toyed with the idea of going to see the new Star Trek film to help me appreciate how truly insignificant were my petty frustrations when set against the immensity of the Universe and the enigma of Time, but as I was passing through the college gatehouse I spotted a poster for a concert to be given that evening in Exeter College chapel by the Schola Cantorum. Much more uplifting, I thought, and so it was if you like that sort of thing (but I can’t be sure as I still haven’t seen the Star Trek film), although a bit of Thomas Weelkes would have been nice as an encore. I wonder if there’ll be any Culture in Belgium?

Reprinted from The Tangled Web We Weave Issue 2