by David P. Smith, PhD
For many years I have sponsored a game club at Highland Park High School, Dallas, Texas, where I have taught Advanced Placement European and American History, but in December of 1992 a group of seniors wanted to try a game I had told them about: Diplomacy. I had played it about one hundred times, face-to-face and postally, back in the late 70s and early 80s, and had regaled them with tales of duplicity — so they just had to try it for themselves. I made a blow-up of the Diplomacy conference map, put it on a bulletin board, got the colored pins in place, and we were ready to go.
There is a thirty minute “tutorial” period each morning at school, so we decided that we would make one move per day at that time — as they turned in their written orders to me. That first game was a great one — I have rarely seen players have so much fun with a game — with conference calls to allies and enemies each night, and with negotiations furtively taking place in classrooms, at lunch, and before and after school. I kept bringing to school articles on strategy and tactics from old copies of Diplomacy World and the General, and they were devoured, along with Richard Sharp’s The Game of Diplomacy. These were, after all, mostly honors students, quite bright and eager to learn the intricacies of both tactics and diplomatic skills, or better yet, how to pull off a memorable stab.
We quickly filled up another board when the first game finished and for the rest of the year we usually had two games going simultaneously, with our first tournament of the year held in the Spring of 1993. Our tournament winner, Davio Ventouras, won six games that year out of twelve that were played, making him far and away the year’s champion. The following school year, beginning the first week of September, we started off with two games, one with all rookies. When they concluded we filled three boards and have had at least three games going almost constantly since then. We also had a three-round Fall tournament with a three-board first round. The Spring Tournament held in May of 1994 used the scoring system from Origins ’93; in fact, we’ve used different scoring systems for each tournament we have had. At the end of each tournament a host of awards are given in various categories, including the grand prize of a subscription to Diplomacy World. Our Fall Tournament for 1994 is a three-round tournament with four boards filled for the first round, plus a non-tournament all-rookie game going on at the same time.
What a delightful madhouse my classroom is each day during tutorials, as between thirty and forty players engage in the hustle and bustle of fervent negotiations. When noon arrives the room begins to fill again all through the lunch period as the players stream back in to see the results of the morning moves, and the diplomacy begins again for the next day. Nothing else but this could have energized me to become active in the hobby once more, after a nine year absence. A few months after that first game in my classroom back in December of 1992 I joined a couple of postal games, wrote several articles for Diplomacy World, and started my own zine, The Game’s Afoot for local gamers. When those seniors graduated in May of ’93 they wanted to try their own postal game among themselves, so I started The Flying Dutchman zine just for them, with monthly turns as they are away at college, and I added a second game for the seniors who graduated in May of ’94. With forty-one games completed in my classroom between December of ’92 and December of ’94, here are a few statistics we have compiled. These numbers per country are based on a simple scoring system, giving ten points for a first-place, five points for a second-place finish and three points for third place.
England – 128
France – 124
Germany – 138
Italy – 91
Austria – 95
Russia – 126
Turkey – 195
The surprise is that Italy has done so well, much better than the five per cent average wins found in postal play. In ’92-’93 Italy only managed two third place finishes, but the following year’s strong Italian play (at the expense of Austria) led to four Italian wins in ’93-’94, one second place, and one third place. Conversely, the first year’s strong Russian play gave way the following year to a combination of generally weak Russian play and bad fortune in Russian alliances. In fact, we had one Russian player eliminated in the Fall of ’02, something I had never before seen! And of course Turkey’s strong standing is also somewhat of a surprise, although I must add that not all the Turkish victories have been eighteen-center wins: some were concessions and others ended by tournament time-limits on years played. Our best “survivor” has been France, with few wins but a host of third places, and England follows in survival skills with even fewer wins than France, but with many second place finishes. Second in total wins to Turkey has been Germany, not surprisingly, but counteracted by its weaker survival power.
In 1993-94 thirty-nine different students played at least one game of Diplomacy, including seven females. In fact, our first win of the year was an eighteen-center Turkish win by Phoebe Ventouras, sister of the previous year’s champion. Eighty-two different students have participated in at least one game since our first one in December of ’92, and each senior class has a postal game awaiting them in The Flying Dutchman, where I also keep them in touch with our club’s Diplomacy news. As I write this, six boards are filled and in action each day in a Diplomacy game in my classroom, and fourteen former students send in their moves to me monthly in postal Diplomacy. I have to believe that Highland Park High School is the hotbed of Diplomacy in this country! At least I have never heard of any other place where so many players are continually engaged in “The Game,” five days a week, for approximately eight months out of the year.
So I beg to differ with those I have read who say that young people are just not getting into Diplomacy these days. In the March 1994 issue of Fire and Movement the editor lamented that so few of the young are playing board games: “We beat our breasts and wail about the lack of new blood entering the hobby. But take a look at where the kids hang out. Whether it’s video arcades or concerts, the name of the game today is instant gratification.” Similarly, a recent editorial in the General detailed the shift in emphasis away from board games and to computer games, noting that new players are just not getting into board games as in past years. Now I realize that Diplomacy has always held a special niche in gaming, (board games, computer games, role-playing games, and Diplomacy) but for three years I have seen a great carry-over from Diplomacy to board games, particularly to historical simulations.
I watch these students go at it each day, with sophisticated and knowledgeable play, and with enthusiasm. I know that Diplomacy is in good hands with players like this coming into the hobby.
Reprinted from Diplomacy World 74