MidCon 96

Chris Littlejohn – Forger of Champions

by Steve Cox

The four major conventions for me each year are, in chronological order, Mastercon, Furrycon, Manorcon and MidCon. My favourite is Furrycon, thanks mainly to the Intergame tournament (ritualised combat in an examination room atmosphere), the games library, and the absence of Dip, which I would otherwise feel obliged to play just in case I got lucky and won. Second favourite is Mastercon because it isn’t in Birmingham and because the people it attracts seem to be more inclined to play games and less interested in lounging around the bar in an alcoholic haze reminiscing about Hobby old times and disparaging the efforts of upstart Springboarders to introduce new ideas. Thus MidCon, for all its excellent facilities and the luxury of its accommodation, only manages third place. 

What I most look forward to is spotting all the new games brought back by the annual expedition to the Essen Games Fair, which takes place a fortnight or so earlier (although MidCon is to be scheduled a little later in future to make the gap longer). I used to look forward to playing some of them as well, but my prowess at FtF Dip seems to have grown over the years, to the point where I can no longer rely on being eliminated in my National Diplomacy Championship games on the Saturday and Sunday, and this leaves precious little time for anything else, especially as I can’t resist playing Intimate Dip as well. In past years, Modern Art and Settlers (i.e. Die Siedler Von Catan) have been the games to play – almost to the exclusion of anything else in the case of Settlers – but this time nothing new stood out. In fact, thanks to the arrival of Mayfair’s version of it, Settlers was probably still the most popular game, although I only played it once myself, immediately on arriving and in Len George’s variant form. This uses components from the expansion set, but the plain sea tiles are mixed in with the land tiles when laying out the island, so that lakes can be formed, and even multiple islands. The effect of this will usually be to reduce the number of building sites with three adjacent scoring tiles, and even those sites that are available can have poor prospects for expansion, as in my game. I didn’t take sufficient account of this and when, contrary to all the laws of physics and common justice, Len’s suspiciously dissimilar dice kept rolling 4’s instead of 5’s, I found myself unable to build more than one road and one village during the whole course of the game, even though we played the expanded game rule that everyone can build at the end of each player’s turn. The only other change from the standard game was that ferries could be built along tile edges that had water on both sides, road pieces being used for the purpose. A ferry costs one timber and one sheep (presumably they’re hung over the side as fenders), and two ferries count as one length of road when working out who has the longest road. Well worth a go. 

The most popular new game seemed to be Serenissima. This is a trading game of some sort, played on a map of the Mediterranean divided up into distorted hexes. Its most notable feature is the phenomenal number of pieces involved, most of which appear to be miniature oil storage tanks, so that when you first see the game set up it looks like a medieval version of McMulti. The last game I played on the Friday was my round in the Intimate Dip competition, against Mike Jordan. This year, the list filled so quickly that a second one was opened, so the message seems to be getting across that this two player Dip variant is not the crazy idea that it sounds, but is a demanding game in its own right, that forces you to abandon the time worn tenets of opening theory and to devise peculiar new ways for countries to co-operate. Definitely not recommended for novices wanting to familiarise themselves with basic tactics! I lost, by the way. (A question for ID experts: if there are two countries worth having and I need to get at least one of them to survive, but I only have n points whereas my opponent has 2n-1, how should I bid? Happens every time.) 

This year, the NDC rounds were run by Jeremy Tullett, who broke with tradition right from the start by almost kicking off on time, although he achieved this by not bothering to assign countries, and also, I suspect, by reading the players’ names in order straight off the signing up sheet. I drew England on a board where all the other players were new to me as face to face opponents, except possibly Duncan Adams (F). In fact, overall there seemed to be more new faces at the tables this year than in previous years, including Richard Hiscox and Andrew Greco, who are in the Juniper gamestart with me in TCP, the Hortons (new to MidCon), Geoff Bache and Emily Reid, inventors of Heptarchy, Andrew Wroe, who won the trophy for best non-qualifier, and one Felix Geiringer, a complete unknown to me, who drew Italy at my table. It was Felix who had the biggest influence on the early alliance patterns, when he made no secret of his intention to attack France, alone if necessary. I might have offered to help, but Duncan had already agreed to my plan for a surprise attack on Colin Hobbs’ Germany, and when Colin showed no enthusiasm for any sort of offensive action (bad policy, Colin – it only encourages more belligerent players to combine against you), the course of the game in the north was set for the next few years. 

In the south, Steve Bibby made the mistake of getting three builds as Austria (a temptation I’ve always managed to resist). This helped Ivan Woodward (R) and Colin Smith (T) to bury their differences, initially to Russia’s benefit but ultimately to Turkey’s, and Colin ended the game in the lead with 15 centres. I finished with 12, having managed to avoid upsetting anyone by timing my few pinprick stabs some years after they were expected. In fact, Duncan actually refrained from taking Belgium off me during the centre grabbing final year, and I’m quite happy to believe that this was a gesture of appreciation for my fair dealing, and not because he had calculated that Colin’s points would be reduced if the gap between him and me was smaller (I’ve since worked it out: a 15-12-4-3 result scores 67.8 for the leader, whereas a 15-11-4-4 result gives him 71.0). 

After a couple of quick German games, I set off on my annual pilgrimage to the civic centre, along Birmingham’s Cecil B. de Mille film set heritage way, to check out the local arts scene, and ended up being serenaded by brass bands while I had a bite to eat in the concert hall cafe. Then it was back for more games, including Manhattan – which Jenny Duncan won with the simple but effective strategy of piling all her pieces in Hong Kong for the first two rounds, and all the rest in Frankfurt for the second two – and 6 Nimmt!, which Ryk Downes nearly won by not being present to play his cards. 

Sunday’s Dip round began so punctually that I wasn’t there when my name was called, so I missed the gasps of surprise and cries of fix when I was assigned to the top table, along with Colin Smith (A), Bart Huby (E), Tony Dickinson (F), James Trotter (G), Chris Littlejohn (R), and Toby Harris (T). The practice of making up a top table for the last round of a tournament from the seven players who had the best results in the earlier rounds is a controversial one (and perhaps a suitable topic for debate in T2W3?), with plenty of arguments for and against. On balance, I’m in favour of it, because whoever emerges the winner from the big showdown will almost certainly win the tournament as well, and no-one will then be able to complain that he had an easy draw. The downside is that the six losing players on the top table, who might all have achieved two good results in a random draw, cannot possibly do so if they all play in the same game, and might find themselves pushed down the rankings by the players who were just below them overnight. Another objection might be that the top table game is hardly an edifying spectacle, or a showcase for newcomers of the gentlemanly behaviour that our best players are expected to display. If the top seven were all on different tables, they would play for the best results they could get in their individual games, but when they are all together, they will tend to play only to improve their positions relative to the other players. It might sound as though this will turn the game into some kind of nightmarish Chaos variant, but provided each player’s aim is to win the tournament, with second place an unacceptable alternative, then all hope of an enjoyable few hours need not be lost. However, if the Russian player (say) decides that it is a good idea to help Turkey to win centres, provided it is at the expense of Italy and Austria, since that way he only loses out relative to one player but gains relative to two, then everyone (except Turkey, of course) is in for a very frustrating time. 

This is the kindest explanation that I can come up with for Chris Littlejohn’s extraordinary behaviour at MidCon. That Toby talked him into it can be no excuse (and if that’s what happened, no discredit would attach itself to Toby at all), and there were certainly no hints from Chris’s behaviour that he might have been coerced as he eagerly trotted off each season to seek Toby’s approval for his latest set of orders. What a pathetic spectacle it all made, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris still hugs himself with pleasure in moments of stress at the thought of those cosy conflabs with his new found friend! After one Autumn when Chris declined to take two centres off Turkey even though Toby could not possibly have prevented it, I ceased to be surprised by anything he did. In 1909, he cut my support for an attack that would have destroyed a Turkish army in Italy and saved Venice, and I realised that my two remaining units would die the following year, but when the centre chart was filled in, it emerged that Toby had at last managed to nose ahead of his main rival, Germany, and he declared that he was now prepared to accept a ‘draw’ (which wouldn’t really be a draw under the MidCon scoring system, of course). Why he did this I don’t know. At the only other table still playing, Jim Mills was on 17 centres and it seemed to be taking an awful lot of complicated planning for his opponents, who included Bob Kendrick and Susie Horton, to stave off defeat. It’s true that Jim had been eliminated the previous day, so his 100 points would be averaged down to 50, but Toby didn’t have enough time to do the calculations to determine whether his own score was higher at that stage. In the event, he beat Jim by only 0.16% to clinch the title. 

After chatting to a few people and trying to work out whether Carabande has any rules, I took my place for the prize giving and the announcement of the Zine Poll results. Neil Duncan was sat nearby, and while Ryk marked up the names of the top 20 on a flip chart, I scanned Neil’s face for any sign of tension as zine after zine that had humiliated him in previous years fell beneath the scythe. But did his pen tremble, did any bead of sweat appear between the furrows of that honest brow? No! It didn’t! Only when Spring Offensive and SNOT had been consigned to equal second best did any hint of triumph disturb his composure – and then, in an instant, it was gone. Shortly after that, I left as well. Next stop, RamsdenCon.