The Top Table – Good or Bad?

by Chris Martin

I had the great pleasure of attending WorldDipCon in Namur, Belgium this year. It was a tremendously fun event, with plenty of action and excitement.  But to me, the strangest thing was the idea of a “Top Table”.  I had been told about it, but seeing it in action was a whole different experience.  I thought I’d take a short moment to explore the idea behind it, and see why it is used in Europe, and not in the USA.  One of my personal difficulties with the world hobby at the moment is the lack of uniformity in the way that tournaments are run, and it is my hope that through an examination of the differences, and the reasons for them, we might come a little closer together. 

The idea of a Top Table in a tournament is a simple one.  Whatever scoring system is used, the players with the 7 best scores before the final round are placed on one board, where they fight it out.  Additionally, in the system popular in Europe now, only the top 3 places in the tournament are reserved for the “winners” of the top table.   

Lets look at an example of a tournament  with a top table.  

Going into the final round of RebelCon, you have Adam, Bob, Chris, Dave, Ellen, Frank, and Greg with the best 7 scores.  They proceed to play the final round as normal.  The other people in the tournament are assigned their final round boards, again according to whatever system the tournament is running by.  They all know that the best they can do, in the Overall Rankings of this tourney, is 4th place. In fact, with most scoring systems, someone not on the top table will get 4th place!   

The scoring system for RebelCon will be as follows: 

Points are awarded on final centre count when time is called – no additional points will be given for survivals or draws.  (This is a very European System, btw.) 

Best result on board – 50 points
2nd best result on board – 24 points
3rd best result on board – 11 points
4th best result on board – 5 points 

Bonus for Solo victory – 25 points 

(Yes, very simple, yes, not really a good system, but hey, its just to illustrate a larger point) 

At the end of two rounds of play, we have the following results for the top 10: 

Adam – one solo, one 2nd = 99 points
Bob – one solo, one 3rd = 86 points
Chris – one solo, one 4th = 80 points
Dave – one solo, no other result = 75 points
Ellen – one 1st, one 2nd = 74 points
Frank – one 1st, one 3rd = 61 points
Greg – one 1st, one 3rd = 61 points
Harry -one 1st, no other result = 50 points
Ivan – two 2nd best = 48 points
Janet – one 2nd best, one 3rd best = 35 points 

Round 3 begins, and the top 7 players are all on the same board, while Harry, Ivan, and Janet all (through a random allocation) end up on different boards.   

Well, the going is tough on the top board, but after a hard fight, Chris has 9 centers (1st place), Ellen has 7(2nd), Frank has 6(3rd), Bob has 4(4th), Dave and Greg each have 3 – Adam (being a target going in) was eliminated. On the other boards, Harry finished 1st on his board, Ivan finished 2nd, and Janet got a solo victory 

The final scores for RebelCon! 

1st place – CHRIS – (130)
2nd place – ELLEN – (98)*
3rd place – FRANK – (72)* 

*You will remember that these 3 places were reserved for the Top Table, regardless of overall points! *  

Then we go to Scores to see the rest of the results:

4th Janet = 110
5th Harry = 100
6th Adam = 99
7th Bob = 91
8th Dave = 75
9th Ivan = 72
10th Greg = 61 

Ok.  So we have the results, and we have the scores.  Lets take a look at things, and see what this tells us. If you go by scores alone, the rankings end up being very, very different.  Ellen, in 2nd place, drops to 5th.  Frank, in 3rd place, goes all the way down to a tie for 8th!  Janet gets 2nd, and Harry 3rd.  

What’s up with that?!? 

The theory, if I understand it correctly, is that the Quality of Opposition on the top board is Guaranteed to be High.  That coming in second on the Top Board is worth more than the same result on any other board, and there is, I think, some merit to this.  

How So? 

In a tournament of any size, there will be:

(a) People who are trying out the game for the first time,

(b) People who played in the past and want to play again,

(c) People who have been playing with the local club for a year or three,

(d) Players who do well with country A, C, and E, are ok with Country F and G, but can’t play country B or D to save their life, and

(e) Sharks. The people who go to Diplomacy Tournaments regularly with the intention of bloody well winning them I don’t care give me Italy lets GO, thank you very much!   

The Top table will probably have people from categories D and E on it.  Other tables will have the regular mix.  So getting that solo victory on a regular table, while impressive, just isn’t as impressive as ending on 9 centers as Austria on the top table! (According to Top Table Theory, mind you.)  

Ok, that makes sense. 

There are other advantages to a Top Table.  In theory, and this has happened in the past, a club/group could come to a tournament with a “champion”.   

A Champion, Hmm? 

Let’s take a look at a fictional scenario.  The Arlington Beer and Dagger Society has decided, as a group, to win RebelCon.  14 of the club members make the trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, and they have decided that they are going to make Richard Timson the champ.  So, whenever any of them are on a board with him, they will do everything they can to make him the winner – nothing above board, but when it comes time to stab, he somehow gets all their centers.  On other boards, they play not to win, but to force draws – always ganging up on any leaders, preventing anyone from getting points.  There are 49 people at the con, 7 boards, and the AB&DS members are a significant percentage.  At the end of the weekend, Surprise!  Richard has the best score.  The AB&DS laughs all the way home, and next tournament it’ll be Morris Stevens who gets to be champ. 

Meta-gaming, and I highly approve of it, in spirit.  (See my other article this Pouch to see how I feel about winning the Tournament, not the Event!)  But Purists cry out!  No Fair!  I am a better player, but I cannot win against these allies who are allied before the game begins, regardless of diplomacy and board position!  That’s just WRONG!  And indeed, no one could beat them – with regular scoring systems.  The Top Table neatly solves this problem, by forcing Richard to actually beat 6 other players – really good players —  heads up.  It’ll be a lot harder for the AB&DS force a winner when they can’t use all 14 players to effect the final round!  This is, in fact, one of the principle reasons the Top Table was created in the first place. 

Ok. What else is good about a Top Table? 

Then there is the Excitement factor – Who will be on the Top Table this year?  Before WDC9, the speculation was rampant – how many players would the French have in the final running?  Would an American be able to get on the top table, much less win it if they got there?  Who are the Dark Horses who could surprise everyone?  Don’t forget the Swedes!  You KNOW Toby wants it bad enough to taste it!   

At the tournament itself, tension mounted as the rounds went by, as people with good scores desperately hung on to try to get better scores to make the final table.  Stabs in the last season made and broke championship dreams!  Players who, through no fault of their own, had results that wouldn’t allow them to make the top table rooted for their friends and fellow countrymen, as they played the penultimate round.  (And everyone knew that you could still finish a very respectable fourth place, if only you could do well in the final round.)  7 players on the top board, and at least 3 of them would end up dropping out of the top five!   

The seasonal results from the Top Table were posted on a HUGE board, so that everyone could come and see who was doing what, during furtive breaks from their own final games.  The tension was palpable as they went into the final year of the game, and four players were still in the running!  Christian Dryer pulled it off, at the wire and by ONE center!  Beer for everyone! 

There is no comparison in tournaments which don’t have a top table.  After the final round Sunday, everyone has a good idea who has won it, it’s a simple matter of making announcements, handing out plaques, and modest applause. 

So why doesn’t every tournament use a Top Table? 

Now, in all fairness, there are plenty of good, solid reasons why tournaments in the states don’t use a top table.  We like to play longer games, with fewer rounds. We like to give everyone a fighting chance right up until the very end.  It is hard for people to make every round of a Fri/Sat/Sun convention.  Some people might not play the last round if they know they can’t win.  Valid objections all. 

Longer games mean less games, and that means it’s harder to tell at the end of the penultimate round who the best seven players are.  Everyone knows that the random selection of players on a board and powers has an effect on the outcome.  In the end, the cream tends to rise to the top, but do you really get the seven best at the end of two rounds?  I think what you get is the 7 best of those two rounds.  Everyone knew going in what the stakes were, and had equal chances to get there.  Its easy to argue that the 7 people on the top table weren’t the best 7 people at WDC9 – in fact those seven did not place 1st through 7th – but they had the best 7 scores going into the final round, and no one can argue that. 

I’ve noted (and used to my advantage) a tendency to drop the worst score from a 3 or 4 round tournament, or to only count the 2 best scores.  The theory being, I think, that people who can only make 2 rounds have the chance to win as well – something they wouldn’t have if there was a top table.  This is a serious consideration – you don’t want to exclude people who can’t take Friday off of work to get to the convention in time to play Friday night.  The distances involved in the US make it hard to rush off to a weekend tournament.  This is a good argument against a top table in a tournament that only has 3 rounds in it, one game Friday, one Saturday, and one Sunday.  This probably happens most often when the time limit on games is long or nonexistent.  But many tournaments could have a game Saturday night as well, which would allow everyone at least two good chances to make the top table Sunday. 

Plenty of people feel for Janet (remember the example above?) – who, with a solo victory in the final round, scores points to get to 2nd place, but has to go home with 4th.  It has happened (in Europe) that the person who won a tournament had less points than the person who finished 4th.  Most scoring systems at tournaments that use a top table reflect and minimize this possibility.   

Would Janet really have stuck around to play the last round, knowing she couldn’t win?  I’d like to think so.  Most people going into the final round of a tournament can’t win – it’s the nature of tournaments that there will be 3 people from every board who score points, and really only 2 of them score points that will probably count in the end.  So why don’t 4 or 5 people drop out from every board after every round?  Because Diplomacy is a fun game, because they came a long way to play, and don’t get to play a lot of F2F, because you can always get the satisfaction of a great result even without winning the whole shebang!   

Top Tables are Elitist – only the best players get there.  But isn’t that the point of a Tournament?  To find out who, on this day, is the best player in the room?  

Hmm.  It seems like you approve of the Idea. 

I would really like to see major US tournaments try the idea on, if just for size.  It would bring the World hobby a little closer together in the way we play Diplomacy, and maybe then we can work on establishing a regular time limit for tournament play, instead of the mish-mash of systems we have now!  But that, I think, is another article for another day!

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 71