by Larry Peery
In a hobby where generations are measured in terms of three years — -which traditionally was how long it took to play a PBM Diplomacy game — – celebrating one’s 30th anniversary in the world of Diplomacy is no small feat. To celebrate that event I am writing a series of occasional articles for various hobby publications. Here’s my latest effort — this time focusing on some of the elements that have made each hobby generation different. Keep in mind, however, that after thirty years my peerispective may be a bit different than yours, unless you happen to be Edi Birsan, John Smythe, or Mr. ABC himself!
Back in the earliest days of the game and hobby (e.g. c. 1964-1968) the fad was to write or rewrite The Rules of the Game. This was necessary because there were so many errors of one kind or another in the original Rules published in Calhamer’s first version of Diplomacy; and in the first GRI edition. Every player and GM of any importance, and a lot who only thought they were important, had a Rule named after him. Zine houserules were often far longer and more complex than Calhamer’s original Rules. Fortunately, a group of hobby rules experts (by their own admission and proclaimation) got together and rewrote the official Rules of the game for a new edition. Since then things have been pretty quiet on the Rules front, until somebody comes along and thinks they’ve found a new “paradox” or a new “loop-hole.”
Another big thing back in The First Golden Age (as distinguished from that Dutch Golden Age that came much later) of Diplomacy (c. 1966 – 1968) were variants. There were a few right from the beginning of the hobby. Some of them, for short periods of time, were almost as popular as Calhamer’s own game. In time there were to be hundreds of variants covering every period of time and every conceivable place on the globe, and some beyond. Bob Cline’s Nine Man variant solved the problem of what to do about the unequal situation in the Mediterranean. He added two Mediterranean powers, one in the west and one in the east. Rod Walker designed a whole series of variants, called the IMPERIALISM series, and some of them were very fine. The Youngstown Variant was another popular variant during this period. People still design variants, of course, but most of them are just reinventing the wheel, or rediscovering the supply centers of thirty years ago.
The first real brouhaha came with Avalon Hill’s switch to plastic pieces and a three piece mapboard. The hobby’s sense of esthetics ran right into Avalon Hill’s botton line, and guess who won? There was talk for a while of alternate sources for the game’s wooden pieces, and foreign editions of the game, which still had the single piece board and wooden pieces, became all the rage. Still, Avalon Hill had learned something, and when it came time to produce another edition of the game they did a “collector’s edition” with, surprise, a sort of single piece board, and wooden pieces; and a price seven times higher than Calhamer’s original edition!
One thing that did change, although I’m not sure exactly when, was the manner in which pieces (referring to the old wooden block ones) were used to indicate move and support orders. Originally fleets were laid on their skinny side to indicate support. Then suddenly it became fashionable to stand them on their short end. This never seemed too smart to me, but Californians tend to worry about those kinds of things more than other hobbyists. I always called this kind of physical abuse of the pieces Richter Scale Diplomacy. And, amazing as it is to tell, I can remember for a while when the players in FTF games would change the way pieces were placed on the board as soon as someone had placed them in one position or the other, usually while the other side was raiding the refrigerator! Flying Dutchmen were also a popular element of this period of the hobby.
One element that has had a major effect on Diplomacy play, particularly with the increase in the number of players travelling to play in foreign countries, is the different colors used in different editions of the game. You never knew from country to country, hobby to hobby, or gameboard to gameboard; which colors on the map were which, let alone which color pieces were whose. I remember this had a major affect on my play in Britain back in 1988 and 1989. It usually took until 1903 or for me to remember which color pieces went with which colors on the map, and which Great Power.
Another element that has changed over the generations is the way the mapboard is set up. The original edition was a large board that folded in the middle. Then Avalon Hill came up with a three piece board, each part of which also folded in the middle. Then there was the one piece board that folded in half, and each half folded in half. At least I think I’ve got that right. However, other people have done other things to the board. One of the smallest boards I have ever seen was a conference map done on a small metal tray with magnetic pieces. Eric Brosius was doing those for a while. Perhaps he still is. Eric’s wife, Claire, did a needlepoint board for me that is a real work of art, and on a per square inch basis equal in value to most real estate on the Ginza. The biggest Diplomacy board I ever saw was at Spielefest in Vienna in 1989. Wolfgang Alber, I think it was, created a mapboard using a CAD or somekind of drafting printer that covered a wall and was used to display the results of the Austrian championship game. Another work of art gameboard that I haven’t heard of lately showed up at Fredericksburg, VA for a DIPCON. It consisted of two four foot by eight food panels with a painted gameboard on it.
The pieces were actual silhouettes of real battleships for the various fleets. I hope it has survived! It would be a priceless asset to any hobby Archives!
Perhaps the ultimate combination of board and game was an annual event during the 1980s that may still be going on for all I know up in the northern California area. This game combined with real life was held over an entire weekend at a fancy resort hotel. Each country was played by a team consisting of members of both sexes dressed in appropriate costume. Generals and admirals wore military regalia. Diplomats wore tails or bowlers. Wives and courtesans dressed appropriately. And spies wore dark capes and …well, you get the idea. The game dragged out over the weekend and included various meals, a banquet, a ball, and plenty of in the corner or in the bedroom negotiating. Sounds like great fun!
Today, of course, the hobby has become too sophisticated for such frivolity. Now the emphasis is on accuracy and realism, at least when it can work to one’s advantage. Most PBM, PBEM, and FTF or Con Tournament gamemasters publish a wide variety of houserules on how their games are going to be run, and then proceed to ignor their own Rules when it becomes necessary or convenient, usually in an effort to keep the games moving along in a reasonable manner, but sometimes for more sinister reasons. It is a common practice at tournaments to have orders read by the players in the game in somekind of rotating order. The person reading the orders does his or her own first, and then reads the other players, usually in somekind of random order. The writer of the orders is usually given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interpreting writing (by some unnatural law 99.99524% of all Diplomacy players are functionally illiterate), spelling, use of abbreviations, etc. And so it goes. Occasionally things to get a bit touchy. I remember my first game at WDC IV in Birmingham. Iain Bowen, the blackguard, had thought it cute to put me and Xavier Blanchot at the same table in the first round. Things went about as you would expect for the first two game years, pretty much as I have described. It then was Xavier’s turn to read the orders on a fall turn. The Tournament Rules, which neither I or most of those playing, had seen, let alone read, stated that the players had to specify the country of foreign units being supported; but then gave us neither enough space on the forms or time on the clock for such nonsense. Certainly it wasn’t done that way at home! Well, naturally Xavier seized on this as an excuse to disallow one of my orders which, as I recall, perhaps in error, would have cost him or one of his allies a center; I was furious. The tournament director was called in, but that didn’t help matters. Xavier only smirked the more and I grew increasingly ballistic. If you know me, or have ever seen me, can you imagine what that was like? Imagine a Killer Tomato Exploding! Well, I was so mad I quit the game in protest. Xavier eventually got his. The other players ganged up on him. The point is, of course, check your orders carefully and follow the Rules of the event.
I am currently involved in yet another generational dispute in the WWPDC event that I am running. The element involved here is the combining of seasons in order to speed up the games. As usual and not at all surprising, the Americans do it one way, the Europeans do it another. I face the interesting situation of an American living in Europe trying to get me to explain the rationale of the American system to the Europeans.
Another element of contention is the use of a “stand” vs. “hold” distinction in dealing with units that were not ordered. This has also caused considerable debate, although it was spilled out in the Rules of the event and in various discussions. I can see the player’s point, but that is no reason for me, as the person running the event, to change my Rules. My philosophical basis for my position is simple. When I have gone to great lengths to design an event system that gives the players every chance to avoid NMRing, I see no reason to have to give them a second chance to salvage a unit that they have NMRed!
Finally, and stay tuned for developments, I think I read somewhere in the tournament Rules for this year’s WDC that they are going to allow five minutes to write orders. That might be enough time in 1901, but can you imagine trying to write orders for 17 units in 1914 in five minutes? This is nonsense. The players, I hope, will ignore such a Rule. If not, then shoot the tournament director! Well, no, don’t do that; I might be standing behind him, and you might miss!!
So, these are some of the elements that have helped make this a most interesting thirty years. As you can see for yourself; if I know which edition of the game you prefer; which edition of Diplomacy the person who taught you how to play had; whether you learned to play by reading the Rules, from a single friend, or as part of a group; or whether you are a PBM, PBEM, FTF, Con, or Tournament player; I can easily put you in your place among the hobby’s generations. As for me, there is no question — I’m a true black-dotted, red-blooded, white-haired, yellow-bellied hobby old fart! And proud of it!!
Reprinted from Diplomacy World 77