Postal Diplomacy is a very different game to the face-to-face version, and in my book a much better one. In this chapter I’m going to outline the most important differences; and, especially, the ways in which the postal game can be exploited by the cunning stabber.
THE TWO-SEASON YEAR
In face-to face Diplomacy there are in effect five seasons: spring moves, summer retreats, autumn moves, winter retreats, winter adjustments. If the postal game imitated this format, each year would last between fifteen and twenty weeks, and the average game from three years upwards. It was soon realized by the hobby that the performance would have to be short-circuited, and three methods are in use.
The slowest, and rarest, is that used by two British GMs, Don Turnbull and Mick Bullock — a three-season year, spring, autumn and winter. When printing the spring adjudication, they list all the possible retreats for any dislodged unit, and players are allowed to make their next move orders conditional on the retreats chosen, e.g. ‘if German A(Mun) retreats to Bur, then A(Mar) stands, otherwise A(Mar)—Pie’. In the autumn adjudication the same thing happens, and builds or removals may be made conditional on retreats. Then a separate issue is published giving the winter retreats and adjustments.
In my early publishing days I used a variation of this method — the mini-deadline’. Players were asked to send their retreats and adjustments by return of post, and I would then send out a carbon-copy letter informing them of the results.
But standard procedure is the two season year, in which retreats and adjustments must be made conditional on the results of moves. Thus when submitting your spring moves you must include a list of retreats, in order of preference, for every unit that can be dislodged. So you might write ‘A(Mun) stands (retreat: Ber, Kie, Sil, Tyr, Boh, Ruh)’. The GM will check the possible retreat spaces in the order you have listed, and the unit will go to the first one available. If you have listed no available space, the unit will be disbanded (some GMs would retreat it at random, but this is bad, and contrary to the rules of the game). In the example given, you have decided for some reason — alliance with France, or perhaps just carelessness! — not to retreat to Burgundy, and if that is the only available province your army will be disbanded. Headaches can occur with this method, especially when two units of the same country want to retreat to the same space, but in general it works well.
In the autumn the same thing happens, but now you must also list provisional builds and/or removals. This can admittedly be very difficult, and most players will be able to quote one instance at least where they would have built something quite different had they seen the position in advance. But if you are patient and thorough, you can cover most eventualities. If you fail to list a build, you won’t get one; if you fail to list a removal, the GM will make it himself, doing the best he can with the very complicated and ambiguous ‘farthest-from-home’ rule.
In America, things are done t’other way about: moves are made conditional on retreats and/or adjustments.
The pros and cons of the different systems are easily seen. The ‘mini-deadline’ is certainly the best in terms of accuracy, and best reflects the pattern of the face-to-face game; but it is expensive and time-consuming. The three-season year is painfully slow — it is maddening to have to wait an extra four weeks just to discover whether Austria is going to build his new army in Vienna or in Budapest. It is also in breach of one of the rules of the game, in that it allows diplomacy-time before adjustments, though this seems less important to me.
Of the two methods of running a two-season game-year, the British seems to me rather better: one would surely prefer to make the less complicated decisions ‘blind’, and adjustments are certainly simpler than moves. Still, you have a choice of systems, to some extent, and at least all are equally fair (or unfair) to all the players.
The difference between postal and face-to-face tactical play is simple: in the postal game you can and must be far more accurate. You can set up the board, mess about with the units, until you find a combination that gives you the best chances. Then you assume that your opponents, trying to forecast your moves, will also come to that conclusion; so you try to forecast their moves on that basis and devise a new set for yourself; and so on. It all makes for a very subtle and deep game, in which you will very often find that an apparently ‘obvious’ move, which you would certainly have made at faceto-face play, is in fact thoroughly bad.
It is important in this field to know your opponents — obviously there will be times when you don’t and can’t, but it certainly helps if you do. Some, especially those playing in too many games at once, will be unimaginative and obvious, and can be relied on to fall for any reasonably subtle trap. Others will spend hours working out the best combination of the chances, and you will find yourself involved in a game of guess and counter-guess. Against these opponents, of course, you should try to find some way of tipping the scales in your favour, however slightly.
The other tactical point is, I regret to say, the biggest disadvantage of the postal game as against the face-to-face — the very high incidence of missed moves. In novice postal games especially it is all too common for players to ‘drop out’, simply sending no moves for two consecutive seasons, at which point the rules of the game stipulate that their countries remain in ‘civil disorder’, sometimes called ‘anarchy’. (I prefer the latter term, though the rule-book does not: ‘civil disorder’ seems to me to mean absolutely nothing.) It is a sad fact that many novice games are decided by this: if you are playing Austria, you will be greatly assisted if Italy drops out early on, as happened in my first game.
The hobby is very conscious of this weakness, and many attempts have been made to circumvent it. Some GMs, as already mentioned, require a ‘deposit’, which is returned only when the game ends and you have conducted yourself properly until your part in it was over. Then there is the ‘standby’ system: many GMs use this in one form or another. As soon as a country fails to send orders, a player from the ‘stand-by list’ is asked to submit orders for that country for the coming season. If the original player misses again, the stand-by orders are used and control of the country changes hands. Apart from the obviously unsatisfactory aspects of this, there is one warning I must give: some GMs use the abominable practice of inviting any reader to submit stand-by orders for a country that has missed orders. In other words, the units of the country next to yours may suddenly be ordered by a total stranger, whose name you learn for the first time after his units have crashed across your frontier. My advice is that if you find yourself in a zine using this system, you should resign at once in protest; it ruins the game, and should be ruthlessly stamped out. Almost as bad is the habit of asking a named player to submit orders for all seven countries in spring 1901, in case (as sometimes happens) one of the prospective players has moved, died or simply lost interest since applying for the game. It is far better to delay the start a few weeks and find a player to play in the proper manner.
Two cautionary tales will illustrate what I mean. In one game of the Youngstown Variant I once played, my strategy as Russia was based on complete trust of my neighbour China. He was doing rather better than me, and could certainly have stabbed me at practically any time; but we both knew that this would be disastrous for him, as it would have taken away the protection from his northern frontiers. He dropped out, and the GM invited a friend who happened to be passing to submit stand-by orders! This obnoxious infant glanced briefly at the board, saw that he could take two Russian centres for the asking, and took them. Exit Russia, followed rapidly by China, with an easy and undeserved win for a third party.
The other case was even more annoying. Playing France in a regular game, I had decided on a lightning attack against England, and had worked really hard on him with phone-calls and letters to persuade him to leave the English Channel open. I know I had succeeded. This may sound silly, but there are times when one can be absolutely sure of having sold the dummy, and this was one of them. His last letter, brimming with enthusiasm over our proposed attack on Germany, reached me the day before the deadline, and I had no inkling of impending catastrophe. When the zine arrived I couldn’t believe my eyes: England had opened F(Lon)-ENG, A(Lpl)-Wal, F(Edi)—NTH. Surely I couldn’t have been that wrong? I rang the GM. Yes, once again the orders had been concocted on the spot by a stand-by player. My protests were ignored, and the result was disastrous: Germany, a very strong and tough-minded character, moved in on me ruthlessly — quite right too — and I equalled the all-time worst performance by France, going out in 1903!
This may seem rather a depressing subject. Well, it certainly annoys those many efficient and reliable players who enjoy a tough game against equal opposition. The only answer is to be very choosy where you play: the more efficient the zine, the less likely players are to lose interest, and the better the games will be. In my own zine, I get very few missed orders, and virtually no drop-outs at all: this is because I am reasonably efficient, reasonably tolerant of orders arriving slightly late (annoying though this is), and reasonably careful about whom I allow to play.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The time has come to look at some of the swindles and stratagems which players use in the postal game (and sometimes in the face-to-face version too) to bend the odds in their favour. Many elaborately cunning plots have been devised; most have not worked quite as intended, but nearly all have caused vast amusement to the perpetrators, the spectators, and sometimes even the intended victims. Some players become notorious for their inventiveness in this way, indeed, to them this is the main object of the game. Victory comes a poor second (and so, at best, do they).
I should strees that there is nothing whatever unethical about most of these ploys. There is but one golden rule: ‘Thou shalt not attempt to deceive the GM.’ In one British zine this constitutes the complete house rules. To forge orders from another player, for instance, is absolutely taboo, and would normally result in your expulsion from the game. Quite right too — the GM has enough to do, and should not be required to master the study of handwriting, recognize all his players’ voices on the phone, and so on. There is plenty of scope for evil-doing without this, believe me. (In fact one of the more unorthodox British GMs, Will Haven, did once start a game or two in which even deception of the GM was allowed — indeed, the GM reserved the right to fool around with the play himself! So far as I know, these games were less interesting than average, not more.) So plot away as much as you like, but remember the golden rule; and if you are in any doubt, check first with your GM to see whether he finds your ruse permissible or not.
The miswritten order is the simplest and most common of all tactical coups, both in postal and in face-to-face play. A player who, after prolonged fencesitting, has at last been forced into a position where he must commit himself for one neighbour against another may try to hold out for one more season by wrongly specifying the nationality or type of the unit he is supposed to be supporting.
One example should suffice to show the general idea. In a recently started game, Courier 77/28, I had played the Hedgehog opening as Austria, and Italy allowed my fleet into Venice; I had promised to vacate it again in the autumn if he did so, and indeed he was in a position to throw me out by force. My original intention was to convince him of my determination to move out voluntarily, then miswrite the order; indeed, I got as far as sending the GM, Don Turnbull, my orders including F(Tri)—ADS (sic). I took the precaution, which is essential, of pointing out the deliberate mistake to Don; a hard-pressed gamesmaster can easily overlook an error of this kind — he expects to see ‘F(Ven)’, so that is what he sees. Eventually I changed my mind and moved out voluntarily after all, but this doesn’t affect the general point. A player cannot be sure that the mistake is deliberate, and so the door is kept fractionally ajar for future negotiation. The blatant order F(Ven) stands would be thoroughly bad play.
The snag is that when you do make a genuine mistake that damages your ally, he never believes it. I can remember once, again as Austria, promising to vacate Trieste in spring 1901 (those were the days, alas for lost innocence!) and writing F(Tri)—Gre, entirely by mistake. Italy promptly attacked me.
In my first game, as Austria yet again, I brought off one of the rarer coups, possible against very weak opposition — the induced miswritten order. Italy had attacked me from the start with A(Ven)—Tyr, A(Rom)—Ven, and Russia had moved to Gal. I had played the Trieste Variation, and was now in deep trouble. I opted for the usual solution of taking Greece and trying to outguess Russia in his Vie/Bud dilemma … but what to do about Italy? Having noticed that he was not entirely happy in his use of notation, I wrote him several nasty letters describing how I would dismember him if he ordered A(Vie)—Tri (sic). Amazingly, it worked: his autumn orders were A(Tyr) S
A(Vie)—Tri, A(Ven) stands unordered. I outguessed Russia, built two, and never looked back. Who knows, perhaps I would have lost interest in the game for ever if that particular coup had failed and I had been eliminated in 1903?
Many players have played under aliases, for various reasons — perhaps they think they are too notorious under their own names, perhaps they want a simple way of sorting Diplomacy correspondence from the rest without opening the envelopes. This is fair enough. What is not fair is for one player to enter a game under two names! The only positively identified case of this, until recently, was the famous ‘Boardman hoax’ in an American game, where John Boardman played two countries, one in his own name and one as ‘Eric Blake’. Not too surprisingly he won in one of these personas (I forget which). It was a long time ago now, but the hobby still talks about it, and uses it as a parallel in all sorts of unsuitable arguments.
Another case, which had long been suspected by some of those most closely involved, was exposed only recently in a letter published in the American ‘genzine’ Everything … (short for ‘Everything you always wanted to know about Diplomacy but had better sense than to ask’, a typical choice of title by its original publisher, Conrad von Metzke). The letter came from the Belgian player Michel Liesnard, and read in part as follows:
‘With regard to the degree of irregularity of some Belgian “regular” games, I think the actual situation was even worse than what you could have imagined. Indeed, in most games played in Michel Feron’s Moeshoeshoe there was at least one ‘puppet’ player, and you’ll perhaps be interested in the following list: Michel Grayn, Michel Englebert’s legal pseudonym; Josiane Ankri, Michel Englebert’s wife; Raphael Ankri, Michel Englebert and Josiane Ankri’s baby; Claude Dumont, husband of Yvette Warnon, Michel Englebert’s first wife; Patrick Englebert, Michel Englebert’s and Yvette Warnon’s son; Florian de Faveri, my step-father; Jean Rinchon, my brother-in-law; Goupi Liesnard, my cat. . . . In 1 972—EW Michel Feron was himself making all the moves, since all his players had dropped out for so long. …’
Gasp. It just shows that in postal Diplomacy things are not always what they appear. In this case one is verging on deception of the players by the GM, though Michel Liesnard does add that most of the aliases and puppets were common knowledge.
The ‘deception of the GM’ rule should provide protection against this sort of thing. If the GM knows that one player is playing two countries, he should stop it; if he does not know, he is being deceived. No doubt there are cases that have never come to light, but I doubt if they are very numerous.
In recent times we have actually had a GM publishing under an alias here in Britain. Late in 1976 the hobby was surprised to see the appearance of a new zine edited by one ‘Marcus Umney-Foote’, who had never been heard of as a player. Among the oddities offered by this zine was the chance to play in a forty-nine player Diplomacy variant called ‘Cities of Nowhen’ (the imtials of CON were not entirely unplanned). I was fairly soon able to identify this joke as the handiwork of an old friend and long-time player, Steve Doubleday, who had gone through a difficult time and been forced to drop out of all his games, then chose this typically devious way of re-entering the hobby. We had a lot of fun with the hoax — I announced in one issue of Dolchstoss that Marcus had succeeded to the family baronetcy. Eventually the complications involved were too much for Steve and he owned up, leaving many pillars of the hobby with egg on their faces.
Impersonation of the GM
There are two ways in which this one has been tried — in writing, and by phone. It has been suggested that perhaps it’s unethical, but I and most others do not agree; it seems a valid way of adding to the entertainment.
In one of my early games I had reached a position where the next season’s moves were critical: probably I should come second, with luck I might draw, and conceivably I could even win. In the hope of snatching victory from the flames, I decided to try impersonating the GM, who happened to live not far away. On the night of the deadline I telephoned my main opponent from a friend’s house in the town where the GM lived: I was gambling on the hope that as player and GM lived so far apart they might never have met; the GM’s dislike of the phone was well known, so it was unlikely they had ever spoken that way. With a handkerchief over the mouthpiece, as in all the best 1950s ‘B’ pictures, I told a simple and sad tale: my house, I said, had been burned down, and I was staying with neighbours, but of course nothing would interfere with my determination to get the zine out on time; unfortunately I had lost his orders in the panic, so could he possibly repeat them? I gave him the number to ring back, and nothing happened; eventually, pushing my luck, I rang him back. No answer. Sadly, I went home.
It later turned out that he had been fooled at first, but after ringing off had decided to check; he rang the GM’s normal number, and was not entirely surprised to receive a prompt answer from the gutted mansion. He then laughed all the way to the pub. Eventually, he won the game, as had seemed likely.
He was right to check, of course. But had I been in his position, I could not have resisted the temptation to ring back the hoaxer with a phony set of orders!
The other time-honoured dodge is one of the easiest, and one of the least likely to succeed: the ‘readjudication’. Someone tried this in a game I was running — he sent the other players a carbon-copy note, allegedly from me, announcing that I had accepted some later orders, and giving the ‘new’ position. This was not a very good forgery, the typewriter being different and the signature poor; I don’t think anyone was fooled, though there were outcries about the attempt from some of the less frivolous players.
I tried the same thing myself in a moment of desperation during the hard-fought 1974—N, when I was trying to halt the slide in my once impregnable-looking position. This, though I say it myself, was a good forgery — it was done on the GM’s own typewriter and stationery, and posted in his home town. The result was very galling: the recipient, the French player Roland Prévôt, was fooled. Unfortunately for me, he happened on this occasion to telephone his orders in, and casually mentioned the ‘readjudication’ while chatting to the GM, who let slip the fact that there had not been one! Roland hastily changed his orders, and my chance had gone. What made it worse for me was that Roland later told me he couldn’t see what I hoped to achieve; if he had happened to write instead of phoning, he said, he would simply have complained afterwards and had the season replayed. He wouldn’t, you know!
The status of the GM in these cases is a matter for constant debate. If he knows of the forgery, what should he do? Certainly he should not take active steps to inform the players; equally certainly, if they ask him outright he must not lie. Between these extremes is a grey area, in which his correct action is difficult to determine. Again, if the GM does not know, then is he being deceived, as some maintain? Surely not. My advice to players in this predicament is to establish at an early stage whether the GM would consider himself deceived if he was not informed; if he would, forget the idea; if not, don’t tell him and give it a whirl. Another tip: a good readjudication hoax should make the victim’s position appear better than it was before, as he will then be more readily disposed to believe it! In the one I sent to Roland, I simply told him that a number of his moves, successfully blocked by me in the actual play, had succeeded as a result of an order change by ‘that careless fool Sharp’. The idea was that all Roland’s orders would then be addressed to units in the wrong places; I would attack and dislodge these units, which, as they had no legal retreats written, would all be disbanded. It would have been a glorious coup….
Impersonation of Other Players
We now enter the field in which most scope exists for really successful swindles: plain, simple forgery. First, though, there is one classic story of a successful physical impersonation. The villain of this piece was Duncan Morris, still a leading light in the British hobby though he has now emigrated to Rhodesia. Duncan revelled in his reputation as the hobby’s dirtiest player for him the swindle was and is the whole joy of the game, and to hell with the result.
The game was a variant, Third Age I, based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For those unfamiliar with this supreme fantasy (are there any?), I should explain that in the game there is a hidden accessory, the Ring, possession of which gives a player certain advant’ages; in the case of ‘Mordor’, the country Duncan was playing, it gives him an almost automatic win. Duncan had deduced that the Ring was held by the player of ‘Eriador’, and that the latter’s ally, ‘Rohan’, would know the rough position of the Ring. Hoping that the two allies had never met, Duncan visited the Eriador player, introducing himself as Rohan! In the course of a convivial evening Duncan managed to elicit the information he required, and in the next season of the game all the Mordor armies did a smart right wheel and drove straight for the Ring’s hiding-place. The result was no longer in doubt. Opportunities for this sort of coup are rare; and few players would have the imagination to think of it, much less the brass nerve to carry it out.
Back to the easier kind of impersonation — on paper. This is very common, though not too successful in many cases. When it works, it can be devastating.
The most popular kind of forgery is the most difficult by far to bring off. If you simply forge a letter to one country which purports to come from another, you are in my view asking for trouble. It is far too likely that the recipient will be able to tell for sure that your letter is a fake, even if you do elaborately arrange for the right postmark, simply by its lack of reference to previous letters. In this case, a skilful operator will be able to turn the weapon against you to good effect. I know no case where this kind of crude forgery has succeeded.
Far better is the forgery of a letter from one country to you, which is then shown by you to a third country. I have done this successfully three times; twice the results were only slightly beneficial, but the third time was a beauty. On this occasion I was in deep trouble at the start of a new game: playing Turkey, I was opposed by a Russia whom I had just betrayed abominably in another game, and an Austria whom I had always attacked on principle because of his extreme unreliability (such players are best eliminated early on). As I expected they ignored my carefully composed letters, and waded straight in. It was a farcical performance: on the rare occasion when Austria remembered to send any orders he usually supported some move that Russia had not in fact ordered; if Russia ordered a support for Austria, Austria failed to order at all. The defence was not too difficult, therefore, but however incompetent the attack it would be bound to prevail in the end by sheer weight of numbers. Judging that Russia’s patience must be near breaking point by now, I decided to exploit this; I was aided by the geography, in that the Russian player lived in America, so that telephone check-ups were unlikely. I therefore forged a letter from Austria to myself, using my wife’s portable typewriter which I had never used before and which was indistinguishable from Austria’s. I sent a photocopy of it to Russia; the original I still have. I fear the spelling and general style were an all too accurate impersonation of the rather erratic schoolboy who played Austria.
I’m getting fed up of this yank, their all the same aren’t they. He keeps writing me these bossy letters then not doing what he says, just cos it was a yank invented the game they think they can push us around. I’m sick of all this money wasted on stamps to US which don’t get answered etc so lets change sides and get him. I’m sorry I attacked you, it was only because you always do so I thought I would first.
Then followed some proposed moves for the new Austro-Turkish ‘alliance’. I sent this absurd document to America with a scribbled note: ‘Well, what did I tell you?’ and awaited results. Unfortunately I have lost Russia’s reply, but most of it would have been unprintable anyway. The immediate result was a triumphant success, as the enraged Russia flung himself on his unsuspecting ally; I rather spoilt things by being unable to resist an unsound stab on Russia while his energies were thus engaged elsewhere, but I still managed to finish third, a better result than had seemed possible earlier.
This kind of forgery is not difficult, and is often effective. The best policy, I think, is to be extremely suspicious of any document sent to you by another player. I have recently evolved a technique to prevent my opponents passing my letters around, which can lead to embarrassment if the letters are genuine and chaos if they are forged; I simply say to them all, ‘If you can prove to me beyond doubt that another player has shown you one of my letters I will ally with you against him for keeps.’ This simple device seems effective; at least no one has yet taken up the offer.
The simplest dodge of all, but only rarely used. You simply enclose with your genuine letter to an ally a second, phony letter outlining a different set of moves, for him to show to the target country. This one is quite impossible to see through, of course; its drawback is that your ally can use the device against you, passing on the wrong letter. Well, that’s the risk you take; with care it is possible to ensure that the genuine letter cannot be safely used against you.
Most people have occasionally switched two letters, putting them in the wrong envelopes; I know I have done this accidentally at least once. I have also done it on purpose in a Diplomacy game. it is a very crude try-on, and certainly I shall never use it again; but in those days my name was unknown in the hobby, and experienced players will believe anything of a novice.
I was having my first experience of Diplomacy’s worst nightmare — playing Austria against the triple attack of Russia, Italy and Turkey. I dashed off regular frantic letters to all of them, trying every device I could think of. But it was all ignored. Turkey was (and is) the busiest player in the entire British hobby, with over a hundred gamestarts behind him: having embarked on a course of action he is not the man to change sides, regarding Diplomacy as a straight tactical game, like chess. Russia can only be described as an idiot, an ‘armoured duck’ who will never break off an attack once launched, for fear of reprisals when the victim recovers. Italy alone of the three was a good player, and I knew that if I could really work on him he might be persuaded to change sides; but for the present he was on a good thing, and would no doubt stick to his guns.
The ruse I hit on was a pretty basic; I typed up a letter to the GM, with some phony orders in it, and ‘misaddressed’ it to Italy with some press and a cheque for £2 to ‘renew my subscription’ to the zine. This cheque served a double purpose: to add credibility to the ‘mistake’, and to give me a possible clue as to whether or not it had succeeded. If Italy was fooled he would, I reckoned, forward the cheque to the GM without comment to me; I would never see the cheque again (or, better still, would find it had been cleared through the GM’s account!); and Italy would take the advantage of ‘knowing’ my moves for the coming season to give him the break-through he needed. I also took the precaution of admitting this ruse to the GM, John Piggott, not wanting to be accused of deceiving him. John refused to forward the letter I sent him to the Italian player — in this he was quite right, of course, though I was disappointed at the time. I needn’t have worried. The canny Italian player — Gus Ferguson, a Glasgow doctor who is among the most respected players in Britain — fired my pathetic little forgery back to me by return of post, with a good-humoured covering note saying it was the first ‘Dear John’ letter he had ever received! However, I like to think it may slightly have tilted the odds my way — certainly I got the better of Gus in the following season, and soon after he did indeed change sides. When the game eventually ended, long, long after, it was a draw between us.
The ‘wrong-envelope’ ploy can also be used in the obvious, simple way you write a letter to Austria and mail it to Italy. Apart from its crudity, a major weakness of this sort of manoeuvre is that you are unlikely to find out in time whether the bait has been taken.
The following variation of the ‘wrong envelope’ is of interest not so much because it is masterly in itself (it isn’t) but because it shows the sort of opportunity that constantly presents itself to those who have the right attitude to the game and know what to look for.
The game in question is a current postal one (l976—HQ) in which, playing Russia, I made a fairly rapid progress to fourteen centres, then got bogged down by a determined resistance on the part of the other survivors (why does this always happen to me?). The other dramatis personae are: John Piggott, playing England, and a leading member of the defensive coalition; Pete Birks, the gamesmaster; and Chris Tringham, an innocent bystander and then the membership secretary of the National Games Club.
Now, it so happened that just before the crucial deadline in this game I was getting ready to leave home for a poker game in London — a game in which John and Pete would be playing. I had to remember to take with me a box containing some copies of Dolchstoss which Chris would require to issue to new NGC members; I was going to give this box to John, who would take it to his London office for Chris to collect. Also in the box were some letters for Chris which had come to me by mistake.
Wanting, as usual, to save myself some postage, I typed up my orders for l976—HQ, put them in an envelope addressed to Pete, and — to make sure I remembered to take them — stuck the envelope in the box with the other bits and pieces. Then a chill came over me: suppose I forgot to take the envelope out of the box? John would see my brilliant tactical plan and organize a cunning defence…. And that gave me the idea.
I tore up the orders and typed two new sets: one, containing credible but slightly inferior orders, I put back in the box. The other, containing the real McCoy, I secreted in a pocket. In the pub before the game, while John was making his annual trip to the bar to buy a round, I hurriedly slipped the good orders to Pete, muttering that on no account was he to accept any changes. The dud orders, together with the other contents of the box, had already been left at John’s flat.
Next day I rang Chris, told him what I’d done, and asked for his help. When he collected the box from John he was to open it, say casually, ‘Oh I see there are some letters here,’ and glance at the envelopes. If he found one addressed to Pete Birks he would say in surprise, ‘Hey, this isn’t for me you’d better forward it.’ If there wasn’t one he was to say nothing. Either way, he would let me know the result. Chris agreed to do this in return for a guaranteed mention in this book as part of his ‘Make Chris Tringham Famous Campaign’.
When Chris rang me, the news was good — there had been no letter for Pete in the box. Therefore John had already removed it. (If you think John’s behaviour — searching a box that was nothing to do with him and removing some private correspondence — was unethical, you haven’t understood the game yet!) Possibly, but most improbably, he would forward the letter to Pete unopened. Far more likely, he would follow one of two courses: either destroy it altogether hoping to profit from my units’ being unordered, or send it on having first notified the other members of the coalition of the Russian master-plan. In either of these two cases I would gain ground.
Conceivably John would smell a rat — it will be remembered that he was no stranger to my ‘wrong-envelope’ tactics, and the dummy orders also included an un-characteristic blunder, the order F(StP)(nc) S A(Fin), which is illegal. But the tactic was sound because whatever happened I would be no worse off; and I stood excellent chances of gaining.
At the time of writing, I don’t know the result of this swindle, and am eagerly awaiting the next adjudication. But whatever happens, it shows the type of thinking that can greatly increase the fun of the game and occasionally produce a shock win out of nowhere. It also illustrates one reason (not the only one) why I am glad to be British rather than American: with the vast distances to be covered in that country, American players cannot hope to form a tight-knit community, and would have few chances for coups like this, depending heavily on personal contact.
The Great Joint Orders Coup
This was one of the best swindles ever brought off in a postal game, and in my opinion is the highlight (so far) of the nefarious career of Duncan Morris. As the gamesmaster of the game concerned (1974—DG) I was involved in it, to my initial confusion and later amusement.
In this game, Duncan played Turkey; Russia was a good but relatively inexperienced player, Dennis Love, who knew not Duncan. Dennis’s strategy was a sound one — he based his dealings on the northern front on a strong alliance with Germany, which left him free to become involved in a difficult southern triangle with Turkey and Austria.
At one point, Dennis sent Duncan a three-page letter. The first page consisted of general pleasantries, ending roughly, ‘I think we should proceed as follows:’ and over the page came the suggested Russo-Turkish joint orders. They were headed up with the country names and game details in the approved fashion, and carried the rider: ‘These orders replace any previous orders sent for the relevant Russian and Turkish units.’ The orders for the northern Russian units, which were co-operating with Germany against England, were left blank, as being none of Turkey’s business. The third page consisted of more general chat and exhortations to joint action.
So far, so good. Joint orders are a perennial headache for GMs; nervous players try to wrap up their joint orders in conditions and exceptions to insure themselves against betrayal, which is illegal. But it is a common misapprehension to think that joint orders afford some sort of protection. In fact they do have a valid use, for example where you are certain of your ally’s cooperation for the coming season, and your sole concern is to see that no wires get crossed. But that’s all.
Unfortunately, Dennis had made one awful blunder — at the bottom of the second page he signed his name. Duncan saw his chance: he took this page, wrote in his own orders, signed it … and filled in the blank Russian orders, ordering the Russian units to make a full-scale attack on Russia’s ally, Germany! He then sent it to me, without comment. I was puzzled, but one thing was clear: this was a perfectly valid set of Russo-Turkish joint orders, duly signed, dated and correct in every way, which superseded the order I later received from Russia. So I printed an adjudication using the ‘joint orders’.
A furore ensued. Dennis protested that the orders were a ‘forgery’ and that I could see they were not completely in his handwriting; this was undeniable, but the signature was genuine, which was all that mattered. In fact there was evidence of an attempt at forgery on the back of the orders (the first page of the letter), but this page had been crossed out by Duncan who explained that he had at first thought of using it to forge a letter from Dennis to a third party before the simpler and better ruse occurred to him. Germany rang me up demanding an explanation — was this cock-and-bull story of Russia’s about forgery and deception true, or was Russia just trying to stab him and get away with it? Naturally I couldn’t answer. I was adamant that the orders were valid, and the more I thought about it the surer I became.
Alas, though the coup succeeded brilliantly, it did not prevent Duncan finishing seventh in the game! Russia’s obviously genuine outrage convinced Germany, and they patched up their alliance, while Russia now rounded on Turkey in a fury, assisted by Austria, who had been an amused spectator and knew a good thing when he saw one. There could only be one end to this onslaught — a pity, after a brilliant piece of improvised skullduggery which deserved a better fate.
This is one of the few remaining causes of controversy in the postal hobby: is it permissible for one player to authorize another to order some or all of his units? Most American GMs and some British ones say, ‘No’; I say, ‘Yes’ and quite a few other British GMs agree, some with minor reservations.
The diplomatic advantages of having (or claiming to have) even a single foreign unit under your control are tremendous. Certainly if I am reduced to a single unit I will gladly offer it to another player (house rules permitting) because it will be more useful to him than one of his own, therefore he is more likely to keep it alive than to eliminate it. Providing it is always clearly understood that the original player can resume command at any time, his orders taking precedence, I see no objection to this.
A couple of proxy order stories will illustrate the advantages. In 1974—N I played the Anschluss as Germany; when Austria was attacked by Italy I put the Munich army under his orders, which worked well. The Italian attack was called off, and it was time to move against France, so I resumed control of my unit and ordered it to Burgundy. France (David Johnson) knew that Austria had been ordering the army; when he rang me to complain about the invasion I protested indignantly that Austria had written the offending order! There was a long silence at the other end, followed by a single very rude American expression and a conclusive click. No, Dave wasn’t fooled but he couldn’t be a hundred per cent sure either way. The difference can be very important.
The other situation is a beauty, which is still continuing as I write. In 1977— DL I am playing Italy to Nicky Palmer’s Austria; Nicky had a bad time in the opening, and was soon reduced to one unit, which he turned over to me as I had supported him against the Russo-Turkish alliance. At this point Turkey stabbed Russia, perhaps prematurely. I am having a lovely time with the Austrian army: I told both Russia and Turkey it was under my orders, and promised each of them it would do something different: what it actually did was attack Turkey on Russia’s behalf, then — having been dislodged by me — retreat to a Russian-owned supply-centre. Naturally, I swore to both parties that this was not at all what I had ordered, and that the cunning Nicky had clearly decided to order it himself. I have now cooked up an implausible explanation, and hope to keep the particular ball in the air for at least one more season. This sort of thing keeps all one’s opponents in a state of perpetual indecision, an ideal state of affairs which is impossible without the proxy-order option.
The ‘cross-game alliance’ — in which two countries make a deal in exchange for a similar deal in another game they are playing — is widely regarded as unethical. Thus, playing Italy to X’s Russia, I might well offer to help him win in exchange for a similar favour in another game where I have the stronger country. I am in total agreement with those who say this is not really fair (it penalizes players in a smaller number of games, obviously). However, there are other factors outside a game which can be used to influence its course, and have been.
Personal friendship is the simplest. I’ve already mentioned one case where I was able to capitalize on this in 1976—HQ. Earlier in the same game I needed the assistance of Austria, whom a previous attack by me had reduced to a few units, to overcome the grim defence of Turkey. Shortly before midnight on the day of the deadline I was playing poker after a hard day’s inspection of the public houses of Oxford, with a convivial group including Austria, GM Pete Birks, and a couple more players from the game, excluding Turkey. When a hand came along on which Austria and I dropped out early, I lured him into another room, presented him with some orders for his units, and offered to buy all his lunch-time beer the next day if he would sign them (no mean undertaking, as his capacity is a by-word). He agreed, and I prospered; I still cherish an indignant note from Turkey, who learned of this bribe and maintained that it was ‘not cricket’. True.
The cash bribe is rarely encountered in this hard-up hobby where every spare penny goes to the ever-open maw of the Post Office. In an effort to win my first postal game, I offered £2 for the services of the three remaining French units, which held the key to victory at one point. Back came a curt postcard: ‘Make it £5 and you’re on.’ This was fine with me, as I intended to stop the cheque anyway, but it was already too late; the moment had passed.
Another line is the ‘betting’ technique, which reminds me of those stories about ‘amateur’ sportsmen who perform for nothing and then are bet £500 or so that they can’t jump over a hat. In this stratagem you may offer to bet a doubtful ally some modest sum that you won’t stab him, i.e. you will later have the choice of paying up, remaining loyal, or welshing. I’ve tried this without success — everyone seems to know that gaming debts are unenforceable at law!
My favourite story under this heading was one sent to me when I was soliciting tales of off-board stratagems for a jubilee article in issue 50 of Doichstoss. The participants were Rob Chapman, a well known player from Devon who has done a lot to promote the growth of postal Formula I, and Duncan Adams, A Lancashire solicitor who has since left the hobby, finding that it was taking up too much of his time and was becoming an obsession — it can happen! I’m sorry I never played against him, as by all accounts he seems to have been a superb player during his brief and limited involvement.
Rob, who told me the story, was playing Austria to Duncan’s Turkey, and was asked by Duncan for a support. He demurred a bit, not liking the look of it, and Duncan sent him a £10 note as an indemnity. A delightful correspondence ensued: Rob pointed out, reasonably enough, that there wasn’t much in this for him — if Duncan moved as agreed he would have to return the £10 … but the move was more in Duncan’s favour than his own! Why not, he hinted, threaten to keep the note unless Duncan supported him in? This master-stroke produced a classic reply:
There is a general rule of Diplomacy that no holds are barred, and one is not bound by what one says; the Courts could clearly not interfere in such affairs, and serious offences such as forgery have no meaning in a Diplomacy context. However, this is not a Diplomacy contract; it is a separate contract depending on a specific performance in the form of an indemnity. The indemnity is above the Diplomacy contract which in itself is voidable ab initio. Should you retain my £10 I should certainly sue for the return and expect to succeed. But far more seriously, if you did refuse to return it unless I supported you this would constitute an unwarrantable demand with menaces, the old Blackmail offence now an offence under the Theft Act 1968. If you were to plan this with [Italy] you would be guilty of conspiracy, and could serve life. In short you are the bailee of the £10 and must act accordingly. I half wish you would keep it: the joys of being the first Diplomacy litigant would outweigh the other disadvantages.
Rob’s letter to me finished sadly, ‘I supported him in and returned the £10 note.’ I am prepared to state categorically that this is the only occasion on which one Diplomacy player has threatened another with life imprisonment.
A Spy at Cambridge
One of the most famous scandals ever to rock British Diplomacy occurred at Cambridge in 1973. For some reason, Jesus College seems to attract Diplomacy players, and at that time it sheltered two leading lights, then and now: John Piggott and Andy Davidson. John was producing his Diplomacy zine Ethil the Frog, justly regarded then as Britain’s best, and now in production again after a two-year lay-off; Andy was playing in numerous games in Ethil and elsewhere.
The Ethil deadline fell on a Friday, which meant most orders had been received by the Thursday; and on Thursday each week John was regularly absent for a longish period attending a practical. One Thursday he returned early. . . to find an industrious Andy squatting on the floor of his room copying down the orders sent in by other players in the games he was playing in.
Uncertain what to do, John applied for counsel to Don Turnbull, also resident in Cambridge and a traditional refuge for all GMs in a quandary. Don was adamant that Andy should be evicted from all his games, but John decided against this drastic action and merely stipulated that all Andy’s units should stand unordered for the current season. Another respected British GM, Richard Walkerdine, commented that the affair ‘left a nasty taste’. Well, I had my doubts then, and I have them even more strongly now. It seems to me that Andy was within his rights as a player (though obviously not in other respects, as the college authorities would certainly have confirmed!). In a face-to-face game there is certainly nothing to prevent players trying to discover orders by ‘espionage’; the rulebook doesn’t mention the subject, though perhaps it should. Arguably a rule should be made whereby once orders have been handed to the GM they are sacrosanct; but at present this rule does not exist, and has not been written into any ‘house rules’ that I have seen.
Postal Diplomacy players are a friendly lot, and many of the players in my games have visited my house from time to time, either by invitation or just ‘passing through’. Only one to my knowledge, has tried to profit from his opportunity. This was Duncan Morris, and any GM entertaining Duncan would take some precautions in advance, which I did! The question remains an interesting one. If a GM takes a completely free-and-easy line, perhaps he will find his life made a misery by characters in false noses climbing up his drainpipes in the middle of the night, calling to read his gas-meter three times a week, and so on. Majority opinion is that an offence against the law of the land (housebreaking, for instance) is not a defacto breach of the rules of the game, and with this I agree. Still, a GM has to protect his privacy to some extent like anyone else.
Odds and Ends
One or two miscellaneous attempts to brighten up the game have been concocted by various ingenious players. Nicky Palmer told me of a few when I was planning that article in Dolchstoss; Nicky is outrageously original in his ideas, which in his case are strictly for laughs.
He played in a game I ran in Dolchstoss (l975—BG), in which the players were anonymous and corresponded only through the GM. (The brackets round the Boardman number show that the game was in some way ‘irregular’ and will not be counted for statistical purposes.) To ensure that players kept their anonymity, I had the unhappy idea of introducing a rule whereby any player who correctly identified another could denounce him and have him thrown out of the game. I thought this would make people careful about concealing their true identities; in fact it led to more mayhem than I would have believed possible.
Nicky’s plan was ingenious: he offered ‘as a gesture of trust’ to reveal his identity to an ally. The idea was that either the ally would reciprocate, in which case Nicky would promptly denounce him (or threaten to), or that the ally would himself denounce Nicky … who, of course, had revealed a false identity, that of another well-known player! Moreover, this player lent Nicky his driving-licence, and Nicky enclosed a photostat of it to back up his story. Alas, the victim didn’t take the bait.
Another typical Palmer scheme backfired horribly. It is customary in the postal game for GMs to have a ‘dateline’ reserved for their own use in the press section; any press printed under this dateline is guaranteed to come from the GM, and players may not borrow it. (A brief selection of some of the best known: Duncan Morris used ‘Joril’, Conrad von Metzke ‘Jamul’, Richard Walkerdine ‘Imrryr’, Mick Bullock — a Liverpool supporter — ‘the Kop’, and I myself ‘LONA’, short for ‘League of Nations, Amersham’.) Nicky was playing in a game run by a Canadian, John Leeder, who used the reserved dateline ‘Moose Valley’. In a moment of insane inspiration Nicky submitted a note — dateline ‘Mooose Valley’ with three 0’s — ‘reminding’ players of a new rule whereby the strongest and weakest countries at the end of 1905 would swap players. The intended victim was not deceived. But Nicky’s ally had not been let in on the joke, and refused to support Nicky’s units the following season as he assumed someone else was ordering them!
No survey of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres in the Diplomacy world would be complete without a mention of the fake zine business. This comes in a different category to the other devices in this chapter, as there is no real prospect of gaining game advantage, and probably no intention of doing so.
The most famous fake was a bogus issue of Michel Feron’s zine Moeshoeshoe. To those sufficiently familiar with the hobby to understand it, it was hysterically funny. Game fees (normally zero in this zine) had been ‘reduced’ so that Michel paid people to play (750 Belgian francs, 99 French francs, 350 US dollars or £40 sterling per game). Players were informed that they would continue to receive the zine ‘as long as their games remained interesting’. At that time a two-man Diplomacy game was running in Moeshoeshoe, a ‘war’ between Michel Liesnard and Hartley Patterson; the fake issue showed Michel dropping out, with all his units being taken over by Hartley as stand-by: this left Hartley playing all seven countries … and removing units for all seven. The game report for another game showed all countries still with their original units and no others at the end of 1908 (all twenty-two units tried to move in autumn 1908, but failed); the GM’s penetrating comment was: ‘This game begins to look as though it may last rather a long time.’ But the pièce de resistance was the ‘correction’ notice for game M77, a translation of which runs:
‘Due to three errors on my part I shall have to delay the autumn 1901 orders. First, I wrongly stated that the French A(Kie) must retreat; in fact this unit is annihilated. Secondly, the Austrian A(Mun) is also annihilated, as F(Spa) did not specify the coast; so Belgium is vacant and Ruhr is occupied. Thirdly, the Russian A(Ber) is also annihilated, because I didn’t notice that the convoy order for the English F(BAS) had specified the wrong destination. So because of all these changes, and because A(Ruh) is not annihilated, Austria and Russia only remove two more units each, and Germany builds only five. Because of this, 1901 adjustments should reach me by 11 p.m. on 29 March 1973, and if France and Germany would like to change the orders they have already sent, they can’t.’
The fake Moeshoeshoe has never been convincingly attributed to anyone, so far as I know. My copy was mailed from the right place — Brussels — though the handwriting in the address is nothing like Michel Feron’s; the typing and printing look about right, though the printing was perhaps slightly better than in most issues. The French is good (Moeshoeshoe was a bilingual zine). In a later issue Michel Feron accused John Piggott of composing the fake, with Michel Liesnard providing the French language and the postmark; but I never believed this. It is now generally believed that Conrad von Metzke was responsible, along with Michel Liesnard again: Conrad’s talents are certainly equal to all aspects of the job.
In more recent times the English zines Fifth Column and Jigsaw have been forged, but neither of these efforts had the marvellous wit of the Moeshoeshoe forgery, and both seemed to me outstanding cases of wasted time and energy.
Most of this book is naturally predicated on the desirable but rare assumption that all players are of roughly the same, competent standard. The problems caused by the presence of even a single authentic moron can change the face of the game dramatically, and deserve special consideration.
First problem, of course, is recognizing the species. In face-to-face play this will not be difficult: be wary of the very young, the very old and above all the neighbour or girl-friend making up the numbers. In postal play it’s not quite so easy, but there are pointers that will give you the information you need.
For a start, you should as a matter of course do some research into the playing backgrounds of other players in your game. Certainly check the other games in the zine you’re playing in; preferably look at as many other zines as you can obtain. In particular, take note if a player has missed ordering in any of his games: a player who has missed once is always liable to miss again; and a player who has missed more than once is almost certain to miss again. Also check whether any pair of players in your game has appeared in other games and if so whether one of them habitually does better — the weaker one may be a stooge.
This will yield some useful information more often than not. Otherwise you have to rely on their letters. Very short, ill-written letters on lined paper are a sure give-away — this is either a small child or a retarded adult! The longer and more intelligible the letter, the better the player, without doubt. Spelling, oddly enough, is another useful guide — it’s no longer such a reliable sign of immaturity as it used to be, now that schools are largely staffed by people who themselves cannot spell, but it’s still a sign of a lack of concern for accuracy and detail that makes for a bad Diplomacy player. Words are the tools of Diplomacy, and almost every really good player I have come up against has used them fluently and accurately (though a few do so mainly on the telephone, and may be deceptively clumsy when they do commit themselves to paper).
These hints may enable you to recognize the first of the two common types of palooka — the genuine incompetent, liable to drop out when the game becomes too taxing for him, as it surely will. There is only one way to handle this type — cut him up fast. His presence will unbalance the game. If you find yourself allied to one you will have a nerve-racking existence: his moves, if they arrive at all, are likely to be inaccurate or miswritten, and he is capable of attempting a stab at the exact moment when it is least beneficial to him to do so. I write, I assure you, with the bitterness of experience!
The other type of palooka is more difficult to recognize, but more valuable — the stooge. This chap may be quite reliable, but he has a big problem —he lacks self-confidence. He stands revealed in his letters, which are usually neat and adequately long, and arrive punctually. I can do no better than quote an example, sent to me in the first season of a new game several years ago. I was playing Turkey, to my disgust and despondency, but this letter from Austria (slightly edited) convinced me that all was well.
Help. With you playing Turkey and X playing Russia, I can see I’m not long for this world. I must admit I prefer allying with Russia, but in this case I think you’re the lesser of two evils, and will therefore offer to cast what weight I have on your side. I shall have to take a chance on being able to persuade Italy not to attack me, and will open to Galicia rather than Trieste; I hope this will encourage you to attack Russia, your most dangerous rival, and if so I will be glad to support you into Rumania in autumn 1901, and ally with you thereafter against both Russia and Italy. I realize that if this plan succeeds it will give you an alarmingly strong position, but I hope that you will find my armies sufficiently useful in support of your fleets to allow me to survive. This is all I’m after, unless I get a lucky break later in the game — survival with Austria in this strong field would be an achievement in itself judging from my previous experience of playing the country. Anyway, I wish you luck and hope we can co-operate.
Yours hopefully, Y
Now, on receipt of a letter like this there is one priority job — check up on the writer. Either he is a very bad player, or he’s a very good player pretending to be an idiot. This is easily discovered if you don’t know it already (and it’s amazing how many good players will try transparent traps like that).
I was soon able to convince myself of the genuineness of the letter in question: Y had played several games before, and in each had loyally stuck to an ally through thick and thin; two of his allies had won, but Y had never finished better than third. His last appearance as Austria had been an elimination in 1903.
The letter contained several valuable clues, and was very typical of its kind. First, the assessment of Russia was way off beam: Russia was a very well-known player, much loved by all, but renowned more for his sociability than for his killer instinct — he had never won a game (and still hasn’t). Fear of the ‘big name’ unsupported by any record of playing achievement is a classic symptom of the stooge.
Another clue is the reference to Trieste, as if a move to Trieste would be any sort of defence against Italy. It goes without saying that a reverence for popular but feeble opening plans is a sign of weakness. As for the proposed alliance — a weak Austria with a supposedly strong Turkey against Russia and Italy — this is a classic recipe for Austrian suicide by self-encirclement.
Reading between the lines, then, it is clear that Austria has written to Russia in the same terms and has offered a non-aggression pact to Italy, whom he wrongly (in this case) conceives to be a weak player because he is not a ‘big name’. This by the way is another area where research pays off — a player who has played two games in five years and won both is unlikely to be famous, but he is probably a far better player than the fanatic who has played thirty games and won four.
What to do, then? The answer is: get this chap on your side, at all costs. Take him under your wing, force him to trust you, even reinforce his diplomacy for him in areas where it is clearly weak. In the case under discussion I wrote a deliberately unconvincing letter to Italy asking him to attack Austria — this is a more effective way of ensuring he doesn’t than any serious attempt to persuade him. As for Austria, I told him that I would accept his offer and attack Russia, which of course I should probably have done anyway as a ‘defence’. I said that in my view he was unwise to trust Italy, and that I thought he would probably need Rumania more than I should. This was the critical point: I could offer him a tangible lure, in the shape of Rumania, whereas Russia could not reliably offer him Bulgaria. Things developed as I hoped, and my outbidding of Russia induced Austria to throw himself whole-heartedly on my side. I have no doubt at all that if I had accepted the whole of his offer, including the quite unnecessary gain of Rumania, he would have allied with Russia instead. Our alliance duly prospered, and in due course I was able to stab him effectively (with profuse apologies and excuses, as a hedge against a subsequent meeting). I didn’t win the game, alas — France did that with Turkey second — but the eastern diplomacy was successful.
Once you have established an alliance with such a player, he will usually be content to take a passive, minor role in it. You can dictate his moves, within reason (and sometimes beyond reason). You must write to him regularly: if your letter fails to arrive he will become anxious, because he is the type who fails to write to the ally he is about to stab. An ostentatious sacrifice of a possible gain to him because ‘he needs it more than you do’ is likely to touch his heart and pay a big dividend later. Make him feel you really need him, even if you don’t. If circumstances allow you to meet him from time to time, do so, and discuss the game anxiously. This sort of arrangement, impossible between equals, is the one case where ‘alliance Diplomacy’ really pays off.