The Subtle Joys of Being Little

by Rod Walker

There is too much emphasis on WINNING in the hobby. That is as true now as it was ten years ago. The hobby has been flooded with articles on how to “win” at this, and “win” at that, how to stalemate and draw, how to make big gains, etc, etc. There is rampant a school of thought (I use the term loosely) which states that if you do not “win” or “draw”, you have “lost”. The most outspoken member of this bunch of egomaniacs is Andy Phillips. The most remarkable is John Beshara, who refuses to take a replacement position smaller than 15 units and has declared in writing that he will not play under a GM who won’t guarantee to restrict his replacements list to Besh’s friends. Such are the extremes to which the “win-only” school can lead. 

These people have lost sight of the true fun of Diplomacy; playing the game. You can do that with one unit. Does it really matter how you end up? When the game is over, it is OVER, and the fun derived from playing it is also over. I would rather play an entire game with only one unit than win it. The challenge (in this case, of staying alive), the excitement, the fun are all there. 

A corollary of the deluded “win” philosophy is the silly notion that a 1- or 2-unit position isn’t worth finding a replacement for. ANY position, no matter how small, may be a very important one, a vital situation, interesting and exciting to play. It may even determine the final outcome of the game. 

I have over the years made something of a speciality of playing small replacement positions. I enjoy them; they are very relaxing because you have nothing at stake to begin with and you can do what you want. Those who have played such positions with any regularity can certainly testify that some of them turn out to be quite surprising. There was, for instance, a 2-unit Italy which Conrad von Metzke converted into a win.  

An example I always cite is a 1-unit Austria I took over. I made my first moves in the Fall. In the previous Spring, my single army had been dislodged from Vienna and was in Bohemia. Russia and Turkey were allied and were sweeping the board. Hopeless? Not at all. I allied with Russia, talked him into stabbing Turkey, recovered my entire homeland and ended the game with 6 centres and 2nd place. Despite the fact that I perforce was hitched to the Russian star, it was an interesting and vital game to play, especially since I had a large hand in managing the Russian victory campaign. 

I’ve also taken over positions which were hopeless right to the end. So what? Think of the brilliant KAMIKAZE attacks and suicide missions, the flare of tactics that holds up the potential victor and gives the winner’s laurel to somebody else. You can do that, even with one unit.  

You can also help create a stalemate line. There is considerable challenge to this because the orders of two or more players have to be co-ordinated, and there is always the excitement of the unexpected stab, the missed deadline that leads to breakthrough, and so on. 

Winning a game can be exciting, too, of course. The point is that ANY position can create its own blend of uncertainty and suspense and surprise which are the elements of excitement. I do not, personally, see any difference in the suspense of waiting to see if you’ve gotten your 18th centre or lost your last one. So do not scorn the “little” positions. 

Reprinted from Runestone #91 (9/2/75) editor John Leeder

This article was supplied by Mark Nelson, for which many thanks.