The Cult of the Old


Words by Jeremy Tullett

20 February 2023

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If you were at MidCon or Manorcon around 1980, you'd have found just about everyone there taking part in a three-day Diplomacy tournament.

These events grew out of the postal Diplomacy hobby as places where the game could be played 'as designed' with each turn's order writing confined to 20 minutes or so, rather than days or weeks.

There are is still strong support for Diplomacy by email, and systems may use human or computer adjudication, and have varied length turns, but there's nothing quite like a face-to-face game with 20min turns to get the adrenaline flowing.

The occasional game still runs at major games conventions, and there is at least one person organising a board for the interested as a standalone day event, but it would be nice to see more of it.*

The challenge is getting exactly seven (or an integer multiple thereof) people together for something that can last several hours.

Briefly, play is on a map of Europe c.1900, with the players ordering for Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, Turkey and England (it was designed by an American). There are 34 supply centres on the board. 22 start owned by the players, and the other 12 are in (unarmed) neutrals. The objective is to capture 18 supply centres, although in time-limited games the winner is the person to hold the most centres when the game ends.

It is impossible to achieve this merely by ordering one's units about; essentially you have to negotiate your way to a victory by striking deals with the other players, and, yes, lying to some of the others, whilst keeping an eye on the strategy and tactics.

In each 20 minute burst, you have to do your negotiating and write orders (secretly, and simultaneously with the others), before they are all revealed, the consequences of the moves revealed, and negotiating starts all over again.

Think of a room with seven people going off in to small huddles, frantically scribbling orders, being relieved or shocked at the consequences, and then going off again, over a period of several hours. “Read 'em and weep” might be a poker term, but it applies here as well as your best-laid plans are turned to dust in front of you.

As you might imagine, a visit to the bar after one of these games is almost de rigeur.

The mechanics of the game are really simple, the tactics can be quite subtle, but what really grips me here is the interpersonal aspect. Is your neighbour telling the truth, or is s/he a lying scumbag? Can you think of a set of orders that can cover both eventualities, or capitalise on your estimate of their (dis)honesty? Can you accurately write a set of orders and get them in before the deadline? Can you resist the urge to thump your neighbour when it turns out he's just 'stabbed' you, and, more importantly, is this all-out war, or can you patch it up?

Why not get your fellow email players together one day and try the face-to-face version. It is a quite different experience from the remote version, and worth the effort.

* So far as I can tell WorldDipCon is still running, but I don't see any evidence that EuroDipCon has happened since 2016.

Jeremy Tullett is the chairman of the annual Midcon boardgame convention.
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