We played Chromatic Diplomacy with the teenagers a while back. As I’m always interested in Diplomacy variant design, it was pretty good to get to play this comedy masterpiece my Millington & al. from the early ’90s. The reason for playing the variant now was really that I happened to have a snazzy laminated map on loan from a friend in the south, and that we happened to need a 5-player variant. In hindsight it probably wasn’t smart to play something that has more comedy value than anything else, especially when half of the players hadn’t played Diplomacy before and couldn’t really appreciate the comedy.
In case you’re not familiar with Chromatic, it’s a five-player variant map for Diplomacy with a few notable properties:
- The map is position-symmetric: all five player starting positions are identical in terms of connectivity and Center placement. The territories are named according to the colors of the Powers, so the Red Power has places like the “Carnation Sea” and “Fire Engine” in their vicinity, while Black has Coal and Yet and such. Pure fantasy, in other words.
- The comedic conseit of the map is that each of the five powers is shaped like Italy from the original Calhamer map. Italy is considered by many to be the most frustrating and second-weakest of the powers in Diplomacy, so a symmetric map where everybody “gets” to play Italy is at least fair in sharing the misery. The Italies are, as can be seen from the map visual, placed in a ring with the normally unpassable Switzerland as the only landlocked territory on the board.
Now, the reason I find this a worthwhile experience to write about is that while I’ve been eyeing this map for years, actually playing it sucked hard. Let’s see if we can find some analytical reasons for that, apart from lack of time, etc.
Readers of my blog might remember this Triangle-theory post from last year, wherein I outlined the basis of a variant design theory for Diplomacy. In that article I postulated that interesting Diplomacy maps tend to have Powers arranged in triangle relationships with each other, so that two Powers can ally against one, but each of the three don’t really know whether they’ll be one of the allies or the victim. I also developed a method of simplifying Diplomacy maps into their Power relationships by assigning each neighbourhood in the map one of three relationship urgency levels; each neighbour relationship in Diplomacy can be characterized as one of three types:
- Immediate relationships are the ones that provide direct pay-offs to players who resolve them fast, making an attack or substantial negotiations an immediate concern. Russia-Turkey is a good example of this sort of thing in Calhamer Diplomacy, among others; most countries on the Calhamer map have two immediate neighborhood concerns on their plate at the beginning of the game.
- Necessary relationships are those that will by necessity have to be resolved by the Power before they can gather a winning quorum of Centers to win the game. The Calhamer board has a few of these, and they usually become overriding concerns immediately after the immediate relationships have been resolved somehow.
- Ancillary relations are those that do not need to be addressed until the late game, if then. The Calhamer board has rather few of these; the great majority of the neighbour relationships are such that they cannot continue without unambiguous resolution when the Powers grow in power.
Anyway, that’s background. Let’s see what Chromatic has to offer in this regard. The Power relationship map is on the left, and as can be seen, it’s pretty different to Calhamer Diplomacy. For one, there are no immediate Power relationships at all – the players can’t really gain major advances against each other on the very first move. Another difference is that there are not any of those strong triangles – the closest this map comes to a triangle is when two players, say Blue and Dark, decide to gang on Yellow. Both Blue and Dark have direct means for harassing Yellow, but not each other, which makes this a non-triangle for the purposes of that particular theory.
Theory predicts that Chromatic would be a slow map with little dynamic excitement, and I have to say that this was the actual experience as well. The first year is especially funny, as the players are essentially part of two circle-bounces: in the north those five areas around Crystal (Switzerland) require you to predict whether your left or right neighbour (or both) is going to approach your northern Center, while in the south you need to decide whether you’re going to try to conquer the Tunis to your left or the one to your right. (A little hint on this latter matter: move to Tyrrhenian Sea on your first move instead of the Ionian. This way you only have one possible Tunis to conquer in the fall, so the opponent to your left who moved to Ionian knows with absolute certainty that you’re going to bounce him if he tries for the Tunis in between you two. One player moving to Tyrrhenian Sea in this way can defuse the circle-bounce on the outer edge of the board this way and ensure that everybody gets that one build during the first year. Except, of course, if there’s an idiot playing, in which case the idiot and his lucky right-side neighbour are left without builds.)
Crystal, the landlocked Center in the middle, exemplifies how this sort of map works. Because everybody gets the same number of neutral Centers except for Crystal, there’s a lot of effort at getting that one. Crystal is in the reach of everybody, however, so actually owning it is of marginal benefit without also being a member of a majority alliance, as in practice your army in Crystal is stuck defending itself most of the time, making the ownership of the area only useful in tactical terms.
The problem with this sort of Diplomacy variant map is that when there are no precarious power balances that can be shaken with a well-placed move, the tool of choice for good play is to forge long-term alliances and grind your opposition down methodically with no real opportunities for betraying those allies. This is tiring play that is prone to dysfunctions such as excess trust. In practice play will move forward with the weakest player getting crushed by his two neighbours working in concert, after which something might actually start happening in the game. This will take 2-3 hours with even an experienced crew (especially with an experienced crew if it takes them more than a moment to choose who to vote off the island), so the overall experience of play will be slow, dull and frustrating.
Playing variants teaches me to require precarious power balances of my Diplomacy maps. A good map will be such where players have real reason to fear betrayal because of the simple fact of the initiative advantage the betrayer gains by attacking first. If the advantage to moving against an opponent before he realizes he’s under attack is negligible, then the fight comes down to material advantage, which in Diplomacy means having some other players be in position where their best interest is attacking the same target, while not having other players in position to attack you while you’re entangled in this particular war. Take these factors together and Chromatic will seem really pointless.
On the other hand, I could imagine enjoying another game of Chromatic with experienced Diplomacy players who could appreciate the comedy and the bland nuances of the tug of war that results from the cyclical arrangement of the countries.
An interesting theoretical question is whether Chromatic is dull because it’s symmetric. My brother seems to think so, but my own view is that the dullness comes from the lack of options, lack of strong relationship triangles and slow positions the players are saddled with in Chromatic. Asymmetry of the initial positions would help, but so would designing a symmetric map better. Perhaps I’ll make a point of trying to create just such a map at some point.