Busy, busy… I started writing the new TSoY book, and I have all seven sorts of whitecollar monkey business on my plate, too. In my free time I’ve been speculating about Diplomacy variants a bit again. This time I decided to write down some basics about what makes a Diplomacy variant. This isn’t necessarily that interesting for Diplomacy players so much as game designers interested in system aesthetics – there are certain aesthetic principles to Diplomacy, and they can be used to determine when something goes over the line and becomes something else than a Diplomacy variant.
I should note that the following might seem slightly mystical. That’s Diplomacy for you, some of us take it far too seriously.
This might sound judgemental, but I’m very strict about what constitutes a Diplomacy variant. Diplomacy is a simple game and just like you wouldn’t call a game where you moved several pieces simultaneously a chess variant, there are certain things that must be preserved for a Diplomacy variant to be “pure” and thus satisfactory in my eyes. Straying too far from the base sort of defeats the purpose in my eyes; if you’re going to do whatever you want, no reason to start with Diplomacy to begin with.
To clarify, I’m discussing map variants here only. Diplomacy can be house-ruled all seven ways, but those are not Diplomacy variants in the sense I mean here. “Variant” is really a bad word for the thing we want to convey when discussing the building of new Diplomacy maps, as it’s not really a variant of the game that we create, it’s a variant of the scenario. “Diplomacy scenario design” would be much more exact. There is a large range of possibilities in this sort of variant design that is constrained by the rules but not the map, and I consider it the heart of doing variants in the first place. It’s an intensely interesting question what you can and can’t do within the boundaries of pure Diplomacy, just like it’s interesting to explore how Chess can be varied without straying from its natural rules. Messing with the rules of the game is a different endeavour.
So let’s go with scenario design for the purposes of this post, it’s more clear what I mean. What does a Diplomacy scenario need to preserve from the base game to still be accounted as a Diplomacy variant by me? Here’s the list:
- A Diplomacy scenario won’t change the rules. No different unit types, no fleet/army rules, no add-on layers to the system. This is not a black-and-white issue in reality, as there are plenty of cases where the rules-eligibility of certain choices can be argued; more on those below.
- The map can be changed freely. A Diplomacy map consists of a web of connections between nodes, each designated as land or sea. Land areas can be SCs as well. Nodes might consist of several coasts, effectively separate nodes for the purposes of fleet action. Each individual SC can be a home SC for one of the players. The starting position consists of each player controlling his home SCs with troops in them. The number of players is variable.
That’s a Diplomacy scenario. When I discuss variant design, I specifically discuss the principles and practices that concern the range of these Diplomacy maps. How to create a good map? What is a good map? What is a bad map? What sort of maps are possible or not possible? Those are the questions.
Despite my seeming hard-line attitude on changing the rules of Diplomacy, there are certain variants (this time in the sense of varying rules) that resonate with me to a smaller or greater degree. My actual topic here is to try to work out which of these are part of the generalized Diplomacy rules set and which are actually extraneous to the complete rules. Like so:
- A very common conceit in variant maps are “neutral troops” that reside in a neutral SC when the game starts. These might have orders, but usually they just hold until forced to retreat, at which point they are removed from the board. The neutral troops are useful in that they allow the scenario designer to balance some neutral SCs that would be too obvious to grab without the troop. While Calhamer Diplomacy does not recognize neutral troops, the sort that just sits there is a very clean and natural solution, which compels me to accept them as part of the generalized rules-set. The sort that has orders does not get my blessing – I find it dissatisfying that there are orders in the game that do not come from the process of negotiation and player choice.
- It’s also common to start the game with a winter turn so as to allow players to choose their first units. This is done to create more options and variety for the players, as they get to choose their fleet/army mix. I find this practice slightly annoying and would not hole-heartedly endorse it. No particular reason as far as I can see, except that it annoys me to mar the structure of the game.
- There are many ways to mess about with the starting positions and home SCs in Diplomacy. For example, a Power might start in possession of SCs that are not its home SCs. Or a given SC might be a home SC to several Powers. Or a Power might start with units outside SCs, or empty SCs without units, or too many or too few units, or even with an unit in a SC that is not controlled by the Power. I am uncertain about whether I accept this as a tool of scenario design. On the one hand things can get really rather weird, on the other this sort of thing does not require any new rules – it’s just a board position like any other, and Diplomacy always starts in the middle of things in a sense. Thus I’m reluctantly leaning towards accepting this sort of thing.
- There are lots of different variant unit types for Diplomacy. Airplanes, auxiliary troops, submarines, elites, quick units, whatever one might imagine. Most of these fall, surprisingly enough, into a third box in my scheme – they could be acceptable if they were designed to the standard of the Calhamer rules set. Most variants that make use of this sort of thing are not satisfactory in quality for me simply because the unit variant does not resonate sufficient gravity and universality for me. These solutions are not the equal of the elegant simplicity of the basic rules set.
These and other rules variants form a nimbus around the Calhamer rules. The difficult issue here is that the Calhamer rules set is not perfect and historically separate; rather, it’s a pretty complete shadow of a theoretical universal Diplomacy rules set that might or might not include other troop types, other terrain types, other orders that interact with those and perhaps yet other differences. Which ideas in this nimbus belong as part of the hypotethical perfect rules set is determined by compatibility and aesthetics. This is why I don’t accept the army/fleet rules, for instance – they’re extraneous with the way Diplomacy already handles fleet actions and override some behaviors of army units in Calhamer Diplomacy, which means that they’re part of some other game.
The practical reason for why I care of these details is that I’d like to understand why I get interested to play some variants and not others. The purity issue is not the whole of it, but it’s an important part. Let’s review some pretty randomly chosen variants to see what I think of them:
- Heptarchy is a 7-player variant about the British Middle Ages. It is a pure scenario variant, and thus intrigues me in principle, even if the actual design might not be perfect. The absolutely biggest flaw for me is the haphazard historicity – the naming of things, the choice of Powers and geography are very vaguely connected to reality. But I’d be willing to play this.
- Blood and Iron is a 5-player variant which I instinctively dislike. It has a complex overlay of stuff like randomized starting positions and time-line events as the game progresses for no good reason I can see. This is exactly the sort of variant I skip when trolling for something to play with the teenagers here. (In truth the BW map affects that decision a bit, too, but if I believed in the design, I could very well color it myself.)
- Global Diplomacy is a positively challenging variant. On the one hand I like the topic of WWIII, on the other I find the map slightly too simplified. Then there is the challenge of new troop types, which are both not created to my standards, I feel. They have a point, though, so it’s not all a loss. Overall this variant makes me want to rewrite it to accord with my own aesthetics.
Writing these lists about what I accept and what I don’t, I think I realized the rule: for a Diplomacy scenario to be clean to me, it needs to be a self-contained map + starting positions with no new rules-sheet to it. Any changes to the game that don’t simply modify the map are discouraged by my gut, it seems.
There is a purity to Diplomacy, and I find myself only really enjoying a variant map when it is created with restraint and respect towards the game. The most certain way of doing that is to hew close to the pure line I define here while also choosing the theme of the map with imagination and zest. Any peculiarities or changes to the rules are such that I’m going to scrutinize them very carefully, they have to justify themselves to me with utmost force. Such will probably cause me to pick some other map to play, unless the changes to the rules represent a strong and fruitful direction in exploring the universal rules-set behind Calhamer Diplomacy.