The local teenagers are after Diplomacy like cats in heat. We’re going to play some again tomorrow, and I’ve been told that there’s a good chance for having more than seven players present. Even if I might myself well stay out of the game and act as a rules arbitrator, it’s still possible that we might be looking at an 8, 9 or even 10-player game.
Consequently, I spent some time last night trawling the net for suitable variants for this number of players. I wrote earlier about my aesthetic preferences in regards to Diplomacy variant design, but in the local situation they are not only aesthetic: a bunch of teenagers, some of which have only played a couple of sessions of Diplomacy, need a clear, solid variant with no complex special rules, and not some horrid mess with special characters, double-strength units, garrisons and such.
I am always surprised by the low overall quality when going through the hundreds of variants at the variant bank and other places in the ‘net. One might imagine that well-designed pure map variants would be prominent, but this is in fact not so. The fact that many variants are for seven players, for which I have the perfectly serviceable, classical Calhamer board, doesn’t exactly help the process. And when the variant seems superficially well designed, it’s often offered on such a horrid quality map that I’ll need to spend hours redrawing it myself if I want to use it.
This being the situation, my list of options for tomorrow is a bit limited. I’ll list them here so I can close this browser and perhaps find the variants tomorrow, too, when I find out how many players we’ll have, exactly.
- Youngstown is a 10-player variant with no special rules. The “off-board boxes” are areas a sane designer would name with geographical designations, as they’re basically just large, simplified spaces that are not depicted on the board. I for one would find it easier to read the map and remember which box connects where if they were called “American East Coast”, “Caribbean” and so on. But that’s a minor aesthetic issue when the map itself is an awful mess of lines, and thus very difficult to read. Europe could also use significant size distortion to be usable in the game at all – if we’re going to play this, I’ll have to either find a better version or color the map myself, and then print Europe and the rest of the world separately on different scales to make the map easily usable. Design-wise I don’t have any immediate insight on this; I see easy neutral grabs in some parts of the board, but for all I know they might present some non-obvious opportunity costs, or simply be necessary delays for certain Powers. The theme is passable; it’s only slightly worse than the original Calhamer Diplomacy, and probably good enough for government work. This is probably my main choice for a 10-player variant if we should need one, all told.
- War in the Americas is another 10-player variant, this time in the Americas, both north and south. A nearly traditional variant – the designer wants you to be able to build anywhere instead of just home centers, but the map seems relatively usable even without this degenerate rules relaxation. The map looks nice and, while it should be in higher resolution, should be usable when printed on a A3 sheet or two. I might still use size distortion in the middle Americas, where the designer went crazy with stamp-sized territories. The large Atlantic and Pacific ocean spaces could perhaps be even larger to make end-game movement around the board easier for sea powers, but those are details that are found out in play. Theme-wise the map is no worse than Youngstown, all told. Making Greenland a SC weirds me out, but perhaps it’s necessary for some sort of play balance.
- Stonehenge is a very themeful 10-player variant. So flavourful, in fact, that I’m willing to overlook the absolutely unplayable map sketch for the purposes of this list. There are no special rules except some meaningless wankery about island provinces. I well might try this if I ever have a couple or three days for completely redrawing the map.
- U.S.A. is one of my favourite 8-player variants. It’s simple, themeful and elegant in execution. Most Diplomacy variant designers are the sort of brain damage cases who fill their maps with easy SCs because gaining builds is “fun”, but here the designer has been brave enough to deal with a globe map in an elegant manner that preserves the dynamics of the Calhamer map. This is not to say that the map is strategically perfect – I might hazard that USA is in a strange position in comparison to the other Powers, as it’s so distant that it needs to approach very carefully or signal its intentions early to get anything done in the old world. A bit like Italy, but worse. Might be good in that this way USA does not mess with the classical opening game. That’s a design issue, though, and not an issue of principle like I have with most of the variants out there. I still need to redraw this map in some manner to scale it with my Calhamer board – and tape some marks on the edges to note where the new spaces should be. And I’d probably add a Sevastopol fleet SC for Russia and make Canada have two coasts while at it, perhaps add an English SC in the Caribbean to increase interaction… the basic idea here is really solid, I’ll probably recommend this if we end up playing an 8-player variant.
- South American Supremacy (for which I have found another map as well, it seems) is an 8-player variant with a very nice, clearly drawn map. Mountains and rivers are dealt with elegantly. Theme is no worse than in the Calhamer board. Brain damage has caused the designer to label the unpassable spaces on the map, but it’s easy to remove the labels (and the danger of related misorders). The ocean is a bit disappointing in that I’d have liked to see long outer sea spaces that’d allow quick movement through the width of the map, but I guess this is intended as a land-based war. All in all, a very strong contender, and eminently usable thanks to the no-nonsense map that is ready to print and play.
- Sengoku (and a perhaps better map) is a Japanese map for 8 players. It strains my variant rules aesthetics by introducing garrisoned neutral SCs, but that particular rule is intuitive enough for me to accept it on a good day. The map itself is nice and clear, and the theme is perhaps better than Calhamer’s – all in all, not many weaknesses at all. If this were drawn to the standards of SAS, above, this might be a favourite.
- Octarine is an 8-player variant set in Diskworld. The map is passably drawn and features only one special movement rule. The greatest weakness of this map, in fact, is the theme: while I’m greatly appreciative of Pratchett’s Diskworld novels myself, the geography of the world and the notion of playing these great Powers doesn’t fill me with much interest. This might be an abstract map as well and I’d care for it equally much. Perhaps the situation were different if there were some novels of high diplomacy and war set in Discworld, or something like that.
- Migraine, a position-symmetric 8-player variant, interests me in relation to my recent musings on Chromatic, a 5-player symmetric variant. The variant features asymmetric position relationships towards each neighbour, like Chromatic, but also has a Klein bottle -shaped map and more space for maneuvers. The map has a particular weakness in that much of the action happens over the board edges instead of the center, which means that the players have to visualize the relationships of the opposite spaces correctly. This could have been fixed by continuing the map a bit outside the current boundaries. But aside from that, top-show, and I even like the syllablic theme.
- Hellas is for 8 players and has an awfully plain map that doesn’t have graphical representations for certain details that are explained in the rules proper. The variant is pure of special rules, though (except some unnecessary fiddling about the Cyclades), and has a pleasing theme from Classical Greek times. I suspect that this will be quite fun after I take it through the ol’ Photoshop.
- Arab Diplomacy, another 8-player variant, has an uncolored but clear map, and a theme that is not much worse than the Calhamer original. This should shape up acceptably with some color. I’m not that interested in the theme, but it is a valid choice.
- Aotearoa is thematically a bit jokish, but the map is clear and seems playable. 8 players with just 2 SCs each at the start. The designer wants the game to start with a winter phase to determine initial force compositions, which is a bit of a cop-out, but what do I know.
- Finally, one of only two 9-player variants in my catch is Indians of the Great Lakes. The theme is relatively bland and ahistorical, but the map is clear and superficially valid. The rules have not been messed with. I suspect that Ojibwe are overpowered and there are some other unhealthy relationships as well, but play will tell.
- And last, my other 9-player catch: 1600 is an European variant with a quite passable theme. The solution of providing arbitrary channels for landlocked states to build ships from is one I disagree with after some thought. It would have been a better choice to assign Prussia, say, as an initially neutral home SC for Poland so they could just conquer that and get the build on. Makes more sense that building the fleet in Warsaw and floating it downriver into the Baltic. This is detail, though, and otherwise the map seems pretty pleasing. Some crazy small territories in Europe, while Russian areas are unnecessarily extended to the east, though.
I wonder what’s up with the dearth of passable 9-player variants? Actually, I wonder what’s up with the dearth of quality variants in general. I’ll have to get back to my variant design efforts at some point just to get some maps usable maps for my personal needs. The above list pretty much includes almost all 8-10 player variants available in the ‘net that I’d be willing to play at all. A relatively sorry state of affairs when there are hundreds upon hundreds of variants out there all told.