An NMR in Namur
By Steve Cox
Overseas Diplomacy conventions and the international hobby in general receive little coverage in UK zines apart from an occasional mention in the forthcoming events columns. This must be due in part to the language barrier, and although there are a number of European zines that publish English language editions, these are not the ones that try hardest to reflect the current controversies and preoccupations of the hobbies in their home countries. Consequently, the UK editors who trade with such zines do not often find much to say about them, and what they do say tends to encourage the view that the European hobby is less, ahem, mature than ours, and still concerned with setting up organizational structures in the hope of attracting government subsidies and TV coverage. This is not the British approach, by and large. We aren't so much interested in seeking worldly power or winning universal acclaim as in displaying our knowledge of last year's cricket scores and dissecting the plot of the latest science fiction film - and getting thoroughly rat arsed, of course, as that's what dipsomaniacs do to feel less like trainspotters.
So it's hardly surprising that few of us take the trouble to research the air and rail timetables to foreign convention sites, or to ring around the accommodation numbers in the Rough Guide To Small European Countnes to find somewhere cheap to stay, especially when we can't be sure that we won't find ourselves fighting an unequal battle against a French blood brotherhood at the end of it. That was certainly my excuse up until WorldDipCon V in 1995, which I went to mainly because Paris is so easy to get to, and because a few others had said they were planning to go at the previous MidCon, and I really only went to WDC VI in Columbus as an excuse to extend my trip to Australia and to come back on a round the world ticket instead of an ordinary return. However both of these events demonstrated that there is more to the experience of playing Dip abroad than just facing new opponents with unpredictable attitudes towards game ethics and heretical views about scoring systems, so when Shaun's flyers fluttered onto my doormat promising to take all the hard work out of getting to Namur for EuroDipCon and to Goteborg for WorldDipCon, I signed up with hardly a thought for all the German games that I could have bought for the same £500.
Apart from Shaun himself, six others turned up at Waterloo on Feb 28th to catch the Eurostar to Brussels: Jeremy Tullett, James Hardy, Mark II Wightman, Toby Harris, Gihan Bandaranaike and, somewhat to my surprise, Richard Williams, not best known for his cosmopolitanism.
Several of us had brought games along for the journey, but as we had only been allocated airline style seats, it seemed that some ingenuity would be required even to play anything as simple as 6 Nimmt. However, Shaun managed to get us moved to a carriage with tables, and games of Bakschisch and Grass were soon under way. I don't know what the other passengers made of the commotion in their midst, but the time certainly passed very quickly and I didn't even notice when we emerged from the tunnel into France, until the conductor announced that we were now travelling at 180 rnph. The land is so flat in Northern France and Belgium, though, that it was hard to believe him, so I soon returned to my game of Motor Racing.
Brussels was mainly a large hole in the ground next to the station -perhaps the plan was to bury the rest of the city in it and start again. We were met in the arrivals hall by Bruno Berken, one of the con organizers, who offered to give three of us a lift to Namur, even though our tickets already covered that part of the journey. Thinking to see more of the 'front' of Brussels by car than by train, I took him up on this, along with Richard and James, but the roads had a habit of diving underground at the first sign of interesting architecture, and the rest of the time I had to concentrate on throwing myself from side to side to keep all four of the battered Golf’s wheels on the tarmac as Bruno side-slipped from lane to lane whenever a gap appeared that seemed to be moving faster than the one he was currently in. We fetched up in front of the hotel after a final death defying manoeuvre involving three lanes of traffic, a pelican crossing and one or two expendable pedestrians. The less intrepid members of the party arrived a few minutes later and, after claiming our rooms (mine lacked only a shower curtain and a view) we piled into two taxis and Bruno's VW in the hope of reaching the convention site in time for that evening's round of Dip.
We needn't have worried. Late though we were according to Shaun's information, there was still a considerable wait before the draw was announced (two games of Les Colons De Catan began after we arrived, which ought to have been a clue). This turned out to be a feature of the whole weekend. There was no programme of any sort to tell us what other events were taking place at the con (there was some figure gaming down the corridor, I noticed, but was that it?), or to explain the house rules for the tournament, or even to amuse us with an account of the history of Dip in Belgium, and as for a timetable, finding it out seemed to be regarded as all part of the fun.
What la direction lacked in organization, though, it more than made up for with hardware, and the front of the main room was hidden behind a bank of at least four PC's and two printers, all networked together and connected to the Internet. Upon arriving, we gave our names in at one end of the row and presque immédiatement received a name badge at the other end, freshly printed in full colour with the Union Jack prominently displayed. It even had a space at the bottom for an insert showing which country you were currently playing, and as darkness fell I was at last able to claim the slip for Italy in a game that included ex-World Champion Bruno-Andre Giraudon as France (we'd previously met in Paris and Columbus), ex-French champion Sid Ahmed Sejani as Austria, Toby as Turkey, and an unexplained Canadian as Russia, together with two other French/Belgian players to make up the numbers. The game is best forgotten though, as I mis-ordered early on and allowed Sid into ION. From there, he walked into Tunis, and when Bruno sent a fleet into the Med to support me back in, I forgot to order altogether! Bruno supported me again the following season (!!) but I had clearly blown my chances and only avoided elimination because the games ended in 1907. The Canadian turned out to be a French version thereof, so Toby's hopes of an anglophone Juggernaut came to, er, naught.
Two Belgians gave us a lift back to the hotel. Their driving was more sedate than Bruno's but perhaps that's because mine at any rate took the opportunity to ring his girlfriend, which hampered his sports gear changes. Or maybe he was taking more care because it was the time of night when people have to move their cars from one side of the street to the other.
We ate in a brasserie on the ground floor of the hotel building (Réception au 1er étage), where I ordered 'lardons' and discovered that they are a plateful of the fatty bacon that lard is made from (or am I thinking of dripping?), diced into small pieces and doused in salad dressing. Then it was bedtime.
Breakfast next morning was a help yourself cold buffet, so I crammed in as much as I could manage in case it had to do for lunch as well, which seemed like a distinct possibility as the convention venue was high up on a rocky crag (the Heap of Namur?) in one of the fortresses that the Germans took with parachutists in WWII. Its bastions enclosed a craft studio, some sort of music school, a restaurant, and various other useful buildings, but one was left wondering what its overall function was, and it certainly had no magnetic attraction for the local population on a late February weekend, apart from those with very low gears on their bikes.
The building we were in was a single storey affair (or was it two?) with a central corridor and rather small rooms off to either side. My best guess as to its purpose was a night school doubling as a TA centre cum glorified scout hut, but at least there was no-one to chase us all out at 11.30 or to enforce the fire regulations, and there was even a small bar for those who couldn't hack the pressure.
For my second game I replaced the Italian flag in my badge with the Union Jack and prepared to beat off Bjorn von Knorring's France with the help of Thibault Constans in Austria and four others whom I had never encountered before, including Fleur Lefevre (G), the only girl in the tournament, who is like one imagines James Hardy would have turned out if he'd been Belgian and female. After the first couple of years, I decided that Fleur and the Russian (Richard Bourrelly) must be old friends, as I couldn't get either of them to consider attacking the other even though the moves they were coming up with to kick me out of Scandinavia seemed to require a lot of trust on both sides, and by the time we were all shepherded out into the courtyard to cheer on the local re-enactment society practising their swordsmanship, I felt that I was only going through the motions of pointing out how easy it would be for them to stab each other Russia and Germany, that is, not the guys with the big swords).
Meanwhile, a French armada had massed against me and I was forced to withdraw my Norwegian tentacle to protect myself. During the ensuing struggle, the following situation arose, which readers might find instructive.
The position in Winter was as shown in Fig. 1. I ordered F(NAO) - Lpl, A(Wal) - Lpl, and France ordered F(IRI) S F(MAO) - NAO, F(Lon) -Wal. F(NAO) was dislodged, and since it couldn't retreat to Lpl, which had been the scene of a stand-off, I parked it in Cly.
The position in Summer was thus as shown in Fig.2. Now all I had to do to make sure that Lpl remained mine was to order F(Cly) S A(Wal) - Lpl.
But suppose F(NAO) had been able to retreat to Lpl and had done so, which is what I (and most others?) would have done with it. The position would then have been as in Fig.3, and there would have been nothing I could do to prevent Lpl from falling that year!
At about the time of this lucky break, Fleur finally made a move against Russia, who had suddenly jumped to 8 centres, and she turned out to be a good ally from then on. However Bjorn continued to knorr away at my home centres, and with T/R/F on 10/9/9 at the end, there wasn't room for me on the board and I was eliminated. It would have been 9/9/9, but the Italian Benoit Ruelle) supported the Turk (Olivier Robbe) into one of his own centres in the final season, improving the latter's score from 30 to 49 (an increase greater than my score for the entire tournament). However, this was possibly because he thought that Turkey was going to lose a centre somewhere else, or that R or F would gain one, in which case the tactic was worthwhile in order to minimise the leaders' points. With all games curtailed in 1907 and a large premium on finishing in first place, such behaviour was not uncommon, and the final year usually witnessed a sort of organized free for all, with the no hopers eager to give their last remaining centres to those in 2nd or 3rd place if this would produce a tied result, and the leaders desperate to grab that one extra centre that would elevate them to the top of the pile.
There was now an opportunity to get a late lunch from the bar, the food being prepared to order by non-combatant volunteers, which told of feats of behind the scenes organization that were otherwise apparent only in the production line for the badges, and after a decent interval for digestion, the next draw was announced. I found myself playing Austria with Mark as Turkey and Cyrille Sevin - unknown to me but rated highly by Gihan - as Russia.
Now, I have a blind spot when it comes to playing Austria. I can't think of a single reason why Italy shouldn't attack me from the start in a short game (Lepantos are too time consuming and Italy's price for them is invariably Greece, which leaves me on 4 centres with little prospect of another once R and T see what's happening), Russia rarely goes north and then only for reasons of his own that have more to do with his opinion of the other players in that part of the board than any strategic considerations that I might point out to him, whilst Turkey can't possibly believe that an alliance with Austria is anything but a short term expedient. Short term expedients are all that are needed in a seven year game though, so I had little hesitation in announcing to Mark that I was prepared to make an alliance carved in stone with him, and to sign it in blood, with the object of achieving a 17-17 draw, or at the very least of taking home a best country award for one of us. I reminded him that as representatives of our country it was our duty to do whatever might be needed to rescue the reputation of British Diplomacy from the doldrums into which it had sunk in the previous two rounds (mine were not the only disappointing results, it turned out), lest future generations should teach their children to despise us, saying “They it was, by their selfish quest for personal glory, who first brought shame on our great Hobby, and in Belgium, of all places.”. It seemed that Mark had been on the receiving end of such tactics in at least one of his earlier games so a deal was quickly struck and we set to work at once.
That was our first mistake. Even an unbreakable alliance still has only 6 units against 16 at the start and so must conduct its operations with some attempt at concealment, at least until it becomes clear who are the most dangerous of its opponents, and which ones can safely be left to take each other apart unaided. Instead we both launched straight into attacks on our neighbours with a reckless disregard for our back doors that must have been immediately suspicious.
Our second mistake was to choose for our experiment a game in which Cyrille Sevin was playing, along with three of his countrymen (the fourth player was a Swede in England). Cyrille was the French champion (is, in fact - I don't suppose this report will appear that late) and was destined to win both EuroDipCon and World DipCon. Unlike the top British players, who tend to be lying tobygihans ready to pounce at the slightest hint of a centre left trustingly ajar, Cyrille's philosophy seems to be that if only he can succeed in helping his allies to prosper then he is bound to pick up a few centres himself as well, and all he asks is that you accept the supports he offers. I suspect he says the same to all his neighbours, but he always makes it seem that you are the one he really wants to work with, and no matter how much you attack him, even if your attacks are successful, he never gives up on you but keeps coming back full of strategic insights and sound tactical suggestions, often before you've had a chance to write down your units, let alone study the position. These characteristics make it very difficult to ally against him and Cyrille's benign persistence, always good humoured despite the evidence that Mark and I were not playing for a solo win, would undoubtedly have led to the breakdown of our pact if Cyrille had not also succeeded in uniting the four Frenchmen against us. This made our personal doubts about the ethics of our alliance secondary to the clear necessity for us to stick together in order to survive. Cyrille was gallant enough (or diplomatic enough?) to complement us on our defence, although two players must always have an advantage against four when it comes to co-ordinating their orders, and I was too annoyed by my failure to take Venice on a couple of occasions when its support was seconded to other duties, to consider whether it was superior skill or just luck that had enabled us to foil our opponents' plans. By the end it was clear that our expansion had been halted and it only remained for me to persuade Mark to occupy as many of my centres as he could in case it was enough to win him the best Turkey award, which it was.
I don't think either of us will be playing this way again, at least, not without remaining committed to a solo win, but the experience has taught me something about where to poke my diplomatic crowbar next time I come up against two players in an unholy pact.
With the centre chart signed off, aimlessness began to take hold of the British contingent but, after a few minutes playing the timetable game, we discovered that some sort of meeting was due to take place some time before midnight to discuss the venue for EuroDipCon '98. However, as Shaun and James were volunteering to attend this and the others were engrossed in trying to find out how much Jupiler the bar had left (it was so cheap you'd have been a fool not to drink it), Richard, Jeremy and I decided to leave them to it and headed back to town. It was pitch dark outside, so a flight of crumbling and slippery steps at the edge of the precipice seemed like the quickest way down for us goats, and once across the bridge at the bottom we headed away from the bright lights and into some dimly lit back alleys to minimise our chances of finding anywhere to eat, ending up as the last customers in the Italian restaurant that occupied the other half of the ground floor of our hotel building.
The following morning we retraced our steps to the top of the mountain, gazing intently at the view whenever we paused in case anyone should think we were only getting our breath back, but failing even so to detect any part of Namur that might be taken for its centre. The town lacks any parks or large squares, none of the churches is imposing enough to act as a pointer, the streets peter out before they've got going, and you'd hardly know there was a river unless you fell in it, but if you ever feel the urge to tune in to Belgium without being surrounded by hordes of tourists or eurocrats, Namur could well be the place to do it.
After three rounds, the table assignment algorithm was clearly feeling the strain, as it gave all four Mediterranean powers on Board 2 to British players (or perhaps it was just that the PC operatives had progressed to such a high level in their multiplayer quest for the Pentacle of the Black Wizard that there wasn't enough spare processor time to try all the permutations). I ruled m France, James was the Duce, Shaun sat in majesty over Austria-Hungary, and Gihan skulked in Turkey. I was reasonably confident that James wouldn't attack me at the start, before he saw whether the outnumbered northerners were going to clump together, so I concentrated on trying to ally with one of E/G against the other. Bruno Berken, our Kaiser, expressed the greater interest in making an aggressive start, and not only did he observe the DMZ that we agreed in Bur, but soon his units were streaming east against the hapless Russian (Thomas Sebeyran).
I was so pleased to have found a trusting ally at last that it didn't occur to me that perhaps Bruno knew as well as I did that France is unlikely to make rapid progress against England in a straight fight, and that this might be why he was happy to give me free reign to try. Instead I thought I might be able to catch my opponent, Thomas Larsson, on the hop with some unorthodox moves, beginning with F(MAO) - NAO in place of the more usual F(MAO) - IRI. The idea behind this was to occupy Clyde the following season, thereby tying up two English units defending Edi and Lpl, but I forgot that I wouldn't be able to support my new F(Bre) to ENC from NAO, and this made life more difficult for me than my F(Cly) made it for England. Thomas also seemed to be able to outguess me every season, and when Bruno supported him to Nwy, claiming that this was only a temporary arrangement to weaken Russia, I began to smell a rather elderly rat.
Without telling anyone, I therefore instructed the bulk of my units to turn against Germany, calculating that I could take enough centres off him that year to ensure that my attack did not bog down, whilst still having one or two units spare to fend off the Englishman if he should prove ungrateful for being left in peace. However, Bruno must have got wind of my intentions (perhaps it was my furrowed brow and perfunctory diplomacy as I struggled with the details of my plan), and when the orders were read out, a black cloud of units suddenly descended across my front so that, far from making any gains, I was in serious danger of losing ground. Needless to say, the others found it all highly amusing, especially as they hadn't been able to stick to any alliances of their own for so much as two seasons together.
After that, it was downhill all the way, but the time remaining was too short for the massed ranks of my enemies to eliminate me and the three centres that I clung on to earned me a whole 4 points -my best result of the weekend, unless you count that game of Bakschisch on the train.
At this point, you'd expect quantities of 6 Nimmt, Ave Caesar and Perudo to appear but European Dip players seem to shun such trivia and they preferred to hang around on tenterhooks waiting for the results, which fortunately weren't too long appearing although I don't have the details. In the meantime we discovered that a banquet was planned for after the ceremony, to use up the remaining food, mainly Brussels sprouts (forgot to ask if that's what the Belgians call them) and chips. James accuses me of being unenthusiastic about this, but that is simply because I was afraid it might turn into a bun fight with no clear indication at the end of it who had won. This didn't happen though, despite the copious supplies of Jupiler dispensed by Gihan, and even the exchange of business cards was conducted, by those who had them, in a civilized fashion.
By the time the beer ran out, we had received directions to a bar in the town where most of the visitors planned to meet up later. I've no idea what the others did in between leaving the convention building and turning up at the bar, but the Brits were the first to arrive despite being on foot and having some difficulty finding the place due to the absence of Sunday night revellers heading in that direction. The bar was in some sort of converted turn of the century shopping arcade, with no windows and a gallery running round the upper floor that must have made it rather hazardous to be sitting on the ground floor during beer festivals, which is what the place seemed to be most suitable for. As soon as the staff realized the threat we posed to their passing trade, they moved us away from the door to a dingy alcove upstairs, but as it was clear that we weren't going to learn anything about how the Namurois like to spend their Sunday evenings from this vantage point, and as there was little chance of being witnesses to any climactic developments in the struggle for supremacy between the two factions of the French hobby since only one side's representatives had turned up, I and a few other sourpusses decided to call it a night as we had a fairly early start in the morning.
Our hotel was right opposite the station so we did not have to worry about missing our train, even when Gihan discovered that he had forgotten his passport. Our official Eurostar seats again had no tables but we found plenty of spares in another carriage and settled down for a game of Gunboat using one of the French sets of Diplomatie that some of our party had managed to beg or buy from the con organizers (Richard bowed out, having been laid low by culture shock after his first trip abroad for many years). I suggested that we played until someone was knocked out rather than setting a finish date, and this was agreed. My hope was that a player who was about to go out might find that his attackers were unwilling to finish him off if this would give the game to someone else, leading to some interesting tactics. With this in mind, and having drawn Italy, I embarked on a lone invasion of Toby's Germany, since I knew that I wouldn't be allowed to end up with the most centres if I joined Russia and Turkey in attacking Austria. Unfortunately, although my attack was quite successful, it was not cost effective and I never had spare builds with which to prepare myself for the inevitable French expedition into the Med. What's more, Germany ended up as the country most likely to be eliminated, and I was the one who had to give up my builds to keep him alive! The result was that James' France prospered and he was eventually able to eliminate the last German unit to win the game.
I now totted up the points in our Victor Ludorum competition (1 point for a win, shared in a draw; nothing for anyone else; score = points/games played) and discovered that Mark and Jeremy were tied, so we squeezed in one last game of 6 Nimmt, which Jeremy won to take the title. Since we'd only managed a pitiful 9 games other than regular Dip, though, I don't think the result proved anything except that one shouldn't travel abroad to DipCons expecting to play lots of new games. Perhaps we can teach these foreigners a thing or two about expanding their horizons when they all turn up with their sleeping bags in Bedford next year?