Good Game, Good Game!

By Greg Chapman

So you subscribe to a postal Diplomacy zine.  Clearly you like postal Diplomacy and probably you are one of those who feel that it is the only game worth playing by post.  What other game, I hear you say, requires no change in the published rules (well, almost none) in order to play it postally?  What other game restricts the luck element only to determining the starting positions?  What other game allows such possibilities for player interaction and negotiation?  I did not join a postal games hobby, I hear you exclaim, I joined a postal Diplomacy hobby.  All other games are like dwarfs beside the giant of Diplomacy.  But let me ask you this, what is it that makes you think all this is true?  How can you so totally disregard other postal games? 

Let's look at the idea of simultaneous movement.  Now I can't deny that Diplomacy's innovative feature was simultaneous movement, in the same way that the innovative feature of Monopoly was that of player ownership of parts of the board.  But why is this important?  Ease and simplicity of postal play need not be your answer, for you can change the rules of any game to suit the manner in which you are going to play it, postally or face to face.  If you object to changing the rules of original games then clearly you have never played rugby or lawn tennis, as both these games have changed quite radically over the years.  Nor do you play chess as rule development in that game has been almost continuous, nor of course, do you play any of the many Diplomacy variants on offer in Diplomacy games.  Again I hear you complaining that by changing the rules you are changing the character of the game - but are you not changing the character of the game simply by playing it by post?  Postal play takes away the face to face pressure of making decisions within a few minutes of being presented with the situation.  It takes away the pressure of interruptions in negotiations by other players and by extraneous events, like your baby crying, you kid brother/sister wanting to come and join in, or your parent/partner telling you not to forget that you've got to get up early tomorrow morning.  It replaces this pressure with time to think, with time to really consider what you would be doing if you were your ally, time to phrase your negotiations properly, time to consider what to say and what not to say, and most of all, time to avoid making gross tactical errors.  Surely it is a vital and almost necessary part of playing a game that it should put pressure on you.  A game that fails to stimulate is one that is quickly forgotten.  Many games use this face to face pressure as a vital ingredient.  Mastermind is a classic example.  Without pressure of time limits any standard code (ie. four colours, doubles but not blanks allowed) can be solved in five attempts, meaning how lucky you are in your first couple of choices determines the winner.  So no one would dream of playing Mastermind by post, would they?  But they do, and it changes the game fundamentally, and similarly no one could sensibly argue that the game of Diplomacy is not significantly changed by playing it by post.  Well, those that do usually only do so to argue that it is actually improved by postal play - but they would wouldn't they? 

There is no luck in Diplomacy though.  It is all up to the skill of the individual player.  So what?  The argument usually used by wargamers seems to be flawless to me.  The dice are thrown so often by each side in the course of a wargame, that luck is going to apply equally to all players and the underlying skill of an individual player will show consistently over a number of games.  In any event, I would challenge the notion that chance plays no part in success in Diplomacy anyway.  Can anyone seriously deny that luck often determines the outcomes of conflict in Diplomacy?  Of course you have full control over your own units, but chances can determine how you use them, in the shape of a letter being late in the post or simply a 50-50 guess as to which attack or defence will work.  No player, no matter how exalted his reputation, can avoid guesswork in a game of Diplomacy. 

But then do not forget the vast scope for player interaction.  Surely, it is this which sets the game apart from others.  That may have been true twenty years ago in the field of popular games, but surely Diplomacy is not alone in offering this feature nowadays.  It seems as if no month goes by without someone publishing a game that requires player interaction to lead to a conclusion, eliminating the weak players before doing it all over again.  Player interaction has been brought into its own by role playing games, not by Diplomacy.  Negotiations take place in Diplomacy because it is ordered so in the rules, necessarily so because the game would be almost interminable in its absence.  Why do people get so excited about player interaction?  Perhaps I should get excited about Snakes and Ladders because the rules say a dice must be used.  After all both games are fairly unplayable without these respective features. 

Oh yes, I am sure we can go on to look at the other arguments so often put forward as to why Diplomacy is such a good game, but that is really not the point.  To me there is such variety of games that offer so many differing challenges that I would not wish to get over-involved in one, no matter how good it is.  I dislike the way in which Diplomacy is still held up so high in the postal games press.  It is a good game.  I do not deny it, but I dislike that attitude that seems to me so similar to that of Chess club members, who seem to feel that any other game but Chess is really no game at all. 

After looking at Diplomacy let's take a look at some other games and people's attitudes towards them.  One of the things that always amuses me is the way in which many games players seem to only look at the dressing of a game and not at the basis of the game's mechanics that allows it to work.  Probably chief among culprits are wargamers who always seem to build up huge collections of games with very similar mechanics - hex covered maps, scores of counters with movement and fighting allowances and strengths printed on them, a dice, and a combat resolution table.  I don't criticise them for this though, as they are not games players, at least not in the sense that I mean it, for their main objective is to create a history that might have been and if those particular sets of rules and rule systems do that well, then it achieves their object. 

I would criticise a games player who only collected games with a military theme.  Risk, Diplomacy and Campaign, for instance, all have a military theme; but if you are a games collector there is nothing much similar between them, and if you are a military collector there is nothing much to do with war behind them.  Risk's main features are its use of several dice and dice paring to determine control of areas on an asymmetric board.  Diplomacy, as you all know,  keeps the asymmetric board but incorporates simultaneous movement and uses no dice.  Campaign actually uses dice to introduce random movement, but not for combat resolution and is played on a board which is essentially a square grid. 

To me the question of theme is somewhat irrelevant if the object is merely to find some system that makes a game worth playing.  Now as to what constitutes a "game worth playing" is rather a big question.  It depends on so many factors and the way you approach them.  I used to have a number of older relatives who would spend evening after evening playing cards, and only cards.  At that time my collection of games consisted only of Monopoly, Buccaneers and Careers, and there seemed no way that I could convince them that any of these games were worth playing.  Now I know that some of you would say that you sympathise with my relatives - what terrible games!  However, I am convinced that their objection was really to the presentation of the game, not to the games themselves.  Let me explain further. 

One of their favourite games was Rummy.  Now I know that there are hundreds of variations, but their favourite included small stakes, options of buying an exposed card on the discard pile with the usual object of scoring three of a kind.  Now it's that "three of a kind" that ought to set bells ringing in your memory.  Monopoly.  You don't believe that there is much similarity?  Well, let's look a little closer.  The first and most obvious difference is the board - but what is it's function?  Basically it is to determine an order in which title deeds are delivered into play and made available for purchase by the players.  The dice's part in this is to ensure that this happens randomly.  I admit that the board is laid out so as to put low value property into pay first, but players travel round the board so many times in an average game, that this function is unimportant.  Even after the opening stage of the game when most properties are owned by players, the board's function as property deed shuffler remains.  Or to put it another way, with two sets of title deeds you can throw away the board and dice, as you only need to insert a few extra cards in one pack to represent jail, free parking and chance spaces.  The purpose of the game remains the same - to collect colour sets and invest in them to increase their value.  By this time the game is starting to look a little more like Rummy, whose aim is also to collect sets.  Now if I had suggested to my relatives that we should have complicated their game by introducing a second pack of cards which are turned over one at a time and that the duplicates of these cards can then be removed from the second pack on payment of a small sum (its value increasing with the pip score on the card) and that if you collect four of a kind you can collect a charge from any of the other players who turn over one of your cards from the first pack, I'm sure they would have loved the game, especially after I'd suggested that they might trade their cards between themselves at whatever prices they liked. 

If they said it was too complicated then I might have suggested removing one suit from the second pack, making only three of a kind to collect, but leaving that suit in the first pack and thereby allowing "free" cards which could not be bought.  I could have pointed out that the game could get rather expensive and therefore it would be a good idea to restrict everyone to the same amount of money to start with, a player being eliminated when his cash ran out.  I'm sure they would have loved it, but it takes no genius to see that we are really playing Monopoly in all but name - true, it has a slightly different board size and no chance cards, but that could soon be fixed.  Yes, it is only the dressing that puts people off games. 

Now I am not denying that much of the joy of playing a good game can be in the equipment that you play it with.  Perhaps not many people knew it as a pencil and paper game, but Mastermind's success shows what the effect is of having a well-designed and functional board with good playing pieces.  But this is a postal hobby and players do not sit round a table where it is an advantage to have something pretty to look at to help visualise your position in the game.  I am sure that many players do not bother to set out a board every month to help them work out their moves.  I keep a file with all my correspondence for each game, along with a diagrammatic representation of the board and it is by constructing these diagrammatic representations that makes me think about what we are really doing.  I've already described the Monopoly board, but there are many others with a simple track around the edge which are basically numerical games, as are all card and domino games.  Has anyone considered "card ludo" as a possibility, and is there really any truth in the notion that "map"type boards offer greater scope for analysis and indeed options for movement, than "track" boards? 

There is the argument that too great a choice of moves makes a game incapable of analysis in ordinary play and hence reduces the game to one of luck, or simply prolongs the game by turning it into a linked series of small games.  I have certainly heard this said of Reversi and Pasta and I gather that any extension of the Go board beyond 19 ? 19 lines will substantially reduce the element of skill in the game.  Postal play does have the advantage of greater time for analysis of moves and play, but is this really an advantage?  Won't this mean that a good player will usually win and so introduce boredom, reluctance to play and eventually desertion by those not so gifted? 

Diplomacy does have an advantage here because of the asymmetric board.  It means that different countries must employ different tactics and strategies, hence players may be strong in one type of play while being weak in another.  Many postal games players showed an interest in Kingmaker because of its wide scope for making alliances throughout play and the wide variety of strategies that have to be employed depending on different combinations of nobles, titles and offices.  However, it seems to me that the number of possible of combinations is so wide and random as to make a good analysis of the game impossible. 

I feel I have rambled rather in this examination of what makes a good game and I hope it has made some of you think a little more about the variety of games that you play.  Surely Diplomacy and Diplomacy variants cannot be enough, as by definition they mainly use the same mechanics and do not significantly later the techniques required to play them.  A good player in one should be a good player in all.  I think that postal games should be expanded beyond Diplomacy and the increased number of games offered may in turn mean an increased number of players who might eventually get involved in Diplomacy through other games.  That would benefit all - except those who revel in their rather eccentric, cliquey image. 

This article originally appeared in two parts, part 1 in Pigmy 32 and part 2 in Here We Go Again 2 (both in 1980). Here it is reprinted from Spring Offensive 8


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