Good Game, Good Game!
By Greg Chapman
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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