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My Favorite Game

This was originally published The Gamer, an intelligent but, alas, now defunct gaming magazine. Scott Haring, its editor, asked each of his contributing editors to write a brief article on his favorite game. This is mine.

"What is your favorite game, sir?"

Please, the question is not one that can be asked in absentia. It implies a congeries of others.

Foremost among these is: What is it that drew you to gaming?

Each of us, I suspect, has a different answer. My actor friends who find in roleplaying an enjoyable form of their professional obsession have one answer; those whose main reading consists of Marvel Comics and who entered the field through TSR's advertisements in same undoubtedly have quite a different one.

How did I enter the field?

Well, there was the copy of Gettysburg given me by an aunt at a sensitive age; and there was Roger Low, a childhood friend, now an arbitrageur, who tried to interest me in Afrika Korps when Stocks & Bonds began to pale; but the proximate cause, I think, was a series of advertisements in entirely reputable places -- New York Review of Books, Smithsonian, Saturday Review -- for "Strategy & Tactics, the paper time machine."

And there were those terrible Avalon Hill catalogs, filled with the most idiotic alliterations, that nonetheless made clear that these games were not for dummies.

I was attracted to the field that we must now, in accordance with the noxious resolution adopted by the Game Manufacturers Association, term "adventure gaming," by the notion that it was for intellectuals. As indeed, for some brief shining moment, it was -- before it became a way to experience adolescent power fantasies in a more immediate form than the written word.

Hard as it now is to believe, it is nonetheless true: adventure games (excuse me, wargames) were sophisticated simulations devised for the enjoyment of an intellectual elite. Nowadays, of course, adventure games (excuse me, RPGs) are just another means of exposure to the same infantile licenses that you experience through comics, novelizations, Saturday-morning cartoons, movies, lunch boxes, action figures, and God (or the gods) know what all. And any game that is not available in these other media is merely one that has failed to find a niche as a marketing category.

Are we getting off the subject here?

Not at all. The finest game of the 20th century, bar none, is Allen Calhammer's Diplomacy. A game for intellectuals, to be sure.

For the feeble witted among you, I belabor the point that I am not mentioning its publishers. You can find the damned game in any decently-stocked games outlet in the English-speaking world, published by different companies depending on whether you happen to reside in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom. Regardless of where you reside, the designer remains the same. Perhaps this ought to kindle the notion within you that the designer has something to do with the game's intrinsic merits, while the publisher is entirely accidental; perhaps, but I am confident that it will not. Similar evidence has had no noticeable affect on the behavior of game purchasers in the past.

Now, perhaps, I am getting off the point. Calhammer's Diplomacy: the finest game of this century.

How can one make this assertion?

Consider. Most games are for two players; a few are multi-player. But Diplomacyis the first multi-player game to encourage diplomacy.

What do I mean by that? Consider Pacheesi, published under various variants of that name by various publishers, the product of folk designers working over a period of time in pre-Christian India. You roll the dice, you move up the track. There are up to four players, and any may win, but what of that? You may neither assist nor injure another player. It is multiplayer, but not diplomatic.

In Diplomacy, success depends on -- well, on Diplomacy. Each of seven players contends; you cannot possibly master any of your opponents without the aid of at least one other opponent. Moves are simultaneous, players may support each others' moves, and hence conversation, agreements -- diplomacy, if you will -- are not only useful, but vital.

It is the first game, to my knowledge, that incorporates such a concept.

Many games, to be sure, innovate in some fashion; but few innovators can be termed superb games more than thirty years after their publication -- let alone, centuries after publication, as I expect Diplomacy will be. What more is there to Diplomacy?

Consider first the Chess-like nature of the game. The rules of resolution are quite simple, the strategies they produce complex. This compares favorably to typical wargames, which have complex rules but simple strategies. (The typical strategic World War II game, for instance, admits of only two strategies for the Axis player: 'defeat Russia first,' or 'defeat England first.' The typical Chess game, by contrast, permits innumerable approaches. The World War II game is more complex in rules terms, but the Chess game is more complex strategically.)

Diplomacy is, however, strategically simple by comparison to classic games like Chess and Go. Opening moves have already, thirty some years from publication, been exhaustively categorized. Yet that alone is insufficient; the true complexity of the game lies in the relationships among its players, and those are ever-changing.

One may be a superb Diplomacy tactician, and fail at every game. Indeed, the author admits to failings along this line; he knows the tactics of the game quite well, but has never placed above the middle rank in Diplomacy tournaments or ratings. To succeed at Diplomacy, you must be a master -- diplomat.

What does that mean? It means the sort of socialization that allows one to persuade chance acquaintances to do one's will. Success at Diplomacy requires precisely the same skills one needs to succeed as a salesman, a diplomat, a politician. The Diplomacy player who fails, in fact, may learn even through his failure -- may learn that this kind of occupation, these sorts of skills, are not for him.

(I am minded of the time I returned from a DipCon in the company of Edi Birsan, who had swept the tournament there. In Ohio, we were stopped for speeding. Birsan left the vehicle, went down the road to talk with the cops, and returned a few minutes later -- sans ticket. Me, I have difficulty checking into a hotel without getting into an argument with the clerk. Birsan: diplomat. Costikyan: putz. Understand? Brains aren't the issue; negotiation skills are.)

There are those who will criticize the game for being unbalanced. "Italy," they will say, "wins less often that Russia."

Bah. This is an artifact of your gaming group. The four centers Russia begins with do not outweigh the disadvantage of its large provinces (and the consequent ease with which they may be attacked), nor its strategically problematic need to face both the Atlantic and Mediterranean powers. But even if we make the criticism more sophisticated, and say, "Inner powers like Germany and Austria win less often than corner powers like Turkey and England," the criticism fails.

For the relative strength of one position or another is entirely irrelevant in a diplomatic game. If Power A is perceived as strong, powers B through H are more likely to combine against it. The intrinsics of any diplomatic game conspire to create a balance.

Is Diplomacy without flaw? It is not. First, the Avalon Hill edition, the sole edition available to most American players, is appalling. Its board is garish, its plastic pieces unsatisfactory, and its rules quite impenetrable. The rules are common to all Anglophone nations, but those who may purchase the Canadian edition, with its elegant Rand-MacNally map and its wooden pieces, are well advised to do so.

Second, exposure to many variants leads one to believe that the provincial supply center/non-supply center ratio is too high. Too many games end in stalemate, something that a "looser" province ratio would prevent. Still, standard Diplomacy is so well entrenched that a change to the basic board to rectify this problem would only be adopted if it were sponsored by Calhammer himself, an unlikely eventuality.

And third, of course, the rules have well-known holes -- the fleet paradoxes, including the one pointed out by Panshin. These, to be sure, are rarely encountered, and easily resolved by any reasonable gamemaster in any event.

Still, on the whole -- where can one find a game incorporating the strategic complexity of Chess and Go; the intellectual interest of the wargame; the clash of personalities inherent in roleplaying; the requirement to deal with difficult opponents as fellow humans...? One might go on and one.

There is nothing to compare. Diplomacy is sui generis.

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Copyright © 1985 by Greg Costikyan.