Diplomacy World Interview
Jim Burgess Discusses Hobby History with Edi Birsan
From Diplomacy World #85
This is the first interview in a series that we expect will appear in each issue of the new Diplomacy World. I decided to begin with Edi Birsan for a number of reasons: (1) He is one of a few people fully active in the hobby from its beginnings in the mid-1960’s to date; (2) He also is active not just in the postal world, but more importantly the wider Web based hobby of today; and (3) He has been actively involved with Hasbro in its takeover of the copyright for the game. He also is one of the hobby’s very best Diplomacy players, but as Edi says himself, he has written extensively on tactics before, especially in Diplomacy World. Thus, we will only lightly touch on the play of the Game in this interview itself, though we will catalog Edi’s achievements in the background. Others who would like to be interviewed in future issues should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be attempting to alternate interviewing US hobby figures and non-US people.
Background: Edi Birsan's first period of fame in the Diplomacy hobby was as a player in the mid sixties when he was considered the first juvenile delinquent in the hobby and then increased his skill and reputation throughout the sixties by becoming the first person to win postal games with all 7 countries. With his victory in the first champions game --71BC in Diplomacy World's precursor, Hoosier Archives --he was recognized as the postal hobby's first world champion. He would eventually be a perennial invitee into Diplomacy World's invitational games, finally winning the first and only Diplomacy World Trophy for his second win. He also has a string of draws in the invitational games as well as a few eliminations. The Diplomacy World archives of all back issues will soon be part of the Diplomacy World web page we are putting together, so these historic demo games can be studied by everyone.
As a player he is probably best known for the Lepanto Opening, the most widely known of the named openings which were published in the early 70's, but Edi first used it in FTF play in NY in 1966. He was also the author of several other opening articles including the more current revival of the Sea Lion opening for France and Germany against England. He pioneered writing up articles on the play of the Game and popularized tactical discussions in a hobby that in the sixties was mostly involved in press releases and story development.
Through the early 1970's he ran two major zines (Arena for 60 issues and Dune for 83 issues from 1972 to 1975) and was heavily involved in the IDA (International Diplomacy Association) as its first and most successful President --leading the charge in the publishing of the 1975 IDA Handbooks for Players and GMs. He also was on the organizing committee for the 1976 DipCon IX in Baltimore, running that tournament with Mike Rocamora. To this day it is the largest tournament ever held in North America with 29 boards played on the first round. Edi writes more about this and early DipCon’s in another article elsewhere in this issue. At the time living near New York City, he also was a major organizer of local FTF events. Not only that, but he also was the inventor of the International Subscription Exchange with Dave Johnson in the UK and the first USA representative (a position I now hold) from 1974 to 1976.
After moving to Europe in the late 1970's, Edi went into semi-retirement. The IDA faded away under subsequent leaders. He concentrated his play in the yearly DipCon tournaments after returning to the States in 1980 and being hounded by Larry Peery to get back to the hobby in some form. He still played in a few postal games here and there, but recently, after I invited him to play in the Demo Game Ghodstoo, his postal/email Diplomacy hobby involvement has grown tremendously and he was a major liaison with Hasbro (the current holder of the Diplomacy game copyright) and organized the Diplomatic Corps which is currently one of the hobby's major international organizations with a comprehensive web site www.DiplomaticCorps.org.
Now to the interview, my questions are headed by my initials (JB) and his answers with his (EB):
JB: I’d like ask you about your many transitions in hobby involvements, as well as your view of the future. But first, I don't want to dwell too long on the past, yet a few questions about the 1970's may be helpful as background. Much of this is before my active involvement in the hobby too. First, tell us about your two major szines, Arena and Dune. What were they like?
EB: First they are `zines. Where this `s' came from I have no idea.
JB: I suspect I might continually throw people off with my peculiar spelling, so I don’t get asked this every time, we’ll call them zines. OK, what about your zines?
EB: The Arena was a zine which had the bulk of the zine devoted to articles on play of the game and my own egotistical blah. The Dune was a subszine of sorts where I used to run abandoned games from others and to move games from The Arena to it once the decision was made to close The Arena down. The zine was run on ditto paper and had a circulation of 100 which was quite large back then. Amongst the other things I did in The Arena was to keep a detailed running breakdown of the cost of the zine so that new publishers would know what they were getting into. These were the days before spell checkers and the like so that the written quality was not up to the editorial quality of today's zines but, the content was pretty good. Currently an entire set of The Arena is in the Swedish Archives of Fandom, having been requested by Leif Bergman.
JB: If you were young today (the same age as you were when you ran Arena and Dune), do you think you would still try to run something in a similar way, what changes would there be?
EB: No way would I run a hobby magazine with GM gaming. I was trying to fill a need in myself and the hobby at the time for a regular tri-weekly zine which discussed the hobby and the game. Now I would be a regular writer and contributor to one of the web sites and be a much better writer for it.
JB: People reading this interview probably have wildly varying degrees of knowledge about the IDA. As someone at the periphery of the hobby at that time and having heard all of the "stories", what I would like to ask you is to reflect on the lessons of the IDA for the hobby today. The Diplomacy Hobby is more "international" now than it has ever been and we would like to make Diplomacy World truly an international flagship szine (sorry, zine) for the hobby. What is your current view of the future of international hobby organizations, illuminated by your IDA experience?
EB: In 1972 there was an effort to form a hobby group called The Diplomacy Association. The effort was spearheaded by John Boardman, John Beshara and myself. Shortly after starting, a major feud broke out and there were unacceptable policies in the TDA in the formation level. I then joined with Larry Peery, Len Lakofka, Doug Beyerlein, John Boyer and others to form the IDA and this was one of the major political issues of DipCon V in Chicago, 1972. I was very much then, and am now, an Internationalist when it comes to the hobby. I see it as one hobby with different regions and supporting cultures.
JB: I completely agree with you, and this is a major factor in the way we are planning to approach the new Diplomacy World. We also plan to avoid feuding at all costs.
EB: I saw a reason to be for the organization and put a lot of energy into getting it going. For the last several years I have been making the rounds of the International events in Europe and North America and with Hasbro going for a revival of Diplomacy I decided to make another mass effort last summer to see if I could get the Europeans on board. This was accomplished and the Diplomatic Corps was launched last August to create a hobby wide organization to provide services as needed throughout the hobby. One of the failings of the old IDA was that it became too wedded to the politics and the egos of the time, including my own. When I pulled back my activities because of a combination of burnout and moving to Europe, the remaining leaders were not able to keep it going. What I hope to be leading in the Diplomatic Corps now is to get through the minefield of egos and feuds to create a world wide leadership composed of regional organizations and supported by a membership with a focus on doing things that matter in a non exclusive, non-competitive manner. In this regard I am very happy with the acceptance and the direction of the Diplomatic Corps and its support from organizations in Australia, Europe and North America.
JB: The new Diplomacy World fits right into this vision of non-competitive non-exclusivity on a worldwide scale. At some point after you drifted to the sidelines in the Diplomacy hobby, you became heavily involved in the professional gaming which has evolved into your current position at Midnight Games. Would you compare and contrast Diplomacy as a game with the professional games you also work on? Historically there has been a great deal of cross fertilization between the two hobbies.
EB: I have always been a gamer. As such paying for a good game was never an obstacle either emotionally and luckily financially. As my father always said: concentrate your vices. I fooled around with Star Web and Moebius in the 80’s and then through another player found out about Legends, a fantasy game system run by Midnight Games out of Oregon. I started to play and loved it. I designed a module for the company and invested in the company. Due to a string of bizarre and rather costly financial decisions I wound up owning Midnight Games and have developed the game system substantially along with new modules since 1992. Diplomacy has always had a semi `free' support from Gamesmasters. I say semi free because the postal hobby was built on paying customers....a shocking concept to nearly all Email players these days. However, in the golden age of the postal hobby people paid a subscription or a game fee to play in the games. This money was used to offset the cost of paper and production as well as postage, the most expensive item for a publisher. Email play started and players on the various Nets got use to playing for free. Because of the total lack of financial support the hobby has remained an amateur effort. One of the problems the hobby has is the financial support of itself. It operates in an economic model that does not inspire investment and advancement from an outside source. For example, I doubt that more than 15% of the email players will buy the Hasbro FTF or computer set partly because they see no reason for it. Yet, if Hasbro has bad sales, the likelihood of a second variant production is nil.
JB: This may be editorial hubris (and please correct me if it is), but my perception has been that inviting you to play in the ghodstoo game with the likes of Mark Fassio, Hohn Cho, Jamie Dreier, Cal White, John Barkdull, and Pitt Crandlemire played a major role in bringing you back into the Diplomacy hobby. Would you comment on that transition?
EB: My re-entry into the hobby is really to the credit or fault of Larry Peery who constantly kept sending me stuff when I moved to California in 1980-81. It was Larry who convinced me to go to the Dipcon's again and Larry who convinced me to go to the first World DipCon in Europe that I hit (1997). The Ghodstoo game was more of a revival of playing postally or by email. It is also the only time I have used a judge and I must say I am not a judge fan. Of the players in the game, Hohn Cho, Cal and Pitt I had played against numerous times face to face in the DipCons in the years before. One of the things that Ghodstoo did bring out in me was the love of a well played game. Even though my results in the game were poor, it was one of the better played games that I have played. Then again you will generally always find that experienced players talk of their best or most fun games as those that they did not win.
JB: You have evolved into a central role for the relationship of the hobby to Hasbro's new products. Not wanting to put you in a difficult position, but also asking the hard question, it appears that Hasbro Interactive didn't put the "A Team" on the efforts to design the Computer Diplomacy game. The worst part is the AI computer player, which is laughably incompetent at even making basic moves. Now, my belief is that designing an AI for Diplomacy is incredibly difficult, so I would have tried to put some "canned openings" into the package. At least then it would be playable at a basic level, if a bit predictable. Would you comment on Hasbro Interactive's future with the Diplomacy product in general and the likelihood of a revised AI program?
EB: I contacted Hasbro and made myself available to help on rules, variants, and openings. In the beginning things were rather awkward and I was rather forward. However, I was able to contribute to correcting some substantial errors in the board game version before it was finalized. As for the computer version: Diplomacy is a difficult game for a computer to play. They asked me to develop several openings for each country and to script them. I provided about 10 different openings for each country with extensive `trees' that is the sort of thing that says: you are in the English Channel, Russia has an Army in St. Petersburg, Germany has a Fleet in Denmark with the Black Sea unoccupied, then do this...It was quite a lot of work. After all the work, it appears that they did something basically very wrong with the A/I since it plays so grossly that it is silly. Clearly they never made use of the openings. There was also a lot of frustration between the board game division and the computer division whose interactions with each other could have been greatly improved. Which is one reason that the Unwanted Convoy is in the Computer version but not the board game. There have been a lot of changes in Hasbro since the project started and I have backed off from a lot of the contacts.
JB: You, with assistance from Mike Barno and others, have done an excellent job in making the Diplomatic Corps web site an easily navigable information source for the Diplomacy hobby. Do you have any exciting future plans for the development of this site?
EB: The Diplomatic Corps is not just a web site it is an international organization that is trying to help the hobby. What we are planning is to establish a leadership function such that the organization rotates around with local and regional organizations. We want it to be the focus for hobby wide services and try to avoid duplications of efforts by bringing people who provide the services together.
JB: Lastly, I still consider you one of the hobby's greatest pure players of the game, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you a few questions about the play of The Game. You were renown in the postal days for your adept use of the telephone to seal deals, raise the level of communication, and to assess the honesty of your opponents by listening to their voices. In these days of E-Mail, which is a wonderful tool for conducting Diplomacy communications, do you still see a strong role for telephone calls and voice communication (which also is increasingly possible via the web)? Tell us a little about this from both a practical/technical view and a psychological/personal one. . EB: I was probably one of the first big time phone players. I found very early that if you talked to someone you can find out a lot more about what is going on in a shorter period of time. Further, being in the 60's, it was well before spell check and the like so mail was more like so much more English homework. In the Ghodstoo game I came up against email players and was somewhat shocked. I called John Barkdull (I believe) and he had played the game for 3 years by email. He had NEVER talked to a single human being about the game ever. This blew me away. I also played in another email game in which there was a giant debate over whether phone calls would be allowed! How silly. E-Mail players often are too reluctant to talk on the phone. Diplomacy is at its best as a social game of interaction with people. This can be accomplished best by face to face or by phone. Email players seem to be much more hesitant on the phone and clearly not used to the instant on your feet thinking and talking that comes with years of face to face play. Therefore, you can often tell when some one is lying to you on the phone especially when you have a player who is not used to verbal cues. I like to talk to players on the phone in each of my games. If players say that they do not want to talk on the phone, then I know that they probably will not build up interpersonal relations with other players, and if there is a critical stage in the game they will lose out on the quick back and forth that is such a beautiful part of the game. On the other hand, email games have done wonders for my speed typing. Email players have to come out of their shells and play more face to face to remember that the purpose of the game is to have fun and make it fun for others. It is a social game, pick up the phone and touch someone.
JB: Clearly, Diplomacy as a hobby is growing by leaps and bounds on a worldwide basis. This is a very exciting time to be part of it. But all of this growth has made it even harder to some degree for players to hone their skills to prepare for top competition. What advice do you have to younger and less experienced players to assist them in mastering The Game?
EB: There is a pretty large gap in tactical skills for the newcomer and the old hands. I learned the game tactically by first inventing and then playing one on one Escalation. This a variant where you start with the board blank and each of you place a certain number of pieces down one at time, typically 12 each in one on one games, then you play the game from that position declaring 3 centers as your home at the end of 1901. This is the best 2 player variant of the game and the best way to learn what relationships are out there as the game develops and is played. However, the most important pieces in the game are the 7 pieces around the board. Learning how to play those players is something of an art. However, first you have to learn how to play your `self'. By this I mean try to look at yourself as a player.
The most common faults of new players are: (1) silly stupid lies; (2) lack of a plan; (3) lack of follow through; (4) failing to make and keep contacts in the game; (5) giving up.
The hardest things to learn are: (1) how to read the board; (2) how to read people; (3) to know what you really want; (4) to explain to someone else that there is a mutual benefit to a course of action; (5) to discipline yourself to avoid trashing your own image and reliability.
I can, and actually have, written a lot on all these areas so I will not get into it further here.
JB: No problem, Edi, thank you very much for helping us to start the new Diplomacy World off with such a wide ranging interview. I hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed asking the questions. As I said at the top, volunteers or suggestions for future interview subjects are more than welcome.