VARIANT DESIGN

by

Lewis Pulsipher

From Diplomacy World #19

(Transcribed by Marvelous Melinda Holley)

 

 

A DIALOGUE ABOUT VARIANT DESIGN

 

((Öbetween Ken St. Andrew and myself.  In a series of letters we have been disagreeing about this subject since I encountered Petersí HYBORIAN and St. Andreís BARSOOMIAN variants and made various remarks, ending with the first part of the dialogue below.   Our comments are naturally somewhat unpolished since we just wrote as things came to mind.  The date and initials of the writer precede each set of comments, and much extraneous material has been edited out.))

 

Pulsipher (LP) (May):  Itís nice that you guys in Phoenix have become variant fans, but if you donít go about producing variants efficiently you can do more harm than good.  Sloppiness and poor play balance are the bane of variant fandom, but thatís what we appear to be getting from you guys.  I hope itís a false impression.

St. Andre (KSA) (June 1):  Neither you nor von Metzke has played HYBORIAN (Petersí variant).  I have.  Several times.  In face to face plan the game is generally called between the 10th and 20th moves and awarded to the player with the plurality of supply centers.  It is not uncommon for there to be 6 players left in the game at that time with a separation of no more than 5 supply centers/armies between the first place and sixth place players.  As for which player wins, it seems to be pretty much up in the airÖit is very much a matter of diplomacy, because even the strongest country can be knocked out when two or three of its neighbors decide to do it inÖ

My limited experience with variants is that no matter how thorough the rules are, you always wind up having to explain something to somebody.  Rules for all my variants assume (1) that the players already have some idea of how to play Diplomacy, and (2) that players will use some of their own imagination, look at the map, and try to follow the reasoning that led to the questionable ruleÖ

Here comes a statement you will undoubtedly deplore, but it represents my attitude toward Diplomacy gaming.  The Dip establishment has, in my opinion, become something of a nit-picking press (noun form of prissy via back formation).  Compiling total statistics on every regular and variant game played through the mails.  The object here is enjoyment and the flight of imagination, not statistics.  Rigor is less desirable that speed in transforming an idea into reality.  If everyone reads your rules, looks at your map, and refuses to play, the variant will die an early death; thus the sport is self-regulating.

LP (June 8):  Barring perhaps some of the Tolkein variants, any Dipvar offers reasonably balanced play WHEN THE PLAYERS KNOW THE GAME AND ARE GOOD PLAYERS.  No doubt when you lot play Petersí game it comes out all right.  But people who see it in DW or anywhere outside your little group wonít be aware of the problems, and for that matter many of them will be inexperienced in all Diplomacy play.  In that situation, the situation which counts, the balance is bad.  Von Metzke or I can see it right off, but weíve played the game by mail at least 8 years, and even we couldnít say exactly which countries have the advantage in each situation.  Most players are much worse off.

I believe Dipvars can be written with sufficient clarity that only those who are going to be confused by ANY set of rules will have major questions.  A problem with Dipvar rules is that people arenít always reasonable when a problem arises in the course of a game for which there is no referee.  Too many are conditioned by the rules tot try anything, no matter how underhanded, in order to win.   You canít have a reasonable discussion of rules in an atmosphere founded on that attitude.

ÖIíve seen too many people and groups go through the hobby with your attitude, to fade away and leave no legacy except a poor reputation for Dipvars.  Iím not very keen on stats and so on personally Ė Iím one of the few people who donít think it would be a disaster if the Boardman Number system and ratings disappeared Ė but I would like to see standards improved, not remain in the same old slapdash flash-in-the-pan rut.  Rigor is far more desirable than speed; thee are dozens if not hundreds of speedily produced junkheap variants, so why take a chance on adding to the pile?

KSA (June 22):  First of all, I have no sympathy for beginning DIP players who might get in over their heads.  It is a great way to learn to swim.  Second, by the time a person has enough interest in Dip to subscribe to or even read DW, they should be well past the fumbling amateur stage in their development as a player.  Third, in any Dipvariant that makes an attempt to design a game around some well-known fantasy world, a certain amount of imbalance is forced upon the designer by the authorís original choice of geography and power alignments.  In HYBORIAN Aquilonia, Turna, Nemedia, Vendya and Stygia have to be strong powers because that is the way Howard created them.  Peters read and reread the whole Conan saga while designing his game and specifically tailored things to be as faithful as possible to the spirit of the stories while still leaving Conan out of things.  Fourth, the optional gamesmaster units have never been used, so all objections to their hypothetical part in play of the game are merely a wasting of breath.  Fifth, the backstabbing nature of the original Dip rules is such that any game based on them is bound to engender at least temporary hard feels when a person gets knifed.  Players definitely should be able to do anything that is legal (or even logical) under the rules in order to win, and if one person sees an advantageous loophole at one time, it will not be long before everyone in the game knows about it.  In any case, play-by-mail variants, such as Barsoomian, Kregen, Hyborian, whatever, all have an impartial arbiter as their very foundation, thus questions of rule interpretation are all handled by one man.  Players retain their freedom of choice Ė either go along with the interpretation of the GM or quit and try to find someone else who will treat them better.  A GM who angers all of his players soon wonít have any, and will automatically cease to be of any importance.  Sixth, when you mix decidedly weaker-layer countries with stronger-player countries, it forces more real diplomacy to surface, as the only way the little guys can hope to win is by teaming against the big guys.  For all of these reasons I maintain that Petersí game is as good, exciting and interesting a variant as any around.

LP (late June/early July, and somewhat curt because I ran out of space on the aerogramme!)  FirstÖmost variant players are beginners so far as variants are concerned.  They usually drown rather than learn to swim if immediately thrown into quicksand.  Second, most DW subbers are rank beginners Ė where do you think the recent doubling of circulation has come from?  Third, designing a variant around a fantasy world is no more difficult Ė less difficult beause thereís less information Ė than designing an historical variant.  So much fudging is necessary to adapt the peculiar game system that one may as well make the thing balanced on the way.  Fourth, optional rules are printed to be played, so objections are quite germane whether theyíve actually been played before or not.  Fifth, most people disagree with your view of ďanything is fairĒ in Diplomacy, believe it or not. Sixth, postal-only variants are a dying breed, and GMs arenít often available for face-to-face.  Iíll never put a postal-only variant in DW unless it takes very little room.  GMs virtually never get such bad reputations that they canít find players Ė there is only one example of this excluding those who actually quit outright ((There is?  Who?? Ė DW Editor)) Ė and even in that case the ones already suckered in were stuck.  News travels slowly in Diplomacy.  Little guys and big guys is all right IF everyone realizes ahead of time that ganging-up is necessary.  Players assume it is not, and most arenít good enough to see it when they take up a new game.

KSA (July 12) Ė One of my basic feels about game design is that life isnít fair, and that games shouldnít be either.  Iím very competitive, and the idea of winning against odds is more attractive to me than merely winning a fair fight.  In a case of big guys and little guys I could upon the natural intelligence of my players to figure out what they will have to do to even things out or give themselves a chance. And I also make myself available to anyone who will take the trouble to simply ask me about anything that bothers them.  I will not reveal what other players are doing, but Iím glad to share any strategic knowledge about the game t hat might help them make a better move than a beginner might ordinarily make.

I also try to show people who correspond with me that I donít consider myself infallible or my rules perfect.  Things need to be tried out. If I make a mistake, Iíll know better next time, and meanwhile letís correct it and forget it, and either get on with the game or forget the whole thing.

With so many major issues, crimes, hoaxes, shoddy merchandise, etc., in the world, I donít believe that getting stuck in a Diplomacy variant that you donít enjoy is that big a deal.  If you donít like the game, quit.  I donít believe that I have any responsibility at all to the rest of the Diplomacy-playing world Ė Iím doing this game design and magazine publishing for my own enjoyment and at my own expenseÖI have a personal responsibility to my players to try and make their gaming enjoyable, and I do my best, but that is all.

ÖOne thing I am against is standardization Ė the thought of everyone playing nothing but the original European 1901 game of Diplomacy is enough to make me puke.  At GLASC-II convention, it was a real bummer not to be able to gather a mere 6 players or so to try one fantasy variant, especially when I brought five along, but thatís their prerogative.

This letter has gotten pretty far afield Ė I guess I just canít accept your hostile attitude regarding outlooks on DipdomÖ

LP (19-20 July):  I never thought it is a justification for lousy work to say that other people do lousy work, nor do I think it a justification for poor variants to say that many other things in the world are poor, unfair, etc.  If you canít make the variant good enough that people wonít quit because of poor construction, regardless of the merit of the ideas, you shouldnít be doing it in the first place.  I guess this presents a perfectionistís as against your Ė what shall I call it? Ė impatient young manís view.  Even idealistís view?  I donít know.

Or it may be that Iím the idealist, you the cynic.  I would like to see standards raised so that fewer people will waste their time or be put off by a lousy first experience.  You seem to regard it as part of the game, and devil take the hindmost.  Is this a fair statement?

Then again, you are idealistic in your view that people OUGHT to like variants.  Whether they ought to or not, they often donít give two hoots for them.  Your experience at GLASC-II was not at all uncommon.  People donít often like variants, Ken, and the ONLY way to get more people to like variants is to raise the standard of variant design.  The most frequently heard objection to variants in this country ((U.K.)) is that none is as good a game as standard Dip.  You know thatís not true, and I know it, but too many people learn about variants via some junkheap someone threw together, and they assume all variants are the same kind of junk.  Yes, Iím downright hostile to junk variants, because Iíve seen that it does to variant fandom when people encounter the things.

Oh, yes.  I agree life isnít fair.  Isnít at a good reason for making games fair, since games are a form of escape from life?  You can say all you want about mental competition and so on, in the end games are escape, whatever else they may be.

ďCounting upon the natural intelligenceĒ of your players is all very well IF experience bears out your assumption.  It does not.  Even in a balanced and familiar game, when a player forges into the lead players as often as  not line up to see w ho will get second place rather than gang up on the leader.  (Note the statistics in Berchís article for the country most vulnerable to a gang.)  So much for ďnatural intelligence.Ē   You have to remember, Ken, that there is disagreement about the basic objective in Diplomacy.  An ASTONISHING number of players prefer second place, what I call a loss, to a draw of any sort, what I call a partial win (at least you havenít lost).  I suspect you donít play for second, nor do I, but a great many players Do, and you must take that into account when you design a variant.  You simply cannot assume everyone plays the same way you or your group do.

((At this point I sent a copy of the article thus far, in case he wanted to add something.))

KSA (Aug. 24):   Öyour long paragraph, where you state that fantasy variants are no more difficult to design than historical variants.  I believe I admitted that but also stated that I think t hey are more interesting, because (1) of the local color and excitement imported to a particular world, and (2) because of the chance to try out radically innovative rules to conform to some special practice in the authorís writing.

I would like to put in a comment on our different basic attitudes.  You take a protective, paternalistic view which assumes that most gamers donít want to and shouldnít have to use their brains or imagination to understand anything.  I, on the contrary, assume the best of players; that is, they WILL know what they are doing, and if they donít know, then they deserve to be beaten by players who do know.  My whole attitude is Caveat Diplomator.  Laissez-faire rather than paternalism.

LP (Oct. 10):  In your letter is a perfect example of some of the things Iíve been talking about. I told you your Aztlan Rule 3.2 ((about armies and their relationship to economic spaces)) wasnít clear.  You say I should reread it and ďsee introduction where it clearly stated that Aztlan is a blitz variant, which means multiples armies and interesting rules.Ē  But I HAD seen the introduction, and as a very experience variants rule-reader I went over 3.2 quite carefully before I wrote you.  You canít expect people to know what you mean by ďblitz variant,Ē YET YOU DONíT EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN IN THE RULES!  Even if, in the rules, you had included the latter part of the sentence you wrote to me, you wouldnít have clarified it.  ďInteresting rulesĒ can mean anything, and I can name a dozen variants with multiples armies of one sort of another, not one of which regularly permits one economic location to support more than one unit (which Aztlan does, so to speak) Ė in fact, most of t hem maintain a one-to-one relationship between each unit of strength and each center, even though more than one unit of strength may occupy the same space.  You canít expect people to read your mind Ė your ignorance of others who use the same idea (multiple armies) which a different economic base doesnít excuse you.  Unlike the character in Alice in Wonderland, you canít make words mean anything you want them to.

We havenít been on the same wavelength.   You speak of what you would like to think gamers are like.  I havenít said anything about what I wish they were like, I only speak of what they ARE like.  Wishful thinking wonít make people conform to oneís ideasÖto ASSUME the best of players doesnít make your assumption true.  Your assumption merely means, in practice, that those more adept at guessing, or with minds more like yours, or who have better access to your interpretations, have an advantage over those who donít.  My attitude is not paternalistic, it is realistic. Everywhere one looks in gaming, especially ďbehind the scenesĒ as Iíve been able to observe here through Games & Puzzles and Games Workshop, the FACT that gamers donít read carefully and are easily confused becomes more and more obvious.  At times it becomes quite incredible, but thatís the way it is.  Diplomacy players are no different from any other kind of strategic game players in this respect.


 


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