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A Call To Arms Against Crap Variants

by Stephen Agar




As someone who has always been a big fan of variants, in my day I've run a variant-only zine and designed more variants than I've had hot dinners, well, more than I've had Thai hot dinners, I have no hesitation in saying that most variants are crap. And what's more, thanks to the Internet, crap variants are coming back into fashion (though, like the IRA, they never went away, you know). There are many different types of crap variants, but the ones I dislike the most are those which only make a small change to one of the basic Diplomacy rules, so that the game is 98% a regular game. If all you're going to do is to make a single rule change then, unless the rule change is fundamental and significantly alters the way the game is played, why bother?

This is what has happened on the Internet - lots of American students are thinking up minor rule changes all the time and launching their new" variants on the world. What's worse, due to the scarcity of high quality variants available on the Internet, some of these games are actually being played. The difficulty in transferring graphical images through the Internet without a resource such as a large Web page or a FTP site, and the fact that most maps already available are in postscript format (when few home users have postscript printers) means these minor rule change variants flourish. Hell, they have even invented numerous versions of Gunboat, which is probably the most inane variant ever invented, and write articles on what it really means when another Gunboat power supports your unit to Switzerland?!? Gunboat... how I hate Gunboat...

Variants of this type becomming increasingly common, after all, crap minor change variants are probably the easiest to GM after all, and as most of the rules are short there's not much typing for the GM and he doesn't have to go to the trouble of sorting out a map. But they are usually so boring to play - the game usually ends up being played just like a game of regular Diplomacy anyway. I think that it is a great shame these variants are offered postally - their very lack of imagination makes them tedious to play and may put people off proper variants, while some players who would otherwise have played a more sophisticated variant instead don t get the opportunity. Their very simplicity (some would say banality) means that such lists often fill up eventually, though in practice minor change variants are often not as entertaining as they might at first appear. While I can just about see the logic of playing variants such as F(Rom), which do at least purport to be an improvement on the original game, many of the other minor change variants just turn me off. They nearly always seem like an opportunity wasted.

Part of the problem with variants are the sorts of people who volunteer to play them. A minority of variant players really like variants and are committed to trying them out. Unfortunately, a majority of variant players have only been momentarily attracted to the idea behind the variant, sign up in a moment of enthusiasm, and then don't put much effort into the game because it's only a variant". Unfortunately the minor change variants are more likely to attract this sort of player, as he (or she) would probably be discouraged by the complexity of a game of Diadochi or Youngstown. There is the additional factor that it is harder to jot down variant orders at the drop of the hat - as the rules and/or the map is different, so even the casual player has to try harder. All this tends to mean that variants suffer from more NMRs and dropouts than regular games - though I suspect that the record is slightly better in the case of variant-only zines, where the readership should be more committed.

There are 135+ variants in the rb and rn category in the NAVB catalogue, and I suspect many more have been reinvented several times without making it to the NAVB. By way of an example of the sort of variants that I really don't like, here is a variant reprinted from Mopsy No.10 (December 1983) (but, hell, I'm not picking on Bryan - there are far too many variants of this type that I could reprint).

Elitist (rn27) by Bryan Betts

0. All usual rules of Diplomacy apply.

1. Each power begins the game with a 2A (2F in the case of England) in its capital. This unit attacks, supports and defends with a strength of two. An elite unit may not split its supports between two units and a single attack on the elite unit cuts all supports. An elite unit has precedence over a normal unit of they both try to retreat to the same space.

2. If an elite unit is disbanded it is gone forever. If a power loses all of its home centres, the elite unit reverts to a normal unit.

3. The first game year is 1935, not 1901.

Bryan did eventually manage to get a game of Elitist running, though it was spoilt a bit by dropouts. In the endgame statements the players commented that it was just like normal Diplomacy, but it favoured the corner powers Turkey (who won the game) and England.

Well, despite having an interesting initial idea, the fact that elite units can't be built or replaced, means that by the mid-game there will probably only be three or four elite units on the board. Their existence will be enough to prevent stalemate lines, but the impact on the overall strategy of the game will be minimal. What could have been done to make this variant more interesting? Well, for a start allow eliminated elite units to be replaced and built. But then not many Powers will get the opportunity to build elite units, so how about allowing Powers to disband any unit during an adjustment period so they can build elsewhere? Maybe we could carry this a little further and allow building on all vacant owned centres, but only allow elite units to be built in home centres. What if a Power would rather not use elite units? maybe the capitals of the Powers could be double centres, capable of supporting an elite unit or two ordinary units? We could still leave the victory criteria at control of 18 centres or raise it to centres capable of supporting 21 units if we prefer. Given that the new elite units will inevitably foul up the play balance Calhamer worked out for the opening moves, why not allow players freedom to build armies and fleets as they want in their home centres at the beginning of the game? (Though perhaps we would want to prevent Russia starting with a F(StP)nc.) OK, the game is getting more complex now, but at least the new rules will really impact upon the game and make the strategic possibilities that much larger. Ooops, we seem to have arrived at Elitist II. Is it worth playing? Hmm. Probably not, but it is a damn sight more interesting then where we started.

What other sort of crap variants do I dislike? Well, I tend to think that all rule change only variants are probably pretty crappy, but putting that prejudice aside I think I particularly hate variants where the map just hasn't been thought out properly.

Many designers seem to forget that the positioning of the neutral supply centres will have a significant effect on the conduct of the game in the early stages and will affect the likely routes for expansion that each Power may adopt at the start of the game. For what it's worth, I believe that it is better if every Power can have a guaranteed build in the first game year, assuming no tactical disasters. This is certainly true of Diplomacy where it is unusual for any Power not to have at least one build in 1901. Some Powers may have a good chance of a second build and even more may be occasionally possible. But far too many times I have seen variants where some Powers have a good chance of two or three builds in the first year, while others would be lucky to get one. This really is a common mistake.

I think that it is better to group neutrals together to construct an area of the board which at least two and preferably more Powers can enter early on in the game to make some gains, and thereafter provides a fertile battleground. You will note that in regular Diplomacy all the neutral supply centres are concentrated in four areas of the board, namely, the Balkans, Scandinavia, the Low Countries and the Iberian peninsula. Tunis is the exception because of the need to provide Italy with a guaranteed build in the first game year. On the other hand if neutral supply centres are placed in isolated locations here and there, they either become easy targets for a single player or become the scene for stand-offs in the first game year. Good diplomacy is encouraged by encouraging situations where more than two players are involved in an area of the board and this is often best achieved in the early stages by grouping neutrals together. But yet again, too many variants encourage a firework display of units going off in all sorts of directions to pick up the scattered isolated neutral centres, which leads to a very fragmented and boring middle game while the Powers regroup.

A variant can also be ruined if too many stalemate lines exist on the board - for as soon as one player gets an upper hand, the other players can retreat behind stalemate lines and the game comes to an abrupt and inglorious conclusion. The hallmark of a stalemate line is a series of linked spaces that have noticeably more spaces bordering the stalemate line on one side than they have on the other. This allows the line to be supported by more units than the opposing forces can bring to bear on the line from the other side. That means designers should avoid long thin spaces which traverse several spaces on either side, such as Galicia or Munich as these usually provide the basis of stalemate lines. Unfortunately, many variant maps have been designed which ignore this basic rule, so that if the game is not ruined by dropouts it grinds to a halt anyway.

Designers need to realise that sea spaces are crucially important in the construction of a stalemate line as they are spaces which can only be attacked and supported by a particular type of unit (i.e. fleets). For example 3 fleets in NAO, MAO and Por can form an impassable barrier that can prevent any number of fleets emerging from the Mediterranean. In an ideal world such bottle necks as the straits of Gibraltar should be avoided. Particular problems will arise if any of the Powers in a game are landlocked, because they will never be able to build any fleets!

Oh well, maybe the days of designing great variants are well and truly over.