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Dip in Vancouver - Run for the Border

by Rick Desper

Run for the Border

I’ve been attending quite a few World DipCons in recent years.  This is a situation I’ve been able to pull off thanks to two different stints as a postdoc at a European research institute: first in Heidelberg fresh out of grad school, and then more recently in London.  With a point of departure in Europe, it was easy for me to attend WDCs in Namur in 1999 and in Berlin in 2006, in addition to all the American WDCs over that period (and the 2004 WDC in Birmingham).  When Vancouver won the bid for WDC XVII I was pleased, not only because I know the organizers and felt they would do a good job, but also because I have family and friends in Seattle, and I could combine a gaming vacation with a visit with people I had not seen in a long time.

So, come August 9, Stephen Weingarten - a Dipper from Portland, Oregon - picked me up at my aunt’s house in Tacoma.  We made the run for the border, and after getting Taco Bell, headed up to Vancouver.  After a few hours of driving, including a delay of about a half hour at the border, we arrived at the site. 

WDC was held at the campus of the University of British Columbia, with rooms reserved at the Gage Towers complex, and gaming taking place at the Campus Center.  The rooms were a good deal: for $39/night, I got a single room with a shared kitchen and bathroom area.  I wasn’t planning to cook, so this was more than enough for me.

Round 1

For me, the fun of an event like WDC is seeing familiar faces and old friends, reliving past games and laughing about the past.  Then there’s the competition.  But it’s the mix of personalities that really makes the game for me. I have played a lot of other games and have found that, even when the game is fun - like Puerto Rico or Carcassonne - I prefer playing it with Dippers who bring their own flair to the competition.  

My first-round game featured a lovely board assignment: Austria-Hungary on a board with Edi Birsan as Russia.  I thought Edi would cause me problems, but my main problems came from the other side, as Len Tenant argued that the only way for Italy to grow was in Austria.  Now, at this point I am sure that I don’t have to say much more about the game.  About the only really distinguishing bit in the game, which featured the gradual abandonment of any idea of Austrian autonomy, was my incursion into the Ionian Sea during a Spring move, which gave me access to an undefended SC in Naples.  So over the course of the game I took Naples, then Rome, and then finally Venice from Len, while Edi raced to an enormous SC count.  It was a weird feeling, trying to make sure Tom Kobrin (France) and France-May Martel (Turkey) didn’t cough up a first-round solo.  Ultimately, I think Edi could have soloed this board, but since it was only the first round, he didn’t make a big push to try to do so.

About an hour after we finished, Mike Hall soloed as Russia.  As quickly as that, Edi lost any hold he had on Best Russia.

The State of the Hobby

As I’ve said, this was my eighth WDC.  I think this gives me a bit of historical perspective on the ebbs and flows of participation in the hobby from different areas.  I started playing Dip in college in the late 80s, but the hobby really grew during the 90s thanks to the Internet.  Ken Lowe’s Judge program made it easy for thousands of people to play games with other Internet players from all corners of the Earth.  In the mid-90s, I started doing more face-to-face gaming.  I think there was a growth in the FTF hobby in the late 90s and early 00s as many online players started enjoying the human interaction of live gaming.  At the time, there were booming hobbies in England, Sweden, France, Australia (and New Zealand) and parts of the US including the DC area, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina.  My first WDC was in Chapel Hill in 1998.  That was the year Chris Martin took home the top prize.  I finished 11th that year, and have not finished so high since!

The Big Friday

I woke in plenty of time for round 2.  Got a nice power assignment: France.  Former World Champion Rob Stephenson is England.  Rob’s opening negotiations are fascinating.  He says he’ll be friendly but anybody who crosses him will inspire a furious vengeance.  I don’t know quite what to make of this, but when Germany and Russia cannot get their negotiations in order, they start fighting.  So I team up with Rob, go south, and invade Italy with little difficulty.  I’m topping the board when the game is called.  So far I have one good result and one bad one. 

After an uneventful break, which included watching the last moments of Yann Clouet’s solo as Germany, we got our third round assignments.  At this point I’m starting to run low on gas and am not looking forward to playing my second game of the day.  So I get Italy, my least favorite country.  I get Dave Maletsky, a solid player in Turkey, and a 12-year old kid in Austria.  And then there’s a Western triple.  When the kid demands that I leave Venice empty in 1901, I’m just baffled.  The whole game is a disaster for more reasons than I want to go into.  So after three rounds, I have a board top, a 1-SC survival, and an elimination. 

Newbies in the Diplomacy Community

My third-round game raises the question of who should be playing Diplomacy in tournaments, especially major tournaments.  I am all in favor of bringing new blood into the hobby.  And I think that any tournament should have possibilities for playing for anybody who wants to, regardless of their experience level.  But I think that it is undesirable to allow complete newbies to play in what is ostensibly the World Championship.

The nature of Diplomacy, in particular, requires a minimal level of competence from all players.  Yes, influencing, convincing, and dominating weaker players are key aspects of Diplomacy skill, and it is completely legitimate to want to keep an “open” nature to Diplomacy tournaments.  But even at open golf tournaments, they don’t let people walk in off the street that have never played golf before. 

I don’t think that the play of Narek in my third-round game was decisive to my result.  Given a Western triple hitting me from the West, and Dave Maletsky in Turkey, my Italy was likely to be in trouble regardless of who was playing Austria.  But it is something I didn’t want to have to deal with at that point. 

There are many different reasons people play Diplomacy.  I prefer playing with more experienced players who have interesting ideas about the possible lines of play.  I don’t find it very interesting to hone the skill of openly manipulating complete newcomers.  I’m not saying I’ve never done it, but it’s an aspect of the game that does not appeal to me.  The ability to play mental games with the uninitiated is not something that I want to spend my time optimizing.

Anyway, having said all that, I enjoyed my drinks Friday night with Michael Pinder, the German on my board who was eventually betrayed by England and France. 

Saturday on the Big Board

In each round at Vancouver, the organizers selected one of the boards to be featured on the “big board”, which included a large running SC count for everybody to follow.  I woke up Saturday in a foul mood and told Matt Shields that I really didn’t want to play, but would play if I was needed to fill a board.  It turned out that I was needed, so I played.  Happily, I got a seat at the big board.

It was a nice board with a lot of people I knew well.  I landed Austria, Dan Lester was Turkey, Ike Porter was Austria, Yann Clouet was Italy, Adam Silverman was France, Jack Twilley was Germany and Todd Lawson was England.  Todd was the only player there whom I had never played with before, though it had been a long time since I had played in Boston with Jack.  Ike was looking for a fun game, so we opened with a RAT triple. 

The motivations in this game were simple: since Adam had soloed in the third round, he and Yann were going to be targets.  The result of the opening negotiations were an A/T going after I and a E/G going after F.  A problem with this thinking was that, as Russia, I had no target.  I did what I considered to be an innocuous opening, moving to Ukr, Bot, Bla, and Lvn.  The last move really upset Germany and England for reasons I still don’t quite get. 

So, we had probably the worst-disguised RAT in history.  In 1902, E & G pulled away from France and started to harass me in the North, having been warned by Yann and Adam that a major RAT would sweep the board otherwise. 

But the EG vs. R took a strange turn.  On a move where Germany was trying to outflank me by moving to Galicia, Austria moved his armies to Venice and Tyrolia.  The net effect was to leave Budapest completely undefended.  In addition, Ike had left Serbia undefended, with the idea of trusting Dan not to make a 1-dot stab.  The combination was disastrous for Ike, and led to a 3-power feeding frenzy in the Balkans.  At this point, F & G were turning on England, and I faced a choice.  Either I could turn on Turkey, and probably work with Italy against him, or I could turn on Germany.  I felt the former path led to more growth for Russia, so I sailed into the Black Sea and took Serbia.

Then we had a lunch break.  Dan Lester spent the entire break pleading his case to Jack and myself, and I have to say this weakened my resolve.  So, after a bit of mucking around after the break, I pushed the idea of a draw, even though it was probably premature.  Part of my thinking was that I could pursue one of two strategies that could tip the balance between Dan and Yann as to which of the two made the top board.  With two bad results already, I didn’t think my odds of making the top board were very good.  I didn’t like the idea that my decision about how to play the remainder of the game would not be enough to get me into the top board, but might be a deciding factor as to whether Yann or Dan made the top board.  (Indeed, after ending when we did, both Yann and Dan made the top board, as well as Adam.)


After Round 4, I was thoroughly tired of gaming.  I find the usual DipCon schedule of four games in three days to be more than enough, so the idea of playing six games in four days struck me as being too much.  So Ike and I took the local bus to downtown Vancouver to play some Texas Hold ‘em. 

I’ve become very interested in Poker in recent years, especially in Hold ‘em, which has captured the imagination of gamblers around the world.  I’ve enjoyed friendly games a lot, and often have done well at Diplomacy cons, but I’ve never really broken through at casino play.  Indeed, casino play can be depressing compared to a nice, friendly house game, since you really meet some extreme personalities at casino tables.  Usually there’s a mix of tourists and locals, rubes, pros, and people who think they are better than they actually are, but annoyingly hit a lucky streak at an inconvenient time. 

Poker makes for a nice contrast to Diplomacy, since it requires deception, bluffing, and a good deal of reading people, but it has nothing remotely resembling alliance play.  But it was not my day for poker.  I blew through the money Ike had staked me in less than two hours, while he profited nicely when he flopped a straight on a board with a flush draw that never drew.

My only criticism of the Vancouver experience was that there were no organized outings.  I suspect that, had the organizers put together a trip to see downtown, or an excursion into the mountains, it would have been well-attended by gamers who didn’t really want to play six games in four days. 

Final Round

The final round started with the announcement of the top board.  Six players had soloed, and five of them made the top board: Doug Moore, Yann Clouet, Adam Silverman, Jake Mannix, and Chris Martin were on board, joined by Dan Lester and Tom Kobrin.  Mark Zoffel, who was second heading into the final round, decided to pass on the opportunity.  As a consolation, I got a board with two former World Champions, Vincent Carry and Nicolas Sahuguet.  I landed England and Vincent was Russia.  Anna Binder (Germany) bounced me from Belgium in 1901 after having promised it to me, and I started out worried about an F/G. 

I decided to work with Vincent in the North, giving him Norway in return for his support into Denmark.  The German position became untenable shortly thereafter, as I convinced the French player, Ryan Blaney, to share the Low Countries with me while Vincent hit Anna from the other side.  Anna suffered the fate that many Germanys have in Dip of being attacked on all sides.  After Germany fell, I was faced with the choice of hitting Ryan, and risking a possible AIR board-sweep, or hitting Vincent, who had been loyal to me from the start.  Partly based on the encouragement of David Norman, who was playing Italy, I decided to go after France.  This worked out well when Nicolas decided to do his part to counter the reputation French players have for never stabbing each other.  He was quite happy to stab Vincent, which led to an endgame where R and I were tangling in the East while David and I broke down the French defences in the West.  I ended up topping the board with 10 SCs.

It seems curious to me that the two boards I topped featured former World Champions, and the other board I did reasonably well on featured a lot of strong players.  I definitely prefer playing with stronger players, as I find it hard to play with people who do not see the long-term implications of their moves.  This is admittedly a weakness in my playing style, but I’m not sure I care enough to try to become a better exploiter of foolish players. 

As for the top board, Doug had come in with the tiebreaker of being in first after five rounds.  The championship was reserved for whoever topped the top board, even if said person’s total score for the tournament was not highest.  Doug also drew France, which is a good power to play on a top board.  Yann drew Austria and was apparently smothered right at the start.  He was gone before I noticed it.  Jake Mannix (Turkey), Tom Kobrin (Italy) and Dan Lester (England) all seemed to be doing well at various points in the game, but as time ran out Doug pulled ahead to the victory. 

Congratulations to Doug Moore, the first American World Champion since Chris won WDC in Chapel Hill in 1998.

Coda in Long Island

The following weekend I attended HuskyCon on Long Island, hosted by the Woodrings.  I really like the informal atmosphere of this house con, but given that it was only a week after Vancouver, I really was low on enthusiasm for Diplomacy.  This gave me time to think about the hobby.  Participation in the hobby seems to occur in waves.  Every few years there is a bunch of new players who have discovered the game and enjoy playing each other, and then a few years later a bunch of players disappear to family obligations, or just simply reach a point where they feel like they are getting nothing new from the game.  I have reached a point where certain kinds of games seem very repetitive to me.  When I’m playing a game with a certain group of players who are opening in ways that I’ve seen dozens of times before, I can feel fairly certain I know how the next five years of the game will develop.  And if I see a great disparity in the respective skill levels of the players I think will be around after those five years, then I could even prognosticate further in advance.  I remember one game where I told everybody in earshot in 1902 that Edi Birsan was probably going to solo a certain game.  Several hours later, he did exactly that.  (Or rather, since it was Edi, he simply pointed out to the other players that he was going to solo and convinced them to save time and concede the game to him.) 

What interests me at this point?  Games where each player is trying to win, at least at the start, and people do not get bogged down either in alliances or in stalemate lines.  Alliances are intended to be temporary measures to advance each individual player towards the goal of a solo victory.  Of course, tournament play can be a completely different animal, especially when the round is due to end after a certain number of game years. 

There were a lot of good games at WDC, and for the most part the players I met were trying to do as well as possible.  I think that six rounds is a bit too much Diplomacy for me, and hope that future cons will ease away from the recent trend of offering as many rounds as that.  (Either that, or they will find a way to ensure players are not penalized for missing a round or two – but this would be a bit of a trick.)  In terms of future cons, I am excited at the prospect of seeing Bangor, Maine, host DipCon in 2008, and hope I will be able to attend WDC in Vienna in 2008.