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C. F. Von Metzke

From Diplomacy World #20

(Transcribed by Melinda Holley)


Avalon-Hill Game Company have just published and released a new booklet giving us a comprehensive overview of “our” game in as many lights as possible.  Written entirely by Rod Walker, it can be obtained by writing the publisher at4517 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD 21214.  Price $3.00.  (I believe you are supposed to include postage, in which case I’d suggest adding $0.50.)

I should like to preface my review of THE GAMER’S GUIDE TO DIPLOMACY with a few codicils, to take the sting out of certain points which may creep into my writing.  For one thing, I have no illusions about my being able to do it better; there was a point at which I might have obtained Avalon-Hill’s commission for myself, but I’m not stupid.  Rod is one of perhaps three hobbyists in the world who could have done this decently.  (One of the others is Richard Sharp of London, who is soon to release his own book-form analysis of the game.  I look forward to reviewing it too.)  For another, some of the gripes I have about the finished product are things I might have corrected before publication; Rod kept me supplied with advance drafts, chapter by chapter, and I must confess that my criticisms were few and minor.  Some of those were taken, too.  Of course I was never able to see the entire manuscript before it was all put together, and the things I like least about Rod’s work have to do with overall balance and emphasis among the separable parts.  Still, if Id done my critiques properly….

The work excels in four specific overall areas, and in a multitude of smaller ways.  The biggest bonuses are: Organization of subject; Comprehensive nature of the product; Smooth and interesting writing style; and Avoidance of information either too technical or too simplistic.  It is an effort designed to be useful for novice and expert alike, and – to my conceded surprise – it works.


ORGANIZATION:  Rod has created his essay in a superbly logical and sensible progression from basics and generalities to specifics and details.  Each part of the whole follows quite naturally from what precedes, and at no time does he ever get ahead of himself.  There are a couple of extraneous tangents, but they are comparatively insignificant.  Whenever a given section touches on a subject that is more fully treated elsewhere, it is carefully cross-references; this is occasionally inconvenient (requiring some mental note-taking to “come back to the point again later”), but there really is no way around it if all subjects are to be adequately considered in sensible order.  Perhaps just a little mess mention of what I must call “postal technicalities” – Boardman Numbers, ratings, and the like – would have made for fewer of these check-backs.


COMPREHENSIVENESS:  If one is going to flaw Rod’s tome on this level, one is going to have to do so on the level of claiming too much.  There is not a reasonable topic in the whole field in which Rod has not touched at least slightly, and in most cases deeply.  I have a few quibbles about the amount of detail employed in spots, one way or the other; these will be discussed later.  There is only one item in the entire 34 pages of text that I would have specifically excluded; one-sixth of a page devoted to selecting countries by preference list.  I can think of nothing that is whole absent that cries for inclusion.  This means that, as concerns, content, I take exception to one-two hundred and fourth of the effort.


SMOOTH WRITING STYLE:  Writing has always been Rod’s forte.  It still is.  Astonishingly, at no time does he descend into the boring; in only rare instances does he fall into the trap of “writing down” to his potential audience; and he seldom wanders into technicality left unexplained.  There is no way to write a work of this type without a few such moments; the wonder is that there are as few as there are.  Precisely one sentence (!) glares; the line, “This sort of deception, while rife with spifflitude, can’t be repeated too often,” makes absolutely no sense to anyone who doesn’t know Rod personally.  I believe I have just said that, in rewriting for a new edition, Rod ought to change one word.  My goodness!


AVOIDANCE OF TECHNICALITY:  Already noted to some extent.  I suspect that the single greatest danger in putting together this type of work lies in erroneously assuming that the reader knows more than he does, or will memorize technical terms as he reads.  In a few oft-repeated phases (“face-to-face” = “FTF”, “magazine” = “zine”) Rod has defined the abbreviation once and carried on.  In less obvious cases (“Boardman Number” = “BN”, “supply center” = “SC”) Rod has wisely avoided the abbreviations at all, except in specific paragraphs that deal precisely with the abbreviated item.  His only real presuppositions for the reader are that they have a Rulebook (and have presumably perused it) and are familiar with the three-letter province abbreviations.  On the other hand, this is not a two-way street; too many abbreviations and technical references can confound the novice, but there is no such thing as “too few” for the expert.


So much for the overview.  Let us now proceed through THE GAMER’S GUIDE TO DIPLOMACY, touching on the high and low spots as appropriate.  However, no attempt is going to be made to be too exhaustive; I guess I learned, back in elementary school, that one of the most repugnant forms of writing in the critical essay that is longer than the piece being critiqued.

Rod begins, after some introductory material, with a discussion of “Objectives in Diplomacy”.  He summarizes superbly the varied styles of play, “win-draw” vs. “balance of power” vs. “anything goes”.  This is, in my view, one of those major points that seem to most like a minor point, and I’m glad Rod chose to include a comparative discussion as well as some general analysis.

There follows an eight-part section under the heading, “Elements of the Game”.  In general I am pleased, but there are gripes.  The first segment, “Communication”, is in my view the weakest, and that’s too bad because it ought to be one of the very strongest in the work.  Rod acknowledges this when he writes as his third and fourth sentences, “The real game of Diplomacy is played mostly during the negotiation periods.  The key to victory is communication.”

True enough – but it’s also a fact, shown by experience, that communication is one the weakest aspects of the average player’s game.  Of course nobody can touch effective human relations, but something more than a third of a page seems mandated for the subject that represents’ “the real game”.  Several issues ago, DIPLOMACY WORLD published a quiz-article by Nicky Palmer, “Are You A Master Diplomatist?”, concerned with effective understanding the manipulation of the negotiating process.  Nicky’s format would not have been suitable for transfer, but the idea inspiring it – understanding communications in relation to tactics and strategy, and learning to analyze the opponent as a person as well as a military force, was superbly stated and very germane.  Naturally I do not expect a rehash of Dale Carnegie here, but I would like considerably more depth than just why one should never “stop negotiating with enemies”.

There is a second section of this “Elements” chapter that I am not fond of, though here my distress is smaller.  Element Four is titled, “Cheating”.  Within the heading Rod discusses a few tricks that are flat illegal or unsportsmanlike (bullying opponents physically, adding Flying Dutchmen – improper extra units snuck into place – to the board) and a few that are perfectly within the purview of the game (sabotage and forgery, spying).  I think the former things would have been better left out; my view of this game does not extend to blatant impropriety (nor does Rod’s in the case of violence, but he does suggest that Flying Dutchmen are acceptable), and I really see little point in discussing at all, let alone discussing favorably, aspects that ought flatly to be excluded from play of the game.  To state that “(bullying and alliances based on extraneous personal facts) have no place in the game” is approximately like saying “do not break the rules when playing”.  Obviously.  The items listed in this “Cheating” list that are legal and proper, on the other hand, should be mentioned – but not under “cheating”.  There is a miscellaneous category; let them fall there.

Quite possibly the single best moment in the entire booklet comes in the discussion of “Stalemates”.  Rod is careful to warn the unsuspecting learner, “…players may be tempted to spend more time on (stalemates) than they are worth.  A stalemate is, after all, a sort of last refuge”.  Rod is careful to list all of the significant stalemate position, with their variations and units/conditions needed to achieve them.  The novice, merely running step by step through this part, will gain an immense amount of knowledge, some of which is only incidentally related to stalemates.  (I’ve always felt that stalemates are primarily important for their ability to lead to deeper understanding of the dynamics of the game, and not for their intrinsic worth.)

Under his analysis of the inherent power of convoys, Rod follows a couple of his examples with an italicized note that says, in relevant part, “These are the rules of the game’s inventor…For reasons which are very technical and not really relevant to a basic understanding of the game, I disagree with Mr. Calhamer.”  This is what I meant earlier when I said there were some infrequent examples of Rod “talking down”.  If Rod’s converse opinion is too technical to be explained, let it go unmentioned.  Particularly since it isn’t relevant…

The largest single section of the work, obviously, is the seven-country strategic and tactical analysis.  Rod has done here, in nine pages, what others have taken scores of pages to accomplish.  And Rod has done far superior work.  It begins with some general points and then proceeds to a prose matrix, country by country and enemy/ally by enemy/ally.  It all fits together like one of those mileage charts on road maps; find the meeting point of the horizontal file for Minneapolis and the vertical file for Andover and you’ve got the distance.  Find the Italian subsection of the English discussion and you’ve got your basic game patters.  All of this material is thorough, and most of it is top-drawer.  There are a couple of weak spots (“Endgame” for England is poor), but they are so few, and the bulk is so thought- provoking, that any minor slips don’t matter – in fact, in a backhanded way it may an instructional aid in that any one of any intelligence, working in depth through all of this stuff, will quite likely expand the weaknesses and fill the gaps on his own, by cross-referencing material from one spot where it exists or is implied to the place where it is lacking.

The time is nigh to mention the one big goof in the physical product.   Halfway through the section on Austria (beginning “GERMANY”, P. 12, col. 1), the material breaks off and – low and behold – we’re into a discussion of England.  This goes on for a time, to the top of P. 12, col. 3; then, beginning “Midgame” the Austrian material reappears and carries on where it should .  Following Austria is England, of course, wherein all of the misplaced material reappears in its proper place.  Avalon-Hill have noted the flub and plan corrections.  No big deal, as long as you know that nothing is actually missing.

Following the reams of material on the seven Powers, there’s a cute “aside” – photos of the Great Power leaders in 1901 with their proper titles, etc.  Nice touch.  Better if it had come in a different location – at the very end, for instance – but a nice touch anyway.

I do not feel a compelling need to discuss most of the remainder of the booklet; most of it represents the “extra” stuff, the expansions on the basic information – if you will, the frosting.  And it is good stuff, too.  I will comment on one more aspect; Rod has included a complete report of an actual postal game, with commentary.  He’s picked a good game, one which shows all kinds of worthy moments and situations, and he has carefully explained the terminology and the postal eccentricities (i.e., “NMR”) that creep in.  He has not, in my view, given us sufficient analysis of the moves.  This is primarily mere description.  Inasmuch as there is some analysis, and since much of what happens speaks for itself, the lack is not nearly as serious as I first thought.  The analysis is far stronger in the earlier years of the game, which his logical because (a) it shows somewhat more decisive single moves, (b) it shows more single-unit effects (inasmuch as each power has fewer units to use for a given purpose), and 9c) it was written first, before Rod lost some of his depth of animation.  Of course I haven’t the faintest idea what was written when, but it looks precisely as if Rod started on a high point and gradually allowed the “let’s-get-on-with-this” attitude to crawl out of the woodwork.  Do not read too much into this; the worst is not really bad at all, just not as good as it might have been with more effort.

A pleasant touch at the end is a preprinting of the map and rules for Calhamer’s original 1958 version of the game; the map is a little small for actual use (although it might work with plastic sheaths and grease pencils), but it’ fairly easy to redraw in enlarged form.

This has read like a litany of criticism.  How typical of negative reviewers!  But I have spent the most time on suggesting improvements and identifying holes needing repair; I really ought to emphasize that the entire work is a masterpiece in its field, easily definitive and superior by light-years to its predecessors in the same vein.  I consider it a mandatory purchase for any player; in fact, making one more move in any game without first reading it is a serious tactical error!