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Please Stand By

By Elkin C. O’G. Darrow

From Diplomacy World #31


Normally a Diplomacy game should proceed smoothly from beginning to end.  We should expect that at the end of the game the surviving Great Powers are played by the same persons who played them at the beginning. This is not true in most postal games.   The real-time length of postal play makes it necessary for many players to resign or drop out. When this happens the Gamesmaster must choose between disrupting the game by leaving the position in civil disorder or finding a new player for the abandoned position.  Most Gamesmasters will choose the latter course. This fact creates a great opportunity for beginning players particularly, as well as for those who enjoy playing in many games at once or with interesting positions. In most hobby publications, individuals may enter games-in-progress as “replacement players”.


Most persons presently in postal play know the procedure. A Gamesmaster will maintain a list of “stand-by” players who are willing to assume abandoned positions in ongoing games. If a player fails to submit orders for a given season, a stand-by player is requested to send orders for the next.  If the same player again fails to send orders, the stand-bys are used and he becomes the new player for that Great Power.  Similarly if a player resigns, a stand-by player is made the new player for that Great Power.


It can be argued that the entrance of a new personality into a game can also be disruptive. He may choose to completely switch his country's foreign policy and attack former allies. It is similarly argued that a position in a game belongs to the original player and that he may do as he chooses with it, including placing it in civil disorder.


Although the right of the original player is acknowledged, we must conclude that once his country is in civil disorder he has lost all interest in it.  It is true that if he were not replaced he could later re-enter the game and submit orders for his remaining units.  This has actually happened in a few rare instances but in general an abandoned position remains that way until its last unit is eliminated.


If a country in civil disorder has only one or two units, it's not considered disruptive by many Gamesmasters.  Some will not replace a defaulting player unless he has a certain minimum number of units. But it's a fact that in many games even a single unit may play a crucial role in determining the outcome of a game.  It's therefore less disruptive to the game if every country which goes into civil disorder is given to a replacement player.


Some players who have acted as stand-bys in the past that they do not wish to play “small positions”.  It’s true that such positions can be hopeless and therefore frustrating to a player who spends time and postage trying to salvage it.  Larger positions may be seen as offering more interest and challenge because they offer more hope. But the stand-by player takes his chances. Some abandoned positions are quite large. Some are even very close to victory. Most are however very small because discouragement with the situation plays a large part in dropouts and resignations.  Even a very small position can be salvaged.  It has been done in the past.  It's true that some very small positions have come to be under replacement players who have then gone on to victory or a draw. These positions are admittedly rare. And some positions will appear hopeless and turn out to not be.


Experienced and less-experienced players alike can derive benefit and enjoyment from acting as replacement players. This is an inexpensive way of playing in a large number of games. Most Gamesmasters charge stand-by and replacement players only the cost of a subscription. A few feel the service rendered is so valuable they will send copies of their 'zines free to active replacement players.


The experienced player should be especially sensitive to the challenge presented by game positions abandoned by others.  Diplomatic skills can be sharpened by the struggle to re-forge shaky alliances and recover military strength and momentum.  It is important to know how to salvage a deteriorating situation.


The less-experienced play-by-mail player will find replacement positions invaluable. I have already mentioned sharpening diplomatic skills.  The newer player will also find himself able to experience mid-game and endgame situations which he would otherwise not be in until he has been in the hobby for a year or more.  This is a great advantage.


This advantage is not completely tangible. It's gaining a sort of knowledge which can only be gained by experience.  Many articles have been written about openings and the play of the early game.  Aspects of the later game such as the highly important stalemate lines have been discussed in many articles.  But success in the later game cannot be based on tactics or strategies alone.  Winning often depends on knowing the right things to do or say, and the right times to do or say them. This knowledge is primarily a product of experience and experience is gained through playing in manyames.


Many replacement players participate in the game as if they believe they are only place-holders. This is most true if the position is a small 0ne. The replacements frequently conduct little diplomacy and adopt conservative “survival” tactics. I have never felt that mere survival is a valid goal in this game. The game of Diplomacy is played best when every player attempts to win the game himself and to deny victory to every other player. The challenge for the newly-entered replacement player can be no less than that. It's not an impossible goal. If it's deemed unlikely by the replacement when he enters the game, then the challenge is that much greater. A great challenge should provoke greater interest. And it should provoke a stronger response. It should not provoke apathy and automaton-like move-making. This is the time to put all one’s diplomatic and tactical skills on the line and see what may be done with a situation others may regard as hopeless.


There are ways a replacement player may increase his potential in the game. It is imperative to review the last several seasons of the game.  The orders and press releases should be closely scrutinized for what they will reveal about alliances and negotiations.


Once the replacement is thoroughly familiar with the game situation, he should immediately conduct an aggressive letter-writing campaign. The object will be to convince the other players that he is an active part of their game and that they should negotiate with him.


It has never been my feeling that a replacement player is bound by past alliances and agreements. But I also do not feel that the promises of the previous player should be lightly thrown over. Keeping already-made agreements is the path of least resistance. This easy path may also prove to be a sell-out of the player's position. The replacement player must be ready to examine his predecessor's alliances and other pacts and to readily abandon those which do not serve his interests.

I have said that a replacement player should not act as a conservative place-holder.  My intent is to state the opposite.  A replacement player should be daring and aggressive.  By the time a game is in its later stages a player may feel he has invested much time and money on it.  He may not wish to overly jeopardize his position by taking risks.  Yet few victories are achieved without risk. The replacement player has no such investment.  If he might otherwise feel inhibited he [word missing – “should” – Ed.]  not be squeamish here.   I do not say that risks should be rash.  Diplomacy is the art of calculated risks and the replacement player can more easily “afford” to take them.


Replacement players: be bold.  Be resolute. A single unit can be a fortress.  A pair of units can be an attack force.  Not every taken-over position will inevitably lead to victory.  But even a lost game will help sharpen diplomatic skills.


Therefore I commend to all Diplomacy players the replacement position. Standing-by for abandoned positions will greatly aid players as well as Gamesmasters.