The purpose of this guide is to clue players in to aspects of tournament play that may not occur to them until after they've played several tournaments. For the "new to tournaments" player, this is a primer on a very different aspect of the Diplomacy hobby. This essay can also provide a basis for numerous after-game discussions in the lounge, where the experienced players can mull over and dispute various aspects and ideas presented here. After all, what is a good Diplomacy convention if not one that you can talk about long after the action is over?
What Makes Tournament Play Different?
What does "doing well" in a tournament mean? Is there a standard for recognizing achievement? When does it end?
Casual gaming usually involves a single game. All Diplomacy tournaments are a series of games in which the results from one game affect the results (or action) of other games. In tournament play, for example, it's not enough that you end the game as Austria with 15 centers. It is just as important that no other Austria finishes with more than 14!
If a social game gets awkward or boring, you and your friends can simply pack it away and do something else. In a tournament, your actions affect everyone at your table and also have a ripple effect on all other tables. If you decide to throw in with the frontrunner and help him win, you affect not just that player's score, but the scores of everyone else in the tournament.
Tournament play packs an concentrated gaming experience into a restricted time period. The pressure to do well is intense. For many new competitors, a tournament is also the first time that "doing well" is defined by other players. The game itself may be structured in an unfamiliar way. For example, is having eight supply centers in a five-way draw "better" than having seven centers in a four-way draw?
It should not shock you to read that in the last six World DipCons and the last nine North American DipCons, the answers to that question were different. Every tournament system takes a different approach to defining what is "doing well." This is only one of several shocks that players have to deal with in a tournament.
Start by reading and understanding what the tournament is calling "Achievements that are Worthy of Recognition." If you disagree with the list, save your arguments for after the tournament. Too much is at stake to start complaining at the start of the convention, and you're unlikely to change things anyway. Just decide whether you are going to focus on what the tournament system defines as achievement or play in your personal style regardless of what the tournament rewards. If you decide to be guided by the tournament system, then be on the lookout for players who have consciously decided to ignore the system's rewards or who appear to be unaware of the system. You may even be able to blend the official reward system with your own playing style in a manner that lets you accomplish what you want in the game, gain ground within the tournament standings, and still allow the other players to achieve some personal goal, too. Tournament competitors often look down on players who are unaware of or ignore the tournament system. The ultimate purpose of any game, however, is to have fun and make it fun for others. Sometimes the "personal players" who play with little regard for the ranking system achieve a greater sense of enjoyment from the tournament experience. A player who enjoys the tournament will come back again, whereas the hardcore competitor can easily burn out on his own intense competition and be frustrated by chasing the artificial, ever-shifting goals of tournaments.
Face to face games often have social limits: play goes to midnight or when the last train leaves for home. Postal play and email play have no limits, so the game can continue till a draw or a win. Tournament play has limits. Most often it is a matter of game time or real time. A few tournament systems have tried to place no limits on the games other than to play to a win or a draw. This method is losing favor, and realistically it still has social limitations -- the family person with small children at the convention, or reasonable home life requirements. If you find yourself in one of those rare tournaments where there is no set time limit, then before countries are assigned at your table, consider raising the subject of setting a reasonable end to the game. If you know that you are only good for, say, 12 hours, then you should be mindful of those players who are determined to play to the bitter end. Then in the mid-game period you can make appropriate adjustments so as to leave the end-game made up of similarly minded players. You may feel that your stamina and concentration can sustain you through an all-nighter, but also consider the pressure that you will put on yourself to perform well in future rounds if you physically exhaust yourself in an early round. Remember, too, that when players in the tournament find out you pushed a game far beyond the normal social envelope, your chances of survival in the early game drop quickly.
Good Behavior and General Paranoia
It's only a game.
Say that again and again to yourself until you get it straight. Tournaments bring out intense competition and narrow focus on what are sometimes minor aspects of the tournament system, the rules, or even the legibility of someone's handwriting.
It's only a game.
Having gotten that straight, try to treat people civilly and remember that nothing is personal. Be diplomatic. Avoid using language that you would not use in front of your mother when talking to your daughter.
It's only a game.
Control your emotions. Be polite. Use pencils for writing, not throwing. Act your age.
It's only a game.
Cross Round Grudges
It is considered very bad behavior to bring into a new round hard times that occurred in the last round. If a player who viciously stabbed you in the first round is your neighbor in the next round, do not seek revenge. In fact, it's a good idea to go out of your way to reassure the other players that you treat each game as a new beginning. By doing that, your in-game diplomacy will be more flexible and you will have a better game. If everyone thinks you are poisoned by the last game experience, then you have fewer options. This does not mean you should forget who is trustworthy and who is not. It means that you should be cautious, not hostile, when dealing with past foes.
You generally won't have time in the middle of your game to see what everyone is doing in other games. If you do, however, then try to avoid talking to those other players. For example, if you are playing Austria and doing well, it is very bad form to walk around cheering on players at other boards to kill Austrians so that your score will stand as the highest Austrian effort. Do not interfere with other games or even discuss tactical options when the players are around.
A little paranoia is useful in Diplomacy games. Most gamers are paranoid; after all, if people really are out to get you, then you're not crazy to think so. In Diplomacy, someone is always out to get you. Here are the most common things that players get paranoid about in tournaments:
Speaking a different language at the table. In international play this is probably the single biggest hot button to push. It drives the paranoia level way up. Every player who does not understand the language will think, "they are plotting against me." If it has been agreed that one particular language will be used at the table and people lapse into another language, do not be shy. Ask "could you repeat that in [whatever language you speak]." In an international setting, it can be a strain for some to put aside their first language as a courtesy to others -- lapses and mistakes happen. You need to suppress your paranoia at times. It is, after all, only a game.
Always conferring with the same person first and last. Try to vary who you talk to and the order in which you tak to them. That way, players feel that you are more open to communication. Talk to everyone if you can, even if only for a moment. You never know when you may run into someone in a future round. Having made polite contact earlier, you have a good basis to build on. It is, after, all only a game.
Nationalities and local cliques.Diplomacy is a game in which, if there is one winner, then there are six people who did not win. Some areas of the real world have had more exposure to nationalistic conflicts than others, and for people from those areas, it is sometimes tempting to lessen their own loss and the winner's achievement by claiming that players or organizers of some nationality, or a local clique, favored their own against all others. Sometimes this is coupled with a preemptive fear: "We are the outsiders to this country, and they may all jump on us, so we should stick together!"
The reality is that in more than 30 North American DipCons and international Diplomacy tournaments that I have witnessed or participated in, I have not seen any such nationalistic bias or local cliques have any actual effect, despite grumbling here and there. Diplomacy as a game attracts and rewards individuals.It is the egotist's dream game.
Next month: Nuts and bolts -- types of tournaments, picking your rounds, tournament flow, and scouting game results.
Don't miss any of Edi Birsan's series on tournament Diplomacy.
Part 1: What Makes Tournament Play Different
Part 2: Tournament Systems and Scouting for Results
Part 3: Tried and True Opening Moves
Part 4: Grand Strategy and Small Mistakes
Edi Birsan is considered the first Diplomacy world champion for his win in 1971BC, the first championship invitational game. He has won numerous championship games since then in North America and worldwide and is universally considered one of the game's top players. More importantly, he has striven tirelessly for over three decades to promote Diplomacy play in all its forms, at all levels, all around the world.