Backseat Driver Diplomacy (rm82)

by Simon Szykman

Introduction

This column describes a new Diplomacy variant, called the Backseat Driver variant. The Backseat Driver variant is a press variant and can therefore be combined with other Diplomacy variants.

The archetypal image of a backseat driver is the nagging mother-in-law who sits in the back seat of your car while you drive, telling you how to drive and where to go. You might not do what she tells you to do, but because your wonderful spouse is sitting next to you, you have to sit quietly and listen. This variant was not inspired by my mother-in-law, who is nothing like that, and my saying this has nothing to do with the fact that my wonderful wife is sitting next to me while I'm typing.

The Backseat Driver variant works much the same way. The various powers have one or more advisors (i.e., observers) giving them advice, suggesting moves, and conducting negotiations on their behalf. However, the powers themselves are not allowed to communicate verbally. All negotiation is done by advisors on behalf of the powers they represent. These negotiations are non-binding and advice does not have to be followed by the powers.

There are a couple of additional twists. First, not only can powers not communicate verbally with other powers, they can't communicate with their advisors either. All they can do is listen and do what they think is best. Second, negotiations are done at a round table, meaning that everybody (both powers and advisors) gets to read all negotiations. To put things simply, as far as the players who control powers are concerned, the game is a no-press game. As with any no-press game, the powers can attempt to communicate with others through their orders (e.g. supports or convoys). As far as advisors (observers) are concerned, the game is no-partial white press.

Since there is currently no way to have separate press settings for powers and observers on the judges, the game is set up as a no-partial white press game, with the understanding that powers are forbidden from sending press even though the judge would permit it. Obviously, since the game is a no-partial press game, it must also be a gunboat game. If you are interested in a slightly more detailed statement of the rules, simply click your mouse on this link.

In the following section, there's a brief summary of the first Backseat Driver variant game, followed by a discussion of a few issues that came up during the game. If anyone decides to run a game using the Backseat Driver variant rules, I'd love to hear about it. If anyone is interested in playing in a Backseat Driver variant game, please let me know. If there's enough serious interest, I'll start another one.

The Game

The first Backseat Driver variant game began last summer and recently ended, just in time for this column to make it into this issue in fact. The game was called, aptly, "backseat", and was a standard game. (As I mentioned above, the rules can be used with any variant.) For anyone interested in the full history of the game (yeah, right), it was played on the USEF judge (judge@morrolan.eff.org). By the way, the game generated over one megabyte of press.

As I'll discuss in the following section, it's particularly important for players in a Backseat Driver variant game to have a high level of dedication. This game ran under a set of Dedicated Player House Rules, which impose stiffer dedication rating penalties for undedicated players. The DPHRs were discussed in my "Dedicated to the Game" column in the last issue of The Diplomatic Pouch. The game had 72 hour deadlines which is long enough to allow sufficient time for negotiations.

To briefly summarize the game, there were 11 active observers. We lost a couple of them along the way, but most stayed around until the end of the game. Because observers were allowed to advise one or two powers, this translated to 15 advisors. We also had a total of around 18 silent observers at some point or another, six of which saw the game through to the end.

If you are interested, you can, with a click of your finger, read the end-of-game reports from the powers and from the advisors. If you aren't interested in the game-specific comments but do want to read opinions of the players on the variant itself, I've excerpted them from the EOG reports and you can read them separately.

To summarize the opinions for those of you who prefer pre-digested information: everyone who commented on the variant liked the game with the exception of one power who thought the advisor idea was fun but didn't like not being able to send press (it had been his first experience playing in a no-press game).

Discussion

In Mastering this game, a broad set of issues came up. I thought I would describe some of the discussions that went on early on in the game and pass on some of my own thoughts as well. Hopefully, this be useful for both Masters and players in subsequent games of this variant.

On The Advisors

It is desirable for the advisors to be evenly distributed among powers for reasons of balance. However, to sustain a level of interest and dedication on the part of observers, I didn't want to force people to advise powers they didn't want to advise. So, I told observers that they were free to advise whomever they wanted, but if they didn't have a preference for one or both of their advisors, that I would appreciate their letting me assign them to a power who needed/wanted advisors. This worked out pretty well; most observers were willing to let me assign at least one of their powers. I think making this policy voluntary is important.

The choice of number of advisors per observer took a bit of thinking. Ideally, there would be enough observers so that every power could get a couple of advisors without observers having to double up. In practice, I think the likelihood of finding that many interested people is low. Conversely, I wouldn't suggest going to more than two advisors per observer because observers would have to spread their time and effort too thinly and would run into undersirable conflicts of interest (as opposed to intentional ones such as trying to use one advisor to sabotage a power in order to help a different power and advisor).

A couple of related questions came up early on. Can powers fire advisors? Can powers hire new advisors? Can advisors switch to a different power during the game? My replies were no, yes and in a way. In the spirit of backseat drivers, you can't stop an advisor from giving advice, though you obviously can ignore it.

In terms of hiring new advisors, some advisors are more active than others and some inevitably drop out. So, if a power wanted more advisors, I was always willing to send a call for new advisors to the rec.games.diplomacy newsgroup and to observers who were only advising one power. Obviously, I couldn't guarantee results, and priority for new advisors went to requesting powers having the fewest advisors.

As for advisors switching powers, I had a couple of reservations. First, every advisor who left a power would mean work to find a new advisor for that power. Second, I didn't want to have advisors blackmailing powers by saying things like "if you don't do this, I'll leave and go advise Russia". I also didn't want advisors abandoning a power whose position took a bad turn since it would only make things worse for that power. However, if a power were eliminated and the advisor wanted to keep playing by advising a different power, I had no objections.

On Player Interactions

The concept behind the Backseat Driver variant is that the people who are in control of the units are not the people doing the negotiating. This makes for some interesting dynamics which is, of course, the whole point.

Each observer can play two advisors having distinct personae. The choice of which power or powers to advise is one that takes a bit of thinking. One can advise two neighboring powers and get them to work together; one can use the role of advisor to sabotage one power in order to improve the position of another; one can even play two advisors for one power giving similar or conflicting advice. Is there a preference to advise a particular power, perhaps to help a power that generally does poorly, or to try a specific opening? Will the choice of advising depend on the observer's opinion of draws versus wins? There's quite a bit of freedom involved in how to approach the advisor role.

Once the game starts, both powers and advisors have decisions to make about how to interact. Who has a position of greater power? Should a power always follow an advisor's suggestions?

In the opening moves of the game "backseat", one advisor was disturbed that some powers did not follow their advisors' advice. Somebody else suggested that perhaps powers should have to follow suggestions from advisors. I disagreed, since it would simply make the powers little more than move-submitters. Another player pointed out that there may be reasons for not following advice, not the least of which is the opinion that a different set of moves would be better. This could be particularly true for the first move because people tend to favor certain openings over others. In addition, powers and advisors have not yet established a solid relationship this early in the game.

On the flip side, if advisors are never listened to, the game would be the same as a no-press game. There are good reasons for following advice since an advisor may see possibilities a power missed. More importantly, the advisors are in a position to conduct negotiations, create DMZs and form alliances much more readily than the powers. Further, one observer made two good points. First, following an advisor's suggestions most of the time gives the advisor credibility, which could make others more likely to work with that power. Second, a maverick power who nobody feels can be negotiated with will make an obvious target for attacks.

To summarize, both powers and advisors need to adapt to one another's actions. Again, this is what makes this game different from a standard (press or no-press) game where players act much more independently. In this variant, cooperation has enough of an advantage over working independently that I believe it would be extremely difficult for a power to do well by ignoring advisors and working alone. This takes a little work and a little time. Players who have played in no-press games may recall that it takes a while to become accustomed to negotiating and communicating without press. A similar learning period is required here.

Another suggestion that came up during the game was the possiblity of allowing communications between powers and their advisors - perhaps constantly or perhaps only one message every so often. This is a reasonable suggestion, but my preference is to not allow that communication. One reason is that just like I wouldn't want the powers to be just move-submitters for the advisors, I wouldn't want the advisors to become microphones for the powers. Not allowing powers and advisors to communicate gives advisors a much better role in the game, handing them a large amount of decision-making and giving them the opportunity to take quite a bit of initiative. Perhaps more importantly, I think in terms of the issues discussed above (dynamics, adaptation, cooperation) this makes things much more challenging and therefore (hopefully) fun. Granted, it may make things easier, but who wants things to be easier?

On Player Dedication

Player dedication is probably more crucial in the Backseat Driver variant than in other variants because poor dedication can easily cause the game to degenerate into a simple no-press game. In particular, Masters should make clear that observers should not sign on unless they are ready to make a commitment to the game. Disappearing advisors are quite disrupting to the game and can lead to unfair advantages for other powers.

Similarly, long delays due to abandonments or excessive late moves will cause advisors to lose interest, so dedication on the part of the powers is equally important. As I mentioned earlier, the game "backseat" ran under the Dedicated Player House Rules and was quite successful in that respect. I also requested that all players (powers and active observers) give me as much advance notice as possible if they had to leave the game since finding replacements would be more difficult.

Miscellany

A couple of last little things. The game I Mastered had 72 hour deadlines. I wouldn't suggest going to, say, 48 hour deadlines, due to the importance of allowing adequate time for press. Not only do advisors need time for negotiation, but powers need time to catch up on their advisors' negotiations, proposed alliances, and suggested moves.

Another question that came up was HOF points. I asked Nick Fitzpatrick about either (1) also giving HOF points to advisors of winning powers or (2) allowing winning powers on a voluntary basis to share their HOF points with their advisors if they so choose. Nick said no. He had some pretty good reasons and I'm not sure if I disagree in retrospect. But for anyone who was wondering, the issue did come up and this was the outcome.

Early on, somebody asked if draw/concession proposals from powers would be accepted by me and broadcast. My opinion is that such proposals should be allowed from powers in no-press games in general. To prevent using such proposals as press, the identity of the proposing power would not be revealed. Broadcast proposals would look something like "A draw has been proposed, SET DRAW if you agree" or "A concession to Italy has been proposed, send me your vote with PRESS TO M". However, because some people have strong opinions on this issue, I suggest the Master use his or her preferred policy on this matter and make sure the policy is stated clearly from the start.


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