The Zar was a chucklehead --- oblivious to his station as ruler of all Russia. His wife cuckolded him, his daughters caroused and galavanted around Europe, while he hunted in the woods, drank schnapps with his friends, smoked his pipe, and was happy. The Zar didn't exist. But he became real; he developed a sincere personal empathy with two other fantasy-world leaders who decided, when the moment for a final, critical choice arrived, to trust the Zar --- to rely on his word, and his word alone, to determine their fate. The Zar was worthy of that trust. He repaid it with honor and with interest.

But I get ahead of myself. In 1954, a Harvard undergraduate named Allan B. Calhamer invented a game with rules so brilliantly simple that, like the Asian game of go, its equivalent probably exists on planets of other galaxies. That game was called Diplomacy, "Dippy" for short. ("Diplomacy" was a trademark of Games Research, Calhamer's company; the rights were later bought by Avalon-Hill, which in turn has been bought by somebody else. And so the fruits of intellection go.)

Diplomacy is a board game, a trivial matter of sliding blocks of wood around a map of Europe and capturing dots that represent supply centers. Whoever gets 18 dots first, wins. But Diplomacy is also a rôle-playing game of utmost subtlety, of shifting alliances and abrupt betrayal, of back-stabbing and naked deceit. To do well at Dippy one needs not so much tactical acumen as support from other players. Cooperation pays off --- up to a point. Then a prisoner's-dilemma situation arises, and whoever betrays will profit at the expense of the player who trusts too much. At least, that's the usual way Diplomacy works.

Over-the-board (face-to-face) Dippy is a quick route to hurt feelings and shattered friendships. (Or not so quick; it tends to take at least six hours to finish.) So most Diplomacy games are played against strangers by mail, nowadays email. With negotiations among players and a move season every few days, an email Dippy game runs for many months. Computer programs called "Judges" serve as referees.

In the mid-1990s I played in my first and (so far) only Internet-based Diplomacy match. It was a German-language game, and with the aid of a dictionary my high-school German was barely good enough for me to communicate with the other players. (This was before the era of online translation services.)

I was assigned Russia, a tricky country to handle since it is vulnerable in the early years to attack from Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and England. For fun (and because it helped explain my limited linguistic capabilities) I decided to become the dimwitted "Zar" (German for Tsar or Czar). This reduced the seriousness of the game and added humor opportunities --- a good thing from my perspective since I expected to be crushed quickly.

The Zar was a fool, and illiterate to boot. Via his "Secretary" he mouthed platitudes in his letters and public announcements, repeatedly calling for peace and friendship among the countries of Europe. Fake press releases described the Zarina's liaisons with various heads of state. The result? Russia was soon attacked by just about everybody who could do so, whether because of the Zar's seeming naïveté or the opposition's general aggressiveness. Things looked grim.

The Zar fought back --- but never held a grudge. Russia was always willing to forgive and forget; the Kremlin doors were open to renew alliances with any country once its attacks on the Motherland ceased. Absent a betrayal, the Zar was dogged in his loyalty. This struck several of the other players as passing strange --- but it was merely the classic "tit for tat" game-theory [1] strategy applied to Dippy, as the Zar's Secretary tried to explain.

After a few game-years, the Russian situation stabilized and then began to improve. Victories in Scandinavia against England (plus a strong partnership with Germany) helped the Zar's armies and fleets move forward. At that point, I (not the Zar!) failed: I saw an opportunity to play Dippy the usual way, stab a loyal ally in the back, and likely get a quick solo win. I hesitated, then betrayed. I was wrong to do so.

In response, the other nations united against Russia and, with brilliant tactics, pulled together a mathematically invulnerable stalemate line stretching across southern Europe. It looked like the end; all of us would have to settle for a draw. We might as well not have bothered to play the game at all. What a waste of time.

That's when the Zar came back. He reminded Austria and Germany of past good times together; he apologized for Russian treachery and abased himself; he promised "never again". He talked about his family ... about growing old ... about his hopes to leave a legacy of peace and honor to his children. The Zar became a real person, in a tiny way --- a kind but sad old man, who saw his life as a series of mistakes and felt that redemption was yet possible, with help from his friends.

It "worked" --- because it was true. Austria, then Germany broke from the anti-Russian alliance, rejoined the Zar, and in return were supported in their battles. The Turkish Sultan, architect of the defense, was dumbfounded. The Zar had a trivial win; why not take it? Answer: because the Zar was a man of his word. When people trusted him, he trusted them.

As the war came to an end with a peaceful three-way armistice, the Zar passed away, a peaceful death surrounded by his family and friends. He taught me a lesson: honesty and honor are infinitely more important than "winning". The Zar won, and not just on the Dippy board.

Sunday, January 16, 2000 at 07:39:53 (EST) = 2000-01-16

TopicRecreation - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicWriting - TopicProfiles

(correlates: DippyHeuristics, GameDays, TwoFaces, ...)