Octopus's Garden

Issue Sixty-One

10th March 2007

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HELLO, good evening and welcome to Octopus's Garden, the subzeen with its very own game openings. It's a subzeen to Jim Burgess' The Abbysinian Prince. Produced by Peter Sullivan, peter@burdonvale.co.uk. It's also available on the web at http://www.burdonvale.co.uk/octopus/.

Sauron: My Part in his Downfall

(With apologies to the late Spike Milligan. But I've already used "Tolkien 'Bout My Generation" as an article title before. Probably many times. So I can't really use it again.)

Diplomacy, "the game of international intrigue," gained public attention when it was declared to be the favourite game of such notables as John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. But it has also been the core game of the postal games hobby since John Boardman started Graustark in 1963.

The urge to fiddle, however, is a universal one, and it wasn't long before players started doing their own Diplomacy variants, changing the number of players, the map, or even translating the whole scenario from pre-World War One Europe to another time or place. The Diplomacy hobby had strong links to Tolkien fandom, especially in the British postal games scene, focused around figures such as Hartley Patterson. So it didn't take long for the War of the Ring to become a regular favourite for Diplomacy variant designers. Well-known science fiction fans such as Don Miller (leading light of the WSFA for many years) and Robert Sacks (famed Worldcon business meeting attendee) have several design credits for Tolkien variants.

By the time I entered the postal games hobby in 1984-85, the main Tolkien variant, certainly in terms of actul gamestarts, was the Downfall series, by then up to version III. Over the next few years, a whole raft of improvements (and "improvements") were published and playested, until by 1993, we were up to version XIII. Part of the reason for the large number of variations was a fundamental conflict in design philosophy should the variant be just normal Diplomacy on a Middle-Earth map, or should there be lots of special powers and rules ("chrome") to add a Tolkienesque flavour?

I was never really active in designing new versions of Downfall, but I was involved in running various versions of the game over the years in my postal games zine C'est Magnifique:

Downfall VII was named "Definitive Downfall," although of course it didn't stop people doing other versions - including a "Definitive II Downfall," which I would have thought was pretty much a contradiction in terms.

But I'm still fondest of the Downfall XIII rules, written by Iain Bowen. To me, they represent probably the best balance between simplicity and "chrome," although I appreciate that this will always be a personal preference. It incorporates the Abstraction Army/Fleet rules (not that fleets usually tend to play a significant role in Downfall).

But the most innovative change was the inclusion of the Multiplicity rules. The normal rules of Diplomacy, reflecting the WWI scenario of a front-based war of attrition, are one unit per space. But this doesn't reflect the way that battles took place in Tolkien's Middle Earth. (Yes, I know it's fictional. But past tense is still appropriate.) Rather, you tended to have cataclysmic battles, involving troops from several different 'nations', all in a comparatively small battlefield area. Earlier versions of Downfall had had double or triple armies, although, depending on context, these could either be representing a larger army, or just a normal-sized army with stronger fighting power. But Downfall XIII took this to its logical conclusion, and allowed players to stack armies together, using the already well-established Multiplicity rules, originally written by Richard Walkerdine.

Anyway, it's time to get another game running in Octopus's Garden, and both Jim and I think it might be fun to try a game of Downfall, if there's interest. For details of the game opening, see below:

Waiting Lists

Downfall XIII (Diplomacy variant): None (eight wanted).

If you want in on this, please contact me at peter@burdonvale.co.uk.

The rules for Downfall XIII are available on the web at: http://www.burdonvale.co.uk/octopus/down13.html

We'll use a variation on the old houserules for CMag, available on-line at: http://www.burdonvale.co.uk/octopus/house.html
Quick summary: Gamefees No. NMR Insurance Yes. Retreats prophetic. Winters separated. Standbys Yes. Grey press (black except for reserved datelines) Yes. Guest press most definitely Yes.

And if you need a copy of the rulebook for Diplomacy itself, this is now also on-line at: http://www.diplomacy-archive.com/diplomacy_rules.htm

That was Octopus's Garden #61, a Startling Press production.

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