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World Domination: the Game

Deception, double-crosses, back-stabbing ... It's not that the passionate enthusiasts who gather around the Diplomacy board can't handle the truth. They just don't care to

By Blake Eskin
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page W16

The train pulls into Baltimore, and Satan is waiting, as promised.

They say the devil wears many disguises. Satan has chosen the summer weekend uniform of the American male, a polo shirt and many-pocketed shorts. So has his friend Bad Tom.

(Ian Pollack)

There's no telltale sign of how Andy Marshall and Tom Pasko earned their nicknames -- no teeth missing from their smiles, no jailhouse tattoos, no leather above the ankles. Bad Tom may have a ponytail, a scruffy beard and a stud in one earlobe, but the combined effect is more pleasure-boat captain than outlaw biker, and the character on his baseball cap is Grumpy, from Disney's "Snow White." When a Ford sedan honks at Satan's Jeep SUV for a not-very-aggressive merge, Satan leaves the windows rolled up while murmuring, "It's really unfortunate that you're that upset."

We stop for dinner at Bertha's, a seafood place in Fells Point. Nursing a Glenlivet, Satan shrugs off his handle as a harmless pop-culture reference; in his round face, round glasses, receding short hair, mustache and goatee, friends detected a resemblance to the animated cutout of Satan on "South Park." As for Bad Tom, he explains that on the Diplomacy circuit, "Evil Tom was already taken."

Diplomacy is a seven-player board game based on the fragile balance of power in pre-World War I Europe. First played 50 years ago in a Cambridge, Mass., rooming house, it is a cult classic that, like a midnight movie or a jam band, attracts rolling waves of adolescent fans. It also enjoys a core following of salesmen, lawyers, software engineers and other adults, mostly men, who spend their weekends at gatherings in suburban dens, conference rooms and chain hotels around the country.

Diplomacy isn't everyone's idea of fun. Time is one obstacle; a quick game can take six hours, and others can go on for 16 hours. More important, most of the action unfolds away from the table, in tense, furtive conversations among the seven players representing the once-great powers of Europe as they trade intelligence and plan joint maneuvers. The back-and-forth sounds like a David Mamet screenplay about the Triple Entente, especially because no promise is binding, no piece of information reliable. According to the rules, "players may say anything they wish." Eavesdropping, slander and betrayal -- back-stabbing, in Diplomacy parlance -- become arrows in your quiver, not the concealed weaponry of cheats and spoilsports.

"The whole thing about Diplomacy isn't lying," says Bad Tom, who drove down to Maryland from Connecticut for the Tempest in a Teapot, a tournament run by the Potomac Tea & Knife Society, the national capital region's Diplomacy club. "It's getting other people to do what you want them to do and have them think it's their idea."

Satan laughs. "And if that doesn't work, you lie," he says.

MORE THAN 15 YEARS HAVE PASSED since I've been around a Diplomacy board. I discovered it in eighth or ninth grade, at that awkward age when boys, especially those of us not destined to become varsity athletes, seek out alternate paths to feeling powerful -- anything from student government to the punk scene. My friends and I had made a brief foray into Dungeons & Dragons, but found it too fantastical, too formless, too random. Diplomacy, on the other hand, I fell for immediately. At the time, I was toying with the thought of a career in politics, maybe international affairs. And what was high school, after all, if not a world of limited resources, rampant rumors and shifting loyalties?

Describing an unfamiliar game, particularly something as involved as Diplomacy, is an almost impossible task. It's like expecting a real estate ad or a blueprint to capture what it's like to live in that house; you can't understand until you've parked your toothbrush there. Enthusiasts sometimes describe Diplomacy as chess crossed with poker, because the game combines tactics and strategy on a board with bluffing and second-guessing in a large group. Reality television offers another point of comparison. "It's like 'Survivor' without the bug bites," says Lisa Foster of Burke, who joined the Potomac Tea & Knife Society last year. "You make alliances with people. You stab them in the back. You vote people out, sometimes because you're threatened by them and sometimes because you don't like them."

Back in high school, sometimes my close friends offered the best alliances on the board, but other times I had to choose between my strategic interests in prewar Europe and my strategic interests in high school. We must have played Diplomacy only a handful of times, no more than 10, before burning through the pool of curious players and our own fascination. That may not sound like much -- and compared with the typical player at the Tempest, we were mere amateurs -- but it was like a formative teen romance: brief, intense, casting a shadow over future relationships.


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