Federation Diplomacy

By  Theo Kermanidis

This article is about a new Diplomacy variant based in the region of Australia and New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th century.


To quote from my web page on the variant, "Australia became a federation on the 1st of January 1901. So our history books tell us. The colonies came together, united into one nation. Not by an act of war, nor through violent action was a nation forged." How boring! No wonder I fell asleep in those Australian history classes.

This is your chance to rewrite a nation's history. Federation had failed. Instead of peaceful unity, war between the colonies is declared. All agreements between the colonies have been dissolved.

It is Spring 1901. The divisions between the colonies are fueled by hunger to gain control over the continent. You are the colony's governor and have already instructed the militia forces to be mustered and ready for action.

Who will succeed to unify Australia? Who will forever be doomed to oblivion? What will you do to unite Australia?"

Variant Basics

The variant is an 8-power game. The powers are: New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand.

The game starts in Spring 1901. There are 51 supply centers, with a winning count of 26 supply centers. Note: the number of supply centers has varied from version to version. Originally there were 48 supply centers with a winning count of 24 supply centers.

Powers begin with two or three units on their initial home supply centers. Powers may be able to acquire up to six home supply centers (but not all powers). Some of the powers are limited in the number of home supply centers they can acquire (for example, Northern Territory can acquire only 3 home supply centers). The reasons for this are partly historical and partly geographical.

The following map shows the map and the various starting positions of the respective powers.

Click here to enlarge.


Variant Development

As with all variants there is usually a basis for the idea that sparked its development. For this variant there were several ideas:

  1. I wanted a unique variant that was closer to home (i.e. Australia).
  2. A historical basis for the variant.
  3. I wanted to incorporate features of other variants that I really liked. In this variant they are:
  4. home centre acquisitions (as in the 1898 variant)
    supply centre clusters
    fleet actions
    regional rivals and triads
    balance through diversity
  5. web site support

The issue of variant scenario and historical basis are purely personal preferences. As I found with standard Diplomacy a game having some form of historical perspective helps to provide a rich source of background information whereby personas, that some players I have known to excel at, can be developed. So far in the only test game, I have seen some clever personas, including good 'ol Joe-Bielke Peterson (from Queensland), even Jeff Kennet from Victoria had made an appearance.

Web site support enhances the playability of the variant. Information such as strategy ideas, maps etc, as well as references to sites for background information (eg history) would only serve to fuel the development of the variant, or at least hope it does.

The importance of game features assists in developing character for the variant. I will expand on each one to show why I liked those particular features.

Home Centre Acquisitions

In the 1898 variant, each power begins the game with only one unit, and must capture all their home supply centers before being able to benefit from them (and be able to make builds there). I think this is such an excellent feature that it only enhances a variant by making the opening potential that much richer.

In the Federation variant, I took this idea further. Each larger colony can acquire up to 6 home centers. Each colony begins with either two or three units (depending on the colony). They must capture the remainder supply centers to benefit from them. So the initial part of the game is a race to acquire all the home centers.

This feature provides more rapid power development as well as more variable. It makes the diplomacy more critical in the opening moves than in 1898. From experience, in 1898 players generally have little need to communicate until the second or third years. There are usually too busy happily going their merry ways acquiring home supply centers. In Federation with the extra units that powers have at the start, the diplomacy must not be overlooked.

Supply Center Clusters

This feature alone is probably the single cause for conflicts in Diplomacy than any other I can think of. In standard Diplomacy, the Lowlands, Scandinavia and Balkans are the usual trouble spots for contention between the powers.

In Federation there are several supply center clusters. These are spread throughout the map, on the Northwest Coast, Queensland heartland, the dead heart (center) and the largest is the south-east of Australia. There is also an open cluster of islands off the east coast of Australia.

An essential ingredient of clusters is the size, so that there never is a balanced distribution of centers between the powers, but at the same time, its never clear cut how that distribution should be. This results in much of the contention between powers.

Fleet Actions

One of the most under-stated elements of Diplomacy is the fleet. I agree that armies carry out most of the action, but fleets put to good use can provide an essential ingredient to counter most army-based powers, for example the ability for long sequences convoys, allows rapid deployment of armies.

Australia is a big "island-continent" and granted that most of the action will occur on the mainland. New Zealand and Tasmania are both island colonies. Should they gain mastery of the seas, they could begin to assert their respective claims of territory on the mainland. The abundance of island supply centers should never be under-estimated by the mainland colonies, and fleets must always be considered by the main land colonies.

Regional Rivals and Triads

It goes without saying that rivalry is also another great contributor to good-fisticuffs between powers. For example, the Black Sea region will always lead to some anxiety for Turkey and Russia in standard Diplomacy. Also the well-documented England/France/Germany triad results in much of the initial game spent resolving differences between these powers. This feature I felt to be too important not to include.

Some of the rivalries I hope will lead to some excellent diplomacy potential. They are as follows:

  1. Queensland/New Zealand rivalry over the Pacific Islands.

  2. South Australia/New South Wales/Victoria triad - a rich cluster of supply centers need resolution.

  3. Victoria/Tasmania rivalry for control over Bass Strait.
  4. Western Australia/Northern Territory rivalry for control of the cluster of supply centers in the northwest.

  5. Tasmania/New Zealand/New South Wales triad for control of the seas and oceans in the southeast.

  6. Queensland/South Australia/Northern Territory triad for control over central supply centers.

There are other combinations, which can only lead to enriching the potential for diplomacy.

Balance Through Diversity

This is probably the least obvious point, but I wanted the variant to encompass powers that are very different from one another. This is also a winning formula in many of the other excellent variants such as modern. The only difference is with most of these variants; all powers begin with virtually the same number of units.

In Federation Diplomacy, the colonies may begin with two or three units. The reason for this is partially historical, and partially for play balance.

For example, Northern Territory is largely an under-developed region of Australia, with a small population base; hence in this variant it begins the game with two units. In the first draft of the variant, Northern Territory started with just one unit, though in later versions it was expanded to two, due to player request. It was deemed that just one unit made Northern Territory too inflexible to start with and too vulnerable to quick elimination. Having said that, in one of the games, Northern Territory had great success with one starting unit. It's all in the diplomacy. Future versions of the variant will stick to two units.

On the other end of the scale, both Victoria and New South Wales are of the eldest, and far more populous of all colonies and thus begin the game with three units. This advantage is quickly diluted by the second and third years of the game.

This diversity will help to balance out some of the regional advantages and disadvantages each power faces, and largely it will be an aspect that needs to be considered in the strategies each diplomat employs.

Design and Deployment

The variant was designed using David Norman's MapMaker tool (the tool is available via DipPouch). It is a versatile tool, which is able to check your map for various topological necessities. I wont go into the details here, but once those are met, the resultant map is submitted to David for inclusion into the USTR variant database. The tool even allows Postscript maps to be generated. One feature it lacks and would have saved me some trouble is that it would be nice if it had a spell checker. Then again, it would be nice if I could just spell.

I added a river network feature to the map, which spans from South Australia through Victoria, New South Wales and all the way to Queensland. This is the famous Murray-Darling river system which is historically so important to the development of Australia. I felt having this system in the game will allow an opportunity for one of two things to happen. The first being, that island colonies like Tasmania and New Zealand have access to in-land supply centers even though they can be fleet heavy. Land based colonies could use the river network to by-pass possible fleet blockades of the surrounding seas. In effect the river network is just an elaborate canal system (as in standard Diplomacy terminology).

Variants like Federation and 1898 have to be handled extra carefully because of the home center acquisition feature. This is actually achieved by submitting two map files. The first map contains units in their stating positions. The second map contains units in all the home centers. This is then handled by David to generate the correct [map during each phase].

Once the game is entered into the judge database, David usually starts what I call a teething game, not too different to pushing a few units on a map, just to see if the game behaves correctly. Only then can you request a proper trial game to be created.

In addition to this, I created a number of GIF map files. I used a digitized regional map of the south-east Asia region as a foundation for the map. I deleted a few superfluous features, expanded the size of a few islands (to fit a dot), and even colourized some of them.

The Current Federation Map
Click here to enlarge.


Soliciting Players

It was tough going soliciting support for the game. The first stop was in the rec.games.diplomacy USENET group. It made many posts but got no bites of the cherry. The impression I had was that either Diplomacy players are very unadventurous, or are just too busy playing other Diplomacy games.

I did manage to get a listing of all Australian and Kiwi registered judge users, and did a cold contact email [read this as SPAM] to ask for players. This eventually proved to be the winning ticket. From memory, it took a month before I managed to get just 4 players to play in an 8 player variant.

The only advice I have is not to give up.

Trial Games

The variant had undergone a number of trial games on the USTR judge. In all there have been 9 games: oz, kiwi, crux, anzac, oioioi, banjo, bradman, dampier and hartog. Only dampier is still in progress at the time of writing.

The first game was oz. The game got underway with only 4 players, playing the 8 respective powers. The power combinations I nominated are: South Australia/Queensland, Western Australia/Victoria, New South Wales/Tasmania, New Zealand/Northen Territory.

Obviously this eliminated some of the diplomacy potential in the game, however the purpose of the game is to sort out the technical issues, and to gain exposure for the variant.

There had been some teething problems, such as, some province names were incorrectly spelt, some map errors (in the hand drawn GIFs), and even one rogue supply center appeared in the game (that shouldn't have been there).

The games have been a mix of partial press, no press, partial/grey press. The players had adapted some of the suggested playing strategies in the web site, and even devised a few new ones. This is an encouraging sign.

Variant Updates

The players proved to be keen on the variant and had even made suggestions for enhancement. One of the suggested enhancements was to give Northern Territory and extra starting unit.

Since then, the variant is in its 2nd revision (i.e. 3rd version), and the map had expanded to include Antarctica. This adds more fleet action potential as well as a few more needed neutral supply centers to overcome an imbalance between Tasmania and New Zealand.

Note: the 4th version is in the pipeline to be released with some additional changes, in particular one extra supply center to permit 2-way draws (i.e. Have an even number of supply centers).

General Observations

What I found so far in the Federation variant is that players have slowly taken a liking to it. This is a good sign. More specifically I have noticed:

  1. No quick elimination of powers with powers lasting usually up to 1906 before the first elimination.
  2. Solos are possible. We have had several.
  3. Some partial stalemate positions.
  4. Stabs, after all it is Diplomacy.
  5. Fleet navigation along the river network.
  6. Creative personalities adopted by the players.
  7. Room for improvement.

I am not sure where the development of this variant will go. I don't really want to get into a situation whereby there is infinite dabbling to perfect the game, but there are still some things I feel need tweaking to remedy.

Player Feedback

I had asked for feedback from each of the players to get their points of view about the variant.

Western Australia/Victoria played by Kim Schell:

"I can't wait until this games over and we can start again with 1 power per player. in the proper game, I'd like to see how SA/Vic/NSW is played out, and obviously alliances and diplomacy will be a major win factor. then it would be interesting to see how Queensland/NT are played, either against each other or against SA/Vic/NSW. not to mention I'd also like to see how influential NT and WA will be after 2/3 years of building strength without any attackers."

New South Wales/Tasmania played by James Robinson:

"Unfortunately due to being under constant attack from turn one of this game I have seen more of Tasmania's weaknesses than strengths. The strength is the obvious one of isolation. It is very hard (almost impossible) for anyone to take Tassie out single-handedly. However Tassie's strength is also a weakness in that there are very limited opportunities for expansion. Tassie is only guaranteed one easy build. Even Bass Strait Island will require a fight. Also the ability of Victoria to get a fleet into Middle Bass Strait without Tassie being able to stop them means that they will almost always be under pressure from turn one. Perhaps treating New Zealand like Turkey and going for the throat would be a good option, but this could only be achieved with New South Welsh help and Victorian non-aggression. All in all New Zealand would be a much better option than Tassie. Not only is it harder to attack but it has more attacking opportunities and three easy builds."

New Zealand/Northern Territory played by Brendan McClure:

"Big Shots - South Australia, Queensland

These powers all have massive opening potential, easily getting to 6 or 7 SCs before even declaring an enemy. These powers simply do not have any powers who can effectively attack them from day one. WA and NSW start off too far away to stop them in the initial stages, and on the opposite side of the spectrum. They can launch attacks into any neighbor before that neighbor has finished gathering home SCs. Central location without being surrounded and contested like Austria is, makes these guys the winners.

Dark Horses - New Zealand, Victoria, Western Australia

While these powers begin stepping on toes really quickly, they easily make up for it in strong defenses. Negotiating one or two DMZs of key provinces and they can become very powerful. The dense SCs of NZ and Vic make defense easy for them, and the non-passable territories of WA and Vic provide convenient barriers against attack. Unfortunately, offensive capabilities are hampered by these Switzerlands (and it's isolation that hurts NZ simliarly). A last bonus is that these are the powers that I believe would be the most fun to play.

The Italies - Northern Territory, Tasmania

Well you've got to four SCs. Where on earth do you plan on getting more? Either stab an ally and pay for it, or design a complex multi-year attack deep into enemy territory (like a Lepanto), leaving yourself wide open for attack by someone else.

Big Loser - New South Wales

First you have to convince NZ you don't want him to take your coastal SCs, then you have to run over to Bourke and Broken Hill before Vic and SA decide to take it, PLUS it is next to impossible to break through into Vic territory. Like Austria, NSW has to deal with being surrounded and contested by almost everyone. And like Austria, he usually pays for it by being ganged on. While SA and Vic will be diverting his attention, NZ or Que can easily walk in behind and take what they please. Broken Hill might as well be an SA home SC as NSW is never going to take it before SA walks in from Riverland.
    Ratings for potential:
  1. South Australia
  2. Queensland
  3. New Zealand
  4. Victoria
  5. Western Australia
  6. Northern Territory
  7. Tasmania
  8. New South Wales"

South Australia/Queensland played by Greeboscum:

"I feel poor old Tassie still has not much to gain in this game. With little space and difficult expansion prospects, still the hardest power on the board. Even with the help of NSW this game, poor Tassie cannot get out of the blocks. Tough going if TAS does not go out quick.

Then there is "The Cluster" as I like to think of it, This is the section that has 11 SC's interconnected from SA to VIC to NSW. Very congested in the area, and much alike the "northern triangle" in standard Diplomacy, the survivors are the two players allied together.

NSW I feel is the toughest of the southern triangle due to it's weakly guarded western provinces. NSW simply cannot defend with a greater power of 2 without stepping into a neighbours yard which tends to get Dip players a tad annoyed. But with help of ally, this area could be quite defendable, but you have to depend on that ally.

Queensland can still be of influence down south, but has a lot of water to defend, and protect it's free neutral SC's, which forces it to a naval power, with 3 tough landlocked SC's to guard off the desert vultures. This leaves a opening for NT, who is scare on SC's and looking for easy SC's to gobble up after starting with 1 unit. Queensland also has a lot of ground to defend which is why I think QLD/SA could form a similar effective alliance much like the classic Italy/Russia in standard. Too far apart to go to war, but close enough to work together against either NT or NSW, whichever took their fancy.

A win/win alliance for these two states. (and not just because I am these powers in the game).

New Zealand. Another difficult power. Obviously naval, but hard to gain mainland presence without support from the land. Also this would make it hard for the land based powers to invade, so the first target would be it's other naval threats (QLD or TAS). NZ and TAS could also team up on VIC for another WIN/WIN alliance. Both get water domination, and once they crack the land, they have a great convoy line to shuffle armies in. If QLD has northern problems, then this is a good option for the two sea powers to flood the mainland. "The TANZAC Southern Lepanto" anyone? I'm sure NSW would come to this party much like Russia when The poor Turk gets this done to him in standard.

WA is isolated and far from the action, but has the potential to slowly grow like a cancer. It has more free home SC's and would naturally like KIM back off NT, but could team up with NT or SA quite well. Being far away, it is unlikely SA is interested in pushing west in the early 1901 - 1904 period as the southern triangle action is more to keep SA busy, therefore another mutually beneficial alliance forms. The smaller WA/NT Semi-Juggernaut. Press in on the northwest of SA until weakens, then divide the line and multiply. NT moves thru QLD, WA thru Sa and while the others are bickering over "the cluster" these two could slime their way over. Don't let em get too big boys.

I'm sure there are a plethora of other adaptations of basic Diplomacy moves that also would work for this variant. An 8 player game would certainly be a challenge, and could possibly rival the headaches you experience in a post 2000 Modern game....we will have to wait and see.

Congratulations Theo, I think you have successfully captured a nice balance of some classic essentials and a new face for some interesting possibilities."

More Information

If you would like to find out more about the variant with many maps supporting many popular mapping tools, just visit the Federation Rules site.

Final Remarks

I never realized how difficult it was to develop a new variant until I tried to develop Federation. I was heartened to have read somewhere that it took something like 14 years to develop standard Diplomacy to a point that we recognize today. I am hoping with the wider diplomatic community and modern wonders like email, internet and electronic judges to fast track some of this and get a popular variant widely circulated sooner.

All that's left to say is, "It's up to you." Come aboard!

Theo Kermanidis

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