Sherlock Holmes,
Consulting Diplomat

by Manus Hand
Master Aenigmatist

The Curious Case of the False Start

Editor's Note: While the original version of this case was already presented in an earlier issue, new research has provided a better solution than the one that was originally offered. We therefore are publishing this interesting tale from Watson's memoirs once again, and invite our readers to deduce the new improved answer, if they can!

"It is indeed good to be back," I remarked to my friend Sherlock Holmes. I had just returned to the city after a week spent caring for an acquaintance of mine who had taken ill on his country estate, and Holmes had welcomed me back by inviting me along on a visit to the Calhamer Club. The great detective had been summoned to dine there by a mutual friend. Given that the topic of their discussion was to be the care and feeding of potted ferns (a subject in which I held no interest), and as my stomach was still somewhat unsettled — a result of the ride back to the city — I informed Holmes that I would be more than happy to accompany him to the Club, but that I would insist upon excusing myself from sharing his meal. I was looking forward to a relaxing hour or more, spent in the library of the Club reading or conversing with some of my fellow members. Perhaps, I thought, once Holmes had satisfied his appetites for vegetation (both culinary and conversational), a game of Diplomacy could be played. It seemed just the thing to calm my mind after the jarring ride through the countryside.

As it was mid-day, the Club was nearly deserted, and what few gentlemen were afoot were escorting business companions to lunch in the expansive dining room. Holmes and I walked through the empty Diplomacy rooms, and as we passed a gaming table, I heard Holmes mutter to himself: "Interesting position."

Wishing to see what had inspired this thought, I paused to look at the board that Holmes had found so remarkable.

I felt obliged to stop my friend in his tracks. "Why, Holmes!" I exclaimed. "This game has not even begun! What can possibly be so interesting about the position?"

Holmes smiled. "Ah, yes. You have been tending to your profession, and are not acquainted with the latest dispatch from our friend the Sultan of Suwat." Checking his pocket-watch, Holmes saw that he had sufficient time to explain what I had missed while I was away from London.

"The Sultan, as you know, is fond of setting interesting terms for the British Crown to meet in order to continue the lease that His Majesty's government holds on the valuable naval station at the Port of Suwat. The terms always involve the Sultan's favourite pastime, the game of Diplomacy."

"Yes, I am well aware of all this, Holmes. In fact, I have written many times of the assistance you have rendered to the Foreign Office, in tales I have entitled The Double-Elimination Conundrum, The Hunt for the Venison Camper, The Dead-Letters Affair, and The Case of the Suwati Refugee."

"Quite so, Watson. Well, as it happens, the position on this board matches the position in the Sultan's latest directive to His Majesty, and contains a fair amount of interest indeed."

"Perhaps news travels slowly outside the city, Holmes, but I was not aware that the Sultan had once again made a demand for the extension of the lease."

"It is not general knowledge, Watson. A courier has been sent to secure the extension by obtaining the Sultan's signature. I am sure that once this has been accomplished, the members of the press in Fleet Street will be informed. However, the Foreign Office found itself unable to determine from the Sultan's instructions exactly where the courier should be sent. Perhaps if I give these same instructions to you" — Holmes once again checked his timepiece — "you might find it entertaining to preoccupy yourself with them while I take my sustenance."

Still wondering what possible problem concerning the initial game setup had apparently confounded no less than Lord Fortescue, the Foreign Secretary, I eagerly accepted what amounted to a challenge from my friend.

Holmes turned from the entrance to the dining hall and joined me at the table where I stood looking at the Diplomacy board. "While I would agree, Watson, that the best evidence would indicate that the game we find on this table has yet to begin, we can of course only draw such a conclusion from induction. There is, after all, nothing that definitively establishes that the game has not progressed beyond the first move. That is, we cannot say with any degree of certainty — we cannot deduce — that this game has not already begun."

I furrowed my brow. "I suppose not, Holmes. I suppose that for all we know, the game-year could be 1915, and each power has issued HOLD orders for the first fourteen years. While I do not see why such a thing might have taken place, I am forced to admit that it is a possibility." Holmes nodded silently as I went on. "Another possibility is that the powers have not simply held their places; that some movement has occurred, and the powers have perhaps even taken possession of some neutral supply centres, but have all, for whatever reason, returned their pieces to their original sites and have chosen not to exercise their rights to build."

"Yes, Watson, we cannot say that this board has not come to rest in this position in exactly that way. However, what if I were to give you — just as the Sultan (in his usual cryptic way) gave the Foreign Secretary — the following facts about this game?

  • First, that every home supply centre now contains a different piece than was positioned there at the beginning of the game.
  • Second, that no neutral supply centre is yet owned, and every power owns all of its home supply centres.
  • Third, that the next turn for this game will be the earliest possible turn in which the two conditions I just described could possibly hold true."

I stood looking at the board and I believe a smile came to my face. "Fascinating, Holmes! An interesting position, indeed!" After a short pause, I had an insight. "Ah!" I exclaimed. "I believe I am on to the old Sultan's trick! This could be a variant game; perhaps an 1898 game, in which the players start out with only one unit on the board and each must take possession of his own home centres before earning the right to build!"

"Very good, Watson. However, although (as you say) the game we see on the table before us could perhaps be a variant, the game that the Sultan described is indeed a completely standard game of Diplomacy; it is not a variant in any way."

"I see," I said, a bit dejected, but beginning to take a keen interest in how the feat Holmes had described could be accomplished. "I presume that the Sultan's instructions involved delivering to him some intelligence about the moves leading to this position."

"Quite so, Watson. The Sultan informed us that he would be expecting His Majesty's courier to convey the lease extension to the Suwati embassy that is located at the one space on the board into which a unit was retreated. It is there that the Sultan will affix his signature to the instrument. As I mentioned, Lord Fortescue requested my assistance in determining where the Sultan awaits."

"Interesting, indeed, Holmes!" said I, as I pulled a chair up to the Diplomacy table and bent my head to a study of the board. Knowing that Holmes would be forced to take his leave soon, I hoped to make my first deductions while he was within earshot, and I began to reflect aloud on the problem, as much to my friend as to myself. "The requirement is to place into every one of the home supply centres a piece different from — but of the same type and nationality as — the piece that started the game there. Additionally, when this position is reached, all supply centres must be owned and unowned just as at they are the game's start. This must all be done as quickly as possible." I glanced at Holmes to make sure that I understood the problem well. He nodded, indicating that I had indeed.

I continued my examination of the board. "It seems to me that the most time-consuming task will be swapping the position of the two Russian fleets. The time it takes to do so will, I imagine, give me the timespan in which the feat must be accomplished. The quickest sail from Sevastopol to St. Petersburg (or vice-versa) will take" — I paused to count the spaces — "thirteen moves."

Holmes was smiling, but I could not discern whether it was a smile of amusement or if he was actually pleased with my initial effort. "Without passing judgment on your intrepid beginning, Watson, might I say simply that I believe you will have quite a busy hour."

With this, and with a final look at his pocket-watch, Holmes turned and started again for the dining hall. "There is one more detail, Watson," my friend said over his shoulder, "A rather important detail, in fact. The Sultan specified not only that the conditions must be met as quickly as possible, but with as many dislodgements as possible. You see, in order to secure the extension of the lease, our courier must accurately report the total number of dislodgements to the Sultan."

Can you beat Dr. Watson to the solution? Your task is to exactly recreate the starting position of the game, without a single unit in the same location where it began the game. How quickly can it be done, and how many dislodgements can be made in the process? Equally important, where oh where is the Sultan waiting? Send your answers to The Pouch.

...If you feel it would help you, Holmes did briefly step away from the table to check on Watson's progress, and he provided the good doctor with a few interesting details about the solution.

-- Dr. John H. Watson
via Manus Hand
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