Design of a Variant: Maharajah's Diplomacy

By David E. Cohen


Let me begin by saying that I am certainly not an expert in variant design. I have written this article as an illustration of the process by which I design variants. I hope that by doing so, people who might not otherwise consider designing a variant would find this article to be helpful, and give variant design a try. I have been designing variants for several years, for many reasons. There is the satisfaction that comes from the process of creation. Variant design also gives me a better understanding, often on an intuitive level, of the underlying mechanics of the game, through observation of people playing under an altered map and/or altered rules. Finally, I can observe particular players, and learn more about their style of play in a new variant, because there is no "normal" way of doing things, than I can by observing their play in a standard game.

Though my reasons for designing variants have remained constant, there has been an evolution in my design preferences. My first variants were a little gimmicky, not particularly well balanced, and also somewhat complex. Nevertheless, each one was a little bit better than the last. For my next variant, I wanted to have good balance and to minimize the rules changes. I also figured that variants using the standard map, or a close variation of it, might well be "played out", simply because there were so many of them. Finally, I had come to the conclusion that fictional or alternate-history scenarios did not have the popular appeal that more historically accurate variants did. The last variant I designed, Mandate of Heaven based on the Warring States period of Chinese history (circa 500-221 B.C.), is fairly well balanced, but there are several additional rules, added for reasons of geography and historical accuracy, which give rise to a level of complexity that not all players are comfortable with. These included a semi-nomadic power, and neutral Powers with mobile units, the movement being determined by a secret vote of the players. There is also very little water, with no offshore Supply Centers, and a very dense concentration of Supply Centers in the middle of the map. Some people reviewing the variant found the map not to their liking because of this, so I wanted to avoid all these traits in my next variant. The differences gave Mandate of Heaven quite a different feel than standard Diplomacy, and I wanted my next variant to more closely resemble standard Diplomacy in feel as well as in its rules.

After some thought, I settled on the Indian subcontinent as a good geographical area to work with. It had several points in its favor, including a fairly compact shape and potential for offshore Supply Centers in Ceylon and possibly elsewhere, depending upon the final map boundaries. Even better, there were no widely played variants using the Indian subcontinent alone as a board. I knew there were several eras where India was divided into many contending states, thus providing good subject matter for variant design, but I needed detailed information, so I got several books and dug in. I also made copies of the relevant pages of some historical atlases, though it was difficult to find exactly what I needed. At this point, I would be negligent if I did not give great credit to two institutions of the hobby. First, the Variant Bank, which is part of the Diplomacy Archive, both run by the tireless Stephen Agar. The Variant Bank is a truly comprehensive resource, with information on well over one thousand variants, as well as articles (several by Mr. Agar) on variant-related topics. Second, the Diplomacy Variant Workshop, with its related discussion group "dvworkshop" at yahoogroups, founded by Benjamin Hester, designer of the popular and well thought out Sengoku variant. (The Shogun bows deeply to the Emperor!) The Workshop is a wonderful aid for a variant designer. Ideas are discussed in an open and constructive manner, and resources are gladly shared. After I announced my intention to create the variant, several people made good suggestions, or provided maps and other information to me.

I became convinced that the best time period for the variant would be before the era of European colonization, which began with the Portuguese takeover of Goa in 1510. After that, the relative isolation of the area ended, and a post-1510 variant, for historical accuracy, might well require off-map placement and/or supply of units, and I did not want to diverge so strongly from the standard rules. On the other hand, I wanted to come as close to the 1510 date as possible, since the more recent I made the variant, the more historical material would be available to aid in the design, and the place names would also tend to be more familiar. Mandate of Heaven, for example, starts in 369 B.C. and has almost no place names that are recognizable to anyone not a student of Chinese history. I settled on a start date of 1501, for ease of record keeping, and more importantly because it was a very interesting period in Indian history, being just before the beginning of the period of Mughal (or Mogul, if you prefer) dominance. I chose the name "Maharajah's Diplomacy" (maharajah means "great king" in Hindi, one of the major languages of India) because it seemed catchy, and a good name might bring some attention to the variant.

With the start date established, my next task was to set the outside boundaries of the map. The Safavid Empire would take power in Persia in 1502, and by extending the map to the west a bit more than I had originally anticipated, I could add eastern Persia and make it a power. I did not want any powers further north than the Mughals, but I envisioned four or five empty provinces on the northern edge, since I thought that placing the Mughal Empire Supply Centers on the edge of the map would give it too good a defensive position. In the northeast, Tibet and the Himalayas would probably be made impassable. In the east, the countries east of Burma really did not have much influence in India at that time, so I made the western part of Burma the eastern border of the map. The south contained all the water, and the island of Ceylon. I came to the conclusion that the other islands in the prospective map area were either too small to be of significance, or too far away to include without either enlarging the map dramatically or losing basic geographical accuracy. Once I established the edges of the map, I created a blank to work from, which involved cropping a large map to the boundaries I wanted, and removing all features except the coastline. I then began filling in national boundaries and cities, in order to start determining where the other Powers and their Supply Centers would be, as well as the locations of neutral Supply Centers and other provinces.

After I had placed the Safavid and Mughal Empires on the map, I began examining the other likely candidates for Power status, basing my decisions on size and historical importance. In the central part of the map, the Rajputana, which was a collection of semi-independent principalities that at times acted in concert or as a confederation, and the Delhi Sultanate, once the dominant state of the subcontinent, were good candidates for Power status. In the south, two historical adversaries, the Kingdom of Vijayanagar and the Bahmanid Sultanate, seemed like good choices as well. The more I looked at the preliminary map at that point, the more I realized that the Delhi Sultanate would have too easy a time in the eastern section of the map, and therefore I would need to add a Power in the area. After some additional research, I decided to add the Kingdom of Gondwana.

With these Powers placed on the preliminary map, I could see that adding any additional Powers would make it too crowded, so I began to concentrate on the location of Supply Centers. I started each Power with three units, and without too much difficulty, I was able to arrange things so that no two Powers began the game with adjacent Supply Centers, while still leaving open the possibility of first year action against almost every Supply Center. Next I began choosing sites and setting the boundaries for the neutral Supply Centers and non-Supply Center provinces. I had several objectives here. I wanted to spread the neutrals across the board, but locate most of the neutrals adjacent to multiple Powers, so there would be very few "guaranteed" builds after the first year of play. I also wanted to make sure that no first turn move by any single unit could threaten more than two Supply Centers of any single Power, as a way of lessening the likelihood that one Power would be at the complete mercy of another in the first year. Finally, I looked for possible stalemate lines. I preferred not to have any, or at least to minimize them, in order to keep movement fluid, especially since the variant was starting to look like it would have a more crowded map than standard Diplomacy. I wanted the play of the variant to be as dynamic and exciting as possible. As it turned out, there are some stalemate lines on the "final" map, but not too many. Feel free to look for them, but I won't give you any help right now!

Other geographical and play considerations also began to influence my thinking at this time. Europe, unlike most areas of the world, is made up to a fair extent of large peninsulas and islands, so a European map tends to offer a lot of fleet oriented play. My map, on the other hand, did not have that "chopped up" quality. There was no island power. Ceylon, the only island, was split into two kingdoms, neither one of which was nearly large or strong enough to be given consideration as a possible power. In addition, three of the powers (the Mughal Empire, Rajputana and Gondwana) were landlocked. It was mainly because of the geographical considerations that I decided on the two rule changes employed in the variant. The first was a rule I had previously used in Mandate of Heaven, also for the purpose of opening up the interior of the board for fleet action, the rule being that certain provinces would either contain or border navigable rivers. I included the Indus, the Ganges-Brahmaputra, and the Irrawaddy on the map as markers, making the provinces through which the rivers ran equivalent to Constantinople. The provinces that bordered the rivers became equivalent to Denmark and Sweden. The difference was that fleets in the river provinces could be used to convoy. River convoys could be disrupted by any attack by a fleet, but for an army to disrupt a river convoy, the attack would have to successfully dislodge the convoying fleet.

Having navigable rivers did open the map to some extent, but it still left Gondwana and the Mughal Empire landlocked. This is where the second rule, modified "Chaos-style" builds, came in. Unlike Mandate of Heaven, where almost every Supply Center on the board represented an ethnically Chinese (of one sort or another) area, the part of the world in which Maharajah's Diplomacy was set covered dozens of major ethnic groups, speaking just as many languages. The area also seethed with religious and ethnic hatred (much as it does today, unfortunately), so I decided that "normal" Chaos-style builds would not be appropriate for the variant.

The initial rule was more complicated, but the build rule as eventually developed was a compromise that gave the variant more fluidity and the opportunity for the landlocked Powers to get some river or ocean access, while remaining appropriate to the milieu. Any unit that occupied a single Supply Center for an entire game calendar year (i.e., consecutive Spring, Fall and Winter turns) would cause the Supply Center, whether previously owned by that Power or not, to become a Home Supply Center for the occupying Power. If the Supply Center was not occupied in the spring, was occupied by different units of the same power in consecutive Spring and Fall turns, or was vacated in the Winter turn by disband, the Supply Center would be owned by, but would not become a Home Supply Center of, the occupying Power. If not converted to a Home Supply Center of a new Power, if it was previously a Home Supply Center of the former owner, the Supply Center would remain so, but would merely be under foreign occupation. The old Power could retake the Supply Center, but if it had been converted to a Home Supply Center of another Power, the recapturing Power would need to go through the same conversion process in order to reconvert the Supply Center to Home Supply Center status. Conquest and conversion of Supply Centers would permit any Power to build up a navy. To further encourage fleet building, I made sure that travel by water, just as in standard Diplomacy, was faster than land travel. I also decided that in spite of their comparatively small size, both Ceylonese provinces, Jaffna and Kandy, would be neutral Supply Centers, making control of the island an important objective.

I am definitely not an artist, but I can make a legible map, so I did my best. I made the provinces big enough to hold the icons I designed with the exception of the two Ceylonese provinces, but as they were next to large water provinces, I was not worried about "spillover", and also big enough to hold the complete name of each province. I thought that was important since players would be dealing with an unfamiliar map, and I wanted to make order writing as easy as possible. Hard to read or uninformative maps are a real turn off for me, and other players have told me the same thing. For icons, I decided on an elephant carrying a howdah for the armies, and a dhow for the fleets, both in silhouette. It was simple and easy to use, but with some character appropriate to the subject matter. I drew the Supply Center icons as wheels with four or eight spokes (reminiscent of the traditional symbol found on the flag of India), to represent Supply Centers and Home Supply Centers respectively. With regard to colors, I had already used light blue for the water, tan for the land, and black for province borders and lettering. This was a straightforward and easily readable look. I then picked random contrasting colors for the various powers, and white for the neutrals. The northeast corner of the board, unused because of my decision to make Tibet impassable, was the perfect place to put a symbol key and title. A spot was left over, so for a little more visual interest, I put in a picture of the famous column with three lions, long recognized as a symbol of India. The draft map (Figure 1) was now complete.

Figure 1: Draft map for Maharajah's Diplomacy.
(Reduced from actual size.)

The map was rather large, so for those who wanted something a little less overwhelming on their computer monitors, I made a smaller version of the map, which still had enough room for the three-letter abbreviation of each province, taken from a list I had prepared. The icons could be dispensed with since the names of each of the powers began with a different letter, and therefore units could be identified with two letter combinations to represent the nationality and unit type.

Stephen Agar placed a copy of the map and rules on his web site for me, and after he did so, I made a request for comments from the Diplomacy Variant Workshop. The comments I got were mostly positive. The main criticism was that the Home Supply Center conversion rule as it then read was too complicated. I agreed, and simplified it to the rule stated earlier in this article. After review of the comments, I decided that it was time to step back for a few weeks. I would return to the project with a fresh perspective, to make final adjustments and corrections before holding the first playtest.

Once I got back to work, in addition to a general neatening up and the renaming of a couple of provinces for historical accuracy, I made several substantive changes to arrive at the "final" map. I moved one of the Delhi Sultanate's Home Supply Centers from Ganges Delta to Bihar, changed the unit from a fleet to an army, and eliminated the connection between Bihar and Ganges Delta by extending Bengal so that it bordered Assam. This made the map more historically accurate and increased somewhat the likelihood that multiple powers would contest ownership of Ava and Pegu, the Burmese Supply Centers. I fixed an error in the course of the Irrawaddy River, and moved the border of Bay of Bengal to it in order to make river convoys through Pegu possible from either Bay of Bengal or Andaman Sea. This would give Vijayanagar more influence in the east. I also added a Supply Center in Khandesh, to improve the prospects of the Bahmanid Sultanate, which seemed to need better first year opportunities. My final change was to give Arabian Sea a border with Maldive Sea. This had the effect of creating an inner ring of four sea provinces and an outer ring of three sea provinces. I believe the new configuration will make movement by water easier, and therefore should increase the use and importance of fleets.

Throughout the design process, I had been formulating possible opening strategies for each power, and considering the various possibilities for alliance structures. My preference in any variant is that any Power should be able to plausibly either ally with or attack any of its neighbors. The map looked good there, without the geography problems some people complain about (without too much justification, but that is another article!) when playing on the standard map. Even though it was certainly possible for any pair of allies to remain faithful and sweep the board between them, it would not be easy to refrain from stabbing. The map is more densely populated with Supply Centers than the standard map, because there are fewer non-Supply Center provinces, so units will tend to be in closer proximity. Further, the addition of Khandesh as a Supply Center, raising the total from (an entirely coincidental) thirty-four to thirty-five made the possibility of a two-way draw highly improbable.

I considered several other changes, but in each case possible improvement in one area led to problems elsewhere, so I stopped at that point and asked Stephen Agar to update the map (Figure 2) and rules on his website, and once more asked for comments from the Diplomacy Variant Workshop.

Figure 2: Map for Maharajah's Diplomacy, Version 1.0.
(Reduced from actual size. Click map to enlarge.)

I only got a couple of fairly minor comments, with nothing negative, and I made no further changes to the map. The variant is now ready to be playtested, and I intend to run a game as soon as my schedule permits, perhaps with the results, and commentary from the players and myself, to appear here in a future article.

  David E. Cohen
([email protected])

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the mail address above
does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.