The Ethics of Playing a Mercy Position

Mike Lease


The idea for this article came to me as a result of a situation that occurred in a game that ended recently (SpyVsSpy on USEF). I was England in that game, and the game ended quite abruptly two turns after someone replaced France and proceeded to throw the game to Turkey. While I expect to lose more often than I win or draw, the way that this happened was extremely upsetting, and I considered the behavior downright unethical (whatever that means to a Diplomacy player!). So, it caused me to think about why I was upset, and how I (and, I believe, others) should approach the role of a mercy replacement.

For the interested reader, an overview of the game "SpyVsSpy" is provided.

The Purpose of a Mercy Replacement

To begin with, I want to examine the purpose of taking on a mercy position. Why should someone take a position that is on the verge of elimination? In my view, the reason is that we are helping each other continue with games. In a perfect world, no game would require replacements; the original players would play on until the bitter end, either until eliminated or until the game ends in a draw or a victory. However, we don't live in a perfect world, and the sad reality is that people drop out of games for any of a number of reasons (some legitimate, and some not so legitimate).

For some reason, most (though certainly not all) of the players who drop out seem to do so just as they are about to be swallowed up by a larger power. This leaves the remaining players and the GM in a difficult predicament; either the game continues with the power in "Civil Disorder," as provided for in the rulebook, or someone else must volunteer to take over the country. In the first case, there is the potential for a windfall of a few free centers, giving an unfair advantage to the players in position to take advantage of it; they get these centers without having to work (much) for them. In the second, the policies of the replacement player may change drastically from those of the original player; the staunch ally suddenly becomes the bitter enemy, as the new player brings a fresh perspective to the situation. Neither is perfect, but my feeling (and, I believe, that of the rest of the Judge Dip community) is that the second is preferable to the first. It is better to have a human being doing something to manage the country than it is to have all units hold without support. Accordingly, in the spirit of volunteerism, and in the hopes that others will share that spirit when our game is the one that is in need of such help, we take on these hopeless positions to allow the rest of the players to proceed with their game.

Why Worry About Ethics?

Okay, so you've done your duty, and volunteered to direct a country that is about to get creamed by some behemoth (either a single other player or an alliance). Why should it matter how you play the game? Why not just screw around and have fun with the position, whatever your definition of fun might be? Well, let's think about it.

Why did you take the position in the first place? If you agree with the section above, it was because you wanted to help the other players get on with their game, and because you would like other people to do you the same favor when you're in a game that has been stalled by a drop-out. Now, these other players have invested considerable thought, planning, and effort in their game. Is it really helpful to them if you jump in, with no concern for their investment, and wrench the game out of its previous course without reason? I submit that a person who has taken on the role of a mercy replacement has assumed an obligation to play the game in a rational manner, contribute to the other players' enjoyment of the game by providing a worthy opponent, and to refrain from capriciously affecting the outcome. And please note the word "capriciously;" I'm not saying that you shouldn't change your predecessor's policies, merely that you shouldn't do so without reason.

What are the Ethics of Playing a Mercy Position?

I'm glad you asked! My position is simply that a mercy replacement should play to the best of his or her ability. Failing to do so, in my opinion, voids the service aspect of taking on the position in the first place.

If you roll over and play dead for one player, you have given that player an unfair advantage. If that player thus wins the game, was the victory truly meaningful? Have you not robbed him or her of the chance to prove that the victory was earned through clever negotiating and good play? And what of the players from whom you have snatched the draw or the chance to win themselves? Personally, if I were the beneficiary of such play, I would consider my victory tainted. And as a victim, I would be quite upset at the thought that all of my time and effort went down the drain, merely because someone without much of a stake in the game decided to "be on the winning side" by throwing the game to another player.

That's exactly what the person who replaced France in SpyVsSpy said in justifying his actions. I believe if you take a mercy position, you should strive to participate in a draw if possible, and to go down fighting if not. Better yet, you should try for a win! Use the game as an opportunity to sharpen your skills in negotiating and/or in tactical play, but don't just tank it because you don't really feel like putting in the effort. Anything less cheats the other players of their opportunity to prove themselves as Diplomacy players, and devalues the final outcome, whatever it may be. In my opinion, if you aren't willing to put forth an honest effort to make the most of your position, you shouldn't take on a mercy position in the first place.

Mike Lease

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