Missing Man Diplomacy
In fact, the regular newsgroup reader will also recognize much of the following, which is adapted from my response to such questions. It is a description of Scott Kasch's solution to this dilemma, which I dubbed "Missing Man Diplomacy" (or MMD, for short). Before getting into the selling points for the variant, let me go over the basics, which are very simple.
Unlike the suggestions for short-headcount play which are given in the rulebook, however, the units of these vacant powers don't just sit and hold in position, waiting to be eaten up by the active players. Instead, the units of the vacant powers will receive orders for every phase, just like the units owned by any other Great Power. The catch is that the (played) power which has the privilege of issuing the orders for each one of the vacant powers changes from phase to phase in rotation.
For example, if Austria is a vacant power, then the English player might enter the Spring 1901 Movement orders for Austria, after which the French player would enter Austria's Fall 1901 Movement orders, the Russian player would be responsible for Austria's 1901 adjustment orders, etc., etc.
The rotation scheme should be set up such that the players taking their turns with the vacant power first would seem, to a disinterested observer, to have the most to gain by strengthening that vacant power. That is, if Austria is vacant, Italy, Turkey, and Russia shouldn't really take the first three turns at the helm of the dual monarchy.
If there is more than one vacant power, the same rotation sequence is used, although it would begin, for each of the vacant powers, at a different point. For example, if the sequence of vacant power control in a five player game is:
In playtesting, it was found that the Missing Man system promotes the process of diplomacy. Not only did it give France good reason to talk to Turkey before the first Spring movement (other than the customary, "Hello down there," that is), but it also became apparent that even the bitterest of enemies would negotiate with each other over the orders of a vacant power.
It was also true that the vacant powers tended to survive much longer in a Missing Man Diplomacy game than they would if their units were left to hold and hope for support. For example, in an all-day face-to-face five-player game, one of the vacant powers even managed to survive for inclusion in a DIAS draw, albeit with only a single unit.
Having the first powers which take turns with a vacant power be those which would seem not to be well served by the quick success of the vacant power's neighbors assists in making for longer-lasting vacant powers. In addition, though, this forces a new wrinkle into the diplomatic relationships. At the beginning of a standard game, France can talk friendly to both Turkey and Russia, but in Missing Man, even in Spring, 1901, he must take a position in favor of one or the other, or simply anti-juggernaut, if he controls a vacant Austria. Talking out of both sides of your mouth is a more interesting feat, since you'll be asked to put your money on one side or the other of your mouth when your turn to control a concerned vacant power comes along.
One might think that certain combinations of vacant powers would make for less than satisfying games, but this assumption is questionable. In the first non-face-to-face game for this variant (an e-mail game), Austria and Turkey came up vacant after assignment of powers by the judge based on the preference lists submitted by the five players. My initial impression was that Russia and Italy would certainly have a field day, and so the powers should be reselected. However, a bit of further thought revealed that if the players viewed the power assignment the same way, it would make for a strong (if not iron-clad) E/F/G to oppose I/R, and we all know how tough such alliances can be. The game began, and, like all games, it took its own direction -- a different one altogether from either of those considered likely -- and the game ended up to be a very interesting one. So it would appear that the choice of which power or powers are vacant makes very little difference.
Missing Man Diplomacy introduces many other new and different strategies into the play. To discuss these, though, requires that we look at the different "sub-variants;" that is, the different rules governing when control of a vacant power passes from one active player to another.
As you can see, this method of play leads to planned dislodgements just for the sake of dislodgements (and planned supports in order to avoid such things, of course) -- the intent being to gain for an alliance more advantageous control of a vacant power. Affecting which phase (movement, retreat, or adjustment) the next player in the rotation scheme -- friend or foe -- will control a vacant power, becomes an important part of the game, and there is constant fevered negotiation on these points on the parts of all interested parties.
Proponents of this second method point out that no one is forced to endure a "do-nothing" phase ("oh great, I have Austria for an adjustment phase, and it's 4/4"), and that, since this method results in the rotation of control of each of multiple vacant powers happening independently, based on events which befall the units of each nation separately, the manipulation of the rotation itself could be part of a game strategy. A clever player, by arranging dislodges at the proper times, could, by planning and plotting, gain for himself or herself simultaneous control of two or more of the vacant powers at a key point in the game.
Countering this view are the proponents of "original" Missing Man, who argue that Turkey, a jillion miles away from England, should have as much ability to control who gets the vacant England for the next movement phase as do the powers who may happen to be in position to dislodge (or protect from dislodgement) an English unit. In "original" Missing Man, Turkey could cause (by arrangement or brute force) an Austrian or even Turkish dislodgement, thus sticking his enemy (Russia?) with useless control of England and his friend (Germany?) with England's next movement phase.
You can mix and match, too, of course. That is, you could you could pass control to the next power in the rotation before each movement or adjustment phase. Or you could pass control for do-nothing retreat phases, but not for do-nothing adjustment phases. You could choose to dismiss eliminated active players from the rotation for control of the surviving vacant powers. Or you could continue them in it. Or you could....
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.