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Double Cross Words

Diplomacy addicts smile and lie as they gamely try to conquer the world.

A couple of weekends ago, with war in Iraq looming on the not-so-distant horizon, France, seen as a troublesome impediment to European unity, was isolated by her traditional allies and left to fend for herself. Still, in an eleventh-hour effort to gain a diplomatic foothold, she pleaded with England. Ambassadors for the two countries wandered off to a table in a relatively calm corner.

"I feel like a puppy dog, and you keep kicking me, and I haven't even pissed on the floor yet," France noted, sounding like a hybrid of Woody Allen and Tony Soprano. "I mean, what's goin' on? Whaddaya doin' here?"

If only NATO's members could talk to each other like this, there might be more genuine world understanding. But this particular international maneuvering is taking place on the twelfth floor of the Denver Tech Hyatt Regency Hotel, during a hotly contested game of Diplomacy.

Still, the pressure is intense. France, as represented by Edi Birsan, a slouching Brooklyn native, is growing increasingly irritated with England's ambassador -- Steve Smith, a square-faced Nebraskan with a bowl haircut who insists on double-crossing Birsan and instead grants his favors to the Russians.

"I'm tryin' to establish relations here," Birsan explains. "But that requires you sayin' you're gonna do something and then actually doin' it."

England/Steve nods. "Can you forgive?" he asks.

"I can and I do," says France/ Birsan.

"Good players do," England/Smith says.

But he does not look Birsan in the eye.


Locals could be forgiven for not noticing that the World Diplomacy Championships took place a couple of weeks ago in Denver. The board game is, speaking generously, played by a thousand people worldwide, give or take, so it's not even as popular as, say, Nuggets basketball.

Still, each and every player is a certified fanatic, many traveling around the world at regular intervals to play in tournaments. Last year's finals were held in Canberra, Australia; next year's will be in Birmingham, England. "Diplomacy is the best possible game," asserts Maryland's Martin Pierce, who, as Turkey during a Saturday-morning game, was on the cusp of being wiped off the face of Europe by a daunting alliance between England and Russia. "It kind of ruins you for other games."

Not only that, he continues, Diplomacy has real-life applications. "I don't necessarily want to lie to other people in the real world," he says. "But I do like knowing how to spot when I'm being lied to. It's a good alternative social skill."

"I got the game as a Christmas present from a family...I guess today you'd call him a 'counselor,'" Edi Birsan recalls. "He felt the game would help me deal with socialization issues over anger management."

"Diplomacy has enabled me to succeed in life," adds Manus Hand, a top-ranked player from Parker. "I'm able to get things I want now, which, if I didn't know how to play people, I couldn't have. For example, I usually get a good deal on cars, whereas before I used to just pay full price."

The Diplomacy World Championships are being staged as part of Ghengis Con, one of the largest gaming conventions in the country. Started a little over twenty years ago by the 25-year-old Denver Gamers Association, the convention is a gathering that combines staggering creativity, lousy nutrition and a fair number of alternative social skills. "It's just a different part of society," clarifies Heather Barnhorst, an organizer.

While most people may think of Monopoly when they think of games, the term "gamer" has much wider connotations. "We don't even have Monopoly here," Barnhorst says. Instead, think Warhammer 40K. "It's set in the year 40,000, and different races" -- the Space Marines are good, the Tyranids are bad -- "are fighting each other for, I guess you could say, supremacy," Barnhorst explains. "Or survival -- let's put it that way."

Call of Cthulhu is also very big: "You spend a lot of time running around trying to prevent horrors from taking over the universe," says Barnhorst. "It's very visually appealing."

Another huge draw, of course, is Dungeons and Dragons. Although the popularity of D&D had waned since its heyday -- when it was blamed for carjacking kids' minds to the dark side -- about a year and a half ago, the role-playing science fiction game was re-launched in a third edition, D20, with an open-gaming license. The agreement, combined with the new version of the game, has sparked another wave of interest.

A relatively new form of gaming is represented by Magic: The Gathering. An adult science-fiction game featuring collectible Pokémon-like cards, Magic took the slumping industry by storm in the mid-1990s. At their peak, about eight years ago, collectible games accounted for nearly 90 percent of the industry's revenue, says Barnhorst, who manages Attactix, a game store in Aurora. Some of the cards sell for as much as $300.

And that's not even including other draws, such as Lunch Money ("You're a bunch of kids in school beating each other up to get lunch money," she explains), or Puffing Billy, a popular train-gamer diversion invented in Denver. Or historical miniature action-figure games; or live-action role-playing games, in which participants dress up in period costume and take on fictional characters' personalities for the entire weekend -- an explanation for the occasional storm trooper or pirate-looking gamer wandering through the convention. In all, Barnhorst says, about 1,500 people come to Ghengis Con from all over the country.

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