Monday 5 April 1999

- Column - Page Four Column -

Game goes on, with a difference


Ithink it was five - maybe six - years ago that my friend Nick Auf der Maur called on a sunny Saturday morning and summoned me to a game of Diplomacy.

"And we'll eat salami and drink frozen margaritas," he announced with lip-smacking relish.

So seven of us warriors, of both sexes, gathered at Nick's house in Tupper St. in a ritual whose appeal has grown for me with the later knowledge that my first game was one in a long series Nick had conducted over the years, with the players sometimes donning period costumes.

At my initiation into this strategy board game of European politics at the beginning of the 20th century there were at least three other players who were first-timers like me.

This didn't seem to faze Nick in the least. Indeed, it was another opportunity for him to hold forth on the intricacies and treacheries of that period of European history and denounce the ethnic rivalries and hatreds that shaped it.

This was a subject he not only knew well but used as a plank to mock every principality and jurisdiction including his homeland, Switzerland, and its much-vaunted but tainted neutrality.

Nick's discourses on the rules of the game and bitter histories that created them helped immensely to make sense of the bewildering "proper map of old Europe" used for the game.

Tackling the game on that and future occasions, the players would find themselves drawn into the most brazen of hostilities or negotiating the most fragile of unnatural alliances, responding instinctively on gut issues of justice and revenge, power and greed.

Hours would slip by in manoeuvres and discussions about the viciousness of the Ottoman Turks, the machinations of Serbia or Germany, the duplicity of the English or the French, the aggression of the Russians and the cunning of the Scandinavians and Italians.

Taken Personally

Sometimes, the involvement of some players would be so intense that they would take game betrayals personally, seeing them as a comment on real-life behaviour.

Days later, as Nick sipped an orange or pink drink of vodka and citrus or cranberry, we would chortle at the bar about the reaction of the player who was Italy to the loss of Tunis to the player who was Turkey. And use that as a segue into a spirited discussion of the latest trade or military conflict in today's Europe.

Nick would never pronounce as loudly on this as he did on almost everything under the sun, but he always seemed uncomfortable about real wars even as he heaped scorn on the provocations and the provocateurs.

To many a stranger or hanger-on, Nick's late-night bar rants about lunatic dictators and insane politicians sounded so much like the vodka talking that they would try to change the subject instead of confront the truths he was spouting.

Those who cared to hang in, however, would soon find themselves in a stimulating exploration of human folly and foibles, the muddling effect of alcohol yielding to new light on confusing situations.

It will be a full year on Wednesday that Nick hasn't been around to dispense his unique insights, a year that is culminating in the most complex of wars Europe has faced since World War II.

The new map of Europe has scant resemblance to the old map of the Diplomacy game, but many of the actors - Russia, Serbia, England, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Greece - are very much in the theatre, as are Canada and the U.S.

Questions Arising

Thousands have been killed or face death, many thousands more are on the run. Every night, the death and destruction gets more serious, more real, threatening further escalation.

The questions that arise from this war, for that is what it is and not a "humanitarian mission" as Ottawa calls it, are many. Was military action of this nature the only option for Bill Clinton and NATO? Why is Canada involved? Will it hasten Milosevic's departure or entrench him deeper, even as it silences the thousands of Serbs who dislike him and who have taken their opposition to the streets in the past? How stable will a new ethnic-Albanian state be and what will it mean for Albania, Greece and Macedonia? Will the Kosovo refugees invited to North America actually return?

Many a good friend of Nick, including Oliver Irwin from Radio Canada International, and I have spent many a night at Ziggy's Pub exploring answers to these and other questions.

But the discussions, while instructive, have not been that heated or intense. There's been a spark missing from them, an eerie silence from a raucous corner. No lunatics have been jeered, no tequila shots downed.

Death, I've been told, is less of a problem for the person leaving and more of one for those left behind.

If you don't believe this, just ask the people who'll crowd Crescent St. on Wednesday afternoon when Nick's daughter, Melissa, unveils the Ruelle Auf der Maur in the good old paper-warrior's memory.

1998 The Gazette,
a division of Southam Inc.

Montreal Gazette,