Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Classic Game for Those Who Want to Hate Their Friends

Diplomacy was a staple of board-gaming geekery during Your Humble Narrator’s misspent youth. First published in 1959, Allan Calhamer’s classic offered unique features: secret movement scheduling (everyone recorded their moves in advance and revealed them simultaneously), deterministic combat resolution, and role-playing. Each player took the part of one of Europe’s Great Powers on the eve of the First World War, and endeavored, through a series of alliances, counter-alliances, and treacheries, to take control of eighteen of Europe’s 34 supply centers (capitals and major cities). Negotiation, as the rule book observed, was key to success. No-one could win without the aid of other players, secured in the diplomacy phase that opened every turn. Equally vital was duplicity: only one player could win the game, so s/he had to betray his/her allies at some point, usually multiple times. Endurance also proved important. Turns took at least twenty minutes to complete, and a full game could easily last twenty turns. Usually players called a draw before someone met the victory conditions.

I have played Diplomacy a dozen or so times since my D&D buddies taught it to me in 1982. It was one of the first historical games I had tried and probably helped spark my interest in history, as it dovetailed with my social studies class’s unit on the Russian Revolution and my history-buff mother’s introducing me to The Guns of August. By the time I reached college, however, I had learned what Margalit Fox observes in her 2013 obituary of Calhamer: Diplomacy rewards not the diplomatic player but the “aggressive” and treacherous one. I can’t say I was surprised to learn of its popularity with attorneys.

Later I got a hankering to play the game to the bitter end, and this inspired me to sign up for a postal game (1996-99) and a couple of play-by-email sessions. These taught me something postal players had discovered in the 1960s: if a Diplomacy match lasts long enough, the two lead players tend to develop a “stalemate line,” a chain of defensible territories blocking each other’s expansion. The game then turns into an inferior version of chess as the two leaders wait for someone to make a mistake, or for a surviving minor player to play kingmaker. Usually no-one cares to negotiate by this stage, after so many betrayals and broken alliances. A disappointing revelation, but I’m glad I finally found this out myself.

Allan Calhamer turns out to have been an interesting guy, of the genius/dilettente type Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers. Educated at Harvard, a school nearly as fond of eccentric students as of rich ones, Calhamer attended law school but dropped out before getting his JD. He later worked as a corporate consultant, a park ranger, and a postman, and continued to develop games (none published) and amuse himself with mental puzzles. He didn’t leave a huge mark on American culture, but he did provide an unusual and engaging form of entertainment to quirky-bright people of all classes and many nations.

(First image above courtesy of Roger's Reviews and Second image via Wikimedia Commons.)

1 comment:

  1. Allan B. Calhamer’s original 1950s prototypes of Diplomacy are up for sale on eBay