Dolchstoss (July-October 1975)

Edited by Richard Sharp

by Stephen Agar

Issue 32 (July 1975) 

For the twelve months starting in July 1975 any recipient of Dolchstoß would also have found in the envelope a copy of Victor Ludorum which was the House Zine of the National Games Club edited by John Piggott. This meant that much of the NGC housekeeping was taken out of Dolchstoß which became rather slimmer. Victor Ludorum (or, as Richard Sharp affectionately referred to it, Toad) is worth an article to itself, so this piece will concentrate on Dolchstoß alone. 

Much of the material in this issue referred to DesConTent, a major con organised by the NGC and held under canvas in a field in Henley-on-Thames the previous month. It is perhaps a sign of how close the Diplomacy community was twenty years ago that Richard estimates that he could name 90 of the 110 or so people that were there – nowadays I’d guess that only the most seasoned con-goers could manage more than 25%. The organisation of the Diplomacy Championship (sponsored by Philmar – the then UK manufacturers of Diplomacy – and Games & Puzzles) was interesting. Basically people organised their own games throughout the Friday and the Saturday (playing in as many as they liked) and on the Sunday morning the people with the best performance for each country fought it out in a Final. In a way this quite appeals to me as a departure from the heavy organisation at ManorCon and MidCon, but I feel it may be just a little too anarchic to work – still it may be worth at least reconsidering how we run our Diplomacy Tournaments and considering whether or not there are other ways of going about it. Back in 1975 it was Richard Walkerdine who walked away with the honours. 

Part of Richard’s editorial was taken up with condemning Mick Bullock’s observation that the majority of the hobby was on the left wing of the Tory Party. Richard believed that the truth was that your average sensible hobby member was far more right wing than that (citing radical hobby members who have long since gone) and even denouncing Pete Birks as a bourgeois reactionary. Nice to see that Richard’s politics haven’t changed in the past twenty years – in his editorial he advocates “outlawing communism, shooting one coal miner in ten, disbanding parliament and playing Test cricket against South Africa.” On the other hand Richard did not have his vociferous views on the use of standbys in Diplomacy games in those days (today he refuses to play in games which use them) as in issue 32 there is a call for more standbys to join the Dolchstoß standby list. Some things do change then. 

Issue 33 (August 1975)  

Richard’s dislike of miners was popular with his readership (the three day week still being fresh in the mind). Ian Moseley noted “Shooting one miner in ten is quite unnecessary. You should merely cut the lift ropes while they are down there, and only send food down when they send cal up.” Richard agreed, “Yes, I’m a reasonable man and that seems a humane alternative, as well as saving valuable ammunition which will soon be needed elsewhere, no doubt.” 

Despite congratulating Mick Bullock for producing 50 issues of 1901 and all that and also congratulating Richard Walkerdine for 3 years publishing Mad Policy, the main thrust of issue 33 was an attack on Richard Walkerdine and Mick Bullock for their habit of ending games as 17-17 draws. Dolchstoß 33 had the endgame statements for BDC 21D in which the WalkerBullock carved the game up between them and neither tried for the outright win. This philosophy of how to play Diplomacy was abhorrent to Richard and his comments almost amounted to an article in their own right. In essence Richard’s view was: 

“I think this two-way draw thing is absolutely disgraceful, and nothing to do with what the game is “all about”. Diplomacy, like any other decent game, is about winning: writing letters and so on are an important part, but not the object. And don’t talk to me about “joint wins”: 17 – 17 is a draw. It is my view that if you go into a game without intending to win it, or if you abandon the attempt to win while there is still a reasonable chance of doing so, you are not merely running the game for other people, but you are wasting your own time. A well-generaled Grand Alliance can hardly fail to prevail (granted perhaps a modicum of luck in the first year), so why not just claim the game from the start and sign on to ruin another one? In the present case, most of the game need not have been played – there was no point whatever to it… If it were possible, which alas it isn’t, I would like to see game-long alliances and predestined draws outlawed. I have even thought of requiring players in Dolchstoß to undertake to try and win as a condition of playing, but again it’s unenforceable… To me, one point is paramount: in a game full of uncertainty I have the right to assume players are trying to win and will move accordingly. Anything else is meaningless.” 

Issue 34 (September 1975) 

Of course, Mick Bullock replied to Richard’s attack. “I quite agree with you re game-long alliances. After all, 5 don’t stand a chance against 2, do they?” to which Richard replied “You’re damn right the 5 don’t stand a chance against 2… when the 2 are cheating.”  

But for the time being, the WalkerBullock controversy was forgotten. Instead issue 34 was dominated by the sort of issue which looks ridiculous twenty years on, indeed it is precisely the sort of issue which hardened a lot of people into refusing to have anything to do with hobby organisations such as the NGC. To understand the dispute you need to know how the hobby operated in 1975. Essentially, there were two camps – NGC zines which carried Diplomacy games which were “NGC games” – namely the gamefee went to the NGC with a portion paid to the GM for running the game and independent zines which functioned more or less as they do now. The theory was that the NGC retained control of the NGC games and would re-house them if the quality of service declined or the zine folded. 

However in the summer of 1975 Phil Stutt indicated that he wanted to run independent games in his NGC zine Japhidrew. Richard, together with the entire NGC Committee (Piggott, Birks, Allen, Holt, Doubleday, Dean and Palmer – most of whom you would normally think of as reasonable people) would not tolerate it at all. There could be no independent games in a NGC zine. If Phil wanted to run independent games he would have to fold Japhidrew, have the NGC games re-housed and start again! Now, while I am sure we will all agree that this was all nonsense of the most silly and devise type, in the context of 1975 it was hobby establishment policy. Richard said that he had received “a rather ridiculous circular from Phil which I don’t think anyone bothered to answer, though several (including myself) were somewhat irritated by it. The main point it made, a dubious one, was that Japhidrew was Phil’s property, not the club’s, and that he therefore could do what he wished with it.” Of course, today Phil’s position looks far more reasonable than it probably did in 1975, but it is easy to see why the relationship between the NGC sector and the independent zines could be so tense at times. 

Spring Offensive’s Peter Berlin (who must have been a mere child in 1975) had a letter in this issue taking Richard to task for saying the hobby was made up mainly of extreme right-wingers. I only mention this because Richard’s reply is classic: “It is my genuine belief, which I agree that I cannot prove, that a left-wing mentality argues a weakness of reasoning and an inability to see the obvious which are quite incompatible with the playing of games.” Great stuff. 

I’ve probably commented before that the early 1970’s seem to have been one long round of housecons with ScotDipCon (care of Wink and Linda Thompson) and Martinscon (at Martin Hammon’s) both being on the horizon. All were of course attended by a hard core of 8-10 players who came to be known as the Hard Core of the hobby for years to come (most of whom still subscribe to Dolchstoss but whose Diplomacy days are all long over). 

October 1975 (Issue 35)  

One of the stated merits of the NGC was that it rehoused games when they went into limbo. I this issue Richard discusses the arrangements for dealing with the games in Les Pimley’s Shelob’s Lair which had ran into trouble due to Les’s illness. Although Les Pimley’s zines (Shelob’s Lair, Black Spot and The Ultimate Chaotic Act) are really only of interest to archivists, Les’s name lives on in the shape of the annual Pimley Award for services to the Diplomacy hobby which was instituted when Les died shortly after at a tragically early age. 

The NGC vs. Independent war heated up a bit. Although the Japhidrew problem was quietly solved with Phil starting independent games in sub-zine so as not to contaminate the purity of an NGC zine, the controversy gave Will Haven (editor of Bellicus) and some of the other editors of independent zines the opportunity to circulate a flyer to all and sundry advertising the delights of independent zines as opposed to the trials and tribulations of the NGC. Haven’s flyer was cruelly parodied by Richard: 

“Yoo-hoo schoolboys! My name’s Will Craven, and I’m spending lots of money (made out of other idiots like you) on this circular attacking the extravagance of the NGC and advertising myself and my zine, Jealicous. I do hope we’re going to be close friends. 

I’ll talk about myself first… and second… and last. I’m one of the old-stagers of British Diplomacy, faithfully keeping alive the good old values of sloth, lateness, inefficiency and illiteracy in the face of NGC sabotage. What a lot of autocritic hypocrats they are with their sham democrisy. Look at what Jealicous offers you – compare it with what the NGC offers – and decide for yourselves! 

FREE GAMES! Yes, Jealicous postal games are entirely free, and worth every penny. All you pay is £1 deposit, and you don’t actually lose that until you drop out, which can take you as long as three seasons. Jealicous games are free in every sense – free of NGC influence, free of interest, and usually free of moves as well. 

CHEAP ZINES! Do you realise that some NGC zines force you to buy as many as 17 issues a year? Subscribe to Jealicous and I guarantee you won’t have to buy more than three or four – Jealicous is a regular 4-weekly zine appearing on 29 February each year, or whenever there is a total eclipse of the sun. 

LONG GAMES! Yes, your FREE game in Jealicous can give you up to five years of sheer ecstatic tedium such as no other zine can offer. And the NGC rushes through games in little more than a year. Well, really. 

MORE PLAYERS PER GAME! Some NGC games never have more than 7 players. Jealicous games offer you a guaranteed minimum of 25, rising to even 40 or 50. Tributes from satisfied clients include: “I never wrote to the same player twice” – R.S., Amersham. “I never wrote to anyone, period” – A.H., Kidsbury. 

FRIENDLY ATMOSPHERE! I never attended the so-called DipCons with their highly charged atmosphere of hate, malice and suspicion. I make my friends through Jealicous – in fact, large areas of each issue are devoted to attacking friends who have done something I don’t agree with, like helping to expand the hobby. 

VARIED CONTENT! NGC zines have boring things like games, letters, articles, even editorials. Jealicous offers you instead page after page of vague maundering about things I don’t understand; endless sagas of inaction-packed, illiterate fantasy by one of Manchester’s most under-rated teenagers, illustrated with revealing Rohrschach blots each headed “map”; rules for unplayable variants; opinions for you to learn by heart and repeat in your own zines (many customers use this service); and a hilarious pot-pourri of typos, grammatical howlers and unintentional humour. 

What more need I say? This circular also covers three other zines, to help cover costs, but it’s really about Jealicous. There you’ll find all the famous names you’ve heard of – Herd, Walsh, Pink, and many, many more blacklistees, dropouts and assorted rejects who are always dropping in or out (mainly out). SEND ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TODAY – YOU’LL NEVER REGRET IT!” 

Of course, Richard was over-egging the pudding. Beyond doubt Will Haven was the most out-spoken of the independent editors, prone to emotional outbursts and not always able to offer the high standards of zine production to which he aspired – but he was an easy target. The under-lying tension in the hobby at the time was neatly side-stepped as Richard avoided confronting the fact that the services offered by the independent sector were becoming comparable to that of the NGC and that the NGC was becoming increasingly remote from the hobby all the time. Richard won the battle of words (as he usually does), but in time it could be said that Will Haven and his ilk won the war of ideas and I believe that to an extent we are now suffering because such an aggressively anti-centralist eventually prevailed. 

To the extent that even today people complain that there are too many feuds in the hobby, all I can say is that any disagreements we have today are as nothing compared to the vicious rows of the past. That probably explains why I enjoy 1970’s zines so much – we are all a bunch of Teddy Bears today (unfortunately).

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 37