A Brief History of the US Diplomacy Hobby (1963-1992)

by Jim Meinel

Who might have guessed that a relatively unknown board game such as Diplomacy (invented by Allan Calhamer in 1958 and first sold commercially in 1960) would have spurred a following of players to continue an organized hobby through the mails for thirty years? Certainly not the founder of the postal hobby, John Boardman of Brooklyn, New York. His interests in 1963 were primarily science fiction and social commentary as an editor of various amateur “fanzines” that were gaining popularity at the time. One such fanzine of his was Knowable and in March 1963 he announced his willingness to run a game of Diplomacy by mail. That game started in May 1963 in the first postal Diplomacy zine ever, Graustark. His zine has run games continuously to this day, recently reaching issue No.600! 

(Two other events relating to beginnings are of interest. Conrad von Metzke attempted to start a postal Diplomacy game in 1962 but never got beyond the initial mailing of the players names, addresses and positions. And Eric Just is credited with an independent founding of postal Diplomacy himself – alas, in 1967, four years after Boardman’s pioneering effort.) 

Enthusiasm for playing the game by mail, however, did not catch hold right away. Only nine more zines were started in the next two years, with fewer than a dozen games run. This low games-to-zine ratio was due to the initial practice of publishers to have a separate publication for each game, and u run only one game at a time. Early hobbyists referred to games as “the Graustark game” or “the Trantor game.” It wasn’t until October 1964 when Dan Brannan – aka Steve Cattier (another sci-f crossover) starting running multiple games in Wild ‘n Wooly that the concept of more than one game per zine was established. In 1965 Don Miller further expanded the territory for a zine by running the first Diplomacy variant in Diplophobia

It may be instructive to stop for a moment and review the state of office technology at the time these first zines were being produced. Office copiers were not available to the general public; personal computers were a figment of some engineer’s imagination and dedicated word processors filled rooms The manual typewriter was how written communication was accomplished. Reproduction was through either carbon paper, ditto machine, mimeograph or even hectograph, the later three of course assume access to such “high tech” equipment. Postage was expensive and service was slow. Faxes, next-day mail and cheap long distance telephone were years away. Working with the tools the publishers ha at the time, producing a zine was hard work: it was time-intensive and cumbersome. A perfect pastime for young, creative minds with a lot of time on their hands. 

The bulk of these earlier pioneers of postal Diplomacy were drawn from the science fiction community Most of the first dozen publishers had come from sci-fi fandom and early players included Jerry Pournelle, Jack Chalker and Monte Zelazny. The biggest contribution of these crossovers from that community was their imaginations used to publish creative material and the framework for an organize hobby of zines (stemming from the “fanzine” sci-fi hobby). However, while the sci-fi hobby got tremendous boost in popularity with the advent of Star Trek’s premier in 1965, the postal Diplomacy hobby grew very little in its first two years. A listing of all postal participants by John Boardman in the May 1965 issue of Graustark showed only 83 participants and eight zines currently being published. 

That changed in 1966, for about that time the idea of Diplomacy by mail reached the general wargaming community, a huge untapped source of participants for a game some have called the ultimate wargame At least 32 new zines appeared in 1966 and 1967. It was at this time that the first San Diego zine Costaguana, was started in April 1965 by Conrad von Metzke. Shortly thereafter several other prominent San Diego publishers joined the ranks; legends such as Hal Naus (ADAG), Larry Peer (Xenogogic) and Rod Walker (Erehwon) began their careers. The influx of wargamers into the hobby not only increased the pool of players and publishers, but contributed concepts such as ratings, conventions and rules to a fledgling hobby. 

Zines were still difficult to put out but that did not prevent the reams of material published in ErehwonStab, and Diplomania. The Vietnam war was reaching its peak, college protests were raging and most publishers were high school or college students. It was primarily students who were the zine publishers of the day as the only ready source of duplicating equipment were at schools. Zines were also an outlet for the new ideas of the day, and new ideas for the hobby were introduced. Doug Beyerlein started EFGIART, the first zine devoted to picking up and finishing games abandoned by their gamemaster. Issues such as house rules, standbys, abandoned games and rulebook inconsistencies started to become serious topics of discussion. 

Rulebook inconsistencies were a fundamental game-related concern at this time. The original 1961 Rulebook had many areas that required interpretation, which was left to the individual gamemaster/publisher to handle. Many prominent players and publishers of the day had well-knovn rules interpretations names after them (Koning Rule, Brannan Rule, Chalker Rule, von Metzke Rule, Miller Rule and several others). This “playtesting”, if you will, of the 1961 Rulebook can be considered a major contribution the postal hobby made to the game itself, for in 1971 (due to pressure from organized elements in the postal hobby) the maker of the game, Games Research, Inc. (GRI), incorporated all of the rules into a revised 1971 Rulebook. 

Participation peaked again about this time, with no new influx of participants until GRI included a flyer in the box in 1970 advertising the play of Diplomacy by mail and giving addresses to contact for more information. Conceived by Fred Davis and carried out by Rod Walker, this simple act launched another expansion of the hobby in the early 1970s, with 42 zine starts in 1971, 55 starts in 1972, peaking with an incredible 65 zine starts in 1973. Some consider this period of time the “Golden Years” of the hobby when some of the most creative articles, commentary and zine design were done. Noteworthy zines of the time included ImpassableHoosier Archives and Runestone. Humour had always been a big part of the hobby, which included “fake” zines (zine issues forged by others and mailed to the actual zines subscriber base) – the most spectacular being a fake of a Belgian zine, Moeshoeshoe, in 1972 by John Leeder, Conrad von Metzke and Michel Liesnard. But along with the hilarity and the growth came the inevitable push for a formal organization. 

Until this time the only formal trapping of organization was the issuing of a unique number for each game start (dubbed “Boardman Numbers” after its originator, John Boardman). But the early seventies saw the start-up of more services such as an orphan placement service (Conrad von Metzke), game opening announcements (Rod Walker 1970), hobby awards (Larry Peery 1972), hobby census (Ray Owen 1973) and a zine dedicated to publishing game starts and results (Numenor, Rod Walker 1969). The hobby was evolving to a new level in which these services were becoming needed. An abortive attempt was made in 1971 to start a hobby-wide organization (The Diplomacy Association, or TDA) but this effort was quickly rent apart by a bitter dispute amongst its members over basic organization issues such as: should the hobby remain “fannish” or have an organized structure? Should an organisation be voluntary or mandatory? Would leadership be democratic or custodial? In its wake, The International Diplomacy Association (IDA) was formed in 1972 and operated electing officers, co-ordinating hobby services and collecting dues until its demise in 1979. A major stamp of organization was made with the premier issue of Diplomacy World in 1974, edited by Walter Buchanan. A self-styled hobby flagship, it contained top-notch articles on strategy, negotiations and play of the game. If nothing else it gave newcomers and current participants a source of current developments and resources available to the hobby at large. 

However, again the cycle of growth and winding down struck in the late 1970s, only this time there was no outside spurring of growth through new participants. A combination of this, the IDA feud and the growing popularity of board gaming in general bled off interest in zine publishing, so that only 10 new zines were started in 1978. The purchase of the rights to the game from (GRI by Avalon Hill in 1976 was widely expected to give a boost to the hobby. That boost turned out to be more quantitative that qualitative. New zines starts rose to 31 in 1980 but never exceeded that amount after that. What Avalon Hill’s purchase did do, however, was add a level of legitimacy to the game that only a large, commercial company can offer. As part of AH’s large array of offerings the game was presented, again, to a new market of potential players, in the context of an “Avalon Hill offering.” 

Whether as a result of this or not, there was a rebirth of a second “Golden Age” of zines that began in 1979. Over the next few years some of the best zines ever came out: Europa ExpressVoice of DoomBrutus BulletinRetaliationWhitestonia/Kathy’s KornerFol Si Fie and half a dozen others. What separated these zines from their predecessors was not the creative talent that went into their content, but the size of them. Some of them ran over a hundred pages an issue. Advancing technology was responsible for this more than anything else. The xerox machine was still something of a novelty in the early 1970s, and while available at a place of work it was still prohibitively costly (the per page cost at that time would be akin to getting laser copies commercially today). But by 1980 the cost was low enough to allow publishers (if they wanted) to fill a subscriber’s mailbox with a product that had long letter columns, volumes of press, reprinting of commercial cartoons, etc etc. So going into the 1980s, zines got bigger. 

The early 80s also saw a consolidation in the organization of hobby services, not so much under a central control, but a recognition that continuity in custodians and services was a valuable part of the hobby. Polls, rating systems, orphan placement, game opening announcements, zine listings all became codified into a system whereby their custodian was handed down to a successor. During this time Diplomacy World, under Rod Walker’s editorship, probably saw its best days since its inception. The hobby was growing and a new technology (computers) was on the horizon, holding forth a greater promise of production quality for zines. In February 1983 Russell Sipe started The Armchair Diplomat, a zine devoted to running games by electronic mail on Compuserve. With the directions of growth available to the hobby, it could have been Camelot. 

This serenity was shattered by a second major feud, called The Great Feud, which tore the hobby into two camps (collected around Bruce Lindsey and Kathy Caruso and others), destroyed reputations, drove people from the hobby and burned up enough creative energy, time and money to produce a score of top flight zines. (The mass hate mailings by both sides were mini-zines in themselves.) Unlike the turmoil of the 1970s, this was essentially a personality clash which eventually burned itself out but left a black hole in the mid-80s that few people care to revisit. 

In its wake there was left a scarcity of truly top flight zines, if the standards of the past were to be used. Looked at closer, the standards are probably not applicable anymore. By 1990 computers were generally available to anyone, copies were three cents a sheet, color was not unheard of, and a plethora of games were being adapted to the mails (and to electronic transmission). The zines of the late 1980s and early 1990s sport a wide array of interests and methods of production: rail zines, variant-Diplomacy games, non-Diplomacy games, play by electronic mail, laser printed zines, orders via fax, next day mail, Compuserve, phone. The standard play-by-mail Diplomacy zine featuring only regular Diplomacy games, articles and letters is in the minority in 1992 and may be vanishing. Indeed, the major services such as polls, zine listings and game opening announcements now include games other than postal Diplomacy. The structure of playing by mail has overtaken the game after thirty years. Which may explain the enduring popularity of the game in the first place. It isn’t so much the actual nuts and bolts of ordering F(GoB)-Swe while telling Germany you’re friends for life. The experience of being able to play a multi-player game, or any game for that matter, with others across a state, a continent or an ocean is the real pleasure to the participants. Diplomacy is a game that requires one to INTERACT with the other players. Actual thoughts have to be communicated, and in the process one gets to know another. (Unlike playing Stalingrad by mail and sending unit locations back and forth) As the technology improves to allow other games to be played other than face-to-face (i.e. Titan, Railway Rivals and yes, Snowball Fighting) they will be played, for man cannot live by Dip alone. Even the face to face cons are more a chance top~ the name to a face, have a party, and play the hottest game out. The largest contribution the postal Diplomacy hobby has made is the opportunity it gave tens of thousands of people to join with others of their kind in exchanging ideas and having a good time. And for that, we can thank all the zine publishers over the years who made that possible.

This article is actually most of the Introduction that Jim wrote for his Encyclopedia of US Postal Diplomacy Zines (1992). I would be interested to hear from anyone who would like to add more detail or who would like to comment on 1992-onwards.