Allan B Calhamer

(December 7, 1931 – February 25, 2013)

Obituary of Allan B. Calhamer from the Washington Post

Allan Calhamer: A Retrospective

By Edi Birsan and Larry Peery

It is good to see Allan finally get the recognition he so richly deserves for his creation Diplomacy. In the past few weeks scores of tributes to Allan have appeared all over North America and even beyond. A Google search reveals a long and growing list of Calhamer obits, remarkable not only for its length but also the diversity of sources. Many of those were republications from the Associated Press’s stock obituary file. Others were based on the excellent “All in the Game” story Edward McClelland wrote some years ago for The Chicago Magazine. Closer to Allan’s home tributes appeared from both the great (The Chicago Tribune, 4 March 2013, by Joan Giangrasse Kates) and the small (The LaGrangePatch (by Darren McRoy).

Among others worth a look are: “Allan Calhamer Dies at 81; Invented Diplomacy Game” by Margalit Fox, New York Times, 6 March 2013; “Diplomacy: The Map That Ruined a Thousand Friendships,” by Henry Grabar, The Atlantic Cities, 7 March 2013; Even POLITCO, the Washington Insiders’ news and gossip source picked up the AP story, as did The Huffington Post. Word of Allan’s passing spread quickly in the internet community as well. The first word overseas came from The Telegraph in the UK (16 March 2013). Truly, Allan may be gone but he’s not been forgotten.

Edi and I knew Allan for nearly a hundred years between the two of us, and we thought we’d share some of our memories of the man we both called mentor and friend, Edi focusing on Allan skills (or lack thereof) as a game designer and player; and I focusing on the man many in the hobby never got to know.

There were two questions we wanted to answer in writing this. First, how could a man who was so extraordinarily ordinary in so many ways create this one artistic masterpiece? Second, how could a man who was so quiet stir up such a frenzy among his fans?

Edi notes that he probably played with him more times than most. I, on the other hand, can’t recall ever actually playing Diplomacy with Allan. Edi got to know Allan across the Dip board. I got to know him in spite of it.

Edi writes: he was always very soft spoken and low keyed and never spoke ill of anyone regardless of the insanity on the game board or around him.

Larry comments: It’s true. He was so soft spoken it was sometimes hard to hear him even if you were sitting next to him. You really had to listen to hear what he had to say, difficult at times but always worthwhile. Nor can I recall ever hearing him say anything bad about anyone, although he wasn’t above sticking a pin in an overstuffed balloon once in a while. I can only recall one time when I actually saw Allan agitated. More on that later.

Edi: He saw the game in more of a social context with the expectations that most games would be called on time and the “what if” situations discussed. He believed in the concept that as long as you were alive you could come back and “win” and that all participants were equal. With the development of the postal hobby and the advance of a multi-game scoring concept demand, he admitted that he tried one system sort of as a challenge with the idea of what to do with a tournament and time limited games that were forced to “unnatural” endings. The resultant system he designed (his only attempt at it) was so complicated and unsatisfactory to himself that he just left it and never went back to try to make a “perfect” scoring system.

Edi: When he worked on the game there was a lot of work done on the design of the map more than any other aspect of the game. That the map has remained unchanged in 54 years (Larry notes: That original map has inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of variants over the years covering just about every historical period and geographical locale.) and no one has come up with a better alteration is a testament to his process and focus. The fundamental rules have been only changed in the most minor of points with the exception of the alternate convoy rule and the shutting down of the unintended abuse of the convoy rules called the Unwanted Convoy.

Edi: We had many discussions on the finer wording of the rules and several aspects we worked on for the last major rewrite of the rules together: the 1999 Hasbro set with the metal pieces. By the way, the original set in 1959 was supposed to have metal pieces as well with battleships like the Monopoly piece and cannons for the armies. The cannons were to be two wheeled versions of the French 75 but the company that was to make them went out of business and he had to scramble for a substitute and came up with the wood block pieces.

Larry: Allan produced the first 500 copies of Diplomacy himself and sold them primarily through an ad in The Atlantic magazine for all of $7.00. Allan quickly realized he wasn’t cut out to be a businessman and John R. Moot, who passed away in 2009, took over publishing Diplomacy with his GRI Company in Boston. But it was when Diplomacy became part of The Avalon Hill Company’s family of games that Diplomacy really took off. Here again Allan found a fan in Rex Martin who promoted the game early on. Early buyers were enthusiastic but soon ran into the challenge of finding six other players with the time and space to play a game. John Boardman’s GRAUSTARK published the first postal Diplomacy game in 1964 and the postal hobby Diplomacy World #121 – Spring 2013 – Page 11 was under way. Within a few years those early face to face and postal players were beginning to inter-mingle and the first Diplomacy Conventions were under way. Edi’s written a history of the early DipCons and it is available on line. Rod Walker and I hosted DipCon IV in San Diego in 1971 which attracted local players and a smattering of out-of-towners for an informal, multi-round exclusively Dip event. The most important result of that event was the decision to host a follow-up event in Chicago the next year.

DipCon V was the first event that modern Dippers would recognize, complete with multirounds, a scoring system, a host gaming event, an awards dinner, etc. It also marked Allan’s first appearance at a DipCon and that proved a major draw as Dip fans from all over North America flocked to meet the man who invented Diplomacy. It was in Chicago that I first met Allan face to face, marking the beginning of our collaboration and friendship. Allan’s early participation in and support for DipCon was to make a major contribution to the development and growth of the hobby in later years. Allan gave a talk at the awards dinner, and yes he was a terrible public speaker, primarily because he was so shy. He also brought his lovely wife, Hilda, and young daughter, Selenne; which suggested Dip could be a family affair and not just a pastime for nerdy college kids. But Allan’s most important contribution at that early event was one he followed in later years of making himself available to fans whether in playing a friendly game or in one-on-one discussions; and if you were ‘zine publisher running postal games, designing a variant Dip game, or thinking of hosting a DipCon of your own he was always ready with a bit of advice and encouragement. Allan may have been shy and quiet but he didn’t miss much that was going on. I remember one night during the Con Jamie and I snuck out to see Peggy Lee at the Palmer House. The next morning, Allan wanted to know why I had missed the previous night’s round. I learned early on that the way to read Allan was to watch his eyes. A twinkle meant all was going well. A narrowing of the eyes meant a stab was coming. The impression I carried away from that first encounter was how ordinary Allan was in spite of his creation and his way above average intelligence. I think it was this as much as anything that attracted players to the game and hobbyists to him. Players soon realized that they could play The Man Who Invented Diplomacy and beat him at his own game. Hobbyists learned that his way of gentle suasion could do things that the game’s bombast couldn’t.

Edi: On the rules the major difference we had was on the Alternate Convoy Routes which we argued on since they were introduced. However, we finally agreed on the elimination of the Unwanted Convoy and my wording on it was included in the 1999 rules. Oddly enough we had come to an agreement on changing the Disband/Civil Disorder rules so that units in a supply center would not be removed and you then removed units furthest (direct move regardless of Coast or connections) from an OWNED supply center then fleets before armies and then alphabetical. However, the “tech writer” who was doing the final draft of the graphics and word blocking for Hasbro did not get what we had sent him and It missed the publication. We also had discussed the change in the less than 7 player set up and the possibility to include some same board variant rules but we were unable to come to a definitive solution, meaning he was not overwhelmed, so his caution took hold and it was left as it was from the beginning.

Larry: After a series of ups and downs that would have done The Bickersons (Look it up on Google) proud, the Diplomacy hobby was poised to begin a new Golden Age that would recognize the fact that the game and hobby were now a worldwide phenomenon. Richard Walkerdine, who passed away recently, conceived of the idea of having a “worldwide” DipCon event in Birmingham, England. Some four hundred gamers showed up, including Dip fans from as far away as the States and Australia. Richard brought Allan and Hilda to Birmingham for the event and for most of those attending it was their first face to face encounter with The Man Who Invented Diplomacy. A large crowd gathered, expecting to hear Allan talk about the creation of Diplomacy and perhaps some “secrets” on how to win from The Master. Instead, as only those who were there can attest Allan talked and talked and talked about the US Civil War! Eventually the large crowd dwindled to a handful including Richard, Hilda, and myself sitting in the back of the room listening. Hilda was patiently listening and smiling; while I was gleefully watching Richard squirm in his seat as he got more and more desperate for a smoke and a trip to the site’s pub for a quick beer. As always Allan was glad to play an occasional round, chat with Dip fans one on one, and pose for pictures. To me more interesting than the actual gaming were the discussions and negotiations going on over the future of the event. It’s interesting to note that Richard did not call his event World DipCon I, but just World DipCon. He originally had no idea that the event would become an institution. After a good meal and a few rounds in the site pub a handful of us agreed that the event should continue and that in two years it would be held in the USA (in Chapel Hill, NC in conjunction with DIXIECON), in four years in Australia (in Canberra), and that, if all went well, in six years we would return to Birmingham to consider our next move. Interestingly, Allan did not participate in that meeting, leaving it to the hobbyists to thrash out their future. The rest, as they say, is history, and this year’s WDC in Paris will be number XXV.

By now I had learned that Allan had interests other than Diplomacy and when we had a chance to talk one on one we usually found a subject other than Dip to talk about. I remember one morning at that first World DipCon Allan was particularly agitated, perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen him in that state. The reason was because there was no source in Birmingham to obtain the results of American baseball Diplomacy World #121 – Spring 2013 – Page 12 games and his beloved Chicago White Sox were playing a double-header that day; and he had no way to follow the games or find the scores. I suggested he try the BBC or International Herald Tribune, or perhaps call the US embassy to see if they knew what was going on in Chicago. Remember, in those days the Internet was in its infancy. When I ran into him later he said he’d gotten the results from the IHT, but I don’t recall what they were.

Edi: He originally had no real concept of a forced stalemate line in the game and looked more to the concept of a strategic or diplomatic stalemate or exhaustion. He also was very concerned over the Austrian-Italian area of the board and the introduction of the concept of the Lepanto Opening with the idea of Italy and Austria working together to go east against the Turkey was a major plus. Not just the move combination opening play but the fundamental concept of Austro-Italian cooperation actively against Turkey rather than the choice of Italy going West or attacking Austria in the east.

Edi: He was a mediocre player (as most game designers are of the games they design). He was an unrepentant dot grabber. I remember him saying in one case where he slipped into an open Trieste from Italy, “He did not seem to be using that center and I could use a build.” He almost never approached another player to discuss things and waited for them to approach him. When he did approach someone, it meant that his alliance pattern was changing and you knew to take precaution or just take him out. He was not a dynamic hit hard, hit first sort of player. He preferred to take the neutral centers and then see what the board looked like in 1902, probe a little here or there and see if he could join in on something. On the other hand he was hard to pin down on what he was going to do specifically mainly because he usually decided at the last minute when it came to order writing on any tactical thing.

Larry: While DipCon V and World DipCon I were the highlights of my face to face contacts with Allan there were other times we met. I think it was in Columbus or Hunt Valley that he, Rex Martin, and I were chatting on the patio one evening. I never saw Allan drink or smoke, but Rex enjoyed his whisky and cigar, while I had my usual Chivas Regal and Diet Pepsi chaser (Well, I was young in those days. What can I say?). We talked about Avalon Hill’s hopes for their new “computerized” Diplomacy game (which turned out to be a dud), why Avalon Hill was putting out three piece game boards (to fit in the boxes they got from their parent company), and gossiped about the hobby. By the time we were finished Diplomacy was going to make Avalon Hill the Parker
Brothers of the gaming world (it never happened), Allan was the most creative game designer ever (take that Gary Gygax), and Diplomacy would make us all rich and famous (well, one out of three of us made it). Contrary to what most Dippers think, Diplomacy was not Allan’s favorite game. That was baseball. He loved it. He mentioned that he had designed a game called National Pastime, which he hoped would be even more successful than Dip. He’d done the same thing with it he’d done with Dip, producing the first few proto-types himself, and he was selling them to see if there was any interest in his new game. It didn’t sound like sales were doing too good so I offered to buy a few copies. I gave him a check for a $100 and he said he’d send me some when he got home. Sure enough a few weeks later a big box arrived and when I opened it I found ten copies of National Pastime enclosed. I remember playing it once with Ed Runge and his son Paul (both major league baseball umpires) and they both politely said it had potential before heading off to find the margarita pitcher. Other copies were given away as prizes at various PeeriCons or sold to hobby game collectors. I think I still have a couple of copies out in the garage. I wonder what they’re worth now? Although I can’t remember playing Dip with Allan I do remember we once played chess, which was another of his loves. He was a wicked player, especially with his knights, and he played fast. Allan also introduced me to Go, the Chinese classic game which some people compare to chess, although Chinese chess is nothing like Go. I had forgotten this until a couple of years ago when I was reading Henry Kissinger’s book “On China,” which had numerous references to Go in it. I found it intriguing that Calhamer and Kissinger shared an interest in that game. I never knew when talking to Allan where our conversations would go. I mentioned to him that on a recent trip to Copenhagen I had seen the Royal Danish Ballet perform a work that combined the music of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ligeti’s music from 2001 with the dancers appropriately costumed. That led into a long discussion of ballet of all things. Still, from Diplomacy to ballet isn’t such a reach. After all, both are about movement.

Larry: Hopefully these insights will give you some idea of what this extraordinarily ordinary man was like, both as a Dipper and a human being. For some of my thoughts on Allan and the hobby see my “The Gospel According to Calhamer” in the current issue of The Diplomatic Pouch.

Reprinted from Diplomacy World 121.