Birth of Seven Nations

by Haz Bond

Not “birth of a nation”, or “birth of a notion”, or even “birth of five nations” (which I suppose would be about rugby); “Birth of Seven Nations” must be, as any fool knows, about the history of Diplomacy in its earliest days.

As I’ve said already, I’m a science fiction fan, as well as a diplomacy one; and like the diplomacy hobby, the SF fanzine hobby has quite a set of archives. These are held by Vin Clarke, who lives quite near London, so I quite frequently went round pop round to browse through the collection (which include zines as old as the 19305). And last time, I learnt that he had some very old dippy zines too; so I asked if I could borrow them to write this article about them…

The date on the first of them is August 29th, 1964; which is pretty good, considering that the first postal game was only ever started in 1963. Indeed, I think the game reported (yes, there was only one; zines were only one or two sheets long in those days) can only have been the fifth or sixth postal game ever.

The name of the zine? Brobdingnag (“The fanzine no one seems to be able to pronounce” proclaims issue 9), edited by Dick Schultz of Detroit. Issues 5 to 16 cover Spring 03 to Winter 05 of game 1964C; also in the library were issues 72 and 73, by which time the editor had become S. A. McCallum of Alberta, Canada, the year had become 1967, and the zine 13 pages long instead of 6 maximun.

But let’s start with the primitive. An awful lot of things had yet to be discovered about postal diplomacy; the two season year for example. In Brob, after every Autumn a separate issue was published just to show adjustments; a horribly time-consuming and roundabout way of doing things, as it seems to us now. Also yet to be invented was the shorthand code for adjudicationins, giving us such beauties as “Fleet Norway to Skaggerak Strait” every time. No wonder the zine only ran one game; it must have taken him all his time to type that one out. Also yet to be invented were conditional retreats; “In the lonian Sea, the Italian fleet has been forced to retreat. It may retreat to Apulia, Naples, the Tyrrhenian Sea, Tunis. Bailes is hereby requested to send me his retreat order immediately.” (Issue 12)

Some things are familiar, though, such as game headlines. Brob habitually printed four or five of these per season, all for one game, and some of them show a neat wit; “FRENCH STAND FIRM, GAMESMASTER MILLS IN CONFUSION” is one of the neatest. Also (sadly) familiar is the sentiment shown by the headline “US POST OFFICE DECLARES WAR ON US PUBLIC; BROBDINGNAG DEVASTATED AS BATTLE LINE SWEEPS ACROSS NATION!” (Issue 15), a headline occasioned by the USPO’s delaying both France’s and Italy’s orders over Christmas 1964.

Press releases, too, were already a standard feature of the postal diplomacy scene. Indeed, several issues contain what might be thought of as a subzine, called REUTERS REPORTS, edited written and apparently printed by John Boardman, who was playing England in this game. (And Turkey, under the pseudonym Eric Blake though this didn’t come out till after he’d won — probably the first example of the use of underhand tactics in a postal dippy game). While almost all the press is game-based, quite a lot (especially Boardman’s) is nonetheless rather good; for example, after France turned on England and invaded Wales, Boardinan reported on the reaction of the House of Commons (Brob 12): “… James Kier Hardie maintained that this treachery showed the futility of the entire war. He urged that the government initiate negotiations at once for a peace settlement with other powers. At this point a mixed group of Conservatives and Liberals forcibly ejected the House’s sole Labour member. Col. Pompey Blimp, the Tory member for Nether Tooting, warned Hardie that ‘if you show your d-d face again here, you d-d b-y anarchist, I’ll bash in your d-d hooter, so help me G-d.’”

Colonel Blimp makes several more appearances in these copies of Brob, which may make him the first example of a “borrowed” character appearing in a press saga. The unfortunate Mr Kier Hardy finds himself exiled to Stornaway.

Another thing that had been invented, it seems, was the NMR. Both Austria and Russia had stopped sending in orders very early, although the concept of anarchy had not yet been thought up; and since putting a player’s name by their country was as yet unheard of; ifs impossible to tell who played these countries (or would be if Schultz didn’t mention it once in a paragraph of chat).

Humour, as I intimated, is not unknown, and neither are silly orders. In Brob 14, France orders Army Belgium to the moon (the GM adds redundantly that “in legal terms, this means a hold order”) and adds a press release: “Peenemunde (ILS Bulletin): Rockets launched from Peenemunde Missile Centre today are reported in trouble at an altitude of eighteen feet. Scientists at this base are frankly worried, since at their present course and speed, the spaceman’s journey would be lengthened from nine days to some seventeen hundred years.

On what scale and position did the hobby hold in those far-off days? To be frank, it was little more than an offshoot of science fiction fandom. There’s a directory of players and subbers to the five zines of the day at the back of Brob 10; all the names are familiar from sf with the sole exception of Allan Calhamer, and two or three of them are still active in sf fandom, having presumably paid no heed to Diplomacy for twenty five years. This includes Brob’s British agent, Ken Cheslin of Stourbridge, whose son used to play D&D with lain Bowen and is now a member of the leading indie group, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin!)

The influx of wargamers and the establishment of Diplomacy as a hobby on its own, independent of science fiction fandom, was yet to come, as was the entry of Diplomacy to Britain (apart from the agent, only one British subscriber is listed out of twenty-eight).

Twenty-eight subscribers would be a very unfortunate number for a zine to have nowadays, of course, but they thought smaller in those days. I wonder what Dick Schultz would have thought if he’d seen one of today’s zines with perhaps half a dozen games of diplomacy and another half dozen of other games, plus pages and pages filled with letters, politics and general chat?

As a matter of fact, I think he’d have probably reeled in horror and chucked in doing Brobdingnag that instant. Pioneers have a way of being disenchanted with what comes from their pioneering, and certainly the hobby has progressed so far from Brob’s badly typed and overinked stencils that, as you might say, one can hardly be seen from the other. Then again, what would we say if we could see the Diplomacy zine of the year 2015? Will such a thing exist? Will it be as far from us as we are from Brob? Or has the hobby developed to its logical conclusion already, meaning that future developments will only be cosmetic and minor?

Hard to say, boss. Certainly I don’t think that the hobby will sail serenely on forever just as it is; but who could have predicted the influx from the RPG hobby, for instance, which has probably shaped the recent format of zines far more than any other single event? Whilst I have no doubts that the hobby will continue, I shall say only this; “The future is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

First printed in Up Around The Bend – Issue One.