Everything You Always Wanted To Know About the NGC (Pt.1)

by Stephen Agar

Every few years some enthusiastic soul comes along and suggests we revitalise the hobby by forming some sort of hobby organisation. The old folk nod sagely and mutter, “…but it will never work… remember the NGC.” I am writing this article to put the record straight, to show that despite some problems, on the whole the NGC was quite a success (well, at least as far as promoting postal Diplomacy was concerned). If anything the experience should have taught us that organisation works, provided that it isn’t too dependent on the commitment of too few people to keep going. If we were trying to do something similar today then the history of the NGC shows what can be achieved and what should be avoided.

1972 – The British Diplomacy Club

The first mention of things to come is in the news section of Albion 36 (Feb 1972) when, accompanying the news that John Piggott was launching a zine called Ethil the Frog, there was a report that Graeme Levin was also starting a professional games magazine called Games & Puzzles. It was a time when the PBM hobby was expanding quickly. Issue 37 of Albion carried with it a free copy of the first issue of Bellicus, there was news that XL had started publication, and most importantly, information on Graeme Levin’s other new venture, the British Diplomacy Club. As Graeme Levin put it “The British Diplomacy Club has been formed to co-ordinate all postal Diplomacy games throughout the Untied Kingdom. The aim is to recruit a large number of members and to promote the playing of Diplomacy.” Initial membership was 60p a year, though Albion subbers got in free. To begin with Don Turnbull (editor of Albion) was to be the GM for the BDC Diplomacy games, while Graeme would circulate membership lists, help organise FtF Diplomacy in London, sell copies of Diplomacy cheap etc. Despite Don’s support, there was a degree of suspicion even at the beginning. Graeme had talked of co-ordinating “all postal Diplomacy games throughout the UK” but at that time there was already 5 zines being published (Albion/CourierWar BulletinXLEthil the Frog and Bellicus), so from the beginning there were zines independent of the BDC.

Although Don started out as the BDC GM, after he had taken on seven games (in addition to his work running Albion and Courier) he couldn’t take on any more. Therefore Graeme had to find someone else to GM games – enter Richard Sharp (who had been introduced to the hobby via Games & Puzzles in June). Dolchstoß began in October 1972 as a single sheet to run BDC games BDC 8, 9 and 10, but it really took off in a big way thanks to the influx of people through the BDC who entered the hobby as a result of the flyer. It cost a £1 gamefee to join a BDC game, plus postage (the club paid for the zine itself). After only five issues Dolchstoß was running 8 games (though only 4 pages long), whereas Mad Policy could only manage five games after 10 issues. One early innovation was the idea that you were awarded points for things: 4 points for wining, 2 points for coming second, 1 point for surviving and 1 point for introducing a new member to the NGC. You could then “spend” the points you earned on things like a Diplomacy set (4 points), a free postal game (3 points) or a year’s sub to Games & Puzzles (3 points). Even at this early stage there was a degree of friction growing between the BDC zines and the “independents” (such as Mad Policy and Ethil the Frog) who regarded the BDC and later the NGC as far too insular (Levin even told Sharp off for just daring just to mention Ethil the Frog in passing in issue 5 of Dolchstoß). Many years later Richard Sharp was to admit that some of the criticisms of the independents were “largely justified” and that Dolchstoß would not have survived six years if it had been independent.

1973 – The National Games Club

By the end of 1972 Graeme Levin had formed the National Games Club (NGC) of which he became the President, David Wells was the Secretary and Richard Sharp became the Postal Secretary. Graeme and to a lesser extent Richard both invested some of the money to get the club started, so it was in effect owned by them. Consequently, the British Diplomacy Club was subsumed into the NGC postal games section while the BDC newsletter, The Diplomatic Backstabber was also subsumed into the new National Games Club Bulletin. At the time the BDC became the NGC there were 210 members (not bad going for an organisation which had only been going for less than a year) and during 1972 active Diplomacy zines had grown from 3 to 12. The new NGC Postal Section was centred on Diplomacy, but it immediately began to look at Diplomacy variants, Chess, Kriegspiel (a Chess variant), 4000 AD and Scrabble.

The first time the phrase “NGC zine” seems to have been used was in May 1973 – up until that point the only zines running BDC games was the BDC Journal (run by Don Turnbull, game reports to players only, running BDC 1 – BDC 7) and Dolchstoß. In Dolchstoß No.9 Richard announced that a “New NGC Zine” was being put together by Colin Hemming, called OJ. In reality OJ was only semi-independent of Richard as Colin sent him the stencils, leaving Richard to do all the duplicating and then posting OJ in with Dolchstoß. As Postal Secretary (becoming NGC Secretary a few months later), Richard Sharp also continued to manage all waiting lists – though there were no more vacancies for Diplomacy in Dolchstoß as Richard couldn’t handle any more. In August 1973 several changes were introduced. The NGC Bulletin (sent to all members) was subsumed into Dolchstoß, the latter now becoming the house zine of the NGC. Furthermore, because the cost of printing etc. had become so substantial that it was no longer possible for the club to pay for zine production costs, everyone had to sub to the zine on top of their membership fee. At the same time Richard started to try and get members to renew their BDC/NGC memberships – always a difficult task, as the existence of the independent zines meant that once a player had discovered the hobby via the BDC/NGC there was little reason to keep paying an annual subscription other than to avoid being thrown out of any NGC games. All these changes moved one member to ask what he got for his 60p per year, now that he had to pay for Dolchstoß – the answer was, of course, nothing.

By this time the workload was becoming too much for Richard (even allowing for OJ), so he made an appeal for a new person to step forward a run some BDC/NGC games. The deal offered was that the GM could keep 60% of the gamefee, with free paper, stencils and use of the NGC’s duplicator if you could get to it in London. Surprisingly Richard received no less than 15-20 offers of people wanting to start zines, of which he accepted two – John Coombe (Pendulum) and Richard Scott (Fifth Columnist – later called Fifth Column). And so there were 5 NGC zines.

In December 1973 Richard Sharp announced in Dolchstoß No.15 that Graeme Levin had relinquished his holding in the NGC, leaving Richard in sole control. Graeme was thus free to devote his attention to Games & Puzzles. So in one year Richard had gone from adjudicating some BDC games, to Postal Secretary of the NGC, to Secretary of the NGC to NGC supremo. As a club, the NGC offered players not interested in Diplomacy very little – just the odd page on Scrabble, Bridge or some such in Dolchstoß. By this time 329 people had joined the BDC/NGC so by the beginning of 1974 the established five NGC zines were now rather over-loaded, Richard once again asked for a volunteer editor. Same terms – the editor kept 60p out of every gamefee. Enter Ken Jones and his new zine, Comet – and so there were six.

The growth of the BDC/NGC had not been entirely to everyone’s satisfaction – Graeme Levin had managed to arrange for BDC flyers to be inserted in the Philmar Diplomacy sets, so the BDC/NGC (as opposed to the rest of the hobby) were receiving a large number of enquiries. However, it was in the independent sector that the forerunners of many hobby institutions originated. Mid-1973 also saw the foundation of forerunner of the UKVB by Colin Bennett, with a mere dozen or so variants in stock. Another hobby stalwart, the Zine Poll, was launched in November 1973 when Richard Walkerdine (editor of Mad Policy) announced the “Walkerdine Zine Poll”, won by John Piggott’s Ethil the Frog on a turnout of 14 votes… 1973 ended with 5 NGC zines and 18 independents and no less than 110 Diplomacy games in progress and 73 variants in total.

1974 – The NGC Committee

At the beginning of 1974 the world-wide hobby had finally grown too big for Conrad von Metzke to issue Boardman numbers for the all gamestarts, so Richard Walkerdine became the first UK Boardman Number custodian. Early 1974 also saw the beginnings of a debate which ran for many years over the merits or otherwise of hobby organisations. Hartley Patterson, John Piggott and Richard Walkerdine joined the American IDA (International Diplomacy Association – formed in 1972) and proceeded to try and set up a UK branch, known as IDA/UK. This move widened the debate even further because even those who wanted a broader base to hobby services than those offered by the NGC didn’t necessarily fancy being part of an American organisation. One thing that distinguished the IDA from the NGC was that the former only tried to provide Diplomacy hobby services (newsletter, handbook, orphan re-housing, novice package etc.) and did not run games at all.

In January, Steve Doubleday contributed a guest editorial to Our ‘Enry which rehearsed many of the various views on whether it was a good idea for UK Diplomacy to be “controlled” by an organisation – and if the answer was “yes” should it be the International Diplomacy Association (which had been running in the US for a couple of years) or some custom-built UK organisation. Although the article was inconclusive, it did spur Richard Sharp to put forward suggestions for reform. As Richard put it in Dolchstoß No. 17 (Feb 1974) “Why not reorganize the NGC as the real club it should have been in the first place? That means a club run by an elected committee, and making a small profit to enable it to expand and diversify as necessary.” Richard proposed a Committee of nine – a General Secretary (which would be Richard initially), a Treasurer, one each for Scrabble, Chess and wargames, and four for Diplomacy. In effect this meant that Richard was giving the club to its members. As the debate raged, the remarkable expansion continued with 40 people joining the NGC in January 1974 alone.

In general the feedback Richard got from the decision to go to a committee structure was favourable. There was some debate as to what the new club should do and the proposed list included: orphan re-housing, subsidising hobby services, a central gamestart service, a novice package, organising FtF meetings, developing postal rules for other games, running a variant bank and a returnable deposit to reduce dropouts. There was even some talk about “NGC Affiliated” zines, which implied that independent zines could take NGC games – but this came to nothing. In March 1974 NGC zine No.7 was up and running – Les Pimley and Shelob’s LairDolchstoß No. 19 (April 1974) was an election special which included a ballot paper to allow members to choose between the would-be committee members who would be tasked with establishing the new NGC.

1974 NGC Elections: Treasurer: Seven candidates, eventually Tony Ball beat Norman Nathan 76 votes to 63. Diplomacy: Richard Walkerdine (also Treasurer of the IDA/UK), Mick Bullock, Steve Doubleday and Les Pimley, 14 others failed to be elected. Steve Doubleday dropped out three months later, so Richard Scott (who was the runner-up in the election) was co-opted in his place. Scrabble: Peter Dean. Wargames: Nicky Palmer. Chess: Jacques Parry. Turnout was exactly 50% with 145 votes cast, STV being used for contested places with more than two candidates.

Richard agreed specific roles with the four Diplomacy representatives: Richard Walkerdine became Diplomacy Secretary, looking after the central waiting lists; Steve Doubleday became Variants Secretary, Mick Bullock became the Club’s statistician and Les Pimley agreed to look after orphan games (and was given the title of Beadle). The new Committee got off to a reasonable start – Tony Ball did quite a lot of work sorting out the finances, abolishing the credit points system discussed above. He also mooted the possibility of abolishing the annual club fee and replacing it with a sub to Dolchstoß, which would have meant that all club members would get Dolchstoß. But for the time being the 60p annual fee remained, even though its main purpose was to subsidise Dolchstoß. The recent introduction of £1 returnable deposits for each Diplomacy game was already starting to help the club’s finances as some players continued to drop out. The summer of 1974 saw the eight and ninth NGC zines, Craig Nye’s Retief and Adrien Baird’s Filibuster, come into the world, but the original BDC Journal said goodbye after 173 issues (each game report was a separate issue) when its last game ended.

With the formation of the IDA/UK interest in Britain was focused on the Calhamer Awards which were organised by the IDA in the States. Thanks to some electioneering, notably by Richard Sharp, British zines were nominated in 9 of the 11 categories and duly went on to win all 9 awards. This feat was accomplished by the fact that 75 of the 400 or so active UK players had voted in the poll, as opposed to a mere 50 votes from the 2,000 or so active US players. The US promptly changed the rules to make sure it didn’t happen again…

It’s worth observing that the Dolchstoß of 1974 was very different to the Dolchstoß of today. As the house zine of the NGC it featured the usual editorial, chat, Committee News etc. along with the Treasurer’s Notes, a couple of pages of Scrabble, a Chess page, a page on Diplomacy gamestarts, a Dip variants page, a stats page from Mick Bullock and a wargames section called Battleground. Usually around 28-30 pages it was printed on foolscap mimeo and had a circulation of around 250-300. It was a massive amount of work.

As 1974 progressed even more NGC zines were needed to keep pace with the need for more gamestarts. The 10th NGC zine in October 1974 was Greg Hawes’s Betelgeuse, devoted entirely to Intimate Diplomacy, the 11th was Misteimer from Doug Wakefield, and the 12th was Pete Birks’s Greatest Hits. One thing that was changed at the end of 1974 was the way in which Diplomacy and variant games were identified. Since the original BDC was set up each game was given a BDC number, but after BDC 88 (Nov 74) the next game was NGC 89. The last relic of the BDC days had gone.

By the end of 1974 the hobby had 29 active zines, 405 players and 161 Diplomacy games in progress. IDA/UK had about 30 members (including 3 NGC Committee members) while the NGC had acquired another 330 members in 1974 alone (due, of course, to the flyer in the box). In Dolchstoß No. 26 (Dec 1974) Richard Sharp said “If present trends continue, it looks as if the “independent” sector of British Diplomacy will virtually dry up…” and as things stood at the end of 1974 that was probably a reasonable view. 

to be continued..