The Origin of Postal Diplomacy in the UK

by Stephen Agar

Thanks to the efforts of Walter Buchanan and Brian Alden, most UK Diplomacy zines held in the Hoosier Archives (which hold more or less every Diplomacy zine published from 1963-1978) have been repatriated to the UK, so I am able to write this article on Albion, the first ever UK Diplomacy zine, but one which I had never seen a single issue of until a few weeks ago. Issue 1 (price 6d) is dated 2nd July 1969, which means our hobby has been on the go for over 26 years. The first issue which was only 8 pages long (quatro, single sided, mimeo) contained the gamestart and first moves for ALBION 69/1 (1969BG), so Don had obviously sorted out the gamestart with a pre-issue flyer. Just for the record the first season in this first-ever game was as follows: 

AUSTRIA (Michael Nethercot) A(Vie) S F(Tri); F(Tri)Std.; A(Bud)-Ser
ENGLAND (John Munro) NMR! F(Edi); F(Lon); A(Lpl) all Std.
FRANCE (Malcolm Watson) A(Par)-Pic; A(Mar)-Bur; F(Bre)-MAO
GERMANY (Colin Newcombe) A(Ber)-Sil; A(Mun)-Ruh; F(Kie)-Den
ITALY (John Robertson) A(Rom)-Ven; A(Ven)-Tyr; F(Nap)-TYS
RUSSIA (Chris Hancock) F(StP0-GoB; A(War)Std.; F(Sev)-Rum; A(Mos)-Lvn
TURKEY (David Wood) A(Con)-Bul; A(Smy)std.; F(Ank)-Con 

Well, what do you make of that lot? The first ever postal Diplomacy game in the UK started with an NMR! Some of the other openings look pretty strange too: Austria using A(Vie) to support F(Tri) even though it can’t be dislodged, a German player moving to Silesia while Russia orders A(Mos)-Lvn! The game generated 5 pages of press on the first move, something I doubt would ever happen today. The game system was quite different to what we would expect today – there was in effect a 4 season game year – spring moves, spring retreats carried in an interim  supplement, autumn moves, and autumn retreats and builds carried in another interim supplement. The information from the supplements appeared in the next full issue. Issue 1 announced that Don had two trades, Rod Walker’s Erehwon (USA) and John McCallum’s Laurania (Canada), so the circulation was 9. 

By issue 2 the zine had doubled in size. You’ll no doubt be relieved to know that England didn’t drop out and that A(Sil) stood while Germany allowed Russia to order F(GoB) C A(Lvn)-Swe. The press still took up 5 sides though. Don had picked up another US trade (Jeff Key’s The Voice) and 3 new subbers – though only one in the UK. Don’s editorial was a plea for all UK readers to sub to at least one US zine, to try and make the relationship with the US a bit more two way, and to that end he advertised the services of the “NFFF Games Bureau” (Chairman Don Miller) and in particular the Diplomacy Division (Chief Rod Walker). And all for $1 per annum. The tradition of Diplomacy zines carrying articles which have nothing to do with Diplomacy started early, as this issue had an introductory article on the concept of a fourth dimension. 

Issue 3 and the zine was still expanding – now up to 20 pages and printed on both sides of the paper to keep down the postage costs. Another UK subscriber took Don’s UK readership to the dizzy heights of nine subbers (which explains why these early issues of Albion are so rare). By issue 5 the circulation was much the same, but Don discovered that he was losing too much money and asked the players in his Diplomacy game to cough up an extra 5/- each (the gamefee having been initially calculated to cover the cost of the zine for the entire game).  

The rules for the first variant ever published in the UK appeared in issue 6, the fairly chaotic Hyperspace Diplomacy.  Early issues of Albion were also characterised by quite serious articles on things such as quantum mechanics and game theory, though any letters published usually concerned rule disputes (this being pre-1971 rulebook).  Although Don did manage to find a couple of new subscribers at the AHIKS UK Regional Meeting, the zine still ended 1969 with only than 11 UK subscribers, all (I think) AHIKS members, though Don did manage to start his second regular game in issue 9. Issue 10, the Christmas 1969 issue, saw the seeds of how Albion was to develop with the first review of a S&T game. 

Albion No.11 had an original variant in Abstraction (also referred to as Aberration V) by Fred C. Davis Jr. And Don gave up trying to fill his Hyperspace Diplomacy list and opened one for Abstraction instead.  That Albion was the first to publish a classic US variant is not surprising, as Albion was really part of the US  Diplomacy zine (Don’s US readership was larger than the UK).  Another first in issue 14 when Don printed the rules for The Business Game designed by Rene Nokin and opened a waiting list, so the UK’s first Diplomacy zine didn’t stay purist for long (although the list never filled!). 

Issue 15 contains a lot of heart searching from Don, partly on the various feuds going on in the US at the time (especially Walker vs. Tretick) and partly on the status of Albion in AHIKS. Don stated quite clearly that Albion was not an AHIKS zine (and had two non-AHIKS subbers), but that he did intend to move the zine towards being a general wargames zine, a trend even more apparent by issue 16. Don passed his first anniversary with Albion with issue 19 (yes, 19 issues in 1 year – and a typical issue was approx. 30 sides), though UK circulation was a mere 15 out of 31 readers. 

With issue 20 came a 5 page letter from Rod Walker (one of the leading lights of the US hobby) giving his side of the feud with Buddy Tretick, which elicited a 3 page reply from Don.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the same sort of personal grudge feuding which more or less tore the US hobby apart in the early 80’s. but is quite rare these days. Some people thought it all a bit too much and in the following issue complained about Albion spending so much space discussing a US “boardroom dust-up.” Some fundamental changes were also announced in Albion No.21. In essence, Don had decided to put all the Diplomacy game reports (he was running three games at the time) into a separate companion zine to be called Courier (which still holds the record at the most number of issues for any UK zine). Initially Courier was to be numbered the same as Albion i.e. No. 22A, 23A, etc. but once Albion folded it had to revert to conventional numbering. From this point on Albion itself was less and less a Diplomacy zine. 

The first of the new style Albions (Issue 22) ran to 36 sides and carried mainstream wargames articles – game review, S&T review, the AHIKS British Region members Bulletin etc.  One diplomacy related letter from Rod Walker queried Don’s habit of putting the starting position of every unit in brackets in the game report – apparently this was unheard of in the US at the time. Don confesses that he just did it that way because he thought it looked good and because Don did it that way more or less all UK zines have followed suit ever since. Rod also questioned why Don allowed players to sign their units over to other players, as this wasn’t standard US practice either. 

The big news in Albion No.23 was that Don had made contact with Peter Roberts and Dave Berg at Keele University  (members of the Keele Wargames Society) as he’d heard via Don Miller that they were thinking of starting a PBM Diplomacy zine. This zine had in fact just been launched by Dave Berg a couple of months later under the name War Bulletin. The UK’s second Diplomacy zine was born.  However, the editors of our first two Diplomacy zines didn’t see eye to eye. In Albion No.24 Dave Berg writes  (of Albion) “Now, I have been running a Diplomacy magazine for the last 3 months, blissfully unaware that one of the same should ever be destined to be longer than one page…Who the hell, what inadequate type of person, can just read a thing like Albion regularly let alone pay 2/- a time for the privilege. We must live in worlds so different – and yet amazingly we seem to have one interest in common” Don wisely said nothing and let his readers reply for him in the next issue. With issue 24 Albion’s circulation finally reached 50 (though only 29 UK subbers). 

Issue 25 of Albion was produced using a primitive litho, another first for Don (although the quality was dire and the experiment not repeated). The rules for Abstraction were reprinted (with minor modifications from Fred Davis), as Don had never managed to get  a game started, as were numerous letters condemning Dave Berg (and one from someone called Will Haven, later editor of Bellicus, the 6th UK zine), supporting him. By this stage Albion (as opposed to Courier) was overwhelmingly a wargames zine, rather than Diplomacy – and given Don’s AHIKS background this was perhaps inevitable.  That said, issue 27 did contain a long article on the history of postal Diplomacy to date (that is up to April 1971) which is very interesting and which I’ll probably reprint next issue.  The same issue also had the first UK variant game start – Abstraction finally got underway.  

By issue 28 there was  a hint of what was to come. Don reported on his discovery of Michel Feron’s Moeshoeshoe (a Belgian zine) and rumours that a certain “John Pigot”, a War Bulletin subscriber, was going to start a zine.  By now the circulation topped 70, and by the following issue had hit 80, with almost all new subscribers being from the UK. Word was getting around. To give you an idea of how the focus of Albion had changed from the early days, issue 29 had articles on PanzerBlitz (a regular topic of discussion), a review of Conflict (a new board game), reviews of S&T  and an article on wargame design.  

Albion was 2 years old with issue 30 in July 1971.  Signs that PBM Diplomacy were starting to develop elsewhere are evident, especially in a letter from Colin Hemming (future editor of XL the fourth UK zine) suggesting a hidden movement game of Diplomacy – players only get to see units in adjacent spaces. Issue 31 was the first issue with no Diplomacy material in it at all, though issue 32 did have the rules for Diplomyopia, Colin Hemming’s variant and issue 33 had a long article from Fred Davis on the creation of Abstraction.  By now names started appearing in Albion who were to form the backbone of the postal hobby in the early 70’s. Will Haven and Colin Hemming have already been mentioned Hartley Patterson had taken over War Bulletin in May 1971 and letters from John Piggott and Graham Jeffrey appeared in No.33 (October 1971) while Andy Davidson and Graeme Levin surfaced in issue 35.  Around this time the new rulebook (1971) came out and Don highlighted the clarifications and changes in issue 35. It is amazing that so much of what we take for granted in the basic rules of the game wasn’t finally determined until 10 years after the game went into commercial production.  

The news section of Albion 36 (Feb 1972) brought news that John Piggott was launching a zine called Ethil the Frog and that Graeme Levin was starting a professional games magazine called Games & Puzzles that spring. Albion’s circulation also broke the 100 mark.  By now Albion was undoubtedly slowing down, as the Diplomacy games were running with clockwork efficiency in Courier, though each issue of Albion regularly went through the 30 page barrier. The PBM hobby was expanding quickly.  Apart from the rules to Atlantica, Issue 37 carried with it a free copy of Bellicus No.1 (which started as a Strategy I zine), news that XL had started publication, and most importantly, information on 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. At the same time Don announced that he wasn’t accepting any more subscriptions as he was capping the circulation at 125 – anyone wanting to sub would have to go on a waiting list! (The policy didn’t last long, by issue 44 the circulation was 170.) 

Albion may have slowed down, being produced bi-monthly now, but it was certainly getting bigger each issue. By the time of issue 39 (the 3rd birthday issue) it was averaging around 46 pages, with general wargames / boardgames content and the occasional Diplomacy article or variant (issue 39 included Rod Blackshaw’s variant Cold War). Indeed, the strain on Don was beginning to show – issue 39 even carried an announcement that Albion would fold in six months time, though Don did change his mind. Still knocking out 50 page issues on stencils is not easy. 

The last ten issues of Albion are probably those most remembered by mainstream PBM Diplomacy, which was taking off in a big way as Albion was entering old age. By now Don’s formula was clear – a 50 page issue every two months or so on a wide selection of wargames and boardgames, a kind of Sumo’s Karaoke Club before its time. There is too much in these issues to go through them in any detail, but through them you can see PBM Diplomacy taking off by the number of the Old guard that put in an appearence (e.g. Richard Walkerdine, Brian Yare, Les Pimley, John Lettice, Richard Sharp, Mike Sherrad etc.) By now the British Diplomacy Club (with Don Turnbull, Hartley Patterson and Richard Sharp GMing)  had become the National Games Club, Don adjudicating BDC games in the BDC Journal. By the time of issue 46 (October 1973) Don really had had enough, so he announced a fold at issue 50 (and this time he meant it). Issues 47-49 followed the established pattern, but with issue 50 Don really went out with a bang. This time Albion had a circulation of 213 (136 UK) and was 109 sides long, including 17 articles and three complete games in supplements. An incredible  achievement. Albion had lasted for 41/2 years and Courier was to last many many more. But that’s another story.

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 40