Twenty Five Years of Grabbing Dots

by Rod Walker

This year (1986) marks my 25th anniversary as a DIPLOMACY player. That’s a long time to be so involved in the play of one game, and a lot has happened in that period. At the risk of projecting total egomania, I thought I’d spend this column talking about those 25 years and, in the process, about the development of DIPLOMACY fandom.

In its earliest days, DIPLOMACY was not generally available in stores. It was privately produced and marketed by its inventor, Allan B. Calhamer. (I still own a “copyright Allan B. Calhamer” board from the period.) A few large stores in Eastern cities stocked the game, whenever Allan could convince them to do so; but generally he sold the game out of his home. I bought it through an ad in the Atlantic which a friend, Conrad von Metzke, now himself a long-time fan, called to my attention. That was 1961, and about that time DIPLOMACY became the property of an obscure game firm, Games Research Inc., which owned the game until Avalon Hill bought it in 1976. Very few wargames can boast of being continuously on the market for a quarter-century (and DIPLOMACY has been since 1959), but this game is not only classic but very classy and is a good bet to be around for quite a while.

In the year or so after I got the game, Conrad and I inveigled several of our friends into learning it and playing it. We had a lot of wild and wooly DIPLOMACY parties. I’m not sure how well we played, but we certainly had a lot of fun [which is the whole point of gaming, isn’t it?]. When our group was broken up by graduations and other rites of passage, Conrad made an abortive attempt to start a game by mail. . . and then we all lost touch with one another.

Less than a year later, the postal DIPLOMACY was in fact founded by John Boardrnan (whose “Graustark” is still a major pillar of modern DIPLOMACY fandom); this led to a rash of Dip zines named after fictional places (“Ruritania”, “Brobdingnag”, “Wild ‘n Wooly”, “Trantor”, “Barad-dur”, “Orthanc”, “Norstrillia”, Conrad’s “Costaguana”, my own “Erewhon”, etc., etc.). I finally discovered postal DIPLOMACY in 1966 and founded my ‘zinc the same year. At that time there were fewer than two dozen ‘zines active in the States, one in Canada, and none elsewhere. The hobby spread to England in 1970, and today well over 100 DIPLOMACY ‘zines are published though- Out the world (including three in Australia). The sheer paper bulk of it all is staggering.
DIPLOMACY fandom is an anarchic affair in which one can play many roles – and I’ve played most of them. One can, for instance, play DIPLOMACY games. I did that for a while, with moderate success. In those days most DIPLOMACY players were science fiction fans, and they viewed games as excuses to have fun and write extravagant news releases (“press”). Considering that men like Jerry Pournelle and Jack Chalker, now professionals, plus some very talented amateurs, were doing the writing, it was something to read! Nothing like that goes on in postal DIPLOMACY these days; the garners are considerably less literate and considerably more lazy. But you can still play in some pretty good games if you know where to look for them.

Another thing you can do is game-master DIPLOMACY. I did a lot of that, both regular and variant games, and of course published my own ‘zinc. ‘Zines, actually. . . all sorts of them covering different sorts of games or content or whatever. Many people find publishing, as I do, addictive. It is also expensive and very time-consuming, but it can be extremely rewarding if you have any literary pretensions. Generally, a dozen or more new ‘zines appear in North America every year. . . and just about as many vanish. Fan publishing is not a stable field.

My first postal game was “1966AA”. Every postal game is given a standard alpha-numeric designation called a “Boardman Number’ ‘—so that game was the 27th game begun in 1966. There is a per son who assigns these things, and also prints the complete game report (players and annual supply center holdings) for each game after it ends. I’ve done that too; I was Boardman Number Custodian for a few years (1969-1972). By the way, those of you who have bought the Gamer’s Guide may wish to note that the “sample game” in that publication is in fact the same first game I was in, 1966AA. Which country was I? Austria. Nobody else in that game is still active in fandom except for the GM, John Boardman. This game was also a classic for its press, probably the best and most extensive ever written for a game of DIPLOMACY. I am adapting some of that material for a fantasy novel, In the Service of Her Holiness the Pope, I am working on.

As I mentioned above, DIPLOMACY fandom is basically an anarchy. Not everybody is happy with that, and there have been many attempts to “organize” the hobby-beginning with the abortive “International Diplomacy Federation” of 1966. Several groups have put in appearances since. Most were attempts to impose this or that philosophy on the hobby, or to create a power base for some individual or clique. This whole process is called “Mega-Diplomacy”. The only group which was to any degree democratic and effective was the “International Diplomacy Association” (1972-1981), but eventually it collapsed due to membership apathy and internal squabbles and power struggles. Even the smallest pond will attract self-serving and power hungry frogs. As an officer of the IDA, I helped engineer its self-destruction as the only viable alternative to continued private plotting. It was a
very sad time, but many of us learned then that DIPLOMACY fandom is better off as an anarchy.

Even so, there are many small, task-specific organizations which do work. There are privately organized committees to sponsor hobby awards, for instance. The “Don Miller Memorial Award for Hobby Service” is one such. There is a periodic fun-auction to raise funds for hobby projects and services. These services, in turn, are independently run and privately transferred from one “Custodian” to the next. This system sounds almost autocratic, but continued good judgement of choice of successors in nearly all cases has resulted in a responsible, responsive hobby leadership. I’ve held a few of these posts and found the work rewarding; but you just can’t keep it up for more than two or three years, and then you have to give it up.

Probably the most interesting and rewarding job I undertook was as editor/publisher of the hobby’s “flagship” ‘zinc, DIPLOMACY WORLD. This was designed by its founder, Walt Buchanan, to be a central source for good writing about the game, and also for hobby statistical information: game winners, poll results, rating systems, and the like. The hobby’s first ‘zinc, “Graustark”, used to per form that function; but as the hobby got larger, there simply wasn’t enough room in a ‘zinc which was trying to run games and press and letters and book reviews and whatnot to cover all of postal DIPLOMACY as well. The function of DIPLOMACY WORLD was (and is) thus not to “control” the hobby, but to report it, and to provide insightful literature about the game. There have been four editors of DW to date, counting myself. But the time came when the ‘zinc needed fresh thinking and re organizing. Besides, after more than three years (and the magazine is virtually a full-time job if you try to run it yourself) I was absolutely burned out by the work. So the burden was shifted onto several pairs of shoulders. Kathy Byrne, one of postal DIPLOMACY’s most enthusiastic and talented players, is now General Editor. Larry Peery, another old-time fan and a wild character, is now Publisher. I kept a fancy title and write the occasional article. Many other hard-working souls will contribute to a completely new (but still dedicated to the same virtues) DIPLOMACY WORLD.

It’s been a quarter-century since I first played this silly game. A lot has happened; DIPLOMACY fandom is an ever changing kaleidoscope of weird, sometimes wonderful and sometimes sordid things. DIPLOMACY fandom is, because of that, unique (in-so-far as I know) in the wargaming field generally. As a total experience it can be exhilarating and disillusioning by turns. It can be a turn-off, but it can also be addictive. I guess I’m in for another twenty-five. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Reprinted from The General (Vol 22, No.5)