11. Introduction to Postal Diplomacy

There it lies on your doormat, its elegant oblong shape contrasting sharply with the harsh squarishness of phone bill and tax demand, its staple glinting in the grey morning light. It has no envelope; it’s just folded over, and your name and address are scrawled in a blank space on the outside sheet, amid incomprehensible catch-phrases and exhortations to the postman. It is your first copy of your first Diplomacy zine, telling you which country you have drawn in your first postal game; it is likely to make little sense to you on first reading, but it may be the first strand of a net that will ensnare you for years to come in the strange, exclusive, yet world-wide hobby of postal Diplomacy.

It began in New York City in 1963. Its parents were as ill-matched a couple as one can imagine: two contrasting postal hobbies, wargames and Science Fiction.

Wargamers are that strange breed who delight in moving little cardboard counters around on hexagon-overlaid maps. They are blessed with endless patience and quite exceptional eyesight; and they were quick to realize that a game which demands long periods of silent study before each move was ideally suited to the leisurely pace of twentieth-century postal communica­tion. Hence the foundation of AHIKS, the postal wargamers’ group, origin­ally a brainchild of the games manufacturers Avalon Hill, but already inde­pendent by the time it adopted Diplomacy. This was the source from which the infant postal Diplomacy hobby derived most of its players.

Its traditions came from science fiction. Unlike people who read military biographies or cookery books, those who read science fiction seem to feel that their literary tastes give them a common bond. This gave rise to the ‘zine’, an amateur publication produced by one member of the hobby osten­sibly for the benefit of others, but really for his own amusement. There were, and are, many such zines: most are neither literary nor even literate, but they give pleasure to editor and readers alike, which is saying quite a lot.

They also confer on those who write and receive them a sense of belonging, and perhaps that is the secret of their continuing success. This is the pattern that Diplomacy inherited.

The world’s first Diplomacy zine was Graustark, produced in 1963 by Dr John Boardman in New York, and still around today. Several other Ameri­can zines followed; among their editors were others who were to become mainstays of the hobby during the next ten years and more: the Californians Don Miller, Rod Walker and Conrad von Metzke, and Walt Buchanan of Indiana. In 1968 AHIKS started a Diplomacy section; among those who were bitten by the bug was their European secretary, Don Turnbull. In 1969 Don started Britain’s first Diplomacy zine, Albion; the hobby had crossed the ditch.

Its growth in Britain was slow at first. The second zine to appear was War Bulletin, originally produced by a science fiction fan, Dave Berg; he soon lost interest in it, but handed it on to another SF fan, Hartley Patterson; while yet another, Michel Feron, produced Belgium’s first zine and introduced the hobby to continental Europe. This was in 1971.

It was in 1972 that the ‘explosion’ took place in Britain. The early zines had done virtually nothing to publicize the game, and existed as a small, closed, inward-looking group on the fringes of the science fiction and war-games hobbies. In early 1972 Graeme Levin, a South African games enthu­siast and games-designer recently arrived in Britain, launched Games & Puzzles, the first professional magazine for adult games-players. Graeme had previously encountered postal Diplomacy through Albion, and succumbed to the fatal bug; he now started the British Diplomacy Club, which for the first time advertised postal Diplomacy where the man in the street, the casual player, could learn of its existence. Don Turnbull, the ‘father’ of the British hobby, helped in the establishment of the club, and ran six of its first seven games (Hartley Patterson ran the other). Don also published a series of articles in Games & Puzzles on the play of the postal game; I am one of many who was finally seduced into trying it by reading those articles!

Since 1972, the game has continued to thrive in both America and Britain. Two more events are particularly worthy of notice. In 1974, Games Research, Inc. (the company that then held the copyright in Diplomacy) sponsored the magazine Diplomacy World, under the editorship of Walt Buchanan, a respected senior member of the American hobby; Diplomacy World still appears today, and enjoys the largest circulation of any zine in the hobby. In Britain, the British Diplomacy Club underwent a change of name, and became the National Games Club, marking the fact that other games were beginning to infiltrate the hobby (Scrabble was perhaps the first, and many others have since been added).

It’s time to get back to that zine on your doormat. Carrying it in to break­fast with you, you mutter a hostile ‘Good morning’ to the family, and set about opening it. It will usually be bristling with staples, on which you cut your fingers to the bone; cheapskate publishers prefer sellotape, which makes the thing impossible to open at all without a sophisticated tool-kit, as one false move will tear the front page in half.

The zine as eventually revealed may be of several types, but the following is typical of the British product. It will be erratically typed, and the printing (probably on an antique, hand-cranked duplicator) will show signs of haste. There will be about ten sides of foolscap paper, including perhaps half a dozen game reports. The rest of the space will be taken up by what appear to be the minutes of the AGM of some obscure secret society — this you will later be able to interpret as ‘hobby news’. However, for the present it’s the game you’re interested in.

Careful study will reveal an item headed ‘Gamestart’ (all one word, typic­ally). There, if you are lucky, you will find your own name and address, the name of the country you are playing (it always seems to be Italy or Austria in your first game), and the names and addresses of the other six players. Minute examination of the entire zine will tell you the other vital information you need: the name and address of the editor (who will often refer to himself as the ‘GM’ or ‘gamesmaster’) and the amount of money he will require from you before you are really allowed to play — this will include a subscription to the zinc, a game fee, and sometimes a returnable ‘deposit’, which you for­feit if you drop out of the game before your part in it has concluded. Some editors have been known to to forget to print their own names and addresses, but none to my knowledge has forgotten the financial details: no zinc makes a profit (most make a fairly substantial loss), and editors are understandably tough about prompt payment.

Subscription is usually on the credit principle: you send a round sum (about £2 is normal) to be held to your account, and the editor deducts the cost of each issue as he mails it, informing you when it is time to cough up again. The cost of zines varies greatly: in early 1978 the range was between 15 pence and 40 pence a copy, including postage. (The factors governing cost are the size of the zinc and the printing method — nowadays several zines are going over to offset-litho printing, which produces a much more legible end product but costs correspondingly more.)

The other vital fact you need is the ‘deadline’ by which your first orders must be received, and again meticulous scrutiny will eventually reveal it. Deadlines are usually either three or four weeks apart, in theory; some zines are subject to occasional delays making the effective deadline rather longer, but most are adequately efficient.


Having oriented yourself, with difficulty, you start planning your campaign.

Make sure you do plan it: by the time I write my first letters I have a clear idea of what I would like the moves of all six countries to be in spring 1901, and I plan my own moves in accordance with the answers I get. However, it is certainly a good idea to send in a set of orders for your units straight away: you are entirely free to alter them any time up to the deadline, but if your last-minute orders are delayed in the post you risk seeing the fatal letters NMR (‘no moves received’) alongside your name in the report in which case you are unlikely to recover.

The letters you write to other players before spring 1901 are likely to decide your fate, assuming you are reasonably competent at tactical play. If you make a mess of them, your ‘investment’ of time and money could be wasted before you even start. Here are a few hints on composing these vital letters.

First, and most important, be informal. If you start your letter ‘Dear Mr Smith’, or even worse ‘Dear Sir’, you are quite likely not to get a reply at all, and you are certainly unlikely to succeed in your diplomatic aims. ‘Dear Fred’ is correct form. Mock-formal letters (‘Your Imperial Majesty’, and so on) are all right up to a point — in my first game I wrote all my letters in this vein; it worked well with some people, less well with others. Some players maintain that they are put off by typewritten letters, but I think that’s a lot of nonsense; I type all mine, because I like to keep carbon-copies and remember what lies I’ve told to whom! Certainly I would rather receive a well-typed letter than a spidery scrawl on a dog-eared page torn from an old exercise book, but so long as you remember that legible letters are more likely to be answered, you’ll be all right.

My second pointer may seem absurdly unnecessary; I assure you it is not. Head up all your letters with your address, the date, the game number, and the country you are playing. If all this information is there, you are more likely to get an answer. The recipient of your letter will not have to turn up his file copy of the gamestart to discover your address; he can just reply at once, without any research. Believe me, it makes a big difference. The game number is particularly important. In my first game, playing Austria, I wrote to France a letter addressed to ‘M. le Président’ and complete with all the right headings except the game number. I received a curt postcard in reply:

‘Some of us are in more than one game, you know.’ That was all. I was taken aback. I didn’t know, to be honest. In fact, players in those days might be in over fifty games at a time; increasing postal charges have changed this, and few people play in more than a dozen now, but the point is still valid. Of course, that was bad tactics by France, though, as I realized later when I got to know him well, it was entirely in harmony with his abrasive per­sonality; I blushed to think of the way he would have sneered at my elaborate mock-formal style! But probably that simple error, not using the game number, cost me my chance of establishing friendly relations in that game; as things turned out, it may even have cost me a win.

This brings me to my next point. Don’t assume that the other players are similar to you in any way — they won’t be. A random example: one of the first games I ran (BDC 14) included a businessman in his fifties, a solicitor and a librarian in their twenties, two schoolboys and two ‘unknowns’, one of them an Australian playing from Canberra. This is not untypical: players I have encountered have ranged in age from thirteen to over seventy, with a range of occupations and life-styles to match. The best technique is prob­ably to lay your cards on the table: say who you are, and ask who they are. Not all will respond, but those who do will be that much more likely to place confidence in you if you are something more than a mere name and address.

Again, don’t make the major error of trying to conceal the fact that this is your first game. Anyone who has played before will see through you at once; anyone who hasn’t will be wary of your ‘greater experience’; and you won’t know which is which. If you find an experienced player who replies kindly and patronizingly, exploit his obvious vanity — ask his advice, tell him how out of your depth you are, explain that you will be well satisfied to avoid seventh place. When he has committed himself to allying with you, wait for your chance, then stab him.

A point of special interest concerns female players. They are few in number, according to the record, and probably even fewer if truth were known. There is a considerable difference of opinion here: is it better to be a girl, sheltering behind other players’ innate male chauvinism, or is it better to assume you will be regarded as a soft target, and disguise yourself as a man?

One of my favourite postal Diplomacy stories was told by Edi Birsan, now one of the best-known names in the American game, but then a novice like any other. Edi’s first name is, of course, the standard notation for ‘Edin­burgh’, and I’ve always meant to ask him whether he called himself that before he learnt the game. However, it could equally well be a girl’s name. In the course of his first postal game, Edi became aware that his ally had fallen for this unintentional deception! While not exactly confirming that he was a girl, Edi did not exactly deny it either; indeed, he sent the unfortu­nate ally a photograph of himself with an attractive acquaintance, captioned truthfully enough ‘myself with a friend’. The alliance prospered exceedingly, until eventually the ally, on a visit to Edi’s home town of New York, asked him for a date. This was going a bit too far, and in a letter every player would have loved to write, Edi said, ‘I don’t think we should meet — we have too much in common. For one thing, we’re both male.’

My own opinion is that male chauvinism is too deeply inbred in most players for them to be talked out of it by a handful of noisy, drop-fronted progressives; your skirt could be the biggest diplomatic asset you have, and should not be lightly cast aside … I’m sorry, I’ll rephrase that.

To return to those opening salvoes in the postal war. My next point is don’t be too aggressive. Be at pains to point out that you would welcome your ally’s advice, and that the moves you have outlined are only ‘suggestions’; this will make him more likely to accept them, which of course is what you want. If he takes you up and suggests modifications, bad luck: now you’ll have to see it through, and accept at least some of what he says.

I never cease to be amazed that there are some people who never write at all. I can’t stress this too much: when you start your first game, write to everyone. In later games, when your name is familiar, this is not so impor­tant. I confess that I no longer bother to observe this rule a hundred per cent, but I used to, and I still feel I ought to, even if idleness occasionally prevents it.

Take the most extreme case, England and Austria. Here, surely, are two countries with nothing whatever to say to one another in 1901. So suppose you, as England, ignore Austria; and things go well, so that the game comes down to a three-power fight between you, Austria and Russia, with a couple of very minor countries surviving. Who do you think Austria is going to back in the next phase? The ally with whom he has been working since the start; or the unknown stranger from whom he has never heard? Here is a sample of an England—Austria letter (a thinly disguised version of one I received very early on in my playing career):

Dear Richard,

Hi. If we ever meet up in this game we’ll have done well, but I thought I’d just introduce myself. This is my third postal game, but my first as England, and I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t got any useful informa­tion for you yet, except that you want to watch out for Italy — I’ve played with him before, and he’s a born stabber, much more interested in deceiv­ing everyone than in trying to win. An ally to avoid, in my view. Turkey’s a good player, I hear, and Russia isn’t bad; the others I know nothing about, so I reckon I’m at the safe end of the board! [Then a paragraph of personal introduction, ending with this:]

Well, good luck; we can’t both win, but let’s hope one of us does. See you in Spain in about 1910.

I replied in similar vein, and we exchanged letters throughout the game; in fact neither of us was ever in a position to win, though we both lasted the course. But next time we met in a game we were able to build on that early relationship; later we became personal friends, and still are five years on. We’ve fought to the death on more than one occasion, but we’ve been good allies too, and thoroughly enjoy our shifting, love—hate Diplomacy relationship.

The opposite case is the one that makes me really cross: though rare, this type unbalances the game and thus spoils it. This is the fellow who writes only to one other player, usually someone he knows already, either personally or from an earlier game. Suppose you, as Austria, don’t hear from Italy, what on earth are you to deduce? Clearly you’re going to be attacked, and

you react vigorously to defend yourself. The most amazing thing of all is that sometimes he doesn’t attack, and you have in effect ‘attacked’ him with­out cause, probably not wanting to at all. One or two experiences of this kind were enough for me, and I began to choose my opponents more carefully.


It is time to return to the gamesmaster, that shadowy figure who takes no active part in the game, but without whom it cannot be run. Establishing personal contact with him is not as essential as it is in the case of the other players; it’s simply friendly and polite to do so. So, when you send your orders in, chat him up a bit (and again, never make the error of being formal). If you can bring yourself to do so, compliment him on this last issue, not too effusively, of course, just picking out a good point to show you’ve noticed. If he runs a letter column in his zine, as most do, he’ll welcome criticism too: it makes more interesting reading than praise.

As soon as his deadline has passed, the gamesmaster will collect the dif­ferent sets of orders for your game — praying that there are seven of them — and make his adjudication. Some GMs are highly organized, with map-board diagrams mounted on polystyrene and little coloured pins; others, like me, just look at the moves and do the thing in their heads. When he has decided which moves succeed and which fail, he types up the adjudication.

The report will be headed with several numbers, which need explanation. There should be a game number (sometimes a name) to identify the game. For instance, Don Turnbull in Courier gives his games numbers such as ‘77/ 28’ this means that the game is the 28th he has run in that zine, and that it started in 1977. Others use a simple serial number or letter, or perhaps an alphabetical list of names.

There may also be an NGC number (BDC in a very few surviving cases) showing that the game was started by the National Games Club. The first ninety-nine games had the BDC prefix; since then, NGC has been used.

Finally there is the ‘Boardman number’, already explained. Below this mass of numerical science comes the ‘game date’ — spring 1901 in our example — followed by the moves. These take some getting used to, as layout and notation vary widely, but you soon get the hang of it. Then retreats are listed … and here we come to the first main difference between face-to-face and postal play. More of this in the next chapter.

After the game report, when you can tear your eyes away from it, there may come some ‘press’, which to the newcomer is the most baffling thing of all. What, you may well ask, is all this aimless fantasizing, sometimes loosely connected with the game, but more often not? There is no answer to this. If you enjoy writing press, you’ll enjoy reading it too; if not, you’ll just stay baffled. Press can be used as a tactical weapon — e.g. an appeal to the other countries to rescue you from a nasty spot in their own interests but more often it is just fun.

Having finished adjudicating all his games, and typed up such other articles, letters, press and assorted news items as he feels like publishing, the GM gets down to the unenjoyable part of his job; printing the thing, stapling it, stamping, addressing and mailing it. At times like this, I can tell you with authority, he feels he must be completely out of his mind — why is he doing all this extremely hard work, this long boring slog, for no financial return and little thanks? The answer to this, as my old friend John Piggott never tires of telling anyone who will listen, is, ‘for the good of his own little ego’. Well, maybe. But it is easy to understand how an occasional issue is delayed, and sometimes even never appears at all. Do not expect ruthless professional efficiency from this amateur hobby — you are entitled to expect reasonable service, but your GM is not an automaton. A little show of interest from you every now and then will help to keep him delivering the goods.

You will find a very wide choice of zines available — numbers fluctuate, but there are usually about thirty in production in Britain alone, with many more in America and a few elsewhere. In such an ephemeral field it is unsafe to give a complete list, which would be out-of-date before I’d finished typing it; at the end of this book you will find the names and addresses of a few of the best-known British zine editors, who give an impression of lasting longer than most. Do not get the idea that these are the only ones worth bothering with — they aren’t. But they are the best and most reliable at the time of writing.