A Dozen Years of Diplomacy

by Allan B Calhamer

People frequently ask me how I came to create the game. Something this complicated undoubtedly springs from a person’s total experience, but there are main lines and points which I can recall. I got an early introduction to games, to maps, and to history, and spent a lot of time making up games.

At the end of World War II, I came across an article on “post-war planning” which reviewed the European diplomacy of the period 1815-1914 and argued that coalitions tend to shift and form so as to oppose the most powerful or most aggressive elements. Later, when high school debaters were considering the issue of world governments, I ran across the argument that external governments can serve the function of checking a rampant government which is not sufficiently checked internally.

About this time a friend of mine and I attempted to play a game which would model the entanglements of European history. As we had only two players, you can imagine that the results were not very successful.

In college I came in contact with the remarkable book Origins of the World War by S.B. Fry. This book explored the secret alliance diplomacy leading up to the war in great detail. After the war nearly all the governments involved threw open the secret correspondence of that period, offering an opportunity to the observer which may never come again. I was impressed by the importance of the personal contact and personal decision-making, and of alternatives that were not chosen, and of individual failures and blunders. All of this is in contrast to the determinism frequently implied by generalizations about history. I think the mysterious “semi-determinism” of life has been pretty well captured by the game of Diplomacy.

I also took a course in political geography under Prof. Whittlesley, which course influenced the relationship among country, military forces, and supply centres which went into the game. Thus we find that power arises from resources found at specific points, but is dealt out as the country sees fit. If it is not so dealt as to protect the resources, however, they may pass into the invisible envelope of another country’s influence, and be dealt by someone else to some other faraway point.

I began devising the game in 1953 and completed the first set in 1954. Armies were blocks two inches high, painted with three horizontal stripes taken from the colours of the country’s flag in 1914. Fleets were 2 1/2 inches long, and the board was quite large. In the first two games, negotiation was entirely by written notes passed from player to player at the board. Reading the notes after the game was most interesting. Verbal negotiation, however, was faster and gave the players a chance to move around, which is an advantage in a game of this duration.

In 1958 I went to work in a research laboratory which was interested in the game as a possible research tool. For a variety of reasons, that objective was never achieved. The game, however, was played frequently there, and the players, who were good game players generally, did a great deal of analysis and contributed many suggestions and played many experimental games. Several small changes were made in the rules. At first, a country could have multiple units in its capital or naval base, which were two of its home supply centres. Almost an entire duplicate set of rules was necessary to govern the interactions involving these multiple units, which were consequently done away with. The number of provinces within a Great Power was reduced from seven to six. This change speeded up the early mobilisation, although it is now a little harder to catch a country completely off guard, because opposite frontiers are now closer together. Changes in the map were made, to make the countries more nearly equal, and convoying was made much faster. A large number of ambiguities in the written rules were discovered and disposed of.

A variety of rough-and-ready tactics were developed at this time. One was the “Flying Dutchman”, which consisted in playing with a piece to which you were not entitled. It was ruled that this practice was legal so long as it was a deception; i.e., any player had a right to demand restoration of the true position, but if moves had intervened, they could not be taken back. It was never clear what the rights were if the deception was discovered during a move. Players quickly learned not to challenge a Flying Dutchman unless its removal was in their interest; sometimes a player might let one survive for several moves, then challenge it when alliances began to shift. The easiest way to put on a Flying Dutchman is to raise one when other players are raising, or to “forget” to drop one; but they are sometimes just placed on the board when only yourself or allies are present. Also pieces have been advanced or pushed back, armies have been turned into fleets, and so on.

The ploy which came closet to provoking mayhem was move-stealing. After a player had tucked his orders under the board, they were quietly lifted and some other paper put in their place. If other moves had been read before the deception was discovered, it was ruled that the victim could not make out a new set, because he had already heard other player’s moves. Consequently his pieces stood in place. If the theft was coupled with an all-out attack it was very effective, and it had its analog in sabotage of communication lines in advance of attack.

These tactics seemed to have died out with the passage of time, except for an occasional Flying Dutchman, peeking while others write orders and so on. For one thing, these practices became dogged and incessant rather than clever, after a while; today they seem to belong to the past. There is no written rule saying that any deception is legal, anyway.

The game was put into its final commercial form and put on the market in 1959. I let contracts for the manufacture of parts, assembled the sets in my apartment, and sold them however I could. At one time my living room was so full of bundles of boxes that I had only about six inches clearance around three sides of the room; no clearance on the fourth side. As sets were sold it became easier to move around. Games Research took the game over in 1960 and took the last material off my hands.

Postal Diplomacy was begun in 1961 on the initiative of John Boardman. Its surprising development has been very gratifying to me. It provides a channel of communication among many players, which helps to supplement some of the vagaries of the rules and may help to increase the quality of play.

People have sometimes asked why I chose the scenario of 1914. That period was a period in which there were several Great Powers which were more or less equal in power. It was a period of alliances and coalitions. It was also a period, as I have indicated above, that we know a lot about today. Other good scenarios that have been tried are Ancient Greece and 12th or 13th century Asia. The evidence is that there was quite a little diplomacy, aimed at coalition-forming for the largest purposes, throughout Asia at that time. Europe between the wars is not so good, because of the break-up of Austria-Hungary, the contraction of Turkey, etc., create too great a power vacuum in the Balkans. One game based on the world as of 1940 had to resort to Brazil as a Great Power, to balance the board. The destructiveness of present-day warfare makes it very difficult to model so as to represent the choices at all realistically.

Also, I believe it would be a mistake to model the present, because simple and unrealistic conclusions might be accepted uncritically. Something relevant to the present day can probably be learned from the existing game, but the required carry-over guards against hasty conclusions.

I chose a physical rather than a political map because a physical map looks more like Earth itself. (( SA: The US game has always used a physical map, whereas the Philmar and Gibsons versions in the UK have always used a rather gaudy political map.))

“Diplomacy” seems to contain a number of elements which are original or at least very unusual. A workable multi-player military game is unusual. If the game employed the rule in checkers or chess, that a player may not pass on his move, it would be slowed up badly by players who were inattentive or indecisive. The rule that a piece not ordered simply stands, and the rule that illegal orders are treated as orders to stand, are important in keeping the game moving along. Also these rules amount to a mild penalty, which induces the players to remain attentive.

The effect of moving all the pieces simultaneously tends to be realistic, and also keeps things moving. In about five minutes as many as 34 moves may take place, and the situation may change quite a little bit as those 34 pieces move. It is good that the moves are fairly restricted in view of the number that take place at one time. The moves have to be complicated enough to permit of deception in the negotiations; beyond that, additional complications tend to detract from the diplomatic side of the game. For the same reason, it is good that each player has only a few pieces.

The interaction between land and sea is not dealt with very well in any other game of which I know. Usually games are either a land game or a sea game, the opposite element serving only as a boundary, or as the wings from which pieces come on to the stage. In “Diplomacy” sea power is as important as land power. It operates against landward targets, by supporting military forces (not physically represented but assumed to be there) in actual occupation of coastal areas. Engagement on the high seas occurs infrequently, and almost always because one side is moving to attack landward targets and the other is trying to prevent it.

A country’s capabilities depend very much on how her force is divided between armies and fleets. These capabilities in turn reveal a great deal about her intentions and consequently her trustworthiness. The way in which the earth-space represented on the board is divided into land and sea is very important. The water areas of the board are divided into two distinct parts, the northern and the Mediterranean. A country which has an absolute majority of fleets in one of these parts is likely to be able to sweep anything on the coasts, first by taking the supply centres which are most exposed to seaward attack, then by raising either type of piece and mopping up. There are 14 supply centres bordering each of these water areas (Spain bordering both of them). There are only seven wholly inland supply centres. An absolute majority of armies in the large land area containing most of the land-locked supply centres should have the same effect as a majority of fleets in one of the water areas, but it is much harder to achieve. If a country stays in its water area it may use both its fleets and armies in the same conflict, but if it goes overland its fleets will be out of play. Usually the only countries that can successfully fight in both water areas at once are France, or some country which has conquered France, or, occasionally, Russia.

Some players believe that there should be a class of alliances, possibly written, which should be binding under the rules. I have always believed that such a thing would be unrealistic. Furthermore, when a player has learned how to devise alliances that are likely to succeed in the environment of the present game, he has really learned something. I understand that a Californian group experimented with binding alliances and found that they spent the whole game litigating over whether an alliance had been violated or not, and also spent a lot of effort tricking people into agreeing to things they did not really intend. How much simpler is the present game!

Where there are ambiguities in the rules at present I feel no hesitation in telling people what I intended the rule to be. If I am playing in a game when the matter comes up, I usually accept a vote as binding for that game only. But if there is, essentially, an error in the rules – if they really say something I didn’t intend – I prefer to go along with the written wording. So far the situation has only arisen once, and I was lucky: the literal wording did not result in a bad rule, though my intention was better. I never intended that a piece actually dislodged by an attacker coming from province A could still stand off another piece attempting to enter A, simply by virtue of an order to attack A. That is, however, the rule as written. ((SA: This was altered in the 1971 revision.))

A few strange results occur from time to time under the rules because of the desire to keep the rules simple and to keep their sheer bulk down. Thus the notion that determination of the outcome of conflict would not depend on the nationality of the pieces in any way was devised. This result was intellectually pretty, but I actually had to make an exception, to the effect that a country may not dislodge its own piece, in order to prevent a country from deliberately securing a retreat in certain positions where a retreat can be a very powerful move (because all the other pieces are frozen in place during the retreat). Most players think there should also be an exception permitting a country to exchange the positions of its own army and fleet, but under the rules these two stand each other off. Rules covering the situation in which two armies wish to retreat to the same province never even got into the Rulebook. The rule I use is that they must write the retreats, and if they choose the same space they must write again but may not go to that space. The result frequently is that one country may annihilate the piece of the other and then retreat, because one of them frequently only has one possible retreat. Sometimes both are limited to one retreat only, in which case they annihilate each other. When these pieces both come from the same country, the player involved raises an awful yell, but I do not like a special rule to cover that situation only. The real problem is what to do if the victim demands a look at the rule book. I have sometimes gotten by in the past by denying that I had a copy. ((SA Today’s rulebook states that a player does not have to order a retreat (he can allow the unit to disband) and if two units retreat to the same space they both disband – no second chances.))

I have been asked about the proposed new Diplomacy federation. I am really more interested in vitality than in organisation, and it is just in that respect that I feel most optimistic today. Diplomacy, like its fans, may be a little disorganised, but both have a certain vitality that bodes well for the future.

[First published in Diplomania No.12 (August 1966)]

((SA: While I think Allan Calhamer invented a great game, his ability to express himself clearly in the written word was not one of his strong points. The above article has been heavily edited in parts to make it intelligible – where is was intelligible but badly expressed, I have just left it as it was in the original.))