The Invention of Diplomacy

by Allan B Calhamer

As the war drew to a close in 1945, I read an article on postwar planning in the magazine Life. This article reviewed the history of the Congress of Vienna and the subsequent period to 1914, arguing that a world containing several ‘Great Powers’ all roughly equal in strength would offer the best guarantee of peace because whenever one of them acted aggressively the remainder could unite against them, causing them to back down before a war could break out. Regardless of whether such a plan would have worked or could have been brought about in the real world, the system of multiple and flexible checks and balances offered itself as a possible basis for a strategic parlour game of some depth and colour. 

In the course of debating at High School. I then encountered an argument against ‘World Government’, the hot topic of the late 40s, which was that national governments are checked by both internal and external factors but a ‘World Government’ would have no external checks, hence it would be more likely to become tyrannical. Another debater and I suggested a game simulating the grand alliances of European history, but as we used only two players and didn’t find any way to simulate a third or fourth party it ended in failure. 

Meanwhile, several of us were playing Hearts, a card game in which several players participate, each independently of the others. We observed that the game was best if all the other played co-operated against the current leader. Thus the lead would tend to change hands, giving more players a chance to win the game. Competition was further enhanced by a ruling that if two players tied for the lead at the end, then all players shared equally in the tie. Thus, players who were hopelessly behind still had the incentive to try and bring about a tie between the leaders, so increasing competition rather than detracting from it. I noticed that players who did not understand all this would tend to play for second place or simply to protect their own score, thereby reducing the level of competition overall and their own chances of winning. It occurred to me that if negotiation were permitted between players it would be possible to persuade people to co-operate to stop the current leader. If this effort failed players could say that their chances were limited by the aberrant play of another, but would have to admit their failure to persuade them to play in the optimal way. 

From chess I borrowed the number of spaces (80 as opposed to 64) and number of pieces (34 instead of 32). My pieces move as the King in chess, just about the average chessman in mobility; thus the board is about equally saturated with force. Diplomacy is therefore much simpler than most wargames in its small number of spaces. I think the game should be as simple as possible. so long as the game is of indeterminate length and reasonably rich in strategic choices. 

In 1952 I studied 19th century European history at Harvard under Professor Sidney B. Fay (of the Harvard class of 1895!), whose book Origins of World War One details the two or three party ‘arrangements’, contacts and projects, wholly or partly secret in nature. These were almost as brief and pointed as those made verbally during a Diplomacy game. 

At this time I also studied political geography under Professor Derwent Whittlesley. Here I became re-acquainted with the concept of Geopolitics devised by Sir Halford MacKinder in about 1904, which I had already encountered in an article, again in Life. The principle element in Geopolitics seems tobe the consideration of the effect upon the international power struggle of the particular geometric nature of the divisions of Earth into land and sea. Thus Diplomacy emerged as a game in which land power and sea power are almost equally significant, whereas nearly all other wargames are either primarily land-based or sea-based. The decision whether to build an army or fleet is one of the most important a player can make, and is one of the most important objects of negotiation and telling indication of the direction of future activity. Diplomacy is perhaps the first (and only) wargame on the continental scale in which entire campaigns are but elements of the whole. 

In designing the tactics, reference was made to the Napoleonic principle “Unite to fight – separate to live.” Separation is first achieved by requiring that there be only one piece in each space. Concentration is then arrived at by the use of “support” orders from different pieces bearing on one attacked province. Pieces further from the action are less likely to affect the struggle for it, but some may do so by cutting supports. The use of ‘supply centres’ causes further dispersion of forces and emphasizes the economic nature of the objectives. It also makes it a game primarily of manoeuvre rather than annihilation. This aspect of the game is reminiscent of the indirect approach of Liddell-Hart, though I had not read Liddell-Hart at the time.

The final problem of organizing a seven-person game, was not solved until I started studying Law in 1953. There I became aware that players who failed to meet their responsibilities towards the game should be made to suffer light penalties such as the loss of a single move; so they are encouraged to comply, but are not normally wiped out by minor lapses. The game should be designed so that it could charge right on in spite of poorly written orders and the like. 

The notion that a player may tell all the lies he wants and cross people as he pleases etc., make some people almost euphoric and causes others to “shake like a leaf”, as one new player put it, came up almost incidentally, because it was the most realistic in international affairs and also far and away the most workable approach. To require players to adhere to alliances would result in a chivvying kind of negotiation followed by the incorporation of contract law – as some erstwhile variant: inventors have discovered.

The game was completed in 1954 and undergone relatively little change since then. The major changes have involved adjusting the map to make the countries more nearly equal, and to give them a wider range of strategic choices. Convoying was made simpler and minor complications eliminated. These revisions occurred during 1958 when a good group of qameplayers and Operations Research people played many games and offered many suggestions for improvement.

In 1959 I had 500 sets manufactured at my own expense after major companies had rejected the game. Manufacture was transferred to Games Research people Incorporated in 1960. Sales have increased in every single year since the game has been on the market. Postal Diplomacy was begun in 1963 by Dr. John Boardman. The games are conducted through amateur magazines, of which a few dozen are always in existence. Annual conventions have been held in the United States for some years, conventions have also been held in Belgium and Italy.

Reprinted from Games & Puzzles No.21 (January 1974)