Daily Illuminator

February 28, 2013: Allan B. Calhamer

[Image]Allan B. Calhamer, designer of Diplomacy, passed away on the morning of February 25th at the age of 81.

Calhamer designed the game in the mid-50s; it was published in 1959. I was introduced to it in 1970 when I entered Rice. The commonest game around the lounges was Risk, and there was always chess, but if a group had a few hours for a serious game, Diplomacy came out. It was never a "light" game. Even among good friends, there's always a certain real tension in Diplomacy, because you simply will not win unless you lie, and before it's over you'll stab someone in the back. Probably several someones. And yes, the "fun" of negotiation, trust, and betrayal was one of the inspirations for Illuminati.

In terms of rules, Diplomacy is a very simple game. Completely diceless, it uses simple rules of interaction to determine the results of simultaneous written moves. The players discuss their moves before they write their orders, making and breaking alliances, and quite often lying shamelessly about how they will move their armies and fleets . . . hence the name Diplomacy!

Diplomacy was the first multiplayer boardgame to become popular for asynchronous play. Players would mail their moves to a referee, who would play them out on a board and send the results back to the players. "Postal Diplomacy" became popular among the geeks of the late 20th century; there were newsletters, leaderboards, and the occasional face-to-face convention. Of course, when the net appeared, Diplomacy moved to e-mail and the Web. Many games featured fictional "press," written by the players and referee, reporting the events of the game as news of an alternate World War I.

Diplomacy has also spawned hundreds of fan-created variants . . . alternate maps, more complex rules of interaction, modern (or fantasy) games with air power . . . One of the longest-lived was Slobbovia, where the development of the fictional world was far more important than the vulgar clash of armies.

Calhamer created two other games (see the BGG article), but neither received much attention, nor did his Diplomacy royalties support him. Despite his Harvard degree and his understanding of realpolitik, he drifted away from the mover-and-shaker track. After short stints in the foreign service and the defense industry, Allan B. Calhamer settled into a career . . . as a mail carrier. I wonder how many Diplomacy turns he delivered?

-- Steve Jackson


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