Sad: creator of Diplomacy board game dies

I was not aware that the founder of the Diplomacy board game was a Chicago area resident but after his death last Monday, both Chicago newspapers ran interesting bits. Here is a little from the Chicago Tribune obituary about how the game came to be:

The final inspiration came when Mr. Calhamer was at Harvard and, in a class on 19th century Europe, taught by Sidney Bradshaw Fay, he read his professor’s book, “The Origins of the World War.”

“That brought everything together,” Mr. Calhamer told Chicago magazine in 2009. “I thought, ‘What a board game that would make!'”

After being rejected by several game companies, Mr. Calhamer in 1959 published on his own 500 copies of Diplomacy, and the game came to develop a relatively small but extremely devoted following…

Mr. Calhamer dropped out of law school after a year and a half, then took the foreign-service exam and spent three months on a temporary assignment in Africa. When he returned, he continued to work on perfecting the game and joined Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory in Waltham, Mass., where he did operations research, a scientific approach to military problem-solving.

“He was hired because of the game,” Richard Turyn, a mathematician who worked at Sylvania, told the Washington Post in a 2004 feature on Diplomacy.

And here is more from the Chicago Sun-Times:

With its shifting alliances, deception and backstabbing, Diplomacy resembled a Fortran-era version of TV’s “Survivor” — set in pre-World War I Europe. Reportedly, it was popular with President Kennedy, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It’s in the Hall of Fame of both Games Magazine, and boardgamegeek.com, where fans worldwide are mourning his passing…

“In many ways, the hobby game industry as we know it owes its existence to Allan Calhamer,” Webb said. Diplomacy “moved away from pure strategy games like chess and from straightforward die rolls for conflict resolution, and introduced bluffing, lying and manipulation. . . . Diplomacy opened up entirely new dimensions to gaming, truly bringing a new level of social interaction into gaming, a legacy that can be seen today in hundreds of hobby games.”

“It sort of started a new genre of games, because you’re playing up to seven players, and making secret deals, and then coming back to the board and making your moves,” said Wayne Schmittberger, a game designer and editor in chief of Games Magazine, who used to stay up all night to play it at Yale University…

One fan, Jim Burgess, wrote about how he reconciled his religion and the game’s treachery in an article on diplomacy-archive.com: “Why I am a Christian” and a Diplomacy player.

My own thoughts:

1. Diplomacy is a fantastic game and superior to Risk because it relies on conversation and negotiation. Its biggest drawback is that it takes forever to play. There is something about the interaction that is unique; impression management means a lot.

2. I played a number of times in person during college and then multiple games by email (though not for some years now). Of course, the outcome was often not what I wanted. Inevitably, the game hinges on backstabbing moments where one player is able to gain an upper hand over another. This often requires just getting one center more than another player.

3. I still prefer playing as Russia, one of the seven powers at the start of the game, which to me still has the most risk and reward.

4. My favorite website for the game is diplomacy-archive.com.

5. This game has a sort of cult status. It is difficult to find in stores and is not a well-known board game. I think more people should learn how to play.

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