Historians tend to have fun in ways unlike most other people, so a game using a map and set in the past ought to be just what any historian would be after. Diplomacy, a board game commercially introduced in 1959 by Allan Calhamer, harkens back to the era of the First World War and forgoes a board game’s usual rolling of dice in order to encourage several players to negotiate and often betray alliances. One game can span multiple hours or days, and some players conduct their strategies by mail.
For more than sixty years, Diplomacy has inspired a large and loyal following around the world, giving rise to Diplomacy conventions, tournaments, and web sites. Reportedly one of the grand masters of the game is Henry Kissinger, described by Abba Eban in his short, non-game related volume, Diplomacy for the Next Century (1998), as “the only U. S. Secretary of State under whom two Presidents served.” All the same, for some students of history, a game that sounds so appealing becomes a disappointment.
Six months after privately publishing Diplomacy, Calhamer (pronounced Calimer, accent on the first syllable, as in caliber) sold all 500 copies and then turned the production and marketing of Diplomacy over to a professional game company. For much of its history, Diplomacy’s publisher was Avalon Hill, now a division of toy manufacturer Hasbro.
Avalon Hill used to publish a magazine, The General, featuring articles about its numerous war games. In the March/April, 1980, issue of The General, Lewis Pulsipher, a Diplomacy enthusiast, conceded that for an aficionado of other war games by Avalon Hill, “the most offputting characteristic of Diplomacy is that it doesn’t seem to represent World War I in any way—that it isn’t a simulation.” He is only partly right.
Whereas chess, for example, enacts a stylized conflict between two opposing forces, and standard war games work out historical or future scenarios, Diplomacy claims historical basis yet veers into fantasy. A game for up to seven players aged twelve and older, Diplomacy deploys cardboard pieces on a colorful map of Europe and is set in 1901 and into 1902, and, as the rule book for the fiftieth anniversary edition says, “you are about to travel back to those times and change the course of history in your favor.”
Calhamer got the idea for Diplomacy while studying history at Harvard. Sidney Bradshaw Fay’s course on the First World War, and Fay’s book, The Origins of the World War (1928), revealed to Calhamer the decades of behind-the-scenes deal-making leading up to that war. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Calhamer mused, “What a board game that would make!”
After Harvard, Calhamer briefly studied law and developed the elements of the game he had conceived as an undergraduate, its working title being Realpolitik. By 1954 he had refined it, and after shopping it around to major game companies, and having them all reject it, friends urged him to go it alone.
After deciding against a career in law, he took various jobs, including as a park ranger at the Statue of Liberty, before going back home to suburban Chicago and becoming a letter carrier. Delivering mail for the post office provided the steady income and benefits Calhamer needed to support his wife and two daughters. Royalties from Diplomacy supplemented his pay.
With the growing popularity of Diplomacy, he figured prominently at annual Diplomacy gatherings, where he distinguished himself as not the best player. Over the years he wrote ten magazine articles about the game and its origins. He thought back over his boyhood and saw the roots of his game in an old geography book at home, one containing maps of Europe before 1914, and he also credited an article in Life magazine in 1945 about the Congress of Vienna. Calhamer’s teenage imagination stirred at that account of diplomats from Europe’s victorious great powers meeting in Vienna in 1815 to redraw the map of Europe after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
That international arrangement set up the pieces on the board, so to speak, for the European balance of power for the next century, until disrupted by what before the Second World War was known simply as the Great War. The Great War occurred, Fay wrote in his history, “because in each country political and military leaders did certain things, which led to mobilization and declarations of war, or failed to do certain things which might have prevented them.” Those decisions and failures all hinged upon those leaders’ belief in the need to honor commitments their governments had made by treaties.
Therein lies the most unsettling aspect an historian finds when mulling over the rules of Diplomacy: Although the game expects its players to break promises made to one another, the tragic reality of the Great War marched on because those historical players kept their word.
So, how can historians appreciate an attractive historical game whose basic premise is historically (and morally) flawed? Fortunately, deviousness is not essential to enjoying the game; after all, as Calhamer’s obituary in The Daily Telegraph observed, “he was far too nice to be proficient at his own game.” Moreover, Pulsipher, in the March/April, 1977, issue of The General, extrapolated from a provision in Diplomacy’s rule book to suggest six versions of the game for two players. More recently, Diplomacy web sites have discussed ways of playing the game with only two players.
Purists may object that, rule book notwithstanding, two-player Diplomacy turns it into another simulation war game and thus undermines its unique character, depending as it does on seven players cutting and violating deals. “Diplomacy was the first game to deliberately combine the tactical aspects of chess with the psychological aspects of poker,” wrote Rex A. Martin in the 1993 The Gamer’s Guide to Diplomacy, adding that “the interplay of seven competing players is the key ingredient of the final outcome.”
Be that as it may, games are an integral part of culture, and Diplomacy, in all its forms, has become a classic. Historians sitting down to two-player Diplomacy can adjust to its fanciful version of Europe circa 1900 as if one of the countries were the mythical kingdom of Ruritania. Regarding such diplomatic and historical resourcefulness, Henry Kissinger said in his own history, Diplomacy (1994), “history teaches by analogy,” and each generation adapts those analogies for itself.