The Game of Diplomacy
by Richard Sharp
INTRODUCTION TO POSTAL DIPLOMACY
There it lies on your doormat, its elegant oblong shape contrasting
sharply with the harsh squarishness of phone bill and tax demand, its staple
glinting in the grey morning light. It has no envelope; it’s just folded over,
and your name and address are scrawled in a blank space on the outside sheet,
amid incomprehensible catch-phrases and exhortations to the postman. It is your
first copy of your first Diplomacy zine, telling you which country you have
drawn in your first postal game; it is likely to make little sense to you on
first reading, but it may be the first strand of a net that will ensnare you for
years to come in the strange, exclusive, yet world-wide hobby of postal
began in New York City in 1963. Its parents were as ill-matched a couple as one
can imagine: two contrasting postal hobbies, wargames and Science Fiction.
are that strange breed who delight in moving little cardboard counters around on
hexagon-overlaid maps. They are blessed with endless patience and quite
exceptional eyesight; and they were quick to realize that a game which demands
long periods of silent study before each move was ideally suited to the
leisurely pace of twentieth-century postal communication. Hence the foundation
of AHIKS, the postal wargamers’
group, originally a brainchild of the games manufacturers Avalon Hill, but
already independent by the time it adopted Diplomacy. This was the source from
which the infant postal Diplomacy hobby derived most of its players.
traditions came from science fiction. Unlike people who read military
biographies or cookery books, those who read science fiction seem to feel that
their literary tastes give them a common bond. This gave rise to the ‘zine’,
an amateur publication produced by one member of the hobby ostensibly for the
benefit of others, but really for his own amusement. There were, and are, many
such zines: most are neither literary nor even literate, but they give pleasure
to editor and readers alike, which is saying quite a lot.
They also confer on those who write and receive them a sense of
belonging, and perhaps that is the secret of their continuing success. This is
the pattern that Diplomacy inherited.
world’s first Diplomacy zine was Graustark,
produced in 1963 by Dr John Boardman in New York, and still around today.
Several other American zines followed; among their editors were others who
were to become mainstays of the hobby during the next ten years and more: the
Californians Don Miller, Rod Walker and Conrad von Metzke, and Walt Buchanan of
Indiana. In 1968 AHIKS started a Diplomacy section; among those who were bitten
by the bug was their European secretary, Don Turnbull. In 1969 Don started
Britain’s first Diplomacy zine, Albion; the
hobby had crossed the ditch.
growth in Britain was slow at first. The second zine to appear was War
Bulletin, originally produced by a science fiction fan, Dave Berg; he soon
lost interest in it, but handed it on to another SF fan, Hartley Patterson;
while yet another, Michel Feron, produced Belgium’s first zine and introduced
the hobby to continental Europe. This was in 1971.
was in 1972 that the ‘explosion’ took place in Britain. The early zines had
done virtually nothing to publicize the game, and existed as a small, closed,
inward-looking group on the fringes of the science fiction and war-games
hobbies. In early 1972 Graeme Levin, a South African games enthusiast and
games-designer recently arrived in Britain, launched Games
& Puzzles, the first professional magazine for adult games-players.
Graeme had previously encountered postal Diplomacy through Albion,
and succumbed to the fatal bug; he now started the British Diplomacy Club,
which for the first time advertised postal Diplomacy where the man in the
street, the casual player, could learn of its existence. Don Turnbull, the
‘father’ of the British hobby, helped in the establishment of the club, and
ran six of its first seven games (Hartley Patterson ran the other). Don also
published a series of articles in Games
& Puzzles on the play of the postal game; I am one of many who was
finally seduced into trying it by reading those articles!
1972, the game has continued to thrive in both America and Britain. Two more
events are particularly worthy of notice. In 1974, Games Research, Inc. (the
company that then held the copyright in Diplomacy) sponsored the magazine Diplomacy World, under the editorship of Walt Buchanan, a respected
senior member of the American hobby; Diplomacy
World still appears today, and enjoys the largest circulation of any zine in
the hobby. In Britain, the British Diplomacy Club underwent a change of name,
and became the National Games Club, marking the fact that other games were
beginning to infiltrate the hobby (Scrabble was perhaps the first, and many
others have since been added).
time to get back to that zine on your doormat. Carrying it in to breakfast
with you, you mutter a hostile ‘Good morning’ to the family, and set about
opening it. It will usually be bristling with staples, on which you cut your
fingers to the bone; cheapskate publishers prefer sellotape, which makes the
thing impossible to open at all without a sophisticated tool-kit, as one false
move will tear the front page in half.
The zine as eventually revealed may be of several types, but the
following is typical of the British product. It will be erratically typed, and
the printing (probably on an antique, hand-cranked duplicator) will show signs
of haste. There will be about ten sides of foolscap paper, including perhaps
half a dozen game reports. The rest of the space will be taken up by what appear
to be the minutes of the AGM of some obscure secret society — this you will
later be able to interpret as ‘hobby news’. However, for the present it’s
the game you’re interested in.
Careful study will reveal an item headed ‘Gamestart’ (all one word,
typically). There, if you are lucky, you will find your own name and address,
the name of the country you are playing (it always seems to be Italy or Austria
in your first game), and the names and addresses of the other six players.
Minute examination of the entire zine will tell you the other vital information
you need: the name and address of the editor (who will often refer to himself as
the ‘GM’ or ‘gamesmaster’) and the amount of money he will require from
you before you are really allowed to play — this will include a subscription
to the zinc, a game fee, and sometimes a returnable ‘deposit’, which you forfeit
if you drop out of the game before your part in it has concluded. Some editors
have been known to to forget to print their own names and addresses, but none to
my knowledge has forgotten the financial details: no zinc makes a profit (most
make a fairly substantial loss), and editors are understandably tough about
Subscription is usually on the credit principle: you send a round sum
(about £2 is normal) to be held to your account, and the editor deducts the
cost of each issue as he mails it, informing you when it is time to cough up
again. The cost of zines varies greatly: in early 1978 the range was between 15
pence and 40 pence a copy, including postage. (The factors governing cost are
the size of the zinc and the printing method — nowadays several zines are
going over to offset-litho printing, which produces a much more legible end
product but costs correspondingly more.)
The other vital fact you need is the ‘deadline’ by which your first
orders must be received, and again meticulous scrutiny will eventually reveal
it. Deadlines are usually either three or four weeks apart, in theory; some
zines are subject to occasional delays making the effective deadline rather
longer, but most are adequately efficient.
oriented yourself, with difficulty, you start planning your campaign.
you do plan it: by the time I write my
first letters I have a clear idea of what I would like the moves of all six
countries to be in spring 1901, and I plan my own moves in accordance with the
answers I get. However, it is certainly a good idea to send in a set of orders
for your units straight away: you are entirely free to alter them any time up to
the deadline, but if your last-minute orders are delayed in the post you risk
seeing the fatal letters NMR (‘no moves received’) alongside your name in
the report in which case you are unlikely to recover.
The letters you write to other players before spring 1901 are likely to
decide your fate, assuming you are reasonably competent at tactical play. If you
make a mess of them, your ‘investment’ of time and money could be wasted
before you even start. Here are a few hints on composing these vital letters.
First, and most important, be informal. If you start your letter ‘Dear
Mr Smith’, or even worse ‘Dear Sir’, you are quite likely not to get a
reply at all, and you are certainly unlikely to succeed in your diplomatic aims.
‘Dear Fred’ is correct form. Mock-formal letters (‘Your Imperial
Majesty’, and so on) are all right up to a point — in my first game I wrote
all my letters in this vein; it worked well with some people, less well with
others. Some players maintain that they are put off by typewritten letters, but
I think that’s a lot of nonsense; I type all mine, because I like to keep
carbon-copies and remember what lies I’ve told to whom! Certainly I would
rather receive a well-typed letter than a spidery scrawl on a dog-eared page
torn from an old exercise book, but so long as you remember that legible letters
are more likely to be answered, you’ll be all right.
My second pointer may seem absurdly unnecessary; I assure you it is not.
Head up all your letters with your address, the date, the game
number, and the country you are playing. If all this information is there,
you are more likely to get an answer. The recipient of your letter will not have
to turn up his file copy of the gamestart to discover your address; he can just
reply at once, without any research. Believe me, it makes a big difference. The
game number is particularly important. In my first game, playing Austria, I
wrote to France a letter addressed to ‘M. le Président’ and complete with
all the right headings except the game number. I received a curt postcard in
of us are in more than one game, you know.’ That was all. I was taken aback. I
didn’t know, to be honest. In fact,
players in those days might be in over fifty games at a time; increasing postal
charges have changed this, and few people play in more than a dozen now, but the
point is still valid. Of course, that was bad tactics by France, though, as I
realized later when I got to know him well, it was entirely in harmony with his
abrasive personality; I blushed to think of the way he would have sneered at
my elaborate mock-formal style! But probably that simple error, not using the
game number, cost me my chance of establishing friendly relations in that game;
as things turned out, it may even have cost me a win.
This brings me to my next point. Don’t assume that the other players
are similar to you in any way — they won’t be. A random example: one of the
first games I ran (BDC 14) included a businessman in his fifties, a solicitor
and a librarian in their twenties, two schoolboys and two ‘unknowns’, one of
them an Australian playing from Canberra. This is not untypical: players I have
encountered have ranged in age from thirteen to over seventy, with a range of
occupations and life-styles to match. The best technique is probably to lay
your cards on the table: say who you are, and ask who they are. Not all will
respond, but those who do will be that much more likely to place confidence in
you if you are something more than a mere name and address.
Again, don’t make the major error of trying to conceal the fact that
this is your first game. Anyone who has played before will see through you at
once; anyone who hasn’t will be wary of your ‘greater experience’; and you
won’t know which is which. If you find an experienced player who replies
kindly and patronizingly, exploit his obvious vanity — ask his advice, tell
him how out of your depth you are, explain that you will be well satisfied to
avoid seventh place. When he has committed himself to allying with you, wait for
your chance, then stab him.
A point of special interest concerns female players. They are few in
number, according to the record, and probably even fewer if truth were known.
There is a considerable difference of opinion here: is it better to be a girl,
sheltering behind other players’ innate male chauvinism, or is it better to
assume you will be regarded as a soft target, and disguise yourself as a man?
One of my favourite postal Diplomacy stories was told by Edi Birsan, now
one of the best-known names in the American game, but then a novice like any
other. Edi’s first name is, of course, the standard notation for ‘Edinburgh’,
and I’ve always meant to ask him whether he called himself that before he
learnt the game. However, it could equally well be a girl’s name. In the
course of his first postal game, Edi became aware that his ally had fallen for
this unintentional deception! While not exactly confirming that he was a girl,
Edi did not exactly deny it either; indeed, he sent the unfortunate ally a
photograph of himself with an attractive acquaintance, captioned truthfully
enough ‘myself with a friend’. The alliance prospered exceedingly, until
eventually the ally, on a visit to Edi’s home town of New York, asked him for
a date. This was going a bit too far, and in a letter every player would have
loved to write, Edi said, ‘I don’t think we should meet — we have too much
in common. For one thing, we’re both male.’
My own opinion is that male chauvinism is too deeply inbred in most
players for them to be talked out of it by a handful of noisy, drop-fronted
progressives; your skirt could be the biggest diplomatic asset you have, and
should not be lightly cast aside ... I’m sorry, I’ll rephrase that.
to those opening salvoes in the postal war. My next point is don’t be too
aggressive. Be at pains to point out that you would welcome your ally’s
advice, and that the moves you have outlined are only ‘suggestions’; this
will make him more likely to accept them, which of course is what you want. If
he takes you up and suggests modifications, bad luck: now you’ll have to see
it through, and accept at least some of what he says.
never cease to be amazed that there are some people who never write at all. I
can’t stress this too much: when you start your first game, write to everyone.
In later games, when your name is familiar, this is not so important. I
confess that I no longer bother to observe this rule a hundred per cent, but I
used to, and I still feel I ought to,
even if idleness occasionally prevents it.
the most extreme case, England and Austria. Here, surely, are two countries with
nothing whatever to say to one another in 1901. So suppose you, as England,
ignore Austria; and things go well, so that the game comes down to a three-power
fight between you, Austria and Russia, with a couple of very minor countries
surviving. Who do you think Austria is going to back in the next phase? The ally
with whom he has been working since the start; or the unknown stranger from whom
he has never heard? Here is a sample of an England—Austria letter (a thinly
disguised version of one I received very early on in my playing career):
If we ever meet up in this game we’ll have done well, but I thought I’d just
introduce myself. This is my third postal game, but my first as England, and
I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t got any useful information for you
yet, except that you want to watch out for Italy — I’ve played with him
before, and he’s a born stabber, much more interested in deceiving everyone
than in trying to win. An ally to avoid, in my view. Turkey’s a good player, I
hear, and Russia isn’t bad; the others I know nothing about, so I reckon I’m
at the safe end of the board! [Then a paragraph of personal introduction, ending
good luck; we can’t both win, but let’s hope one of us does. See you in
Spain in about 1910.
replied in similar vein, and we exchanged letters throughout the game; in fact
neither of us was ever in a position to win, though we both lasted the course.
But next time we met in a game we were able to build on that early relationship;
later we became personal friends, and still are five years on. We’ve fought to
the death on more than one occasion, but we’ve been good allies too, and
thoroughly enjoy our shifting, love—hate Diplomacy relationship.
opposite case is the one that makes me really cross: though rare, this type
unbalances the game and thus spoils it. This is the fellow who writes only to
one other player, usually someone he knows already, either personally or from an
earlier game. Suppose you, as Austria, don’t hear from Italy, what on earth
are you to deduce? Clearly you’re going to be attacked, and
you react vigorously to defend yourself. The most amazing thing of all
is that sometimes he doesn’t attack,
and you have in effect ‘attacked’ him without cause, probably not wanting
to at all. One or two experiences of this kind were enough for me, and I began
to choose my opponents more carefully.
It is time to return to the gamesmaster, that shadowy figure who takes
no active part in the game, but without whom it cannot be run. Establishing
personal contact with him is not as essential as it is in the case of the other
players; it’s simply friendly and polite to do so. So, when you send your
orders in, chat him up a bit (and again, never
make the error of being formal). If you can bring yourself to do so,
compliment him on this last issue, not too effusively, of course, just picking
out a good point to show you’ve noticed. If he runs a letter column in his
zine, as most do, he’ll welcome criticism too: it makes more interesting
reading than praise.
soon as his deadline has passed, the gamesmaster will collect the different
sets of orders for your game — praying that there are seven of them — and
make his adjudication. Some GMs are highly organized, with map-board diagrams
mounted on polystyrene and little coloured pins; others, like me, just look at
the moves and do the thing in their heads. When he has decided which moves
succeed and which fail, he types up the adjudication.
report will be headed with several numbers, which need explanation. There should
be a game number (sometimes a name) to identify the game. For instance, Don
Turnbull in Courier gives his games numbers such as ‘77/ 28’ this means that
the game is the 28th he has run in that zine, and that it started in 1977.
Others use a simple serial number or letter, or perhaps an alphabetical list of
may also be an NGC number (BDC in a very few surviving cases) showing that the
game was started by the National Games Club. The first ninety-nine games had the
BDC prefix; since then, NGC has been used.
there is the ‘Boardman number’, already explained. Below this mass of
numerical science comes the ‘game date’ — spring 1901 in our example —
followed by the moves. These take some getting used to, as layout and notation
vary widely, but you soon get the hang of it. Then retreats are listed ... and
here we come to the first main difference between face-to-face and postal play.
More of this in the next chapter.
the game report, when you can tear your eyes away from it, there may come some
‘press’, which to the newcomer is the most baffling thing of all. What, you
may well ask, is all this aimless fantasizing, sometimes loosely connected with
the game, but more often not? There is no answer to this. If you enjoy writing
press, you’ll enjoy reading it too; if not, you’ll just stay baffled. Press can be used as a tactical weapon — e.g. an appeal to the other
countries to rescue you from a nasty spot in their own interests but more often
it is just fun.
finished adjudicating all his games, and typed up such other articles, letters,
press and assorted news items as he feels like publishing, the GM gets down to
the unenjoyable part of his job; printing the thing, stapling it, stamping,
addressing and mailing it. At times like this, I can tell you with authority, he
feels he must be completely out of his mind — why is he doing all this
extremely hard work, this long boring slog, for no financial return and little
thanks? The answer to this, as my old friend John Piggott never tires of telling
anyone who will listen, is, ‘for the good of his own little ego’. Well,
maybe. But it is easy to understand how an occasional issue is delayed, and
sometimes even never appears at all. Do not expect ruthless professional
efficiency from this amateur hobby — you are entitled to expect reasonable
service, but your GM is not an automaton. A little show of interest from you
every now and then will help to keep him delivering the goods.
will find a very wide choice of zines available — numbers fluctuate, but there
are usually about thirty in production in Britain alone, with many more in
America and a few elsewhere. In such an ephemeral field it is unsafe to give a
complete list, which would be out-of-date before I’d finished typing it; at
the end of this book you will find the names and addresses of a few of the
best-known British zine editors, who give an impression of lasting longer than
most. Do not get the idea that these are the only ones worth bothering with —
they aren’t. But they are the best and most reliable at the time of writing.
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