A Brief History of the US
Diplomacy Hobby (1963-1992)
by Jim Meinel
might have guessed that a relatively unknown board game such as Diplomacy
(invented by Allan Calhamer in 1958 and first sold commercially in 1960) would
have spurred a following of players to continue an organized hobby through the
mails for thirty years? Certainly not the founder of the postal hobby, John
Boardman of Brooklyn, New York. His interests in 1963 were primarily science
fiction and social commentary as an editor of various amateur
"fanzines" that were gaining popularity at the time. One such fanzine
of his was Knowable and in March 1963 he announced his willingness
to run a game of Diplomacy by mail. That game started in May 1963 in the first
postal Diplomacy zine ever, Graustark. His zine has run games
continuously to this day, recently reaching issue No.600!
other events relating to beginnings are of interest. Conrad von Metzke attempted
to start a postal Diplomacy game in 1962 but never got beyond the initial
mailing of the players names, addresses and positions. And Eric Just is credited
with an independent founding of postal Diplomacy himself - alas, in 1967, four
years after Boardman's pioneering effort.)
for playing the game by mail, however, did not catch hold right away. Only nine
more zines were started in the next two years, with fewer than a dozen games
run. This low games-to-zine ratio was due to the initial practice of publishers
to have a separate publication for each game, and u run only one game at a time.
Early hobbyists referred to games as "the Graustark game" or "the
Trantor game." It wasn't until October 1964 when Dan Brannan - aka Steve
Cattier (another sci-f crossover) starting running multiple games in Wild
'n Wooly that the concept of more than one game per zine was
established. In 1965 Don Miller further expanded the territory for a zine by
running the first Diplomacy variant in Diplophobia.
may be instructive to stop for a moment and review the state of office
technology at the time these first zines were being produced. Office copiers
were not available to the general public; personal computers were a figment of
some engineer's imagination and dedicated word processors filled rooms The
manual typewriter was how written communication was accomplished. Reproduction
was through either carbon paper, ditto machine, mimeograph or even hectograph,
the later three of course assume access to such "high tech" equipment.
Postage was expensive and service was slow. Faxes, next-day mail and cheap long
distance telephone were years away. Working with the tools the publishers ha at
the time, producing a zine was hard work: it was time-intensive and cumbersome.
A perfect pastime for young, creative minds with a lot of time on their hands.
bulk of these earlier pioneers of postal Diplomacy were drawn from the science
fiction community Most of the first dozen publishers had come from sci-fi fandom
and early players included Jerry Pournelle, Jack Chalker and Monte Zelazny. The
biggest contribution of these crossovers from that community was their
imaginations used to publish creative material and the framework for an organize
hobby of zines (stemming from the "fanzine" sci-fi hobby). However,
while the sci-fi hobby got tremendous boost in popularity with the advent of
Star Trek's premier in 1965, the postal Diplomacy hobby grew very little in its
first two years. A listing of all postal participants by John Boardman in the
May 1965 issue of Graustark showed only 83 participants and eight
zines currently being published.
changed in 1966, for about that time the idea of Diplomacy by mail reached the
general wargaming community, a huge untapped source of participants for a game
some have called the ultimate wargame At least 32 new zines appeared in 1966 and
1967. It was at this time that the first San Diego zine Costaguana,
was started in April 1965 by Conrad von Metzke. Shortly thereafter several other
prominent San Diego publishers joined the ranks; legends such as Hal Naus (ADAG),
Larry Peer (Xenogogic) and Rod Walker (Erehwon)
began their careers. The influx of wargamers into the hobby not only increased
the pool of players and publishers, but contributed concepts such as ratings,
conventions and rules to a fledgling hobby.
were still difficult to put out but that did not prevent the reams of material
published in Erehwon, Stab, and Diplomania.
The Vietnam war was reaching its peak, college protests were raging and most
publishers were high school or college students. It was primarily students who
were the zine publishers of the day as the only ready source of duplicating
equipment were at schools. Zines were also an outlet for the new ideas of the
day, and new ideas for the hobby were introduced. Doug Beyerlein started EFGIART,
the first zine devoted to picking up and finishing games abandoned by their
gamemaster. Issues such as house rules, standbys, abandoned games and rulebook
inconsistencies started to become serious topics of discussion.
inconsistencies were a fundamental game-related concern at this time. The
original 1961 Rulebook had many areas that required interpretation, which was
left to the individual gamemaster/publisher to handle. Many prominent players
and publishers of the day had well-knovn rules interpretations names after them
(Koning Rule, Brannan Rule, Chalker Rule, von Metzke Rule, Miller Rule and
several others). This "playtesting", if you will, of the 1961 Rulebook
can be considered a major contribution the postal hobby made to the game itself,
for in 1971 (due to pressure from organized elements in the postal hobby) the
maker of the game, Games Research, Inc. (GRI), incorporated all of the rules
into a revised 1971 Rulebook.
peaked again about this time, with no new influx of participants until GRI
included a flyer in the box in 1970 advertising the play of Diplomacy by mail
and giving addresses to contact for more information. Conceived by Fred Davis
and carried out by Rod Walker, this simple act launched another expansion of the
hobby in the early 1970s, with 42 zine starts in 1971, 55 starts in 1972,
peaking with an incredible 65 zine starts in 1973. Some consider this period of
time the "Golden Years" of the hobby when some of the most creative
articles, commentary and zine design were done. Noteworthy zines of the time
included Impassable, Hoosier Archives and Runestone.
Humour had always been a big part of the hobby, which included "fake"
zines (zine issues forged by others and mailed to the actual zines subscriber
base) - the most spectacular being a fake of a Belgian zine, Moeshoeshoe,
in 1972 by John Leeder, Conrad von Metzke and Michel Liesnard. But along with
the hilarity and the growth came the inevitable push for a formal organization.
this time the only formal trapping of organization was the issuing of a unique
number for each game start (dubbed "Boardman Numbers" after its
originator, John Boardman). But the early seventies saw the start-up of more
services such as an orphan placement service (Conrad von Metzke), game opening
announcements (Rod Walker 1970), hobby awards (Larry Peery 1972), hobby census
(Ray Owen 1973) and a zine dedicated to publishing game starts and results (Numenor,
Rod Walker 1969). The hobby was evolving to a new level in which these services
were becoming needed. An abortive attempt was made in 1971 to start a hobby-wide
organization (The Diplomacy Association, or TDA) but this effort was quickly
rent apart by a bitter dispute amongst its members over basic organization
issues such as: should the hobby remain "fannish" or have an organized
structure? Should an organisation be voluntary or mandatory? Would leadership be
democratic or custodial? In its wake, The International Diplomacy Association
(IDA) was formed in 1972 and operated electing officers, co-ordinating hobby
services and collecting dues until its demise in 1979. A major stamp of
organization was made with the premier issue of Diplomacy World in
1974, edited by Walter Buchanan. A self-styled hobby flagship, it contained
top-notch articles on strategy, negotiations and play of the game. If nothing
else it gave newcomers and current participants a source of current developments
and resources available to the hobby at large.
again the cycle of growth and winding down struck in the late 1970s, only this
time there was no outside spurring of growth through new participants. A
combination of this, the IDA feud and the growing popularity of board gaming in
general bled off interest in zine publishing, so that only 10 new zines were
started in 1978. The purchase of the rights to the game from (GRI by Avalon Hill
in 1976 was widely expected to give a boost to the hobby. That boost turned out
to be more quantitative that qualitative. New zines starts rose to 31 in 1980
but never exceeded that amount after that. What Avalon Hill's purchase did do,
however, was add a level of legitimacy to the game that only a large, commercial
company can offer. As part of AH's large array of offerings the game was
presented, again, to a new market of potential players, in the context of an
"Avalon Hill offering."
as a result of this or not, there was a rebirth of a second "Golden
Age" of zines that began in 1979. Over the next few years some of the best
zines ever came out: Europa Express, Voice of Doom, Brutus
Bulletin, Retaliation, Whitestonia/Kathy's Korner,
Fol Si Fie and half a dozen others. What separated these zines
from their predecessors was not the creative talent that went into their
content, but the size of them. Some of them ran over a hundred pages an issue.
Advancing technology was responsible for this more than anything else. The xerox
machine was still something of a novelty in the early 1970s, and while available
at a place of work it was still prohibitively costly (the per page cost at that
time would be akin to getting laser copies commercially today). But by 1980 the
cost was low enough to allow publishers (if they wanted) to fill a subscriber's
mailbox with a product that had long letter columns, volumes of press,
reprinting of commercial cartoons, etc etc. So going into the 1980s, zines got
early 80s also saw a consolidation in the organization of hobby services, not so
much under a central control, but a recognition that continuity in custodians
and services was a valuable part of the hobby. Polls, rating systems, orphan
placement, game opening announcements, zine listings all became codified into a
system whereby their custodian was handed down to a successor. During this time Diplomacy
World, under Rod Walker's editorship, probably saw its best days since
its inception. The hobby was growing and a new technology (computers) was on the
horizon, holding forth a greater promise of production quality for zines. In
February 1983 Russell Sipe started The Armchair Diplomat, a zine
devoted to running games by electronic mail on Compuserve. With the directions
of growth available to the hobby, it could have been Camelot.
serenity was shattered by a second major feud, called The Great Feud, which tore
the hobby into two camps (collected around Bruce Lindsey and Kathy Caruso and
others), destroyed reputations, drove people from the hobby and burned up enough
creative energy, time and money to produce a score of top flight zines. (The
mass hate mailings by both sides were mini-zines in themselves.) Unlike the
turmoil of the 1970s, this was essentially a personality clash which eventually
burned itself out but left a black hole in the mid-80s that few people care to
its wake there was left a scarcity of truly top flight zines, if the standards
of the past were to be used. Looked at closer, the standards are probably not
applicable anymore. By 1990 computers were generally available to anyone, copies
were three cents a sheet, color was not unheard of, and a plethora of games were
being adapted to the mails (and to electronic transmission). The zines of the
late 1980s and early 1990s sport a wide array of interests and methods of
production: rail zines, variant-Diplomacy games, non-Diplomacy games, play by
electronic mail, laser printed zines, orders via fax, next day mail, Compuserve,
phone. The standard play-by-mail Diplomacy zine featuring only regular Diplomacy
games, articles and letters is in the minority in 1992 and may be vanishing.
Indeed, the major services such as polls, zine listings and game opening
announcements now include games other than postal Diplomacy. The structure of
playing by mail has overtaken the game after thirty years.
This article is actually most of the Introduction that Jim wrote for his Encyclopedia of US Postal Diplomacy Zines (1992). I would be interested to hear from anyone who would like to add more detail or who would like to comment on 1992-1999.