The History of the UK Diplomacy Zine Poll

(Part 1 - 1973-1980) 

by Stephen Agar 

Love it, hate it, ignore it, there's no getting away from the fact the annual Diplomacy Zine Poll is one of the oldest hobby institutions and after over 21 years it still has the capacity to fill more than it's fair share of column inches in Diplomacy zines, even though in recent years Mark Boyle's Zine of the Year Poll has attracted more voters, albeit mainly from the soccer games side of the hobby. As the results of the 22nd Zine Poll will be announced in time for the next issue of Spring Offensive, here is the story of the previous 21. 

From Small Beginnings... (1973 - 1977) 

In Mad Policy No.23 (26 November 1973) Richard Walkerdine mused on two recently announced Polls, namely the Ethil the Frog Player Poll (to find the "best" player) and the Hannibal Variant Poll (to find the most popular variant - won by Abstraction with Youngstown second and Atlantica third). "So I thought, with these two polls underway why not go for the hat-trick? Seems like the only aspect of Dippy not being covered is the zines themselves, so I hereby announce the first WALKERDINE ZINE POLL." Richard's Poll was only open to people who saw at least five different British Diplomacy zines (RJW excluded Albion on the grounds that it was really a wargaming zine) and they had to vote for the five best. Richard awarded points 5-4-3-2-1 and then added up the totals (which means that the first Zine Poll was run on a positional system, not average votes). The deadline was set for 31 December 1973. At the time this Poll was received in much the same spirit as the Ethil the Frog and Hannibal Polls - i.e. with weary resignation. When the results appeared in Mad Policy 25 (14 January 1974) only 14 people had voted (but bear in mind they all had to see 5 or more zines) and the top three zines were  Ethil the Frog (471/2 points), Mad Policy (44 points) and Dolchstoß (421/2 points).Of course it is open to question how valid this result was given only 14 out of 300 odd active Diplomacy players voted (which Richard considered a good turnout - he was expecting 9 or 10) and given that all but one of the voters received Mad Policy. In all 14 zines received votes (and 6 others received no votes at all). Publishers were allowed to vote for their own zine. 

Richard decided to repeat the exercise a few months later, announcing what was by now called the Second Mad Policy Zine Poll in Mad Policy 29 (16 April 1974) with a deadline for votes of 24 May. However, in order to broaden the appeal of the Poll eligibility to vote was widened to anyone who saw  two or more British Diplomacy zines and voting was merely a matter of giving every zine you saw a mark out of ten. The winner was assessed by calculating the average vote for each zine. This time publishers were not allowed to vote for their own zine. The results of this second Poll were announced in Mad Policy 31 (2 June 1974) and Richard's first comment was "what a fantastic turnout!" as this time 34 people had voted for a total of 26 zines. Yet again Mad Policy was the bridesmaid and not the bride, coming second to Dolchstoß with Orion third. On the votes cast Ethil the Frog would have been third, but Richard ruled it ineligible as it had just folded, while the Belgian zine Moeshoeshoe was also ruled out for not being British (it would have come 12th). One startling fact is that the average voter received 12.47 zines - quite a lot. 

Whilst the Mad Policy Zine Poll remained with Walkerdine until 1977 the rules remained the same. The 3rd Poll was announced in Mad Policy 39 (13 January 1975) and the result ( a victory for Dolchstoß over Mad Policy again) was announced in Mad Policy 41 (10 March 1975). The third poll attracted 54 voters (20 of whom didn't receive Mad Policy) and listed 29 zines (excluding foreign zines and folds). Of the 26 zines in the second poll only eight months earlier, nine had folded, being replaced with 12 new zines (the highest newcomer at 5th place was Hyperion from Geoff Challinger, which folded after only X issues). 

RJW's Fourth MP Zine Poll wasn't announced until Mad Policy 53 (8 March 1976) with the results being published in MP 55 (3 May 1976). The rise in the number of voters continued (69 this time, who saw on average 11.26 zines each) and the winner was Chimaera from 1901 a.a.t. and Mad Policy in third. Chimaera's victory represented a real break with tradition as Chimaera had a more liberal attitude to running non-Diplomacy games which appalled the Diplomacy purists such as Sharp (Dolchstoß itself slipping badly to 10th). This time RJW included folded zines, European zines (Bumm) and even sub-zines in the results provided the zine carried "at least one game of postal Diplomacy or a Diplomacy variant.". In all 33 zines were included (excluding subzines) though a zine had to receive a t least 3 votes to be included. 

By the time Richard announced the Fifth Poll in Mad Policy 65 (23 February 1977) he had decided on expanded eligibility criteria - namely every zine musty carry "at least one game of Diplomacy, a Diplomacy variant, or a game closely related to Diplomacy, or is principally concerned with discussion or data concerning the postal Diplomacy hobby." By now the Poll was really starting to take off with 111 voters (seeing on average 11.3 zines each) and the clear winner for the second year running was Chimaera. 37 zines were voted for, the highest new entry being Pete Swanson's Rats live on no evil staR which came in at no.5. In Mad Policy 69 Richard revisited the Zine Poll data by publishing the vote distribution for the top 10 zines - this seemed to show that Dolchstoß had at least 6 grudge votes and if these were removed Sharp would have been second rather than fourth. Also RJW published some publishers only results in which 1901 a.a.t. won from Dolchstoß second, Mad Policy third, Rats fourth and the overall winner Chimaera down to fifth. 

Richard announced the fold of Mad Policy in issue 71 (8 August 1977), the final issue being No.73 which was published on 9 October 1977. At that time no mention was made of who would run the Poll (or even if it would continue), but as Richard had passed over his work as Boardman Number Custodian and editor of The Finishing Touch to Mick Bullock the subsequent announcement in New Statsman No.3 (January 1978) that Mick would run the Poll seemed to make sense. 

Just Exactly Who Did Win The Zine Poll? (1978 - 1980) 

Some remember Mick Bullock's period in charge of the Zine Poll with a misty eye - Mick was a hardened hobby statistician and after he had got to grips of the Zine Poll it would never be the same again. Mick announced the "6th Annual UK Postal Diplomacy Magazine Poll" (the Mad Policy Zine Poll no longer) and decided to stick to RJW's old formula (or so he said), but excluding sub-zines and non-UK zines. Voters had to see two or more Diplomacy magazines and publishers could still not vote for their own zines. When the results appeared in New Statsman No.4, three months later, I doubt very much if the hobby was prepared for what Mick had in store for everyone... 

In essence Mick applied three different systems to the 151 votes cast (each voter saw on average 7.58 zines) and came up with three different sets of result which, combined with two "publishers only" sets of results came to no less than 5 different rankings. This was the beginning of the slide into the mathematical monster that the Poll has now become.  Let Mick explain why he abandoned the traditional average vote system in his own words: 

Before I could even start to present the results I had to answer a question. What does the Poll do?  Okay, we know it swells magazine editors' heads and provides good filler material for their publications, but what does it achieve? What does it mean? How do people interpret it? How should people interpret it? Well, clearly it is meant to rank magazines, from best to worst (or least-best). But what do we mean by best? There would seem to be two interpretations which we can apply to the magazine which tops the list: (a) it is the most popular magazine with its readers because it averaged then highest score. Or, (b) it is the magazine which appeals most to the hobby in general. (And just what the hobby is these days, God knows.) 

Traditionally we have determined the winner, and awarded it the accolade "best magazine", simply by calculating the highest average score, as in (a). But I think that what people really want to know is (b), which the highest average score doesn't necessarily tell us. The highest average score magazine might be some singular, esoteric publication which caters for, say, 5 fanatical "Milko" players (role-playing game about milkmen for milksops....) who each award it 10 marks because it's the only magazine which accommodates them. fair enough, this probably wouldn't happen, to such an extreme. But it might! And it almost certainly does to some degree. 

Mick's solution to this dilemma was to champion two alternative ways of calculating the Zine Poll result. His preferred method the Positional System which worked as follows. There were 37 magazines eligible for inclusion, so each voters first choice got 37 points, second choice got 36 points etc., with every zine not on the voters list receiving one point less than the lowest zine on the list. This minimises the effect of grudge votes and overcomes the fact that people who receive fewer zines tend to award higher average marks, but low circulation zines suffered to some extent. As the Positional System was Mick's preferred method, I have treated those results as definitive for the purposes of the attached table. 

Mick's other innovation, which is with us to this day. This compared the votes for each zine against every other zine and awarded (for example) zine A a Plus vote if more people preferred A to B and zine A a Minus vote if more people preferred C to A. The result for each zine was the ration of Plus votes to Minus votes. As Mick noted "Whether this is valid for ranking purposes I'm not sure. I really can't see why not (in fact, it could be the system...)..."  Indeed, in essence it is the system in use today. 

The controversy aroused by Mick's different sets of Zine Poll results was muted by the fact that Dolchstoß was first no matter which set of results you used, while other editors tended to favour the results which showed them in the best light. Some editors did raise their eyebrows that Mick ruled New Statsman eligible despite being a statistics zine, as NS came straight in at No.5. 

The 1979 Zine Poll was announced in a flyer dated 17 March 1979 which preceded New Statsman No.6 (April 1979) with the results in New Statsman No.7 (April 1979). This time Mick discussed the eligibility of zine in the following terms - "I must stress that this is still a postal Diplomacy magazine poll - that does not exclude magazines which carry other games, but in an unbiased and objective a way as possible I would ask, if we are to get anything like a 'meaningful' result, that a voter's votes reflect the enjoyment he gets from a magazine within the postal Diplomacy hobby, and not just the enjoyment he gets from playing postal Snap (in the only postal Snap magazine) within the postal Games hobby." Mick bowed to pressure an ruled NS ineligible this time. Two innovations were Mick's insistence that to be eligible a zine must have produced at least 5 issues at the deadline date and to have produced an issue in the preceding 4 months. As before folded zines were disqualified. 

After the criticism Mick had received over using the Positional System the previous year, this time Mick went one step further and declared there were no "official" results - Mick just published the results on the basis of average votes, a modified Positional system and from the preference matrix and suggested that people took their own choice. According to a Poll that Mick did along with the ballot forms there was 45% for the Average Votes system, 35% for the Preference Matrix and 20% for the Positional system. The furore this caused was to an extent mollified by the fact that whichever way you looked at it Greatest Hits was the winner. It is worth noting that 1979 was the first year that the number of people voting in the Zine Poll had decreased, down from 151 to 133. Mick's explanation for this was that neither Dolchstoß or Ethil the Frog, two of the highest circulation zine in the country, had been published during the voting period and hence had not publicised the Poll. Each voter saw on average 9.44 zines. 

The 1980 Zine Poll saw a massive drop in the number of voters from 133 in 1979 to a mere 69. In the space of two years the number of voters had dropped by more than 50%. The main reason was the fact that the 1980 Poll was announced by a flyer a mere 5 weeks before the deadline and therefore most zines didn't get a chance to publicise it at all. The number of active zines was also folding - only 26 zines qualified for the Poll, with no less than 5 zines folding in the couple of months before the Poll. Although Mick made no innovations in terms of eligibility this time, he did go as far as to suggest that the results produced by the Apportioned Points Preference Matrix should be taken as definitive. The Apportioned Points System was really quite clever - a matrix was compiled showing how each zine fared against every other zine and one point was awarded for each comparison which was divided between the two zines in the ratio to the preferences expressed. OK, so all this talk about different ways of calculating the Zine Poll results was getting frightfully anal, but hell, publishers needed something to put in their zines. As the first four zines under this new Apportioned Point method were exactly the same as the first 4 under the old fashioned Average Votes method, one could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was all about. 

Sadly issue 12 of New Statsman proved to be the last with Mick announcing a fold soon after. As the various statistician jobs were divided up among the hobby illuminati, one job remained. Who would run the Zine Poll? 

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 31


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