U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Allan Calhamer (1931-2013), Diplomacy, and the Intellectual History of Boardgames

Last Monday, Allan Calhamer, creator of the boardgame Diplomacy, passed away in La Grange, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Though word of his death began filtering around the internet last week, no obituaries appeared in major newspapers until this weekend, when an Associated Press obit appeared in The New York Times (or at least on its webpage) and elsewhere.  As far as I can tell, only the Chicago Tribune has printed its own obituary of Calhamer.

Calhamer’s death, and the relative absence of attention it garnered outside of gaming circles, led me to think about the place of Diplomacy, and boardgaming in general, in 20th-century US life…and thought. 

If there was ever a consequential boardgame, Calhamer’s Diplomacy was it.  Privately printed by its creator in an edition of 500 (after being turned down by a number of game publishers), it quickly sold out and was then immediately bought by game publisher Avalon Hill. Diplomacy soon gained a small, but avid, following that apparently included John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and Henry Kissinger.  Over half a century later, it remains incredibly popular. The rules of Diplomacy, though fairly long, are simple and elegant. Like chess, its combat system (such as it is) involves no luck; there are no dice rolls. But the rules tell you very little about how Diplomacy is played. Mostly, the rules concern how to resolve conflicting movement orders, as one of the most distinctive features of the game is that players order their pieces to move simultaneously.

But most of the game’s real action takes place in each turn’s diplomatic phase, when players scheme with and against one another.  The centrality of diplomacy to Diplomacy accounts for many of the game’s most distinctive features: the game plays best with a full complement of seven players; games take a very, very long time; winning at Diplomacy often involves backstabbing allies, which in turn involves lying to fellow players to their faces.  All of these factors tend to limit the number of casual Diplomacy players. Playing a face-to-face game of Diplomacy involves getting seven people to commit hours of their time and, potentially, to risk their friendships (especially if they’re not used to the dynamics of the game).  People who are willing to do these things tend to be pretty obsessive about them.*

The game takes place in Europe (and small slices of North Africa and the Middle East) on the eve of World War I.  Calhamer was apparently inspired by old geography books that he had seen as a child, as well as by a college course on nineteenth-century European history that he took at Harvard from Sidney Bradshaw Fay, author of The Origins of the World War. The game has a decidedly realist understanding of diplomacy (indeed, Calhamer originally entitled it Realpolitik).  Each of the seven Great Powers in the game — England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Italy–has the same, entirely material, victory condition: control over eighteen of the thirty-four supply centers on the board. Though the powers’ different positions on the board dictate different diplomatic strategies, they are all fundamentally alike in their desires and behavior.  No wonder that this is Henry Kissinger’s favorite boardgame!

After dropping out of law school and trying a brief stint in the real diplomatic corps, Calhamer landed a job in operations research at Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory (the Tribune obituary quotes a mathematician at Sylvania: “We hired him because of the game”).

My guess  is that Calhamer is not the only person whose life has been shaped by his game. Since its creation in the 1950s, Diplomacy seems to have an avid following among the people that C. Wright Mills would (at around the same time) label the “power elite.”  But any knowledge we have about this would seem to be anecdotal. The history of the game, let alone of the culture surrounding it, seems simply not to have been written.  Diplomacy is the sort of thing that people write long newspaper feature articles about.  And fans of the game have produced a fairly vast literature dedicated to strategy (much of it available here).  But Diplomacy, like modern boardgaming in general, has not been studied by historians. And I think that this is a problem.

Thinking about Diplomacy and its absence from the historical literature made me recall a book that that I reviewed for the American Historical Review several years ago: Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies’ The Myth of the Eastern Front.**  Smelser and Davies’ book is fascinating but frustrating.  It focuses on American views of the Eastern Front in World War II.  The authors argue that Americans, from NATO military commanders in the decades immediately after the war to a much broader public during the last half century, have embraced a mythic vision of the German prosecution of the war in the East, in which the German military, including the Waffen-SS, fought an essentially “clean,” apolitical, even “noble” war.  The book draws on a fascinating array of sources, from records of the Halder Group (German military men assembled by U.S. authorities after the War to write a kind of official history of the Eastern Front) to the activities of contemporary American reenactors, who dress up as Waffen-SS soldiers and march around Missouri.  But the authors, both of whose backgrounds are in military history (one of Germany, the other the U.S.) seem less sure-footed the further their material strays from the stuff of military history proper.  And one of the most fascinating and frustrating chapters in the book concerns war games.

Smelser and Davies focus on the representation of the German military in board games, especially in the cover art that appears on boxes (one example of which ended up on the cover of their book) and conclude that U.S. wargames romanticize the German military.  But though their material is fascinating, their analysis fails to put these games and images in the context of the culture of wargaming.  Their argument that wargamers romanticize the Nazi military actually became the subject of a good deal of discussion among gamers online.*** Is the attraction of playing as the Nazis a form of whitewashing the real horrors of German behavior on the Eastern Front (as Smelser and Davies suggest), or does it just reflect the fascination of a truly evil villain? I sympathize, in a sense, with Smelser and Davies’ scholarly situation, at least in relation to wargames. There is simply no really good body of historical scholarship about the world of boardgaming for them to draw on.

And yet, games are important, both as a form of play and, especially in the case of simulation games, as a way of understanding the world around us.****  War games in particular seem to present an extremely rich understanding of warfare, and clearly have a relationship to the way in which modern militaries themselves understand war. Yet wargames provide a peculiar kind of active understanding of military conflict. These games, even complicated ones that simulate World War II, like the tactical-level Advanced Squad Leader or the vast A World At War , are, of course, incredible simplifications, that necessarily remove key elements from the history of that war in order to turn it into a playable game.  Those who devote themselves to time-consuming games like ASL or A World At War thus get a rich, but peculiar, understanding of World War II, in particular, and warfare in general. Having a better sense of the contours of this understanding would, I believe, shed an interesting light on one aspect of American understandings of war over the last half century or so.

In recent years, the popularity of increasingly realistic video wargames has awakened public concern. And scholars, including historians, have started to work on the representation of history in videogames.*****  Yet boardgames, especially the flowering of modern boardgames that began in the decades after World War II, remain largely unstudied.

One final thought (inspired, in part, by some of the fallout from the last time I wrote a “gee, shouldn’t intellectual historians study this” post): the world of boardgaming, especially wargaming, has historically been very male and, I think, rather white. And a responsible history of boardgaming will deal with these gender and racial aspects of the hobby. Within the context of mid-20th-century American culture, the vision of the world encompassed in simulation games may well prove to have been a distinctly masculine one.  And that might tell us something interesting about twentieth-century American masculinity.
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* I had two brief bouts of rather intense Diplomacy playing in my life: one during high school, the other during college.  It’s a great game. But I haven’t played it in over two decades.

** My review appeared in the December 2008 issue of the AHR, Vol. 113 Issue 5, p1578.

*** The boardgaming community is itself divided between fans of hardcore wargames (often called “grognards,” from a French term for a military veteran) and Eurogamers who prefer the less military-oriented games most often associated with contemporary German game design. Needless to say, Eurogamers tended to be more sympathetic toward the argument that grognards romanticize Nazism.

**** And not just simulation games. Game theory, a subject that has received a fair bit of attention from intellectual historians, drew initially on ideas about chess.

***** See, for example, Claudio Fogu, “Digitalizing Historical Consciousness,” History and Theory 47 (May 2009), 103-121.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Games of Diplomacy can be incredibly tense. Many years ago, I participated in a game along with a married couple. The lady was Germany in the game; and when her husband, who played Russia, betrayed her with a surprise attack, she stood up from the table and exclaimed, “That’s it for our marriage!” In a few months, they indeed divorced, though I doubt if the game was the real cause of the break up.

    I wish somebody would make a video of a game of Diplomacy played between seven intelligent adults.

    • I almost wrote that Diplomacy is the anti-party game. Superficially, it feels like a party game (e.g. Apples to Apples) in that it involves a fairly large number of people and encourages interactions among them. However, while party games are typically designed to loosen people up and encourage socializing, Diplomacy tends to anger people and, as you note, in extreme circumstances, can actively drive people apart.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Ben. Do you care to expand, down here in the comments, on your personal experience playing the game? Does it involve lots of dice, like D&D? Do you have a moderator (aka dungeon master)? Lastly, what’s the timeline of this game’s creation and popularity relative to D&D—if that’s a fruitful comparison? – TL

    • There’s no dice (or any other randomization system) involved in Diplomacy, Tim. It’s also much earlier than D&D. D&D was created in the 1970s and grew out of the Chainmail medieval miniatures wargaming system that its creators had written several years earlier (miniatures gaming is related to (board)wargaming, but has its own history).

    • Tim, Diplomacy is designed to recreate WWI, but with the arch idea that alliances are completely ruled by military expedience. The drama of the game, as Ben says, is entirely in the negotiation processes, not in the combat operations, which are worked out algorithmically.

      Today there are also online leagues, which I suppose must change the social dynamics of the game entirely.

  3. As the perp in the last controversy, I want to weigh in and say that an intellectual history of board games strikes me as a great topic, though it probably is more cultural history in focus (e.g. How have they been played). Certainly highend boardgame creators see themselves as standing in a tradition of design and want people to interrogate their texts critically. These are intellectual products, fo shizzy.

    I also think that in the sub genre of war games the really interesting questions are about how they connect to (a) militaristic culture generally (as you say here); (b) actual military wargaming, which is by now a multibillion dollar global industry. Again, I’m not sure that the latter topic is intellectual history, but its a fascinating topic.

    PS Diplomacy is a totally great game!

  4. Really interesting post, Ben. I’m intrigued by your last comment about whether boardgaming would reveal something about 20th century American masculinity – – there’d be a fascinating comparison to draw between American and European boardgaming in terms of its typical structure as well, I’m sure.

    • That would be a fascinating comparison. European boardgames are quite different from American boardgames (indeed, the big division in boardgaming falls along these lines). And my brief exposure to German boardgame culture is that it is similarly different: more mainstream and more family oriented, perhaps.

  5. A quick correction to the article >> Diplomacy was bought in ~1960 from Alan Calhamer by Games Research Inc., a small company that my father John Moot ran on the side out of his house in Cambridge, Mass. Games Research published Diplomacy from 1961 until the mid-1970s. My father sold Diplomacy to Avalon Hill in the mid-1970s, and closed Games Research (Diplomacy was their only commercially successful game). The editions published by Games Research included painted wooden blocks for fleets and armies. All Avalon Hill editions used plastic pieces.

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