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.
* 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.