Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Allan B. Calhamer, inventor of the game Diplomacy has died

Gamescience box

Word is seeping through the Internet gaming community that Allan B. Calhamer, the inventor and designer of the board game Diplomacy, died Monday at the age of 81.

Gamesicence Map
While Diplomacy didn't bring Mr. Calhamer a fortune, and perhaps not widespread fame, it has, I believe, earned him immortality. Diplomacy is among that select few games that has earned the title of a "timeless classic."

In the adventure gaming hobby's earliest days, Diplomacy was considered of the the three legs of the hobby triad -- which was comprised, back in the 1960s, of board wargaming, miniatures wargaming and Diplomacy.

Allan B. Calhamer
The hobby evolved over time and role-playing games, collectible games and euros all far outgrew those original trio, but Diplomacy was never truly eclipsed in the genre of game that it spawned. While it's seen many variants and imitators over the years, Diplomacy has still retained its status as the premier game of cutthroat diplomatic competition. It's so cutthroat that friendships have been ended and marriages thrown on the rocks due to game events. It takes a certain kind of gamer to play and enjoy Diplomacy and it's certainly noit for everyone.

Large deluxe Hasbro box version
By today's standards it violates a lot of accepted rules for good game design -- it takes a long time to play and it has player elimination for example. While it's gone through a whole host of editions over the last half century through various publishers and languages, in the end the components are extremely simple -- a map of 1900 Europe divided into land and sea areas, a set of markers divided into armies and fleets for each of the seven nations and the rules -- the basic nature of which can be listed on a single page.

My first exposure to the game was actually from a home-brewed variant while I was in high school. My best friend's older brother had gone off to Yale and been exposed to the game. He didn't have his own copy, but the was able to create a facsimile edition when he got home for the summer and we spent the summer break playing out Yale variant game and having a blast. Naturally, having done the game from memory, our version had some changes from the original, (and not improvements) but before long we got a copy of the actual game -- (this was the Gamescience edition) and kept playing.
Current Hasbro edition

Myself, I had too eclectic tatstes to settle on playing Diplomacy only -- but many people did and still do. I did take part in some postal Diplomacy for a number of years -- a very popular way to play. Diplomacy was exceptionally well-suited for postal play and later, Internet play.

When Avalon Hill bought the rights the game got access to widepread distribution that increased its popularity and Diplomacy is one of just two of classic Avalon Hill titles that Hasbro has kept in print since it took over AH (The other being the equally classic game Acquire).

AH wooden block version
I've always been partial to the wooden-block Avalon Hill edition, but the first Hasbro version with its metal cannon and battleships is also quite nice and I like that version as well. The current edition is a very cut-rate edition with die-cut cardboard counters (although the map is nice) but Diplomacy is remarkably independent of the components used to play it. In that way it reminds me more of old abstracts like Go or Chess than most modern games. It's possible to have a really nice, physical game to play on -- but you can still play quite nicely with bare-bones, even hand-made, components as well.

Mr. Calhamer never really followed up with anything nearly as successful. He wasn't a brilliant game designer in the way of his contemporary Sid Sackson or today's Reiner Knizia. But he did design a brilliant game.There may be those inclined to dismiss him as a one-hit wonder, but I think that's a mistake. A one-hit wonder, after all, does have a hit -- which is something the vast majority of artists never have at all. And game design is, at heart, a form of art. Mr. Calhamer designed a game that, I am quite sure, will still be bringing enjoyment to players not yet born.  That's success.


  1. I recently taught Diplomacy to my 8, 10, and 12 year old, and they now play on their own, and have taught a neighbor boy. Dip-speak has even seeped into their pretend play. The game will truly live on. God bless the Calhamers.

  2. That is cool news. I've never tried it with players that young.