Diplomacy/Avalon Hill

Allan Calhamer's brilliant geographic legacy.

"It's only a game" rarely manages to cool a heated situation, and never is that motherly telling-off less effective than during a session of Diplomacy. Several times, in the confrontational moments of this classic European strategy board game, I've seen the tokens swept from the board, not by the frustrated parties but for them. I have literally seen spit fly. What else can you expect, bringing World War I into your living room?

This is in no small part due to the volatile types with whom I play Diplomacy, but the game has a universal reputation for sowing seeds of discord. How telling, as a member of my childhood Diplomacy gang pointed out, that its creator Allan Calhamer, who died last month at 81, was apparently "too kindly to succeed at his own game."

The anecdote comes from Margalit Fox's beautiful obituary of Calhamer, published Wednesday in The New York Times. Another of Fox's tales is this: The idea for the game came to Calhamer, later a postman and tinkerer, during a European history seminar at Harvard College. The struggle between the Great Powers, he imagined, would make a great board game.

Indeed it does. In the 54 years since its release, Diplomacy has acquired a small but devoted fan base. Small because playing the game is such an ordeal, regularly lasting upwards of five hours. Devoted because for those who experience even a few hours of play, there is no parallel amusement. Adherents are said to have included John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Cronkite.

The principle of Diplomacy is simple; it's like Risk, whose global brand of geo-strategy preceded Diplomacy by two years, but without chance. (Dice seem to function as something of an escape valve for players' frustration -- there is no such excuse in Diplomacy. Like seven-person chess, its universe is closed.) As one of the seven great powers in pre-war Europe, players scheme to capture supply centers using only their powers of persuasion and hand-written orders for piece movements. The more supply centers you have, the more armies and fleets you receive. The game ends when -- more often, if -- a player can capture 18 of the 34 territories designated as supply centers.

Diplomacy's unique brilliance lies partly in its simplicity -- one token per square, a refreshing relief from the clutter of Risk -- and its innovative game-play, whereby all players move at once, intent sealed in pre-written orders.

But all that hinges on the design of the map, which is the antithesis of Settlers of Catan, where the board is reshuffled for excitement before every game. No such need in Diplomacy: the map is perfect. New editions -- and the proliferation of online play -- have changed the map's outward appearance, but the borders and territories remain the same.

It is, at first glance, a map of Europe, with 22 supply centers divided among the seven great powers (three each, four for Russia). The remaining 12 are up for grabs, with powerful clusters in Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Low Countries, and the Iberian Peninsula. This placement is historically derived, but the fluctuations therein are quite ingenious. Why a supply center in Tunisia but not close to the priceless control of the Suez Canal? Is Bavaria really more valuable than Germany's industrial heartland of the Ruhr and the perennially contested Alsace and Lorraine?

Courtesy Playdiplomacy.com, via Wikimedia Commons.

That's the wonderful balance of the game, a fundamentally level playing field that makes it fun to play hundreds of times. (True, some countries win more than others, but each has a good shot at victory.) Discarding Egypt below the board's southern border ensures that Turkey's position is not too powerful. Giving Tunis and London equal weight gives Italy a lifeline across the Tyrhennian Sea.

That's only the tip of the iceberg. The real genius lies in the borders. Calhamer must have spent many a night adjusting these graphic minutiae, knowing that an entire afternoon of play (or month, in the case of the once-popular mail-in games) could turn on the smidgen of contact between Silesia and Galicia or the all-important buffer between Vienna and Warsaw.

That's why Russia can afford to lose either St. Petersburg (to England) or Sevastopol (to Turkey) and continue the game with a southern or northern focus, respectively. That's why England and Germany are a crucial three, not two moves apart. That's why Austria-Hungary's core is easier to defend than Italy's.

It's the details of the map that makes Diplomacy a game that can be played again and again, with strategic implications far more subtle than those of Risk.

Ultimately, its fine spatial tuning leads to as many joyous interactions as angry ones -- chief among them the pleasure of meeting another aficionado. They often appear in the most unexpected places. Allan Calhamer, delivering mail in a quiet Chicago suburb, was no exception.

Top image courtesy of Avalon Hill.

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