The Roots of Diplomacy

Allan B. Calhamer

(Reprinted from Europa Express #10.)

As the War drew to a close in 1945, I read an article on postwar planning in the magazine Life. This article reviewed the history of the Congress of Vienna and the subsequent period to 1914, arguing that a world containing several Great Powers all roughly equal in strength would offer the best guarantee of peace, because, whenever one or two of these powers acted aggressive, the remainder could unite against them, causing them to back down by overwhelming threat before a war could break out. Regardless of whether such a plan would have worked or could have been brought about in the real world as suggested, the condition of multiple and flexible checks and balances obviously offered itself as a possible basis for a parlour strategic game of some depth and color.

In the course of debating in high school, I then encountered an argument against world government -- a hot topic of the late forties -- which was that governments now are checked both by internal and external factors, but that a world government would have no external checks upon it, hence might be more likely to become tyrannical. Another debater and I attempted a game simulating the grand alliance of European history of the Eighteenth Century; but as we used only two players and did not find any way to simulate an independent third or fourth part, the effort ended in failure.

Meanwhile, several of us were playing Hearts, a card game in which several players participate, each independent of all the others. We observed that the game was best if all the other players played against the current leader. Thus the current lead would tend to change hands, giving more players a chance to lead and a chance to be the leader at the end of the predetermined number of hands. Competition was further enhanced by ruling that if two players tied for the lead at the end, all players shared equally in the tie. Thus all players who were hopelessly far behind still had incentive to try to bring about a tie between the leaders, thus increasing the competition instead of detracting from it. I noticed that players who did not understand all of this would tend to play for second place, or simply to protect their own score, and would thus detract from the competition, while usually also detracting from their own chances of finishing first. It occurred to me that if negotiation were permitted, other players whose chances were diminished by this suboptimal play would have a chance to inform the suboptimal party and make out a case for more nearly optimal play. If this effort failed, then they could say that their opportunities were foreclosed, not merely by the aberrant play of another, but also by their own failure to persuade, which would be an integral part of the contest.

From chess I borrowed the number of spaces, about 80 as against 64 squares, and the number of pieces, 34 as against 32 chesspieces. My pieces move only as chess Kings; but the King is about an average chessman in mobility; thus the board is about equally saturated with force. Diplomacy is thus much simpler than most war games in its small number of spaces. I think that the game should be as simple as possible, so long as the game is indeterminate and reasonably rich in strategic choices.

In 1952, I studied nineteenth century European history at Harvard under Professor Sidney B. Fay, of the Harvard class of 1895(!), whose book, Origins of the World War, detailed the specific diplomatic developments leading to World War I. These consisted primarily of two-or three-party arrangements, wholly or partly secret in nature, as well as similar contacts and projects that did not mature into arrangements. The arrangements were frequently almost as brief and pointed as those now made verbally during Diplomacy games. At this time I also studied political geography under Professor Derwent Whittlesley. There I became reacquainted with the concept of geopolitics devised by Sir Halford MacKinder about 1904, which I had already encountered in an article, again in Life. The principle element of geopolitics seems to be the consideration of the effect upon the international power struggle of the particular geometric nature of the division of the surface of the Earth, altogether specifically considered, into land and sea. Thus, Diplomacy emerged as a game in which land power and sea power are almost equally significant; whereas nearly all other war games are either land games primarily or sea games primarily. The decision whether to raise an army or a fleet is one of the most important decisions the player can make, and is one of the most important indicators of the direction of future activity.

Diplomacy is perhaps the first or only war game on the continental scale, in which entire campaigns are only elements of the whole. In designing the tactics, reference was made to the Napoleonic principle, "unite to fight, separate to live." Separation is achieved first of all by requiring that there be only one piece in a space. Concentration is then arrived at by the use of "support" orders from different pieces that bear on the attacked province. Pieces farther from the crucial point are less likely to affect the struggle for it, but some of them may do so by cutting supports. The use of supply centers causes further dispersion of forces and emphasizes the economic nature of objectives. It also makes the game primarily one of manoeuvre rather than annihilation. This aspect of the game is reminiscent of the "indirect approach" of Liddell-Hart, though I had not read Liddell-Hart at the time.

Finally the problem of organizing a seven-person game was not solved until I entered the study of law in 1953. Then I became aware that players who failed to meet their responsibilities toward the game should be made to suffer light penalties, such as loss of a single move, so that they are encouraged to comply but are not usually wiped out by minor lapses. The game should be designed so that it can charge right on in spite of poorly written orders and the like. The notion that a person may tell all the lies he wants and cross people up as he pleases, and so on, which makes some players almost euphoric, and causes others to "shake like a leaf," as one new player put it, came up almost incidentally, because it was the most realistic in international affairs and also far and away the most workable approach. To require players to adhere to alliances would result in a chivvying kind of negotiation, followed by the incorporation of the whole of contract law, as some erstwhile inventors of variants have found out.

The game was completed in 1954 and has undergone relatively little change. The major changes have concerned adjusting the map to make the countries more nearly equal and to give them a wider range of strategic choices. Convoying was made simpler, and minor complications eliminated. These revisions occurred during 1958 when a good group of game players and Operations Research people played many games and offered many suggestions for improvement. In 1959, I had 500 sets manufactured on my own capital after major companies rejected the game. Manufacture of the game was transferred to Games Research Incorporated in 1960. Sales have increased in every single year since the game has been on the market. Postal Diplomacy was begun in 1963 by Dr. John Boardman. The games are conducted through amateur magazines, of which a few dozen are always in existence. Annual conventions have been held in the United States for some years; conventions have also been held in Belgium and Italy.

Allan B. Calhamer
(Mail to Mr. Calhamer can be sent via The Pouch)

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