Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Rubicon of a Diplomacy Player

One of the greatest boardgames ever invented, that uses a map, is the game of Diplomacy. Created by Allan B. Calhamer in 1954 and released commercially in 1959, Diplomacy is a strategic board game set in Europe just before the beginning of World War I. The game is best played with seven players, each controlling the armed forces of a major European power (England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey and Austria-Hungary).

The game employs relatively simple rules whereby each player aims to move their units - and defeat those of others - to win possession of a majority of strategic cities and provinces marked as "supply centers" on the map; these supply centers allow players who control them to produce more units. The unique part of the game is that no one player can win the game alone. In order to advance, you must make alliances with other players. However to ultimately win, it is likely that you will have to break that alliance, or "stab your ally in the back."

The game requires that participants are "good sports" and know that hard negotiations, and sometimes lying, is part of the game.

Diplomacy is also the first commercially published game to be regularly played by mail, and eventually by e-mail. At one time there were hundreds of postal Diplomacy newsletters, or "zines". The game is well suited to PBM or PBEM play, because a face-to-face game can sometimes take 5-8 hours to complete. I used to be very active in the Diplomacy Hobby. Recently Doug Kent, the publisher of Diplomacy World, the hobby flagship zine, asked me to write an article about my experiences for the 100th issue. I'll share that article with you here:

The Rubicon of a Diplomacy Player

Doug has been bugging me for months to write up something for his Diplomacy World 100th issue. For some reason, he thinks my hobby-life story would be interesting, even though I am no longer an active Diplomacy player. I also suspect I was one of the few hobby old-farts that he could track down that didn’t turn him down outright...

Like many of us, I started out playing Risk. I saw it in a Sears catalog and asked for it for Christmas. I must have been nine-years-old. This game soon became a staple for my Dad and brothers, as well as my buddies in the neighborhood. I loved every chance I had to play it, as much as I cringe at the thought of playing it today. But then sometime around age 14 (1974, and I still have a vivid memory of this) I walked into John Richter’s basement and saw a Diplomacy board with all its colorful pieces set. I was immediately intrigued. John told me that his older brother, Mark, played this game by mail. What a concept! I soon bought a copy and Diplomacy became my favorite game. Whenever we could get four to seven guys together (not easy when none of us drove) we’d spend an afternoon sticking knives in each other’s back. Risk was soon put aside as a boring kid’s game.

It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the postal hobby. My first Dip zine was Pelucidar, published by Burt LaBelle. I also recall a zine called Totenkopf and played Dip and Nuclear Destruction through Flying Buffalo, Inc. I didn’t get very far in any of my games. In fact I cannot recall ever actually finishing a game. I probably NMR’d myself out, and I went on to other interests (drama club, girls) and mostly forgot about this hobby. While attending university I dabbled a bit with an occasional Dip game, but also spent many years playing Dungeons & Dragons. It was pretty cool for college guys to play (and girls played too!) but I started losing interest when high school, and then junior high aged kids, started showing up? It wasn’t so cool anymore.

Fast-forward to the early 1990’s, married with children. I’m not sure how it got started, but at some point I got together with John (with whom I also attended college), Richard, Don, Gary and some other old college buddies. We would get together for an occasional Saturday afternoon game of Diplomacy, when the wives would let us. Also, right around this time I rediscovered the postal hobby. I don’t remember how, but I vaguely recall responding to an ad in Avalon Hill’s The General. I mailed a few dollars to the publisher of Zine Register, and received a large envelope full of Dip zine samples.

From what I can tell, I jumped back in at the tale-end of the “Golden Age” of Diplomacy zines. This was just before the Internet took over, and there were dozens of zines being published from all over the world. Soon I was subscribing to, and playing in, the likes of Doug Kent’s Maniac’s Paradise, Pete Gaughan’s Perelandra, Brad Wilson’s Vertigo, Andrew York’s Rambling Way, and of course, Diplomacy World. It wasn’t long before I got the itch to try my hand at publishing. I started out as a subzine of Maniac’s Paradise. Plausible Paraphernalia offered word games and featured PBM Scrabble.

In 1995 I moved from Michigan to Dayton, Ohio, and it was at this time that I became aware of the Hoosier Archives and the plans to save them from destruction. Walt Buchanan, one of the founding fathers of the Postal Diplomacy Hobby, had eight file cabinets full of zines from the earliest days to the mid 1980s. No longer active in the hobby, these cabinets had to go. Pete Gaughan began a campaign to raise funds to have all the zines shipped to him in California. This was expected to cost hundreds of dollars. Instead, I offered to drive a rental truck to nearby Indianapolis and store the Archives in my basement. This adventure was documented in an article that appeared in Diplomacy World #78, "The Pulp is Past, or How I Came to Be the Custodian of the Hoosier Archives and What I Found There." You can find it here or here. Apparently this is the most famous thing I have ever done, because if you “Google” me today, this article is usually at or near the number one hit. Eventually, the archives found a permanent home at the Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Library, in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Jamie Wins “Mr. Congeniality” (David Hood on the right)
It was also shortly after the move to Ohio that I finally decided to take the plunge and publish my own postal diplomacy zine, Crossing the Rubicon. CTR included standard Diplomacy, gunboat, and Colonial Dip, along with Scrabble and other word games. I also had subzines from Dave Partridge, Pitt Crandlemire, Scott Morris, Phil Reynolds, Andy York, and Tim Lurz. I worked hard to make it an attractive looking zine, and for that reason, Jim Burgess predicted it would be short lived, and he was right. CTR only lived for 16 issues. It was great fun, and I made many friends, but it just was a bad time.

During the two years I published my marriage ended and my job went to hell. During this time I also attended three DipCons, twice in Chapel Hill and once in Columbus. At least one of the Chapel Hill events was also a World Dip Con. It was at this event that I won “Mr. Congeniality”. David Hood called it the “Player’s Choice” Award, but it was an honor nonetheless. When David informally polled players throughout the weekend, one after another mentioned that they enjoyed playing with me. I also started my involvement with the Internet Diplomacy Hobby. I spent some time as the editor of the Postal section of the Diplomatic Pouch, and was introduced to email Dip using the Judge system.

Colonial Diplomacy at an Early Rubicon Games (clockwise from left: Jamie, Mike Gonsalves, John Richter, Joe Carle, and Ward Nahri).

The best offshoot of Crossing the Rubicon was that I started my own housecon, Rubicon Games. The first event was in October, 1996, and the attendance was very small. Four showed up on Saturday and another four on Sunday. We never played any Diplomacy that first year, but it was a start. I played my one and only game of Avalon Hill’s Advanced Civilization. However, by Rubicon Games II, I had a full house for the whole weekend. Several of my CTR subscribers made the trip to Dayton, from Louisville, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. There were FTF games of Diplomacy and Colonial Diplomacy as well as other board and card games.

Rubicon Games survived the CTR fold, and grew and evolved over the years, however by RG IV & V, it became clear that this event could not be sustained as a Diplomacy event. Since I was no longer an active Dip zine publisher, I had fewer Diplomacy players attending, and the gamers in the Dayton area have little interest in Dip. This was the time of the Euro games explosion. Every year, a new game would become THE game of the year; Settlers of Catan, History of the World, and Puerto Rico have remained Rubicon Games favorites. The annual event followed me as I moved to four different houses, and it has outgrown my space. So, this year I tried something different for Rubicon Games XII. For the Saturday portion of the event, I rented a large conference room on the University of Dayton campus. We had nearly 30 attendees and more than enough room for all kinds of games, including for the first time in many years and game of Diplomacy! In the coming years, Rubicon Games will continue to grow from a “housecon” to what I hope will be large regional board gaming event.

To be quite frank, my interest in the game of Diplomacy has waned. Over the years I would dabble in an occasional postal game, or more likely an email game. I am a member of the Vermont Group, played in several gunboat tournaments and GM’d many games for Newbies. However, I finally came to the conclusion that as a player, I’m just not very good at Diplomacy. In addition, when I have time for gaming, I’d much rather play three or four other board games in the time that I can play one game of Diplomacy.

In Dayton, I have been the coordinator for Game-Day: the Dayton Area Boardgaming Society. We meet 4-5 times per month at several locations in the Dayton area and play every sort of board game: Euros, Mayfair rail games, war games, and card games. This group, and Rubicon Games, will continue to be my Hobby focus. Yet I will always treasure my experiences in the Diplomacy Hobby, the good times and the good friends I made. Congratulations to Diplomacy World and it’s 100th issue.

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At Friday, September 05, 2008 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a friend in jail can i play this game with him? if i can how do i play?

At Friday, September 05, 2008 , Blogger Cartophiliac said...

I think there are still a handful of zines out there that still offer Diplomacy by snail mail... but I am not really up to date with the Hobby. You can do some research at the Diplomatic Pouch and Diplomacy World Good luck.


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