It's back to the decade of the 1960s for this next article. The era of personal
computers was still about two decades in the future back then, and there weren't any
electronic games to claim the attentions of high school and college students.
Instead, people played games that required actual strategy instead of just fast
reflexes to win. Today's gaming fandom can be traced back to these games of
strategy, and perhaps the most popular of them all was Diplomacy. Here's more about
Sometime during the early years of the Kennedy administration, I founded "the world's first formally organized Diplomacy club." Or so I was told by Allan B. Calhamer, the inventor of the game. I had written him on our club's behalf to enquire into some now-forgotten detail of the rules of Diplomacy, and received from him a hand-written reply.
I first heard of Diplomacy from my best friend in high school. Tom Bulmer showed me a brief description of the game that he had found in Science Digest. It seemed to occupy a middle ground between chess and the Avalon-Hill board games, and it had a special appeal for people (like me) with an interest in history. After all, its playing-board was a map of Europe on the eve of World War I.
Games like Tactics II had no appeal for me. I was intimidated by the complexity of their rules and paraphernalia, and I had no great interest in military strategy. The only strategic games that had ever held my interest were the variants of Capture the Flag that I had played years before in Boy Scout camp. Nor had I any talent for chess. I never could think far enough ahead to anticipate the ultimate outcome of a move, and I agreed with Sherlock Holmes's contention that an aptitude for chess is the mark of an evil and scheming mind. And Risk was too simple-minded to appeal to me. It seemed another variant on such outgrown board games as Monopoly and Careers.
Part of the appeal of Diplomacy was that its rules and equipment were essentially simple. As with chess, this simplicity did not preclude a complexity of play: there was no reason to expect that one game of Diplomacy would much resemble another. But unlike a chess match, a Diplomacy game involved several players: seven if we could get them, five or six if we couldn't. (Sometimes we might play a two-handed version that we called Tactical Diplomacy, but that was primarily to get some practice in handling the challenges facing a country we hadn't much played before.)
'We' were the East Paterson Diplomacy Club, a group of (mostly) juniors and seniors at East Paterson Memorial High School in Bergen County, New Jersey. Most of us were members of the school's Science Seminar or its debate team (I was in both), and many of us were science fiction readers. But none of us had any contact with fandom, or indeed anything more than a vague knowledge of its existence. Still, anyone who imagines us as a small group of teenaged proto-fans would not be too far off the mark. Like any self-respecting fan group, we had a written constitution, which we called our Charter. (A hand-written constitution it was, for none of us had any duplicating equipment.) We had no official connection with the high school, for we saw no advantage to seeking recognition as a student club. At least the way we played, personalities were too important for that.
I've played a little fannish poker in my time, and (at least in the low-stakes games that I remember) the satisfaction of winning a hand from a particular player often outweighed the trivial financial gain involved. So it was in a Diplomacy game, whether in the EPDC or in the early days of fannish postal play.
The East Paterson Diplomacy Club had its cherished idiosyncracies. Each session would begin solemnly with a mutual nonaggression pact, which of course had no effect whatever on the making and breaking of alliances among the players that is the essence of the game. At the end of each fifteen-minute 'diplomacy period', the Gamesmaster -- we invented that term -- would call the players to the table, require all pens and pencils to be put away and the papers containing that turn's moves to be placed in plain sight on the table, and demand that all players keep their hands in view at all times. (By the time I bought my Diplomacy set, the rules had been changed to eliminate 'infiltration', the surreptitious sneaking of additional pieces onto the board, that had caught my eye in the Science Digest article. But the rules did not explicitly prohibit changing one's moves after hearing one's rivals' orders -- if one could get away with it.) Then each of us in turn would read his moves aloud, and the Gamesmaster would change the position of pieces accordingly. (The published rules required that moves be unambiguous, but it was understood in East Paterson that a fleet ordered "from the Land of Milk and Honey to the BBC" would leave Brest and sail into the English Channel.) He would resolve standoffs, take care of any other necessary business, and send us off to another round of negotiation and betrayal. (And espionage: in one session held in my family's second-story apartment, a player climbed a nearby tree to eavesdrop through an open window upon the scheming of a rival coalition.)
In June 1962, most of us graduated and went off to college. During my freshman year at Columbia I discovered fandom, joined the Evening Session Science Fiction Society at City College, and met John Boardman. He, too, was a Diplomacy player, and he suggested that the game could be played through the mail. He organized the first postal Diplomacy game early in 1963, and served as its Gamesmaster. The five players (we couldn't find seven) were EPDC members Jimmy Goldman, Stu Keshner, and I, and LASFS members Ted Johnstone and Bruce Pelz (playing under the pseudonym of 'Adhemar Grauhugel'). I recall that I played Austria-Hungary -- and played it rather well, considering the difficulties of its geopolitical situation. (As I recall, Franz Joseph had a few problems in his own game...)
I also got together a few fellow-Columbians for an on-campus game that met twice weekly in the lounge of Hartley Hall. This allowed plenty of time for negotiation between meetings, and gave me the idea for intercollegiate play. There are eight colleges in the Ivy League, so one could serve as host and Gamesmaster while clubs from each of the others gathered for a weekend's session. Each college team would play a country, and would appoint from among its members ambassadors to each other country -- these would conduct the actual negotiations -- as well as military and naval chiefs of staff. Presumably the president of each collegiate club would serve as his country's prime minister. (I reckoned that this would afford endless opportunities for intra-club squabbling and politicking, which might well be more entertaining than the inercollegiate game itself.) Play would commence Friday evening at six, and continue night and day for forty-eight hours. I even fantasized some techniques of negotiation and betrayal that went be yond our wildest high school dreams. Who has not heard of Mata Hari?
But this never came to pass. The logistics of getting this many college students together were impossible, even if there had been Diplomacy groups at each campus. Perhaps it could be done today, at a gaming convention. (Perhaps it has been done.) And anyway people had other things to do. I joined the Lunarians, where I found enough squabbling and politicking to satisfy the most ravenous appetite.
One evening in the fall of 1963, Allan B. Calhamer came up to the Columbia campus, and told us -- a mixed audience of old EPDCers, Columbia students, and New York fans -- something of the origins of Diplomacy. We bestowed upon him the title of Honorary Grand Gamesmaster of the East Paterson Diplomacy Club. And then the EPDC faded out of existence. My high school companions went their own ways, and I've had no contact with any of them for twenty or thirty years. I was too busy with college life and fan activities to take the time for Diplomacy games, whether in-person or postal. But the East Paterson Diplomacy Club left its mark on Fandom. Several of its customs and traditions were adopted by postal players, and the whole sub-fandom of postal game-playing evolved from John Boardman's first game with its three EPDC participants.
Postal Diplomacy is still played today, almost forty years on. But that's a story for others to tell.
All illustrations by Craig Smith