Happy Birthday Allan B. Calhamer

Source: Chicago Mag (Megan Lovejoy)

Today is a special day. It is the 80th birthday of Allan B. Calhamer.

But who in the world is he?

Calhamer is the creator of one of the most successful and challenging strategy board games in history, fittingly called Diplomacy. Although people may shrug off Diplomacy as just another board game, but it can be safely said that in terms of effectiveness in strategic gameplay, it is the only one which comes even close to Chess and even surpassing it when it comes to resemblance with actual diplomacy, emulation of broad military geo-strategy and human interaction.

Actually it is the very human interaction and interrelation of players which earn Diplomacy a spot in world history and in the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Fame. Calhamer started the idea while he studied at Harvard in the late 1950s, completing his majors in history when he started toying with old maps and books discussing the origins of the Great War in Europe, as the game itself is set in the Pre-WWI Europe. His earliest typed draft of the rules of Diplomacy is still available on the internet to whoever wants to take a look at it. A lot of Diplomacy players are traditionalists and like to preserve things as much as possible. After all, Diplomacy is a game of records and statistics as much as it concerns geo-strategy, politics and negotiations. Just like life.

For someone who doesn’t play Diplomacy and does not feel strongly about it, all what has just been written about it is a mere exaggeration. However, Diplomacy enthusiasts would like to think otherwise. You can trivialize any given game but if played in its correct spirit and with understanding, it can offer one of the most delightful and rewarding experiences that a board game could offer. But as Diplomacy is also played online and has also been played through mail, its scope reaches way beyond just a board game.

Diplomacy gained instant success after its publication in 1959 with hundreds of thousands of copies sold. Calhamer eventually sold the rights to Avalon Hill, which publishes the game to this day, offering a small fragment of sales proceed as royalties to him. But the best thing is that you don’t really need to own the copy of the board game to play the game today. Of course the game evolved to Postal Diplomacy through fanzines in no time, which was more out of necessity, as you can’t always find seven interested players all the time. Web Diplomacy sites such as PlayDiplomacy.com, WebDiplomacy.net and Stabbeurfou.org have made life even easier for Diplomacy players and is played either on interactive maps or on discussion forum websites.

Originally called RealPolitik, it is no surprise at all that Diplomacy is the favorite game of Henry Kissinger, the most famous diplomat of our times, and also that of President John F. Kennedy. No wonder any regular player of Diplomacy can find him or herself practicing more or less the same skill that the American diplomat employed during his actual diplomatic career, depending on how good you are at the game. Diplomacy had been quite a frequent visitor of the White House during the 1960s and 1970s. However, we don’t hear about that any more, if it is played there these days at all, that is. But history classes in American schools are often considered incomplete by teachers without the introduction of Diplomacy to their young students. It is then when you either fall in love with it or hate it forever.

Allan Calhamer probably never achieved a lot of fame, apart from inventing a board game, but he should be appreciated as an inspiration to all of us. He continues to inspire thousands of Diplomacy players around the world with the fascinating game that he has created, which so closely emulates real world politics, alliances, deception and backstabbing. No player can progress without another’s help. There is no dice, as in Risk, which frankly is a child’s version of a World Diplomacy variant and is far less intriguing.  Although one problem with Diplomacy is the number of players required, which is 7 in the Standard version, but there even are scenarios for lesser number of players.

Calhamer is an inspiration for his creativity and shows us that all of us can create something fascinating even when it is something as simple as a board game. Of course, it was his original invention that triggered a flood of hundreds of variants of Diplomacy created by several people. You can find a record of all those variants at the Variant Bank. He has been places as well, trying his hand at foreign service and serving briefly in Africa and has also enjoyed a fair bit of popularity at the State Department. He has settled down in his hometown of La Grange Park, Illinois, with his wife Hilda and happily works at the local post office as per the last reports. Seemingly an oblivious and quiet job he has, but he surely has created enough waves to imprint his footstep on history.

Allan B. Calhamer, you will always be remembered for Diplomacy. Thank you.