All in the Game

How a brilliant Harvard student invented the classic board game Diplomacy—and then went on to a long career as a La Grange Park postman

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Calhamer today

Diplomacy’s origins go back to Calhamer’s boyhood in La Grange Park. Bookish and ungainly, he spent his days indoors, playing chess and All-Star Baseball, a game that used a spinner to simulate major-league contests. World War II broke out when Calhamer was eight, and he avidly followed the news with his parents.

“His mother encouraged him to have a big imagination, and he was always inventing board games,” remembers Gordon Leavitt, a childhood playmate. Calhamer loved military history: “Allan had a toy rifle, and he learned the manual of arms from World War I. He was really hep on that.”

One day, rummaging in the Calhamers’ attic, the boys discovered an old geography book. Calhamer was fascinated by the exotic, bygone countries on the maps: Austria-Hungary, Serbia, the Ottoman Empire. “That was the seed of the game,” Leavitt says.

After graduating from Lyons Township High School, Calhamer and Leavitt both won scholarships to Harvard. In the late forties, the college was still all-male, and Calhamer fell in with a group whose social lives revolved around board games. He played on the chess team and conceived a three-dimensional version of tic-tac-toe.

“None of us were outgoing socially, none of us were dating at the time, so instead of going out, we played games,” says Stuart Dreyfus, later an engineering professor at the University of California–Berkeley.

Dreyfus remembers Calhamer as a brilliant iconoclast who broke every principle of campus conformity. In liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was a young Republican. At the same time, he dabbled in modern art, dipping eggbeaters into buckets of paint and splattering canvases.

Calhamer was a history major, and a class in 19th-century Europe furnished the final inspiration for Diplomacy. The professor had written a book called Origins of the World War. Reading it, Calhamer recalled the atlas in his family’s attic. “That brought everything together,” Calhamer says now. “I thought, What a board game that would make.

Excitedly, he traced a map of Europe, circa 1900, and recruited six game-playing friends. The rules were simple: Each country starts with three “supply centers” and three pieces, except for Russia, which has four. The object: Occupy half the centers on the board. No country was strong enough to do that on its own, so players had to form alliances. But only one country could win, so eventually, someone had to turn on an ally.

Diplomacy was a brilliant simulation of international relations. The most vulnerable countries were the centrally located Germany, Austria, and Italy. As in real life, they often banded together against the surrounding powers. But the game also featured a cunning look at interpersonal relations. Playing the other players was as important as playing the pieces.

“It’s about getting people to do what you want them to do, and convincing them it’s to their benefit,” says Doug Kent, who runs the magazine Diplomacy World. Critics of Diplomacy consider it a cynical exercise in deception. “I call it the Friendship Wrecker,” says Solko, of Board Game Geek.

Even Calhamer admits Diplomacy wasn’t a dorm-room hit. It was hard to gather seven guys to represent France, England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia, and Turkey. And his introverted pals were not natural politicians.

“Only his best friends condescended to play,” says Dreyfus, who never enjoyed the game because, he says, “I’m completely honest.”

After college, Calhamer was classified 4-F, or ineligible for military service, because of diabetes. So he tried Harvard Law School. Law students loved the game, gathering in Calhamer’s attic apartment to practice dealmaking.

“Lawyers like Diplomacy because they’re into power,” says Leavitt. “Double-crossing people comes naturally to them. Allan had the wrong kind of personality to become a lawyer. He wasn’t aggressive enough. He’s more scholarly.”

Calhamer dropped out of law school after a year and a half. Trying to put his interest in diplomacy to work, he took the foreign service exam, but that yielded only a three-month temporary assignment in Africa. When he returned to the United States, Calhamer felt encouraged enough by his classmates’ interest in Diplomacy to make 500 copies, which he sold through toy stores in New York, Chicago, and Boston. It looked as though the game might finally be his ticket. The board game colossus Avalon Hill bought the rights, giving Calhamer a five-percent royalty payment on each sale, and Diplomacy became an international smash.

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Photograph: Megan Lovejoy

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5 years ago
Posted by beeny

Interesting article!

2 years ago
Posted by drjohnny

I live near Chicago and teach "History of Games" downtown. I was wondering if Mr. Calhamer still plays on occasion (PBEM? PBM? FTF? Web-based?). I'd love to get his reaction to variants like Ambitions & Empires and Economic Diplomacy IV.

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