March 7, 2013
by Kenneth Weisbrode
llan Calhamer, the man who invented the board game called Diplomacy, has died. That his game reached its peak of popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s but appears to have gone out of fashion since may be of interest to historians. The game, according to Calhamer’s obituary,” leaves nothing to chance: there are no dice to roll (as in the comparable board game Risk, which relies on armies to conquer the world), no cards to shuffle (ditto), no pointers to spin. Instead it relies on strategy, cunning and above all verbal prowess.” It is set appropriately in pre-World War I Europe and the players are the then Great Powers. The game was reputedly a favorite of Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. […]
They are just two of the more famous aficionados of Realpolitik in the second half of the twentieth century. Historians continue to debate whether or not they were much good at it. They probably would have found it difficult to enjoy this form of pleasure as unabashedly during the 1940s or even the 1950s when collective security was still in vogue. But something of that changed by the end of the latter decade. Matthew Connelly and others have touted the idea of a diplomatic revolution then which rotated the globe from a predominantly East-West axis to (or back to) a North-South one. These years actually may have marked the midpoint of that trend, which began at least two generations earlier. Some people may have seen the Third World struggle, as it was called, as a forerunner of globalization—that is, as the deeper integration, for better or worse, of former colonial territories with the forces of global modernity. Others like Kissinger and Kennedy may have just seen them as being up for grabs. Like any game, in this one there were meant to be winners and losers.
Calhamer was one of the winners. After a very brief time in his country’s diplomatic corps, he settled into the quiet life of a postman. Meanwhile his game sold more than 300,000 copies and was admitted to Games magazine’s Hall of Fame.