Postal Diplomacy

A recent post by Solomon VK reminded me of the existence of the board game Diplomacy – a game in which, from what I can remember (it’s been over 30 years), players took on roles as the major European powers of the 19th Century (Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, et al), then negotiated and battled their way to European domination. The negotiation part of the process, which gave the game its name, set it apart from other board games: Diplomacy’s outcome was arrived at by players making and breaking treaties, rather than by random factors.

My two abiding memories are that it took a very long time to play, and that the negotiation phases were… not ideal: they usually involved pairs of players going off to hide in the toilet or under-the-stairs, while other players strained to listen in.

And then, I played Diplomacy by post. This came about in a rather strange way: in one of its final ever issues, Imagine magazine (TSR UK’s alternative to its USA parent’s Dragon magazine – and a suitable topic for an entire blog post of its own) ran a feature on play-by-mail games. Alongside the biggie PBM RPGs, they featured smaller and niche ones, including Diplomacy.

A small fanzine, whose name I forget, specialised in postal games like this (they even ran a PBM version of Mornington Crescent), and Imagine invited its readers to join one of their games. So I signed up, and was assigned the Hapsburg dual-monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The fanzine was published once a month, and so that’s how long each move took (my mind boggles imagining a game of Mornington Crescent with a month between tube stops). During that month, players had plenty of time to carry out their diplomacy. Having such a long period in which to negotiate and, crucially, being able to do so without any way of the other players finding out, raised the game to a new artform.

It would certainly be possible to replicate this with an Internet version of Diplomacy (in all likelihood there are people doing so) but, to an old duffer like me, nothing can beat negotiations in a form like this (click to enlarge):   

A letter (which is an early version of email, employing pen & paper)

Austria-Hungary is perhaps the hardest of all the powers to defend – surrounded by threats on all sides – and a combination of this and my poor strategic skills meant that I only lasted a few rounds. The writer of the above letter ganged up with his neighbours and liquidated the Hapsburgs.

I miss old-school Play By Mail. And I miss the days when big games companies like TSR were happy to promote and work with small indie fanzines (can you imagine Hasbro doing something like this nowadays?)

I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign, and would be very grateful for your support.







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