The First Decade

by Stephen Agar

Little of what is in this article is original, I have merely tried to draw together information from the various sources I have to hand (which are listed at the end of the article), while the zine statistics in the boxes are culled from information compiled by Richard Walkerdine in June 1986. I think there is a value in periodically revisiting our roots, the turnover of players is sufficiently high that some of this material will be new to many. Although I have described this article as a commentary on the first decade of postal Diplomacy in the UK, to understand what follows it is necessary to go back to Brooklyn, New York in May 1963.

Although Conrad von Metzke attempted to start a postal Diplomacy game in 1962, he never got beyond mailing out a gamestart, so the accepted founder of the postal Diplomacy hobby was Dr. John Boardman. John's interests were primarily science fiction but in March 1963 in his sf fanzine Knowable he announced a willingness to start a game of Diplomacy. The game got underway in May (with only five players!) and Graustark the first ever postal Diplomacy zine was born. The hobby initially spread through SF fandom in the US, but was slow in the beginning with only nine more zines being started in the following two years, and with only 12 games between them (the usual practice being to have one game to each zine). Things took off in the US around 1966 when wargamers discovered postal Diplomacy and consequently 32 zines started in the 1966-67 period. The US hobby then received an even bigger boost when Games Research Inc. started to include a flyer in the Diplomacy box in 1970 (162 zines were launched in the US during 1971-73!). Meanwhile, things were stirring in England too...

The first postal Diplomacy game in the UK was started by Don Turnbull in his zine Albion in August 1969. Don was a wargamer by background, who never really took part in the mainstream postal Diplomacy hobby as it matured, though he did continue to run games in Courier for many many years. Independently SF fans in the UK started War Bulletin and it was not long before these two zines found each other and established the UK hobby. Diplomacy variants were first played by post in the UK in 1971 when Courier began a game of Abstraction and War Bulletin started a game of Diadochi. As 1971 ended there were only a mere 3 Diplomacy zines in the UK.

1972 was the classic year for the founding of the postal Diplomacy hobby in the UK, much of the stimulus for this activity arising one way or another from the efforts of Graeme Levin who founded both the BDC (British Diplomacy Club) and the professional magazine<u>Games & Puzzles in May 1972.

In January 1972 Colin Hemming started XL while John Piggott founded the historic zine Ethil the Frog, which were both closely followed by Will Haven's Bellicus in March. Meanwhile the BDC initially ran games using Don Turnbull as GM, but later branched out by getting other new editors to run zines under its wing. One such zine was Dolchstos which Richard Sharp (who had been introduced to the hobby via Games & Puzzles in June) began in October 1972 to run BDC games once Don Turnbull felt he was running enough.

Of course in the very early days zines were very skimpy things indeed - Mad Policy did not reach the dizzy heights of 12 pages until issue 16, and 12 pages was quite long by the standards of the early 70s. In terms of numbers it was Dolchstoß which really took off in a big way thanks to the influx of people through the BDC who entered the hobby as a result of the flyer. After only five issues Dolchstoß was running 8 games (though only 4 pages long), whereas Mad Policy could only manage five games after 10 issues. Even at this early stage there was a degree of friction growing between the BDC zines and the "independents" (Eg. Mad Policy and Ethil the Frog) who regarded the BDC and later the NGC as far too insular (Levin even told Sharp off for just daring to mention Ethil the Frog in issue 5 of Dolchstoß). Many years later Richard Sharp was to admit that the criticisms of the Independents were "largely justified" and that Dolchstoß would not have survived six years if it had been independent.

Arguably BritDipCon which was held at Hartley Patterson's house in September 1972 and attended by every UK publisher at the time apart from Don Turnbull was the first real Diplomacy con, although it had originally been planned as the annual meeting of the Tolkien Society. By the end of 1972 Graeme Levin had metamorphosed the BDC into the NGC (National Games Club) which took over the former's postal games by February 1973. During 1972 active Diplomacy zines had grown from 3 to 12.

The growth of the BDC/NGC was not entirely to everyone's satisfaction - Graeme Levin had managed to arrange for BDC flyers to be inserted in the Philmar Diplomacy sets, so the BDC/NGC (as opposed to the rest of the hobby) were receiving an enormous number of enquiries. Richard Sharp took over the running of the postal section of the NGC and founded the NGC Bulletin as the club's official house journal, but the non-NGC zines, or Independents, remained a distinct and separate part of the postal hobby. March 1973 saw the first ever fold of a Diplomacy zine, Colin Hemming's XL which ceased publication after 14 issues. Mid-1973 also saw the foundation of forerunner of the UKVB by Colin Bennett, with a mere dozen or so variants in stock. Another hobby institution was launched in November 1973 when Richard Walkerdine announced the Walkerdine Zine Poll, won by John Piggott's Ethil the Frog on a turnout of 14 votes! 1973 ended with 23 zines, 110 Diplomacy games in progress and 73 variants.

At the beginning of 1974 the worldwide hobby had finally grown too big for Conrad von Metzke to issue Boardman numbers for the all gamestarts, so Richard Walkerdine became the first UK Boardman Number custodian. Early 1974 also saw the beginnings of a debate which ran for many years over the merits or otherwise of hobby organizations. So far Richard Sharp had almost ran the NGC as a one man band and while it seemed effective as an organization, at least as far as the NGC zines were concerned, others in the hobby wanted an institution willing to promote hobby-wide services. With this in mind Hartley Patterson, John Piggott and Richard Walkerdine joined the American IDA (International Diplomacy Association) and proceeded to try and set up a UK branch, known as IDA/UK. This move widened the debate even further because even those who wanted a broader base to hobby services than those offered by the NGC didn't fancy being part of an American organization. The NGC responded by announcing it was to have an elected committee to run its various functions, hence widening its appeal, with the result that Richard Sharp was elected General Secretary, other posts going to Tony Ball, Peter Dean, Nicky Palmer, Jacques Parry, Mick Bullock, Steve Doubleday, Richard Walkerdine (who was also Treasurer of the IDA/UK) and Les Pimley, some of who are still with us today.

With the formation of the IDA/UK interest in Britain was focused on the Calhamer Awards which were organized by the IDA in the States. Thanks to some electioneering, British zines were nominated in 9 of the 11 categories and duly went on to win all 9 awards. This feat was accomplished by the fact that 75 of the 400 or so active UK players had voted in the poll, as opposed to a mere 50 votes from the 2,000 or so active US players. The US promptly changed the rules.

By the end of 1974 the hobby had reached the level which it is more or less at today, with 29 active zines and 161 Diplomacy and 89 variant games in progress.

1974-75 saw a big interest in variants, helped by the success of variants in 1901 and all that and the zaniness of Jeremy Maiden in He's Dead Jim! As postal Diplomacy was still relatively new, budding variant designers weren't faced with today's problem that everything has already been done before.

Early in 1975 the NGC announced that they (in the shape of Norman Nathan) were organizing the first really big con, including a Diplomacy Championship, for June. The subsequent first ever National Diplomacy Championship was won by Richard Walkerdine who collected L15 and a six month subscription to Games & Puzzles. Around the same time other hobby services which exist in some form today were started - the IDA formed the ISE (International Subscription Exchange), and the IDA/UK also produced the first UK Novice Package called Obscurum per Obscurius and written by Craig Nye and Richard Walkerdine.

By the beginning of 1976 there had been two rival organizations co-existing in the Hobby for almost two years, with a third force of independent editors who were scornful of all organizations. Soon there were proposals to merge the IDA/UK into the NGC, but at the same time Will Haven (of Bellicus fame) helped launch the DipFed (Diplomacy Federation) which basically existed just to knock the NGC. Perhaps thankfully, the DipFed did not take off and by mid-1976 the IDA/UK was absorbed into the NGC, which then started to look very unwieldy and bureaucratic. It was about this time that I first became involved in postal Diplomacy, having been given the game as a Christmas present. Therefore, at the tender age of 15, I sent off the NGC flyer therein and shortly after I received Dolchstoß (which was massive and incomprehensible) and soon after that my first gamestart in NGC 184 which was carried by Greg Hawes's Turn of the Screw.

The launch of Chimaera by Clive Booth in the previous year had marked a new departure for Diplomacy zines in that Clive was the first successful zine editor to be willing to run other games apart from Diplomacy, though Chimaera maintained a strong Diplomacy element. In the 1976 Zine Poll Chimaera went straight in at No.1 and won the Poll the following year as well.

Throughout 1976-78 more zines (both established and new) embraced the idea of running games other than Diplomacy (eg. Lemming Express, Leviathan, Albatross, Nitehawk, Sauce of the Nile, Herald), the most popular games being Kingmaker, Rail Baron, Railway Rivals and En Garde! The appearance of what was seen by some to be trivial games was not universally well received, but all real insults were reserved for Soccerboss (a football management game which was the forerunner of United) which had appeared in several zines. Critics felt the game required little skill, depended

on dice throws, contained little player interaction and led to long, boring and incomprehensible game reports. Throughout 1977 zines were full of letters either supporting Soccerboss or denigrating Soccerdross.

From my point of view 1977 was important because on 5 August 1977 I (age 16) produced issue 1 of Pigmy (which included a gamestart - never launch a zine without a gamestart). I chose the name because it was my intention to only run a single game, so I wanted a name which signified that it was a small zine. 4 weeks later I announced in issue 2 that Richard Walkerdine had decided to fold Mad Policy (to which I had been subscribing for some time). Folds were obviously in the air because within days Turn of the Screw also folded and I found my first Diplomacy game being transferred to the recently re-emerged Ethil the Frog where John Piggott was conducting a fierce feud with Eric Willis of Leviathan. Believe it or not I was quite happy with my 34th in the 1977 Zine Poll, which was of course won by Dolchstoß.

It took until February 1978 to get my second gamestart (which included Steven Rennie who still plays in Spring Offensive), but even then it wasn't very fulfilling producing a zine only a couple of pages long, so in April 1978 with issue 11 I expanded Pigmy into a fully-fledged mimeo zine. Unfortunately I timed this rather badly as early 1978 saw the birth of a new generation of zines such as Megalomania (Chris Tringham), Pyrrhic Victory (Mike Allaway) and Whiskey Mac (Paul Openshaw - another schoolboy editor). Looking back throughout my early issues I avoided contentious hobby subjects, but I did write a piece in issue 11 which praised Mick Bullock's proposals that he should be elected the new General Secretary of the NGC on a platform of more or less winding up the organization. Out would go all the committees etc. As it happened Mick's proposals and the fold of Dolchstoß in early 1979 were the death-knell for the NGC. One hobby landmark was passed later in the year when Mick's 1901 and all that became the first UK mainstream Diplomacy zine to reach 100 issues (though it then promptly folded).

One feature of the 1977-78 period was the development of the notion of the "hardcore" which seemed to take hold because there were a minority of established editors from the early 70's who had been used to a very small tight-knit group of players with whom they met regularly at housecons up and down the country. By and large, in practice such housecons tend to be more by invitation than people just turning up, so as the hobby expanded and strangers started to edit zines, few of these newcomers (with the exception of Tringham) managed to penetrate the circle of friends which had developed. In the space of five years the hobby had developed a generation gap! EuroCon 1 in July 1977 was essentially a "hardcore" holiday and the perceived unwillingness of this group to mix with the others at PrestonDipCon in September 1978 did lead to accusations of elitism. In retrospect this was just a fuss about nothing, the older hobby members tended to be bored with Diplomacy per se and were more interested in drinking and poker (which I now find quite intelligible, whereas at 18 I didn't). Today the hardcore are alive and well and subscribing to Dolchstoß.

To my knowledge there have been two professional publications in the UK of direct relevance to the hobby and, co-incidentally, they both appeared in 1978. The first was Lew Pulsipher's Diplomacy Games and Variants (L2.45) which was a selection of variants designed by Lew which ranged from the very simple to the ridiculously complex Song of the Night. The other and more important publication was The Game of Diplomacy by Richard Sharp (price a massive L7.50), but mandatory reading for everyone who is fascinated by the game, crammed full with tactical advice and anecdotes. I remember that I couldn't afford L7.50, so I wrote to the publishers and asked for a review copy - to my amazement they obliged! Copies still turn up in second-hand bookshops, so keep on the look out.

1978 ended with the hobby in a state of flux. Rumors abounded that both Ethil the Frog and Dolchstoß the elite of the old hardcore had folded while the monumental Griffin, a multi-games warehouse zine took the multi- games revolution to a degree never seen before (or since?).

The end of the decade was the end of an era as in March/April 1979 Richard Sharp and John Piggott finally acknowledged the inevitable and folded. Richard had been ill in 1978 and was going through a bitter divorce, John had discovered other interests in his life. The hobby suffered a bit because Richard had taken over the CGS from Iain Forsyth, yet the NGC wasn't functioning to introduce newcomers to the hobby properly (enquiries having been increased further by Richard's book) because of Richard's troubles. At the same time new zines were folding either for lack of support (Eg. Queen's Lane Advertiser, Entente) or because the editor lost interest very quickly (Eg. Ferkin (arguably the worst zine ever) and The Fool Plays On).. With Richard Sharp gone the NGC was no more (and the flyer in the box thus disappeared), while the PDA (Postal Diplomacy Association) which was set up by Malcolm Brown and Richard Hucknall to place adverts in national magazines survived a mere six months, only to die when Malcolm dropped out of the hobby. Pete Calcraft did suggest a reincarnation of some sort of organization towards the end of 1979 which came to nothing. The idea of hobby organizations had run its course. Even Games & Puzzles disappeared soon after.

Greatest Hits was the well-deserved winner of the 1979 Zine Poll with Pigmy a respectable 6th. As it happened Pigmy folded right at the end of 1979, the deadline for the never-to-appear issue 33 being 28th December 1979. All the games were transferred to the new zine NMR! which I'd reviewed in issue 32. My involvement in the hobby dragged on for another year (but that's another story).

Acknowledgements: Mad Policy No. 100, Dolchstoß Nos. 70 & 100; Greatest Hits No. 115; various issues of Pigmy; Here We Go Again No.1.

 

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