Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Allan B. Calhamer 1931-2013

Not every reader of this blog is going to have a moment of instant recognition looking at this picture. Even less will immediately recognize the name Allan B. Calhamer.  The picture is from a game called Diplomacy and Calhamer is the author of the game, first self-published in 1959, then picked up by Games Research and later by Avalon-Hill, now owned by Hasbro.

A quick and by no means complete explanation of the game. Seven players vie for domination of Europe on a map that represents the great powers before the First World War. The turquoise pieces in front are the French, black is Germany, green Italy, red Austria-Hungary, yellow Turkey and white Russia. (Not visible: England is represented by dark blue). The two different shapes represent armies and navies. Like Risk, the units move around the board, occupying spaces on the map. Unlike Risk, there are no dice. All the players write down their moves and once read out, the actions are resolved simultaneously. If two units want to move into the same place, the one with the greatest support from adjacent units will succeed.

You can't win the game or even survive without allies. Will the French and English join together to thwart German expansion westward? Or will the German make an ally of one its Western neighbors at the expense of the other? Each country has its advantages and disadvantages, but two elements are found in every game of Diplomacy ever played: alliances and back stabs.

The game never became a gigantic hit like Monopoly or Risk. I doubt it sold as well as Stratego. Its fans may not be legion, but they are steadfast. The most famous adherents are John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. Calhamer went to Harvard and studied law, but he made his living as a mailman and raised a family near Chicago. Unlike some other famous American game designers of his generation, Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph, Calhamer never published another game.

Knowing my interest in obituaries, my friend Jodi wrote to me this morning reporting that Calhamer died late last month. Jodi loves Diplomacy and plays often. For me, the strategy is fun but the backstabbing hurts a little too much. Until I read the obit, I knew nothing about Calhamer's life. The idea that the author of one of the masterpieces of 20th Century games put bread on the table as a mailman is both sad and admirable. It reminds me of the great American chess players of the era before Bobby Fischer hit it big who made their livings selling insurance or working in an office. Wallace Stevens, the modernist American poet who won the Pulitzer in 1955, the year he died, worked as an executive in an insurance company.

And so, here is to Calhamer, whose greatest work was not the ticket to fortune or fame, but instead the undying admiration of a small group of people, themselves often dismissed as geeks or nerds. If you have ever played Diplomacy, whether you loved it or hated it, if you thought about the design, you realized very quickly that it would be impossible to improve on it.

This is because Allan B. Calhamer, mailman, was a genius and Diplomacy was his masterpiece.

Best wishes to the family and friends of Allan B. Calhamer, from a fan.


Michael Strickland said...

I've heard it described as the equivalent to chess in comparison to the checkers of "Risk." Nice appreciation of the Genius Mailman.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Thanks, Michael. More good news is that someone finally woke up the New York Times and gave him a proper send-off.