CHICAGO (AP) — As a kid rooting around in the attic of his boyhood home, Allan Calhamer stumbled across an old book of maps and became entranced by faraway places that no longer existed, such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
That discovery and a brewing fascination with world politics and international affairs were the genesis of "Diplomacy," the board game he would create years later as a history student at Harvard University in the 1950s. After its commercial release in 1959, the game earned a loyal legion of fans in the U.S. and elsewhere that reportedly included President John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite, among others.
Calhamer died Monday at a hospital in the western Chicago suburbs where he grew up, his daughter Selenne Calhamer-Boling said. He was 81.
"He was brilliant and iconoclastic and designed this game that's played around the world, and he's adored by nerds throughout the world," his daughter said by phone Saturday. "But at the end of the day he was a great dad. He was at all the T-ball games and all the screechy, horrible orchestra concerts and all the klutzy ballet recitals. I guess that's how I'll remember him."
Calhamer tested early versions of the game out on Harvard classmates before perfecting it. After its commercial release, Avalon Hill bought the rights and helped make it an international hit. The game is still for sale, and was re-released in 1999 with a colorful new map and metal pieces.
Players represent seven European powers at the beginning of the 20th century and vie for dominance by strategically forging and breaking alliances. Unlike "Risk," there are no dice, and a player's success is largely based on his or her negotiating skills.
Inspiration for the game was also supplied by a Harvard professor who taught a class in 19th-century Europe and wrote a book called "Origins of the World War."
Calhamer said in a 2009 interview with Chicago magazine that reading the book recalled for him the atlas in his parents' attic.
"That brought everything together," Calhamer told the magazine. "I thought, 'What a board game that would make.'"
After graduating in 1953, Calhamer followed a fanciful path, living for a time on Walden Pond because he was fan of Henry David Thoreau's famous work and later working as a park ranger at the Statue of Liberty.
In his late 30s, he met his wife, Hilda, in New York. At her insistence they settled in his hometown of La Grange Park, Ill. Calhamer-Boling said her father then shed his "dilettante" ways and picked up a steady job as a postman, which allowed him pursue hobbies and his art. He tried developing other games, as well, but they never caught on, she said.
Since his death, emails have been pouring in to the family from "Diplomacy" fans around the world who wanted to convey how much the game meant to them, Calhamer-Boling said.
The moving messages were not what she expected.
"I always think of it as such an intellectual game because it's so strategic," she said. "But what I'm seeing over and over again in these emails is that the recurring theme is: 'I was a really really nerdy awkward kid who had trouble relating to people, but because 'Diplomacy' required interpersonal skills and required you to get people to do what you wanted them to do that's how I built my social skills.'"
Calhamer is survived by his wife and two daughters.