Away from the Diplomacy board, France is my favourite country — the best, most beautiful and most civilized country in the world, whither I shall undoubtedly be forced to flee when life in England finally becomes unbearable. In the context of the game, it’s still a country I like, but with reservations.
France wins quite a few games, though not as many as one might expect in view of its natural advantages. In British postal play, thirty-two out of the 230 that have ended in an outright win; in America, seventy-four out of 556. However, France has been involved in more draws than any other country, and has outstandingly the best survival rate, lasting to the end in as many as seventy per cent of all games played, compared to Turkey’s fifty-seven per cent in second place. Probably the best country for a beginner to play, then, with the near certainty of a good run for your money.
France has great natural advantages in the layout of the board. The strong corner position is not quite as sound defensively as are England’s and Turkey’s, France having three near neighbours to their two, but there are powerful compensations. In terms of neutrals to be harvested, France is better placed than any other country — Germany can match her two dead-certain neutrals, but France can make sure of her two with two units, leaving one free to contest a third. Spain and Portugal are France’s for the taking; Belgium is open to argument. With London, Munich and Venice also within range in 1901, you have no problem as France in finding a sound, acquisitive opening plan.
You also have the occasionally priceless attribute of being able to build fleets in both the Mediterranean and Atlantic sectors. While you control your home ports, no one can hold the Straits of Gibraltar against you, that major obstacle to other countries’ naval ambitions.
It is interesting to note in passing that France’s obvious advantages are better exploited in face-to-face play, where I suspect France probably wins more games than anyone else. In the more accurate field of postal play, other countries have more chance to overcome their weaknesses by careful planning and sound diplomacy, while the playing of France tends to be characterized by over-confidence!
The best winning line for France is to take out England, giving a power base of three home centres, three English and three easy neutrals. To convert this into a win it is necessary to push a fleet past the stalemate line, either into the Baltic or into the Ionian, as circumstances permit. This is not easy, and needs to be carefully planned well in advance. I am certain that the relatively poor win record France has in postal play is caused by insufficient forethought so that other countries see the threat coming and combine to stop the French fleets before they cross the stalemate line — hence the large number of draws, where France has the makings of a winning position but is stopped short. I say this with authority: in my first postal game as France I was convinced I was winning, after the early destruction of England and a massive stab on Germany had brought me effortlessly up to about twelve centres; but Turkey in the south and Russia in the north combined to blockade my fleets, and were able gradually to wear me down. If I had known then what I do now, I would have deferred the stab on Germany until I had pushed my fleets farther into enemy waters, then I could not have been stopped.
France has only thirty-five listed openings. But in real terms I reckon France has the biggest field of choice of any country; certainly no French opening is overwhelmingly popular, and there are few virtual duplicates such as one finds so confusing in studying the Italian openings.
The most popular is a real surprise: ask any experienced player what the best French opening is, and I bet he won’t choose F(Bre)—MAO, A(Mar) S A(Par)—Bur. This is sometimes called the Maginot Opening — a good enough name for it, since suspicion of Germany leading to paranoid emphasis on defence are its main characteristics, as they were of the Maginot Line. It is also constructive in the sense that France retains the possibility of occupying all his neutrals, with A(Mar)—Spa, F(MAO)—Por and A(Bur)—Bel. But strategically the opening is not too good, in my view. It tackles the wrong problem first — Germany will rarely be an early threat — and it places the fleet especially badly; this key unit should either remain in MAO or go to the south coast of Spain. I would play this opening only in an exceptional case — if I had compelling reasons to expect a German attack, for example. I particularly dislike the problems that arise when Germany makes his most common move, to Ruhr; now he and I both have to guess what to do in the autumn (Germany usually covers Munich, in practice, so that it will rarely pay France to try to grab it … in which case why force the move to Burgundy at all?).
Admittedly it is embarrassing for France if Germany moves into Burgundy in spring 1901; but it almost never happens (it’s true that Germany opens A(Mun)—Bur about one game in five, but certainly a majority of these are intended to fail. It is of little benefit to Germany to sneak into Burgundy in this way, as he merely creates tension on the border without giving himself a very good chance of a successful attack on a French centre.) All in all, the opening is not too bad, but not good enough to justify its popularity. France has a big advantage in being able to gain two builds in 1901 without annoying anyone, and it seems a pity to throw away this non-committal stance for so little gain.
Equal second in popularity for France is the Picardy Opening. Of course there are numerous openings in which A(Par) goes to Picardy, but I am using the name for the occasions when France makes the most popular and noncommittal moves with the other two units, F(Bre)—MAO and A(Mar)—Spa. This is a pretty good but flawed combination. The move to Picardy keeps a French finger in the Belgian pie without committing France to hostilities with either Germany or England. The usual tactic here is to abandon for the present any thought of taking Belgium yourself — it is far more useful to you as a bargaining counter, a bone for England and Germany to scrap over. The trouble is that a good Germany will be equally eager to use it against you, and only England is likely to be really keen to take it. So the situation arises very commonly where France and Germany each try to persuade the other to keep England out of Belgium! England is more likely to line up against whichever country denies him this potential second build, naturally; and so we can see that the strength of this opening may easily be turned against it. Usually, Germany will order to have one unit (at least) adjacent to Belgium. If you move so as to have no unit adjacent to it, Germany will have to choose between annoying England and letting England take it unopposed. Often he will prefer the latter, and this is the dilemma France has to deal with.
I don’t like the Picardy Opening all that much myself for that reason – come what may, France is going to have to commit himself in the autumn. As France, I usually start with the intention of keeping Belgium neutral in 1901 : I don’t want Germany to get three builds, or England to get two, and I certainly don’t want three builds myself, a most embarrassing situation. The best solution seems to be: if you can be sure that England and Germany are each going to have exactly one unit adjacent to Belgium, then you should on no account play the Picardy Opening; if you can be sure that Germany will have two units there, you should make the best of a bad job and let him take it ; in other cases, the Picardy Opening is worth consideration, especially if there seems a risk that England may be able to take Belgium unopposed (e.g. if you have reason to expect Germany to order F(Kie)—Den, A(Ber)— Kie, A(Mun) stands).
A better way of handling the Belgian question, France’s main problem in 1901, is the other equal second in the popularity stakes, the Burgundy Opening: F(Bre)—MAO, A(Mar)—Spa, A(Par)—Bur. This is my own favourite, as it offers minimum commitment with maximum duplicity! I might, for instance, agree to support England into Belgium in autumn — ‘but of course I can’t risk going to Picardy, in case Germany double-crosses me and moves into Burgundy; so I’ll go to Burgundy, and support you from there’. This leaves several options open. You can agree a stand-off in Burgundy, which is the best move if Germany opens to Holland but runs into slight problems if he opens to Denmark, as now no one except England will have a unit adjacent to Belgium. There is a delicate decision to make here, and you will sometimes guess wrong; my policy is to arrange the stand-off if my information suggests either that Germany will go to Holland or that Russia will go to St Petersburg! This may seem a distant event to bother about; but if England finds himself with one unit sure of capturing Belgium and one unsure of capturing Norway he may well elect to take Belgium and let Russia take St Petersburg (see English chapter for the advantages of this). Now England will be better placed to operate against Germany than against you.
The main alternative is to hope the move to Burgundy will succeed: this gives you the advantages of the Maginot Opening, such as they are, without the drawbacks. You have the southern army in a much better position, and you can reasonably say to Germany, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I was pretty sure you were going to double-cross me and move to Burgundy yourself,’ which at least keeps him guessing. My view is that this is France’s most flexible choice, exploiting all his natural advantages without necessarily leading to a premature commitment.
The three openings so far discussed account for half of all French kickoffs. Among the huge variety of minority choices, I shall mention only the most useful.
The most important is the group collectively known as the English Attack, in which the fleet goes to the Channel. In all its manifestations this attack is played about twenty-four per cent of the time (compare thirty-two per cent for England’s move to ENC); but until recently the most popular single variation was, amazingly, the one with A(Mar)—Spa, A(Par)—Gas. This should really be called the ‘English Defence’ since to attack with the fleet while moving the armies into the remote Iberian neutrals is clearly crazy. The only justification for this odd opening is to keep England out of the Channel, possibly with an arranged stand-off; in my opinion, it is entirely absurd, since if England wants to to go to the Channel you do far better to let him in! If you stand him off, what happens? Either you have to do it again in the autumn, thus preventing yourself building in Brest, or you let him in … in which case, why bother in the first place? He is much more likely to go for Belgium than Brest if you do let him in; and even if he takes Brest it won’t be a disaster. (As already discussed in the England chapter, it is quite a playable opening to agree to give Brest to England.) I would never, never play this silly variation, though 5.1 per cent of French players seem to find it attractive.
If you are going to move to the Channel, it should be because you have decided to make an early start on your biggest problem — the destruction of England. If you do this, you must follow up with A(Par)—Pic, the English Attack proper and the fourth most popular French opening at about six per cent. You must be sure of Germany’s co-operation; he should be inducing England to open with the Edinburgh Variation, explaining that the Yorkshire Variation is ‘anti-German’ (for the absurdity of this, see p. 37). If England falls for this infantile ruse, you’ve got him, as he cannot prevent the convoy to Wales in the autumn — you might risk trying for London if Germany seems half-hearted about the attack. Normally you convoy to Wales, move A(Spa)— Por, and take your one build of F(Bre); if all goes well, you have some very nice options open in spring 1902, such as A(Wal}—Yor! Let him sort that one out if he can.
I have played this opening with success in some of my early games; but nowadays I find greater difficulty in convincing England I won’t go there, and this tips the scale, so that I rarely play it any more. A stand-off in ENG is bad, and I never risk it. It is safer to delay the attack on England until he is committed against Russia in the north, whereupon the ‘back-door’ attack is unanswerable. But this remains a fiercely effective start against a weak England; it’s a lot of fun trying to arrange the demolition in such a way that your ‘unlucky’ German ally gets less than his fair share of the goodies.
An interesting, if hair-raising, variant of the attack is the so-called Northern Dash, F(Bre)—ENG, A(Par)—Pic, A(Mar)—Bur! This is altogether too much for my tastes, though it can certainly be a spectacular success if it comes off, since France can grab Belgium while keeping the attack going. As a natural pessimist, I feel it is more likely to lead to no builds in 1901, and I’m happy to let other people amuse me with it.
An opening which has recently been seen much more frequently than before is the Belgian Gambit, F(Bre)—MAO, A(Par)—Pic, A(Mar)—Bur. This is rather like the Northern Dash but with just a hint of redeeming sanity. The object is to stake a strong claim for Belgium, defend against a German attack, and defer the capture of Portugal (rarely Spain) until 1902. This opening certainly makes some appeal, with the proviso that it will make it difficult to take a neutral stance over the Belgian question.
The English Maginot, A(Mar) S A(Par)—Bur, F(Bre)—ENG, is not as bad as it looks; this is not really an attack on England, but stakes a claim for Belgium while keeping Germany out. However, as I’ve already said, I don’t think that it is a good plan for France to be greedy about Belgium, and this opening seems likely to provoke an Anglo-German alliance.
The Gascony Opening — F(Bre)—MAO, A(Mar)—Spa, A(Par)—Gas — is one I would expect to be more popular than it is. This is the apotheosis of France’s flight from commitment! It screams to the neighbours, ‘There! You argue over Belgium if that’s what turns you on — I’ll pick up my easy neutrals and wait to see what happens next.’ Only France can get away with such an elaborate disdain for other people’s ambitions. For my money this opening is totally sound: so long as France is not attacked, he can continue with A(Spa)— Por, A(Gas)—Spa, F(MAO) misordered (to TYS)! If England decides to accept the ‘error’ at its face value, he is perfectly set up for an attack: you build F(Bre) and continue with F(MAO)—NAO, F(Bre)—MAO, convoying an army into Liverpool in autumn 1902. Of course you don’t have to exploit the opening in this way; you can indulge in a prolonged bit of fence-sitting. But it’s super-flexible, and perfectly good defensively (note that an army in Gascony can defend any French centre which may come under attack).
The other openings are eccentric minority choices; the only one that makes any appeal to me is the Piedmont Opening, F(Bre)—MAO, A(Par)—Gas, A(Mar)—Pie, the last move being either an arranged stand-off or the first step in a campaign to get an army beyond the stalemate line — it is not an attack on Italy which would be a wild gamble. Its advantage is that it avoids the awkward problems that arise when Italy moves to Piedmont and France has to guess whether or not to return from Spain to defend Marseilles. Curiously enough, I find that an attack from Italy is more inconvenient early on than an assault by either of the more formidable opponents, England and Germany. Once Italy is in Piedmont, the ball is in his court; he can stand there in autumn, and if you return from Spain he will be all injured innocence (‘I told you, it was just defensive’); meanwhile, you will have prevented yourself punishing him with a build ofF(Mar). In my latest gamestart as France I played the Picardy Variation of this opening, with ultimate success, but I must confess to having originality as my prime motive! Gascony is certainly better.
I can best summarize France’s opening strategy by use of a local expression: embarras de richesse. There are many good openings available, and relatively few bad ones. As long as you don’t run into a really serious attack from two sides, and remember on no account to try for three builds, you will get a playable game, though converting that into a win is never going to be easy.
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
France’s position on the Diplomacy board gives him unusual freedom of choice in the matter of alliances. The ability to play non-committally in the opening without incurring any disadvantage in doing so is a great asset, and he can and should delay his decisions until the other countries have committed themselves. Eventually, though, he is going to need friends — who are they most likely to be?
England is unequivocally an enemy in the long term. The threat a strong England poses to the French sea areas cannot be ignored. Because of the feeble English habit of becoming unprofitably enmeshed in a Scandinavian war, the eventual conflict is usually resolved quickly and terminally in France’s favour. The only error you need to guard against here is complacency: it is tempting to believe in England’s good intentions as he sails away into the midnight sun. Don’t: he probably won’t get a chance to attack you, but if he does he’ll take it.
A possible plan for an Anglo-French alliance is outlined in the English chapter, but this certainly favours England, and you should avoid it unless you feel England is so strong that you must accept second place (or so weak that you can break the stranglehold once he has established it). So: use him in the early stages by all means, to contain Russia and frighten Germany, but discard any thought of a permanent alliance except in the rarest circumstances.
Germany is a better prospect. The Franco-German alliance can be handled in exactly the same way as the Anglo-German; and, again, favours France. But a skilfully played Germany is a very dangerous friend — he will welcome the chance to take the North Sea and draw England’s sting, but he will be constantly on the look-out for a chance to thrust into Burgundy. If you have left Paris undefended you are now in serious trouble, as you need to build armies to retaliate and you are going to be building them in the wrong place. The most favourable time for an alliance with Germany is when he is getting stick from Russia, which does occasionally happen: now it is entirely in your interests to support him, as he will keep the dangerous Russians at bay and will be far too busy to attack you. If you can stay on good terms with Germany while getting your fair share of an English carve-up and retaining at least two-to-one naval superiority you will have done very well and should be on the way to winning.
Russia is potentially a good friend, though his assistance will often be confined to letters of sympathy and occasional valuable items of information. France very commonly finishes second behind Russia, as is not surprising they share the certain enmity of England and the likely threat of Germany, but Russia is better placed to exploit any weakness that develops in the German sector, at least early in the game. However, it is a sound general point that France can open hegotiations with Russia on a basis of honesty and trust: Russia has little to gain by concealing his intentions. If England makes his popular but doomed attack on Russia, France’s prospects are bright; any assistance he can give Russia may help to prevent England getting the vital build in about 1904 without which he cannot defend himself against the back-door attack. This is as far as France should go, however; one occasionally sees French players giving physical support to an early Russian attack on Germany, but this is madness — not only is Russia much more likely to benefit from the carve-up, but the arch-enemy England is also favoured. A good yardstick here is that France should not consider any joint action with Russia against Germany until the naval power of England has been broken — and then France should expect to stand a chance of gaining all mainland Germany.
Relations with Austria are unlikely to be of much interest. On the whole France may be said to be slightly anti-Austrian, as a strong Austria means a strong Germany, but the importance of this is minimal. By the time France is strong enough to contemplate any eastern adventures Austria is usually either eliminated or too strong to be a valuable ally.
The same is true of Turkey. Turkey very often finishes second in games won by France, but it is rare for there to be any co-operation between the two — they have no common enemy except in the rare cases where Austria or Italy become very strong while Turkey is still in the game. France—Turkey letters are easily the rarest in my files, and I see that I have played two games (one with each country) in which we both survived to the end without ever exchanging letters!
Italy is perhaps the most interesting problem for France. It is rare for Italy to attack France early on, and almost unheard of for France to attack Italy. Early relations are likely to be cordial, therefore, and based on some sort of non-aggression pact involving demilitarization of the TYS—GOL—Pie area, with Italy perhaps reserving the right to enter Piedmont at one season’s notice to obtain a springboard for an attack on Austria (or even Germany) via Tyrolia. A commonly seen pattern is where Austria is dismembered early on and Turkey emerges as a strong power in the east. Because of the speed with which Austria’s demise occurs, Turkey can be surging west before the complex tangle in the north-west has been resolved. (More often, of course, it is Russia that does the surging, but this is less of a problem to France, Russia lacking the naval strength.) In this situation Italy becomes of critical importance as a blockade against the Turkish advance. I have often found this situation very advantageous to France — with Italy taking the brunt of the attack you can manoeuvre your way into quite a few Italian centres simply to keep Turkey out of them. In a current postal game, for instance, 1976— FS, I have occupied Rome and Tunis in the course of an alliance in which I have genuinely done everything I could for Italy, even sacrificing centres to him to keep his units in the game! Nor is this the first time I have seen it happen. Of course, Italy can draw little comfort from this in the long run, as whoever wins the Franco-Turkish war it won’t be him.
It is certainly bad for France to allow Italy to become too strong, a situation that most commonly arises out of the Russo-Italian alliance, eliminating first Austria and then Turkey. If this happens before France can attack Italy, then France can say goodbye to a win — the stalemate line running down the west coast of Italy is easily established and unbreakable. From all this, it can be seen that relations with Italy are delicate: you want him to do badly but survive, always a difficult thing to arrange.