9. Italy

With Italy we come to the exception – the one area in which it is generally agreed that the admirable balance of Diplomacy breaks down. Italy does not have as good a chance of winning as the other six countries. Results of completed postal games are unequivocal: in Britain, Italy has won twenty-three out of the first 303 – less than half as many as Russia, and five less than the next worst country, Turkey. In the most recent American survey I have seen (spring 1977), Italy had won fifty-four games out of 774, again less than half as many as Russia and nineteen less than England and Turkey in joint fifth place. These results are impressively consistent, Italy winning almost exactly seven per cent of games in both countries. 

In face-to-face play, although no records are kept, my impression is that Italy fares even worse: I did once win such a game with Italy in rather a lucky fashion, having a fifty-fifty guess to make on the last move to beat Russia in a two-country ending. But apart from that, I have never played in a face-to-face game that Italy won, not counting one that was conceded at an absurdly early stage. (It was opening-time, of course.) 

There is a small compensation for this in Italy’s good survival record – if you draw the green pieces you are less likely than anyone except France to be eliminated early (1904 or before), and more likely than anyone except France and Turkey to survive to the end of the game. But all too often it’s a lingering death, battling on for years with one or two units; I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m sure Italy is more likely than any other country never to progress beyond four units. Certainly it’s happened to me often enough. I must confess that I approach the problems of playing Italy without enthusiasm; though my record in postal games – a four-way draw, an equal third and a fifth – is probably better than average, it’s hardly inspiring. In a high-standard game, I would put Italy’s chances of winning at zero, I’m afraid. 


We need not look far for the reasons for Italy’s poor showing. Its position combines the defensive weaknesses of the other central powers, Germany and Austria, with the slow development and limited attacking range of the corner ones, Turkey and England. Admittedly you have a certain build in 1901, since no one can challenge for Tunis white the likelihood of a determined attack against Venice is extremely remote. But Tunis is a dead end of the worst kind: if you take it with a fleet you give up control of the Ionian Sea, and if with an army you must waste a valuable turn getting the army back into play again. Beginners who take the English map at its face value and allow army movement between Spain and North Africa are wrong, but they certainly give Italy a better chance. And if there is one change I would like to see to the rules of the game – the only one – it’s that Italy should begin with a fleet in Rome, rather than an army. This not only allows Italy to make a play for Greece without abandoning Tunis, thus opening new fields for negotiation with Austria, but it indirectly helps to strengthen Austria’s position as well, by greatly reducing the possibility of an early attack from Italy. Possibly it may strengthen Austria too much – in the experimental face-to-face game I played with this modification, Austria won, though Italy at one time looked like doing so. 

Against these disadvantages, Italy has two things going for it. First, it is strong against an early attack, and in fact is unlikely to be attacked until one or other of the two three-sided battles going on elsewhere has produced a winner. More positively, it shares with Germany and Russia the ability to go either side of the stalemate line, though this theoretical advantage is hard to demonstrate in practice. Still, it is true that once Italy gets into a possible winning position, it is harder to stop than most. It’s setting up the chances that’s difficult. 


The most usual power-base for those rare occasions when Italy can go for a win consists of three home centres, Tunis, Trieste, three Balkan countries (not Rumania), and two Turkish centres (not Ankara). This group of ten centres gives Italy good prospects: he is secured against naval attack from the rear and can develop in both directions: he might finish mopping up in the east by collecting the rest of Austria plus Rumania, Ankara and even Sevastopol, then add Marseilles, Spain and perhaps Portugal (though Portugal is always difficult). Or he may be fortunate (or skilful) enough to seize and hold the Mid Atlantic with chances for Brest and Liverpool. But there are some formidable mountains to be moved before he can start wondering where the eighteenth centre is coming from. 

One thing emerges clearly from that analysis of ‘targets’ for Italy: the obvious strategy to move Italy in the right direction is an alliance with Russia against Austria and Turkey. More of this later. 


Italy is on record as having tried thirty-two different openings in British postal games. Considering Italy’s highly inflexible opening position. this is remarkable; it is, however, a sign of despair rather than of genuine choice. 

The most popular start, seen in twenty-three per cent of games, is the Tyrolia Attack: A(Ven)-Tyr. A(Rom)-Ven, F(Nap)-IOS. Traditionally this is played as an attack on Austria, though in recent games some inventive Italian players have chosen to make Germany the surprise target, a policy which has obtained good results. For once, the majority are right: if you can get away with it, this is far and away your best chance of obtaining a good position fast enough to make full use of it. It should be combined (for anti-Austrian purposes) with a Russian move to Galicia. If all these succeed, you have a potentially devastating attack … and with so many Austrias favouring the feeble Trieste Variation of the Balkan Gambit, all the moves will succeed in a majority of non-expert games. 

If Austria has played his suicidal variation, you have several good choices open in autumn 1901. Perhaps the most promising is A(Tyr) S A(Ven)-Tri, F(IOS)-Gre; admittedly this could occasionally lead to your not getting a build at all (if Austria plays the strange defence of supporting Trieste, attacking Greece and letting Russia do his worst). It works very well though against the routine Austrian manoeuvre of abandoning Trieste and making ‘sure’ of Greece – you induce Turkey to attack Serbia, and now if Russia guesses right Austria makes a removal, and is booked for departure in 1902. If you cannot count on Turkey, it is better to take Tunis, no doubt.

Note that this is not one of the common cases where the ‘international’ attack works better than the one-country one: A(Tyr) S RUSSIAN A(Gal)- Vie is a clear mistake, since if Russia needs the support it will be because Austria has ordered A(Tri)-Vie, in which case you don’t get Trieste and Austria is more likely to defend Vienna than Budapest, for reasons discussed in the Austrian chapter. 

The time to switch your attack against Germany is when Russia has let you down. With no Russian army in Galicia, your prospects are far less inviting: make your peace with Austria as best you can, and enlist French assistance for an attack on Munich. Germany, of course, should see this coming; but so inured do players become to the sight of an Italian attack on Austria that the switch quite often takes them by surprise. In all these cases, you are hoping to build A(Ven), with F(Nap) as the second choice. 

The big problem is that it may become clear during the pre-game discussions that the attack will fail. If Germany tells you that he will stand by Austria, it is crazy to go through with the plan – you will just have to make the best of a bad job and look somewhere else. Some players try the strategy of accepting Germany’s ultimatum then attacking anyway: this may work all right when Germany gets careless and deserts Munich in spring 1901, but a good Germany will stay in Munich just in case! If this happens, you are in terrible trouble, especially as Germany will surely go to work on Russia as well, and you will find yourself without assistance. 

In considering the other popular Italian openings, we come up against a recurrent problem: the many stand-off possibilities in Tyrolia and Trieste mean that openings which appear different are really not so. The official second-choice opening is A(Ven) stands, A(Rom)-Apu, F(Nap)-IOS, with a frequency of seventeen per cent; but this is effectively identical to the variation in which A(Rom) goes to Naples. As the intention is a convoy to Tunis, the only difference between the two occurs when Austria attacks Italy, as now A(Nap) cannot support Venice. And no doubt a large proportion of the A(Ven)-Tri versions can also be regarded as identical, with an agreed stand-off in Trieste. 

All these can be loosely grouped together as versions of the Lepanto Opening, which overall is probably the most popular system for Italy. I prefer to call it a system rather than an opening, as the same result can be achieved in a variety of ways. 

The opening is well named for the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the last great sea battle of the age of the galley, in which mainly Italian and Austrian forces under Don John of Austria smashed the Turkish stranglehold on the eastern Mediterranean area in a great naval victory off the Greek town of Lepanto. This is exactly what the Diplomacy-board Austria and Italy are trying to do, and their co-operation can be the most effective counter to the Russo-Turkish ‘juggernaut’. 

The plan is for Italy to occupy Tunis with an army in 1901, build a fleet in Naples, then move F(IOS)-EAS, F(Nap)-IOS, with a view to convoying A(Tun)-Syr in autumn 1902. (This is not precisely what happened in 1571, but never mind.) If everything goes to plan, it can be most effective; certainly it works better for Italy than for Austria. This indeed is one of its drawbacks – why should Austria prefer to be surrounded by Italian fleets rather than Turkish ones? A common sequel is for Italy to obtain a firm grip on Turkish soil, then come at Austria from both sides; as the essence of the system is that Austria abandons all claims to any naval parity with her ally, she is hopelessly placed to defend against this betrayal. 

A more serious drawback to the Lepanto occurs when Turkey has ordered F(Ank)-Con in spring 1901; now an all too likely continuation is F(Con)- AES, build F(Smy) and Italy is not going to take EMS, now or later. But if Turkey dithers around with F(Ank) stands or defends with F(Ank)-BLA, the Lepanto holds out great promise. 

The most dramatic version is the Key Lepanto, named after an American  player, Jeff Key. This is a supremely strong opening for Italy, whose only  drawback is that it requires some very unlikely co-operation from Austria.  The opening moves are F(Nap)-IOS, A(Ven)-Tri, A(Rom)-Apu/Nap – total  frequency under six per cent, and no doubt some of these were stand-offs  or surprise attacks on Austria. The idea is that Austria allows Italy through  Trieste; typically, in autumn 1901 Austria orders F(Alb) S A(Ser)-Gre (in-  stead ofvice versa, as is normal) and Italy convoys to Tunis and orders A(Tri)-  Ser. How any Austria can bring himself to play this variation is beyond me,  but it’s a fact that some do. The perils are horrific.

In the first place, Austria has no guarantee that Italy will not back up  A(Ven)-Tri with A(Rom)-Ven – indeed, this is three times as popular as  the ‘correct’ Key moves! If Russia has moved to Galicia as well, Austria  can say goodbye to the game. Even worse is the fact that in autumn 1901  Turkey can and should order A(Bul)-Ser : this keeps Italy in Trieste, allowing  Italy to stab Austria effectively while doing exactly what Austria asked him,  an ideal state of affairs! Obviously Italy can set this up with Turkey in advance: his position, tactically and diplomatically, is superb. 

It follows that Austria should move A(Vie)-Bud, if he must allow the Key  Lepanto at all. Now he can make sure Italy has no excuse for not vacating  Trieste – he will support the Italian A(Tri)-Ser in the autumn. But once again  Italy has the best of both worlds: he can arrange with Turkey the beautiful  stab A(Tri)-Alb, A(Apu)-Gre C by F(IOS) and S by TURKISH A(Bul)!  The attack on Albania cuts the support for Austria’s A(Ser)-Gre, so that  the Italian move succeeds: Austria has gained Serbia for the loss of Trieste,  building nothing, while Italy builds two and Turkey one – again, a perfect  position for Italy.  

Clearly, then, Italy has everything to gain from the Key Lepanto: it is a rare case of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. It is not necessary to cheat from  the outset with A(Rom)-Ven; better to do as Austria asks, and base your  autumn 1901 decision on the position between Russia and Turkey. If they  appear to be friendly, stand by Austria; if not, ally with Turkey.  The problem is that an astute Austria may well offer a Key Lepanto as F a means of insuring himself against the Tyrolia Attack: the despised Trieste F Variation works well if Austria knows that Italy is going to open A(Ven)- F Tri.  

The most popular of the remaining openings for Italy is A(Ven)-Pie, A(Rom)-Ven, F(Nap)-IOS, with a frequency of fifteen per cent. I believe this is the opening I sneeringly characterized in an article as the Alpine Chicken, because it shows the desire to attack Austria unsupported by the  courage to go through with it. I can see few good points about this one, unless  Austria is an exceptionally weak or gullible player. It is transparently clear o that Italy is at least thinking about an autumn stab – A(Ven)-Tri, A(Pie)-Tyr, F(IOS)-Tun – and hopes that Austria will be lulled into carelessness by the ‘anti-French’ A(Ven)-Pie. Considering that the move to Piedmont will certainly cause France some anxiety, the opening can indeed be called anti-French; but if an attack on France is the object, why on earth not start with F(Nap)-TYS? Normally it is an advantage for an opening to be ambiguous, but in this particular case it seems to me that you annoy everyone without much prospect of material gain from your tactlessness. I must admit that the first time I saw this opening played – in a postal game I was running in Dolchstoss, l973-DM – the fifteen-year-old beginner playing Italy went on to become one of the very few Italian commanders to have notched up a hat-trick in 1901, capturing Tunis, Tnieste and Marseilles. But of course this left him without many friends, and Italy finished an undistinguished fifth despite this brilliant beginning. If Italy does want to go for the magic three builds, a better way is via the Tyrolia Attack (a much older and wiser Italy recently scooped Tunis, Trieste and Munich in a Dolchstoss game, coincidentally with a matching Boardman number, 1977-DM). Abusing the Key Lepanto can also produce three builds, of course. 

The authentic French Attack, A(Ven)-Pie, F(Nap)-TYS, with a variety of choices for A(Rom), has a total frequency of around seven per cent. The Roman army can go either to Tuscany or Venice; a minority allow it to stand. The move to Tuscany is, I assume, the product of an attempt to reassure Austria combined with a desire to move the thing somewhere – I can see no other sense in it, unless perhaps the idea is to stand off Austria in Venice in the autumn while keeping Rome free for a build … but there is never any advantage in building in Rome rather than Naples. In any event the army will often be convoyed to Tunis, with a view to keeping the fleet at sea and moving it to the Gulf of Lyons in spring 1902, the idiotically named Western Lepanto. 

In my opinion the early attack on France should only be tried when Germany has stepped in to prevent you attacking Austria, and has also told you that he is going to move to Burgundy, and expects to succeed. If all this takes place, the opening is good. Otherwise, the best way to attack France is with a pseudo-Lepanto: start with A(Ven) stands (in effect), A(Rom)-Apu, F(Nap)-IOS, and make your attack in 1902. It is an unfortunate fact that France can see an Italian attack coming a mile off; it’s important to get France firmly committed in the north before you risk it. I remember years ago writing that it was ‘insane’ for Italy to attack France, a view I hereby retract – it’s sane, but it’s very difficult. 

Minority openings for Italy include such grotesque aberrations as F(Nap)- Apu, A(Rom)-Tus, A(Ven)-Tyr; only a man in the last stages of Italian ennui would venture this one. 

Because the overall picture is so unclear, due to the many near-identical openings available, it may be useful to summarize the popularity of different individual moves. 

The fleet goes to IOS seven times out of eight; this is clearly superior to  moving it to TYS, which should only be done when a fast attack on France  is planned. The Roman army goes to Venice well over half the time, either  to follow up an attack on Austria or to guard against an attack from Austria  (not very likely). Apulia accounts for over a quarter of this army’s moves  (the move that characterizes the Lepanto system), with Tuscany (weak),  Rome (weaker) and Naples (downright bad) accounting for the rest. Note  that A(Rom)-Nap has one clear disadvantage and no apparent advantage  compared with A(Rom)-Apu, while A(Rom) stands is equally inferior to  A(Rom)-Tus. 

The move of A(Ven) is usually the critical one. When it goes to Tyrolia  (which it does more than a quarter of the time) it usually signals an attack  on Austria, though if not backed up by A(Rom)-Ven it may have Germany  as the first-choice target. When the army stands – a little less frequent – some  sort of Lepanto arrangement is likely; when it goes to Piedmont, which is  the second most popular, it may be either the genuine attack on France or,  if backed up by A(Rom)-Ven, F(Nap)-IOS, the ‘Alpine Chicken’. The  direct move to Trieste is rather less common, and will be either the Key  Lepanto (with A(Rom)-Apu) or a stab (with A(Rom)-Ven). The move  to Tuscany is rare, for reasons that are easily understood; but the interesting A(Ven)-Apu, A(Rom)-Ven combination has surprisingly never  been tried at all. Obviously this can produce an identical position to  A(Rom)-Apu, A(Ven) stands, but with the extra possibility of a stand-off in  Venice. Perhaps with the increasing use by Austria of the Hedgehog move  F(Tri)-Ven we shall see this opening adopted as the modern form of the  Lepanto. 


Italy can reasonably negotiate with any country on the board from the start;  the trouble is that they will all have troubles of their own, and what you have  to say may not be of much interest to some of them. 

This is certainly true of England. No doubt he will welcome it if you do  offer to attack France in 1901; but he is unlikely to allow this to influence  his own decisions – indeed, he may even decide that this makes it safer for  him to play the Northern Opening, on the grounds that France will have  to defend himself and will be in no position to exploit England’s weak southern flank. Do not, therefore, consider an early alliance with England against  France; though you may by all means keep the possibility on ice for later.  France’s configuration is such that England will probably do better out of  the struggle than you will; and since your object in attacking France is to  control the western end of the Mediterranean and seize the Mid Atlantic  it is clearly self-defeating to replace one strong naval power with another,  even stronger one. However, an attack on France by England would be beneficial to you – so if he offers, accept … and do nothing! He’s too far away for effective reprisals. 

Germany is a much better ally for you if you intend to attack France; and as we have already seen this partnership is likely to grow by necessity if Germany opposes your evil designs on Austria. When the joint attack coincides with an English move north against Scandinavia and a premature attack by France on England, things are really going your way: you are much better placed than Germany when it comes to carving up France, and Germany cannot muster enough rapid naval development to oppose your grab for the Atlantic. When played with sufficiently ruthless zeal, this attack is highly favourable to both Italy and Germany, and is second only to the Russo-Italian alliance as a method of gaining a lot of ground fast and looking for a win. Germany will usually be favourable to the scheme; but there is a drawback. Because Germany will often want to leave a unit in Munich to defend Austria, he is likely to offer to move to Burgundy, then go behind your back to France and arrange a stand-off there. Now, if you have committed yourself with a violent anti-French opening, you are out on a limb, and Germany can throw you to the wolves and go about his own plans. You will have some tricky diplomatic decisions to make here: perhaps France will ‘leak’ the stand-off arrangements to you, in the hope of deterring you from attacking him at all ; or perhaps, scenting something nasty in the wind, he will insist on a stand-off over Piedmont. It may often prove wisest to defer an anti-French move until 1902, by which time you will have been able to reassure Germany that you have no plans to invade Austria. 

Relations with France are usually quite cordial. He will be hoping to see you move to Tyrolia, partly because this may lead to a combined attack on Germany, but more because it means you can’t make the embarrassing move to Piedmont. He may, as mentioned above, demand a stand-off in Piedmont, which is good from his point of view: if he does, your best bet is to make a virtue of necessity and play A(Ven)-Pie, A(Rom)-Apu, F(Nap)-IOS, yet another branch of the Lepanto tree which is occasionally seen. Incidentally, I had an odd success with this line as France: I arranged with Italy in a postal game to stand off in Piedmont, then we later changed the arrangement but I (genuinely) forgot to change my orders! As a result I entered Piedmont, a most inconvenient thing to happen; so, making the best of it, I kept on going – Tyrolia in the autumn, violating the demilitarization pact agreed by Italy, Germany and Austria (they forgot to tell me!), Bohemia in spring 1902. This is probably the earliest recorded Franco-Italian alliance against Austria. 

France may offer to support you to Munich in autumn 1901 if your move to Tyrolia succeeds; this could be handy if Russia lets you down, but it should only be a second string. Usually France’s plan will be to persuade you to keep out of the Piedmont-Gulf of Lyons-Tyrrhenian Sea area; he will promise not to build in Marseilles, hoping that you will get bogged down in the east, as so often happens, and that he will be able to conclude his western business satisfactorily and move against you in force by about 1905-6. You will have to keep a constant eye on him; if you go east in the early stages, your primary objective is to be able to turn and face France before he is ready. If you fail, the best you can hope for is to set up the familiar stalemate line down your western seaboard and play for a draw. If France once gets the Tyrrhenian Sea, your chances of a win have almost certainly gone. 

In the east, Russia is your main hope. If you can get him to agree to an alliance against Austria, and if Germany and Austria can be swindled into letting you launch a fast attack, you are undoubtedly on the right lines for a win. As I mentioned in the ‘Targets’ section of this chapter, Italy can expect to gain at least six centres from this alliance – rather more than Russia, who can of course gain extra ones elsewhere without your direct assistance. If the attack achieves surprise, it can progress very quickly – these are the games which see the departure of Austria in 1902-3, followed rapidly by Turkey. Russia wins most of them, but there is no reason why you should not win with Italy if you get the timing right and keep a careful eye on your oversize ally at the period when he is most likely to stab you – the moment when you have secured your rear and turn against France. Very rarely indeed should you try to stab him: he’s too strong, and you will surely fail. All the advantages are in his favour, and you must hope that England or Germany will be able to curb him in the north, enabling you to make some headway against France while their attention is distracted against the more obvious threat. 

The time you should stab Russia is when he does too well in the north; now he is headed for a runaway win, and you will have to try it. The best way, oddly, is through Armenia; attacks against the centre will not usually get beyond Vienna and Budapest, because Russia’s defences in that area are going to be very strong. I must admit that the alliance with Russia is going to produce more seconds than wins; but then, second place is a lot better than most players of Italy get. 

Your best chance of a win will come when Austria lets you play a Key Lepanto, and you ally with Turkey to stab him. This is likely to produce a bigger jackpot than the Russian alliance – the whole of Austria should fall into your lap fairly quickly, along with Greece and Serbia; then the Lepanto formation gives you ample opportunity to turn on poor old Turkey before he knows what’s hit him. I am prepared to state with confidence that if any Austria ever lets me play this opening, I will win; I feel equally confident that I shall never get the chance to prove it, alas. 

Except in this one rapturously happy case, relations with Turkey are not usually good. The Ionian is to Turkey as the Tyrrhenian is to France: a key area, the capture of which is as good as a supply-centre. The Ionian is Turkey’s gateway to the west, which he must control to have much chance of winning. While Turkey survives, his naval strength is likely to be so menacing that you are not able to turn to face the French. Turkey’s corner is your corner – you need it as a safe place to rest your back. Very often Turkey and Italy bring about each other’s downfall, reaching a deadlock in the Mediterranean which neither dares abandon to try elsewhere. He’s got to go. Whether you start with an alliance with Russia against Austria then move on to Turkey, or whether you start with a Lepanto and take Turkey out first, it’s going to be him or you most of the time. 

Finally, there’s Austria, the man in the middle, the Great Target. He knows you’ll be gunning for him, drooling over the prospects of an easy push through Trieste to the Balkans. Everything depends on what he does. If he’s not very bright he’ll say, ‘Please don’t attack me – let’s be friends.’ This is easy, and you walk straight in. He may invite you to move through Tyrolia with a view to attacking Germany: beware, this is surely a trap, and you should decline politely (that attack only works when no one knows about it). He may offer you a Lepanto – now you will have to consider most carefully whether to go through the motions, playing it by ear, or to attack him from the start, hoping he’s trusted you. Or he may, conceivably, offer you a Key Lepanto, in which case you can ring up the Dorchester and book a private room for the celebration dinner. 

If Austria and Italy can find a way to neutralize the constant dangers of their common frontier – and it takes some doing – they can form a powerful team. The alliance usually works rather in Italy’s favour, because of the difficulty Austria will have in maintaining naval parity; but Italy can sometimes find himself saddled with the lion’s share of the arduous reduction of Turkey, while Austria makes faster progress against Russia. 

Of all the countries on the Diplomacy board, Italy is the best suited to ‘alliance play’. Don’t try to box clever, as you would with another country, playing offal! six ends against the middle; this only succeeds when everyone needs and values your help, and Italy is likely to be almost ignored as the big boys sort each other out. Work hard to find an ally, convince him of your enormous value to him against five other players who hate his guts, and – for once – stand by him. Even on this basis, Italy is a difficult country to play, so why make it impossible by double-crossing everyone in sight? For Italy, getting cute is an invariable prelude to getting dead. 

I dare say this has been a rather depressing chapter, especially if you have just drawn Italy in your first postal game and are wondering what to do about it. Well, I’m sorry, but there it is. I don’t enjoy ‘alliance play’ very much – any fool can keep an agreement, but it takes an artist to break one skillfully. I can only suggest that you mentally settle for second place, with a reservation at the back of your mind that you just might get lucky: your ally may break his neck or emigrate to Cambodia or get sent down for fifteen years for saying in public that black and white are not the same. In that case, you might win – or you just might be a brilliant player who wins anyway. Otherwise, second place is a whole lot better than seventh, and you can always sign up for another game. It’s 48-I against drawing Italy twice running.