Prising the French Snail out of his Shell

by Stephen Agar

This is meant to be the first in an occasional series about alliance play in the opening years of the game. The basic assumption behind this article is a rock-solid Anglo-German alliance determined to take France apart quickly and cleanly. Although the Anglo-German alliance takes a little while to get its momentum going, once the ball is well and truly rolling (by say 1903), then it is a difficult alliance to stop. The short term goal of the E/G alliance is to penetrate France (getting beyond the Pic-Bur Maginot Line ASAP) and take her out as quickly as possible, so that Germany can push armies into Sil and Pru, while English fleets pour into the Mediterranean. However, the French defensive position is extremely strong and it is possible for a determined France to hang on for quite a while, during which time there is ample opportunity for England and Germany to fall out due to the frustrations of slow progress. The allies must stay together – the MAO will not be forced until A02, so France is unlikely to lose a centre until A03 at the soonest. The good news is that once France is down to four units his position becomes untenable and will collapse in on itself under sustained pressure, though even in the face of a concerted attack a competent France is unlikely to be eliminated before 1905 and will probably survive into 1906.

Looking through the results from the 1993 National Diplomacy Championships, out of 31 FtF games, France was only eliminated in seven games (as opposed to 15 German, 13 Russian, 12 Austrian and 12 Italian eliminations) one French elimination was in 1904 (poor Rosalind Harvey taken apart by Bob Kendrick and Jeremy Tullett who ended up with 24 centres between them), two in 1906, one in 1907 and three in 1909. The fact that Turkey and England, like France, were also only eliminated seven times in 31 games shows the strength of the corner countries in FtF Diplomacy. Having said all that, it is noticeable that 85% of Turkeys and 71% of Englands which ended up being eliminated were out of the game by 1906, as opposed to only 42% of doomed Frances. Without doubt, in FtF Diplomacy, France is the most resilient Power on the Diplomacy board.

My strategy for E/G being able to knock out France quickly is based on two assumptions (1) England needs two builds in 1901 and (2) the allies need three armies bordering Burgundy after A01. My reasoning is that one English fleet will be tied up in Scandinavia and France will probably build F(Bre) in 1901, therefore England needs three southern fleets to be able to take on the two French fleets and for that she needs two builds in 1901. If England can only spare two fleets against the French then MAO can never be forced. As far as Burgundy is concerned, although it can be taken by stealth, that is an inherently risky strategy. On the other hand, as France will almost certainly put one army into Spain or Portugal, it is very unlikely (but not impossible) that France will have more than two armies available to defend Burgundy in S02 (though if she does, it will be at the expense of a second fleet, which spells disaster anyway). Other permutations are described below. In essence, the extra build for England is the more essential, but if both assumptions are realised than France will be eliminated without too much trouble.

1. The D-Day Approach

The S01 blitzkrieg on France is fraught with danger, because it can so easily come apart. However, if England is convinced that F(Lon)-ENG will definitely succeed and Russia will not open A(Mos)-StP then you can go for the jugular from the first move.

ENGLAND: F(Lon)-ENG, F(Edi)-NTH, A(Lon)-Wal;

GERMANY: F(Kie)-Den, A(Ber)-Kie, A(Mun)-Ruh;

FRANCE: F(Bre)-MAO; A(Par)-Pic; A(Mar)-Spa

Comment: Despite his initial success, England is still faced with the old guessing game – should he convoy to Brest and risk being stood-off, thus allowing France to build F(Bre), or should he convoy to Picardy and risk not getting in. The answer may surprise you, but I would convoy to Belgium with German support! My reasoning is as follows: to take France out quickly you must either take MAO or get through the Pic-Bur defensive line. The only way to be reasonably sure that you can force Burgundy in S02 is to have armies in Bel, Ruh and Mun. Germany can manage this feat alone by ordering A(Mun)-Ruh and A(Ber)-Mun and then hoping A(Ruh)-Bel and A(Mun)-Ruh will succeed next time. The disadvantage with that is Hol is not taken, A(Ber)-Mun signals to France what is being planned right from the start, and if everything goes wrong Germany only gets one build. The only other option is for England to contribute one of the three armies needed to take France by storm by convoying into Belgium, and thus (hopefully) getting the two builds which will in turn ensure France’s downfall at sea. The best German moves at this stage should really be ambiguous so that France can be strung along for a while – if you sneak Burgundy all well and good (France will be out by 1904), but if there’s a stand-off over Burgundy, France will get two builds guaranteed, whether England takes the Channel or not.

If France covers Brest in A01, then France may only get one build, in which case he can’t stop the English fleets or the English and German armies. If he doesn’t cover Brest then he will get two builds but his position will be little better, as England can have three fleets on MAO by A02 as against his two at most.

However, it is worth remembering that if France orders to ENG in S01 then his position will be probably be secure in the short term and he will still get at least one build (assuming Italy is not joining the all out attack). England then faces the problem that (a) he has committed himself and may be out on a limb if Germany has second thoughts, (b) England has no prospects of two builds in 1901 and (c) in order to leave London free for a build he may have to let the French in the Channel in A01! So, the gains are potentially large, but so are the risks. Having said that waiting until 1902 to show your hand may not be the answer as then France will probably have made two builds in 1901 and will be able to get those units into a defensive position as quickly as the allies can attack. Therefore, for all these reasons, I believe it is best for an Anglo-German alliance to position themselves for the attack on France in A01.

2. A Date for Dinner in Brussels?

The pre-S01 aims of the silent, but deadly-ish A01 attack are (1) dissuade Russia from opening A(Mos)-StP, (2) dissuade France from opening to the Channel, (3) or Burgundy. Accomplish the first two and the plan will work, accomplish all three and you can rest easy.

If all goes to plan a typical set of openings could be something like this:

ENGLAND: F(Lon)-NTH; A(Lpl)-Edi, F(Edi)-NWG;

GERMANY: F(Kie)-Den, A(Ber)-Kie, A(Mun)-Ruh.

FRANCE: F(Bre)-MAO; A(Par)-Pic; A(Mar)-Spa.

Comment: Now that doesn’t look threatening to France at all! Unless Germany can guarantee Burgundy in S01, it is much better to move to Ruhr to achieve the triple attack on Burgundy in S02, though it goes without saying that you must also try to dissuade France from opening to Burgundy. If France knows that Germany is not going to move to Bur then he is unlikely to open with A(Mar)-Bur, A(Par)-Pic as that may mean he only gets one build. The problem for the E/G alliance is how do you get into France in the first place if you haven’t sneaked into Burgundy in 1901? In S02 it is likely that France will order A(Spa)-Gas (or maybe Mar), which can then subsequently offer the crucial second support into Burgundy, making it safe from subsequent attack. If Germany has taken Belgium in A01 with A(Mun)-Ruh-Bel then Germany will only have two units on Bur (namely Bel and Mun) and so he alone cannot guarantee forcing Burgundy in S02. As I said earlier, the only way to get into France in S02 is to have three armies on Bur in S02 (before French reinforcements arrive) and this can be best achieved by Germany ordering A(Ruh) S ENGLISH A(Edi)-Bel in A01. For example:

ENGLAND: F(NTH) C A(Edi)-Bel, F(NWG)-Nwy;

GERMANY: F(Den)-Swe; A(Ruh) S ENGLISH A(Edi)-Bel, A(Kie)-Hol (or Mun if France is in Bur).

FRANCE: F(MAO)-Por; A(Spa) Std., A(Pic)-Bel.

England builds F(Lon), F(Lpl). Germany builds F(Kie), A(Mun). England’s intentions are clear, but Germany can still keep French hopes alive by dangling the possibility of a helping hand in 1902.

3. Breaking Through the Line

All this puts France in a real predicament. The only way he can hold Bur is to build A(Par), A(Mar) – but with only one fleet he can’t hold MAO. Consider the options:

A. France builds F(Bre), A(Par).

ENGLAND: F(Lon) S F(NTH)-ENG, A(Bel) S GERMAN A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Nwy) S GERMAN F(Den)-Swe, F(Lpl)-IRI.

GERMANY: F(Den)-Swe, A(Hol)-Ruh, A(Mun) S A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Kie)-BAL.

FRANCE: F(Por)-MAO, A(Spa)-Gas, A(Pic) S A(Par)-Bur, F(Bre)-ENG.

Comments: You have Burgundy and the Channel. The difficulty now is that you only have a two army front, the A(Mun) being a wasted unit except as support for A(Bur). France will presumably either use A(Gas) to cover Mar or to support an attack on Bur, so Germany then orders A(Bur)-Gas [retreats to Mar], A(Ruh) S A(Mun)-Bur (probably better if England doesn’t support it as well – the aim is to get the retreat to Marseilles if France doesn’t order A(Gas)-Mar, but if Burgundy is attacked with equal weight from both sides then A(Bur) would not be dislodged). On the other hand, if France had ordered A(Spa)-Mar in S02 then the response would be A(Bel) S F(ENG)-Pic, F(IRI) S F(Lon)-ENG, A(Bur)-Par [retreat to Gas], which will probably annihilate the French A(Pic). The Anglo-German alliance should then either take Marseilles, or Burgundy and Gascony, or have Picardy and Burgundy. All spell death for France.

B. France builds A(Mar), A(Par).

ENGLAND: F(Lon)-Wal, F(NTH)-ENG, A(Bel) S GERMAN A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Nwy) S GERMAN F(Den)-Swe, F(Lpl)-NAO.

GERMANY: F(Den)-Swe, A(Hol)-Ruh, A(Mun) S A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Kie)-BAL.

FRANCE: F(Por)-MAO, A(Spa)-Gas, A(Pic) & A(Mar) S A(Par) -Bur.

Comment: These builds blunt Germany’s offensive, but hand centres over to England in 1903. There is a potential stand-off over Burgundy, but as England must take the Channel any support from Picardy can be cut in A02. Thus France must use A(Pic) to move to Burgundy, in order to be sure of denying Bur to Germany, which leaves open the possibility of F(ENG) S A(Bel)-Pic. In any event England will have MAO by A02 and France cannot then defend both Brest and Burgundy as the support of A(Par) will be needed for both of them.

C. France builds A(Bre), A(Par).

ENGLAND: F(Lon)-Wal, F(NTH)-ENG, A(Bel) S GERMAN A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Nwy) S GERMAN F(Den)-Swe, F(Lpl)-NAO.

GERMANY: F(Den)-Swe, A(Hol)-Ruh, A(Mun) S A(Ruh)-Bur, F(Kie)-BAL.

FRANCE: F(Por)-MAO, A(Spa)-Mar, A(Par) S A(Pic)-Bur, A(Bre)-Pic.

Comment: The worst set of builds for France in the circumstances. France will lose MAO this year, leaving the Iberian centres exposed. The allies will take Burgundy anyway and no combination of moves will allow France to retake it. The French position is doomed, the English fleets coming through MAO mean that the position will crumble very quickly indeed.

4. In for the Kill

The permutations run away with themselves into 1903, but with a minimum of F(IRI), F(MAO), F(ENG), A(Bel/Pic), A(Ruh/Bur), A(Mun), the English fleets can cut support from Bre, Gas or Pic and thus ensure that Bur must fall or France will lose Brest. The Spanish centres will be wide open. My best guess is that France will lose at least one, probably two, centres in 1903 and another two in 1904. Marseilles may last until 1905. It goes without saying that a single Italian army cutting any support given by a French A(Mar) will do the job that much quicker.

A fair split of the available centres would be Germany: Hol, Den, Swe, Par, Mar, while England has Bel, Nwy, Bre, Por, Spa. Five each. England then takes the dead-end of StP and steams into the Mediterranean, while Germany attacks Russia with a vengeance.

Of course it’s important to take the Tyrolia-Bohemia line before the Eastern Powers decide to defend the stalemate line.

All this begs the question of if, when and how the two allies are to stab each other. Such a stab is unlikely to be in either party’s interests while France is still in the game, and by mid-game it may be difficult to arrange a stab as England will lack the armies for penetrating inland, while Germany may lack the fleets to take NTH. On balance I think it is easier for England to do the stabbing, as he can justify to Germany building armies for convoying south, whereas it is difficult for Germany to justify building fleets. On this note, let me turn to a cautionary tale from Richard Williams:

“At MidCon last year I had my first solid FtF alliance from Spring 1901 to around 1907, when I stabbed and went for victory. I was Germany and Chris Robinson was England, with an inexperienced player as France. We immediately decided on an alliance, which worked perfectly, culminating in my A(Pie) supporting an English A(Wal)-Tus! It was at that point that I went for the stab, which wasn’t quite perfect. Due to the alliance and an attack on Russia, my fleets were in Swe and GoB. I agreed not to border NTH. In the Spring turn the English army, with support, knocked Russia out of StP. I had just moved into Lvn to take Mos. I had A(Pie) and A(Bur), while everything else, if my memory is correct, pointed south. England had fleets from TYS round to England, in IRI onwards, A(Mar) and A(Tus). This had been a near perfect alliance, but I decided I had a chance of 18, so I kicked England out of StP, walked into Nwy, and took Mar (as his A(Mar) was convoyed into Rome). I made one miscalculation. I didn’t expect him to be able to build, but gaining Nap and Rom while disbanding the retreating A(StP) meant that he could build F(Edi) which with only F(Nwy) close by was enough to stop me getting into his homeland.” [The game ended in 1909 with Richard on 14 centres, England on nine, Austria (James Hardy) on six and Turkey (Lorraine Tullett) on five. Peter Shortall (France) was eliminated in 1906 and Russia (Neil Duncan) went out in 1907.]

5. The French Letter

Most of you will be familiar with the Hedgehog openings for Austria, popularised by Richard Sharp, which are designed to give Austria maximum security. Well, the French position is so secure that an opening as aggressive as the Hedgehog is not necessary for France. The easiest way to guard against all the tactics mentioned earlier is to get Germany to agree a stand-off over Burgundy in S01. If A(Mun) and A(Mar) stand each other off, and France opens with A(Par)-Pic, then you can still pick up Spain with A(Mar) in the Autumn, but unless Germany lets Russia have Sweden in A01 it is impossible for England to have a supported attack on Belgium and claim Norway in 1901. Hence you can prevent England getting two builds and prevent your armies having three units on Burgundy in S02. Easy isn’t it? Maybe the agreed Burgundy stand-off should be called the French Letter (in that it prevents France from being stuffed early on)?