Perfidious Albion?

by Richard Egan

England seems to be a very popular country to play, often topping preference lists and just as often placed second after France or Russia. Yet curiously, unlike the other Northern Powers, it is not a country with a particularly good win record. It comes off worse than even boring old Turkey. So why is it one of the favourite few? 

Certainly England has its advantages at the beginning of the game. As an island it is relatively easy to defend, and has the unique distinction of commencing play with two fleets and one army – hardly the “two- power” standard, but a navy capable of securing the local waves at least in 1901. Unlike Russia’s two fleets, the English ones can operate together, and are very much the key to the northern balance of power in the opening moves. 

Even when England is restricted to one build in 1091, a player can sometimes make sure Germany gets no more by bouncing him out of Denmark or Holland, and he can certainly get concessions by making threatening noises at Germany and France over Belgium. 

Yet this in itself is a measure of England’s corresponding weakness. Every army built by England has to be convoyed (thus obliging the player to hold with a fleet or two for this purpose), and to gain any chance of winning armies are going to be needed on the continent to penetrate the darkest inland provinces of Europe. Indeed, the nerve-wracking decision of how to balance fleets and armies is no more finely poised than in the Pink corner. 

Even without going into the advantages of the Northern and Southern Openings (F(Lon) – NTH, F(Edi) – NWG and F(Lon) – ENG, F(Edi) –  NTH respectively), I don’t need to point out that in Autumn 1901 France and Germany can easily sever those convoys needed to land the B.E.F. on the European mainland – and what use is an English Army stuck in Yorkshire or London – unless invasion looms via ENG, in which case you’re likely to be in trouble, anyway. 

OK, so I’m exaggerating, but it is precisely because of its insular position that England alone among the seven Dip Powers is physically restricted to a maximum of two builds in 1901, and one of those is unlikely given bad “diploming”. Yes, Italy usually only gets Tunis, but even so it is patently clear that England’s greatest strength is also it’s greatest weakness. Even when two builds are seized, they are often precarious and certainly isolated from each other. 

Nonetheless, as ever, the game is not so much decided by what you do as by what six other players do. The name of the Game is diplomacy and enemies and alliances are what really count. Given that, let’s take a look at England’s position vis a vis the rest of Europe, starting with France. 

France, after all, is closest to home, and just has to be Public Enemy No 1. Historically, the two countries have always been at loggerheads (short illustrative anecdote evidently the two-fingered salute originated at Agincourt: the Dauphin, who expected the common English archers to be routed, threatened to cut off the two bow fingers of each one caught alive; the French lost the battle, the cream of the Dauphins knighthood fell before the volleys of arrows, and after the victorious English bowmen rubbed salt into the wound by defiantly waving their two bow fingers, intact, at the French Prince. But enough of this, back to Diplomacy). On the board, France is clearly the biggest single threat to English security, in much the same way as an England left unattended can become the wolf at the back door of a France tied up in the mud or in Germany. For England, Portugal and Spain are tempting prizes, and Brest is too close for comfort. 

Nevertheless, early in the game, England will often accept a non-aggression pact with France. This is, in essence, a “cop-out”, postponing the inevitable (if, that is, either has serious ideas about winning). After all, France just has to be the biggest single obstacle to England attaining the magical 18 supply centres, being sprawled right across the route south. An early alliance does allow the partners to indulge in centre-snatching, and it denies Germany an easy start after all, if they team up with the express purpose of “bashing Fritz”. Even so, keep an eye on that French F(MAO) – lethal when lobbed into the Irish Sea. 

Beside France and England, the third member of the “Northern Triangle” is Deutschland. Surprisingly, the stats seem to suggest that Germany is a better target for England than France. Just why this should be so is a matter for thought, although Denmark, Holland and Kiel neatly link up Norway and Belgium, and establish a strong English bridgehead in Europe. Germany is a strong contender, and has to be KO’ed quickly, or he can seal off the mainland with a Fortress Europa approach – yet he can also be a useful ally against England’s other rivals (France and Russia), and is less likely to trip an English ally up then France (who usually wants a finger in the same pie as far as Germany and the Low Countries go). But can you afford to let Germany off the hook – his neighbours are, after all, his weakness… 

Then comes England’s third neighbour, Russia. Tension with the Big Bad Bear inevitably focuses on Norway. An unlucky England will lose it, but given the right conditions he could take all of Scandinavia and StP to boot – though beware of Mos, which is tempting, but distant and slippery to hoot. Russia can be a cul-de-sac for English expansion, though it makes an excellent target for the Anglo-Turkish Alliance. Turkey can do England little harm, and the first thing to do when one starts playing England is write to the Sultan himself. Austria makes an acceptable substitute, but if he can’t be persuaded to stab Germany he can never be fully trusted. 

Last up is Italy. Like England, he has his eye on Spain, even Portugal, as mid-game builds, and is likely to team up with Russia to distract Turkey and Austria (England’s natural allies) if he has any sense. I’d say let Italy get on with losing the game were it not for the fact that he can be a source of profound embarrassment for the rest of the Northern Triangle – especially if they had forgotten they had a southern border. So the real solution to England’s isolation (not really as splendid as it seems) is to pair off with one of the other two northern powers, on the clear (personal) understanding that they have to be well stabbed in the mid-game. Given that France is less able to bring fleets to bear quickly than Germany, as a rule (although this is admittedly a very flimsy rule), the French might make the better initial pairing, giving one an ally against Germany, and some freedom to move against Russia. I suppose sitting on the fence has its worth, but to get into Europe you need an ally, and to penetrate Europe you need to hit him and hit him hard. It’s for that reason that I topped the page with two words, ”Perfidious Albion”.

Reprinted from Vienna No.2 (Augusy 1984)