by David Gordon
Diplomacy is a board game that was created in the 1950s by a man named Allan Calhamer. This article is meant for people who already understand the basic nature of the game, and have a reasonable understanding of the rules. For the uninitiated, think of it as a 7-player game of chess on a map of Europe.
If you do not have at least a reasonably solid understanding of how Diplomacy is played, but would like to get something out of this article, then I highly recommend reading this article!
However useful it is (and it is quite useful!), I think it is ultimately inadequate for a player who wants to approach the game with the level of analysis that is typically reserved for chess. The problem I have with the articles available is that there are many common assumptions made in those articles that do not always hold true, and that could get a beginning-intermediate level player in trouble if he pursues them in the wrong context.
Thus, I am writing this article to fill a perceived void in the known, available strategy articles about the classic game Diplomacy. This article will do the most for a beginner-intermediate level player, but it should also come in useful for advanced and expert players.
A player will open the game with one of the seven powers (Austria-Hungary, Italy, France, England, Germany, Russia, or Turkey) under his command. He will have three units (or four if Russia) and a short-term opportunity to obtain for certain at least one neutral center, and possibly up to three (or four if you have the opportunity to play Russia on an exceptionally weak board). At the beginning of the second year, Spring 1902, a player can reasonably expect to have 4-6 units total with any sensible strategy.
A Diplomacy player needs to understand first and foremost that the game is a dual challenge. First, there is a purely military game of remarkable simplicity and elegance, from which can arise a surprising variety of strategic and tactical considerations. This is the foundation of the diplomatic game that forms the basis for negotiations with the other players on the map.
The first thing I would like to impress upon the player, therefore, should he desire to play a solid game of Diplomacy, is this: The positions of units on the board form the essential basis of diplomatic negotiations. Or to state this another way, there’s no point in talking about something that isn’t happening, or can’t happen, on your map.
The second part of the dual challenge is the diplomacy itself, that is, the act of talking to the other players to try to persuade them to act in ways that favor you. Again I must stress here, that it is essential – absolutely essential – that the military reality on the board be properly understood in order to understand what actions by other players are favorable to you, and what actions are unfavorable. The ability to convince another player to act can be a liability if you request actions that are militarily harmful to you. And if you don’t understand how to interpret a board militarily, you may just stab yourself in the back with your own silver tongue. This is an extremely common mistake (though, truth be told, there are times when even that is the best one can hope for).
The Centrality of Objective
The objective of the game is to capture 18 supply centers. Any strategy which results in a less favorable outcome is to be avoided as long as possible (I’ll discuss what to do when you find yourself unable to achieve a win later.) The second objective of the game, should the first not be achievable, is to prevent anyone else from capturing 18 supply centers.
So the first thing a strong player needs to know is: What are the possible “winning sets” of supply centers (SCs) for each player? Militarily, the player first needs to know what his own potential winning sets are; secondly he needs to know what the winning sets are for his opponents, in order to prevent an opponent from winning. Diplomatically, winning sets are important in understanding what is valuable in negotiations, for oneself and for one’s opponents.
In general, a winning set requires a player to conquer in entirety two of his neighbors and to establish control over one of two clusters of neutral centers – either the Balkans or the North Sea cluster. In any particular situation, any 18 centers will do, even if they don’t conform to this pattern. By the de facto nature of geography and diplomacy, however, winning sets usually take the form described above – England, for example, is extremely unlikely to capture Constantinople or Serbia, and shouldn’t be making plans with those centers in mind, barring the most extraordinary circumstances.
On a country-by-country basis, therefore, these are the potential winning sets one should be eyeing at the outset of the game:
Because England is stuck in a corner of the map, its winning sets all contain most of the same centers.
Edi, Lvp, and Lon are a must in any winning combination(+3 SC, 3);
Bel, Hol, Nwy, Swe, Den form what I call the “North Sea cluster” of neutrals, and given that England cannot effectively assault Balkan centers, these are required (+5 SC, 8);
Bre, Par, Mar, Spa, Por – the French domain – I don’t see how England can find five centers elsewhere to replace them (+5 SC, 13);
Stp, which cannot be held against England in the absence of an opposing fleet (+1 SC, 14);
and usually Kie and Ber, which are natural extensions for an England that already has control of the northern seas (+2 SC, 16).
Therefore England needs all those centers plus two more, the most likely of which are Mos and Tun, but which could also include Rome, Naples, Warsaw, or Munich. There are some ways to vary this winning set, if an opportunity is gained to hold centers outside this set, but at the outset of the game these are the centers that England should have his eye on.
In unusual circumstances England can manage to get a lot of armies into Russia, or a lot of fleets into the Med, which can open up unusual winning combinations. While these won’t be considered in depth here, one only hurts oneself if such opportunities are formulaically dismissed.
Moving to the opposite corner of the map, we have Turkey. Again, because of its corner position, Turkey, like England, has fewer options than other players in creating its winning set.
The classic winning set for all of the eastern powers, Turkey, Austria, Italy, and Russia, I’ll call the “Eastern win” set. This is all of Turkey, Austria, and Italy; all of Russia except St. Petersburg; the four Balkan centers, and Tunis, plus one of Stp, Ber, Mun, Spa, or Mar.
The most achievable variation on this winning set is to forget about War and Mos, conceding them to a northern power, and to take two of Spa, Por, Mar instead. In order to do this, Turkey cannot face a determined sea power to the west of Italy, or he will not be able to crack the Gibraltar strait and therefore capture Spa and Por. The next best variation, if France is strong, is to try and push armies into Scandanavia for Nwy and Sweden (as compensation for French control of Tunis, for example). This is very hard to do and can only arise from chance opportunity, not planning.
As a Turk ruler starting the game then, the Eastern win set is the goal, with the option of pushing the Med early if he prefers his chances there.
Austria’s situation with regards to winning sets is very similar to Turkey’s. It is on the same side of the major NE/SW stalemate line and thus a northern or western power or combination thereof can keep Austria within roughly the same constraints.
As Austria starting the game, I generally look to the Eastern winning set as a starting objective.
With Austria, the possibilites of variations change, however. Austria can more realistically look at acquiring Mun, Ber, Kie, and may even have chances at Par, Bel, Hol for a winning set, but because of its port situation Mediterranean options are less attractive or achievable. So Spa, Por, Mar drop from the possible list of 18th centers in favor of Mun, Ber, Kie.
Because Austria is a central power, it builds units in the center of the map, and therefore has the opportunity for explosive growth in the center of the board. Therefore it can also consider winning sets without Turk centers, or without Italian ones, if it can successfully breach the stalemate line without opposition. An all-out war for control of northern waters by F/E/G is the ideal circumstance that can give this unconventional win opportunity to Austria.
A brief intermission about stalemate lines is appropriate here.
A stalemate line is a line of units that cannot be breached by any combination of attacking units, that also protects behind it sufficient SCs to form the units that anchor the line. It is a self-sustaining front of units against which there is no military hope of victory. Two (or more players) can oppose each other on a stalemate line, and if both players have stalemate lines formed, neither player can budge in his position without an error by the opponent.
A major stalemate line is the best defense against a win by an opponent. If you can create an alliance to hold the 17 centers on your side of the line, no opponent can win. All major stalemate lines run through Switzerland.
Stalemate lines run through the Diplomacy board, from edge to center, in every direction except northwest to southeast. (This leads to a general military caveat that if you have the advantage, try to attack across the northwest to southeast axis; if you are at a disadvantage, try to direct the battle along a stalemateable axis.)
The major stalemate line of the greatest importance is the northeast-to-southwest axis that runs St.P, Lvn, Pru, Sil, Boh, Tyr, Pie, GoL, Wes, NAf, with Stp, Mun, and Ber on the Western side of the line. The standard winning sets for every power are all the SCs on one’s own side of that line, plus one on the other side. This leads to the “Western set” and the “Eastern set”, each of which claim the winning 18th center from the opposite set.
That said, the remaining four countries, because of their locations on the map, have greater opportunities for winning sets that run across this major stalemate line.
Italy’s winning sets are relatively flexible compared to the three nations addressed above. First, Italy can go for an Eastern set just as credibly as can Turkey or Austria. Secondly, Italy has the opportunity to try for either a southern or southwestern winning set.
Essential to any Italian win set are Ven, Rom, Nap, and Tun (+4 SC). From there, there are no other essential centers for Italy!
Option 1 is the Eastern winning set described above.
Option 2 for Italy is to attempt to add French centers instead of Russian ones. Italy adds Mar, Spa, Por instead of Mos, War, Stp. Along those lines, for every center that Italy can capture in the West, that’s one less center of the Eastern set it needs. Italy can often capture Bre if it can get control of MAO; if opportunities are right, it can also try for Par or English centers, Lvp especially. In order for Italy to go west, however, it needs a strong Germany and/or Russia as an ally, to draw French and English fleets away from the Med. Happily, Italy makes a pretty good ally for Germany and this is often possible.
As Italy I will always aim to take the Turkish centers, with or without Bulgaria, for their defensive value alone. An Italian fleet in BLA can herald an Italian win, or at least guarantee Italy a share in a draw.
Despite appearances, France is a corner power just like England and Turkey. It too has access to the Western win set, and can also forgo Scandanavia in exchange for Italy. A southern win set is also possible, though not as achievable as for Italy.
France is somewhat flexible in the military sense with regards to which centers can give it a win. On a practical basis, however, England and Germany aren’t going to just sit still for a southern French win, and therefore the Western win set should be foremost in the mind of the French player, with the option of going for either Scandanavia or Italy for the final few centers.
Should France become dominant in the Mediterranean, captures of Ven, Tri, Gre, and even Smy become possible for small variations in the win set.
Germany is a solidly Western power, despite the appearance of being centrally placed – all of its home centers and natural neutrals are on the Western side of the major stalemate line. Thus it should look primarily to the Western win set, that is, conquering both England and France and the surrounding territories.
However, Germany also enjoys the major advantage of being able to build armies in the center of the map. Thus, Germany can create a northern win set, which sacrifices Spa and Por for War and Mos. In addition, Germany can often be the first across the center of the stalemate lines and capture Vie, Tri, Bud, Sev, and/or Ven. Serbia and Rumania are also distinct, if remote, possibilities.
Germany, therefore, is quite flexible in its winning set; for the opening it should concentrate on the centers that are part of all the German win sets (Den Hol Bel Swe Nwy) and make the final decision as to which winning set is most achievable somewhere in the midgame.
It’s no coincidence that Russia wins more often than the average – Russia has distinctly more flexibility in winning sets than any other country, even Germany and Italy. Russia is the only country that can credibly win without holding all of its own home centers.
The primary reason for this is that Russia is the only country that straddles the major stalemate line. The secondary reason for this is that Russia is only one of two countries (the other is France) that can build fleets in both the northern seas and in the Med.
Russia can (and often will) lose Stp to England; yet it can still achieve the classic Eastern win, despite not being able to reclaim its own northern port. In addition, it can lose Sev to Turkey, Austria, or Italy, yet be able to achieve a northern win set similar to Germany. Russia can even create win sets that include Portugal, from either north or south! Thus every center on the board is potentially in a Russian winning set.
What Russia must do is decide which win set it thinks it can achieve. On this matter, Russia is the most subject to the effects of diplomacy; how the other nations align can have radical effects as to which centers are within its winning set.
The flip side to those advantages is that, from Spring 1901, Russia is a direct threat to every other player on the board (even France and Italy, who are relatively less threatened by Russia than the others).
To achieve any of these winning sets, Russia must be decisive and act to dominate one of those spheres of influence. Because it is on both sides of the stalemate line, it will inevitably be the target of the strongest player on the map. As Russia, it is better to be the strongest player, or at worst be in position to fight the strongest player, than to be caught with its pants down as an opponent floods into Russian territory.
Thus is the military reality that each player faces at the beginning of a new game. There is an endless list of possible exceptions to this general outlook that may arise during the game. However, until they do arise, they cannot be anticipated or factored in, and the above is the fundamental basis from which all variations derive. (For example, if a player makes a tactical mistake, it can create situations that can break the standard mold – this and more in the next article.) If you are facing a situation in a game that does not appear to align in the traditional way, calculate the winning sets of each player in the game to gain a clear understanding of what is happening on your map.