Son of Scatter Theory

by Nicky Palmer

There used to be a pleasant if erratic zine called Hannibal which had the most generous remuneration for contributors in the hobby – no less than 7 free issues! I was allied to one of its numerous editors, Andrew herd, in a Dolchstoß game, and at some stage he wrote to me “Dear Nicky, You’ve stabbed me, you rat. May I have a contribution to Hannibal?”, or words to that effect. This started a process in which I contributed every seven issues. 

The second time this happened I couldn’t think of a damned thing to write about, yet I had to find something… or pay for an issue. Inspiration came with a Christmas present: Nimzowitsch’s My System. I’ve never read it, but the blurb is jolly good: “Nimzowitsch’s system was ridiculed by the chess world when it first appeared, but is now acknowledged to be the basis for the hypermodern theory of play which is part of every leading player’s armoury; the concept was a stroke of genius which revolutionized chess…” 

Ha! When Diplomacy became better known than chess they’d say that about me. It only remained to find some playable theory that flew in the face of accepted wisdom. Thus was born the “Scatter Theory”

The accepted wisdom I tried to dynamite was that attacks should be made in strength: “Strike to kill, not to wound.” Thus Germany, on this “big Bang” approach still used by most players, should, say, conclude solid treaties with Russia and England, and hurl everything against France. After France would come, say, Russia. And so on. The odd defensive unit is allowed, but never fight in more than one place at once. 

Under Scatter Theory you do the exact opposite. Germany (again) sends one unit into, say, the Low Countries, one to Scandinavia, perhaps one to Galicia. You then tell your neighbours, “I have a unit in your area. One unit can’t hurt you, but it can tip the scales in a close battle. Would you like it to help you, and if so, what do you bid?” 

Everyone laughs like mad, but accepts the help of the useful single unit rather than the dangerously powerful assistance of someone else’s entire forces. Gradually you begin to grow larger than the rest, but nobody minds – you are the weakest force in each area. You have Third World popularity and Superpower prosperity. And you can steer the game your way in every part of the board. Is Turkey too strong? Offer your Balkan unit to Austria. Worried by English success in Iberia? Offer your A(Gas) to France. At the right moment, you then make a dash for victory. 

“They laughed as I sat down to play…” that bit succeeded magnificently. Even Andrew Herd added an editorial note that surely I only intended to use the idea in special situations (“Certainly not – it always works,” I replied in true Nimzowitsch style, adding an indignant “hrrumph” for good measure). “But gradually a look of astonishment came over their faces…” and for a while it looked as though it might. I tried it out in two games – BDC 77C and BDC 41I. In the first it arguably kept me alive despite massive attacks (dead now, though); in 41I it went magnificently for a while, with Italian armies all over the place orchestrating a Europe-wide campaign against Richard Sharp’s dangerously strong Germany. Pete Birks reported that Duncan Morris had won a game with the theory, and he thought it would be increasingly important in the future. (He didn’t take the £25 I offered him – just asked me to the next poker game.) 

However, it grieves me to reveal that the theory doesn’t work. It’s not that your powerful neighbours clobber the weak force on their borders – the impulse to attack the strong is the controlling instinct all right. But, being all over the board, you are in every argument, and make twice as many enemies as everyone else. After a while there is a general feeling that they are fed up with your mercenary troops floating about the place, and once you get a lead and there is a concerted drive to stop you, you can do nothing, because your assets are scattered thinly in indefensible areas. 

Of course, you can diminish the risk by reliability: if your Balkan unit has been backing Austria throughout, why should he attack you? But this means abandoning the use of the scatterlings to check burgeoning rivals: if Austria outpaces you, you want to change sides to one of his opponents. 

But I’m not giving up my claim to eternal glory so easily – the thing nearly works! My present belief is that one should incorporate two restrictions: (1) try to co-ordinate your gains to get three builds in one year, then try to get an unbreakable grip in one area; (2) resist the temptation to keep switching to preserve the balance in each sector; instead choose someone marginally weaker than his opponents, and stick with him – the marginal progress you help him make shouldn’t build him up into a threat if all your other fronts are working… and if they aren’t, perhaps he’ll offer you second! 

Reprinted from Dolchstoß No.50 – February 1977