The Scatter Technique

by Nicky Palmer

In an article a few Hannibals back, I argued that Diplomacy zines were too much weighted in favour of opening articles, and that no attempt had been made to analyse the middle game. Since then, opening articles have vanished from most zines, presumably because most people agreed that little more could be said on the subject, but nothing much else has turned up. Accordingly I offer this as a middle-game article. 

A standard theory has evolved by the mouth-to-ear method (I never know why people talk about news being passed from mouth-to-mouth – how can it?) passed on by experienced players to newcomers and thus perpetuated. This states that the thing to do is to bunch all your units on one front, leaving a minimum to enforce your non-aggression pacts on other fronts; you should then try and wipe out your neighbour on the attacking front before turning to do the same to the next country – possibly you should stab the next victim slightly before eliminating your first victim. “Always strike to kill, never to wound” is the motto. There is a lot in this theory and it should always be followed by beginners and people without a lot of time for negotiation. 

There are, however, certain drawbacks. While you are murdering X (always assuming that you are winning that battle), Y on the other border will be tossing up between stabbing you and obtaining even greater advantage by stabbing someone else. If he attacks someone else, he will probably do as well as you do against X; certainly, when you emerge from the X battle, there will (assuming competent opposition) be another player who is, in size, more or less a match for you. You may then be able to jockey your way to victory, or you may be willing or compelled to accept a draw. This will depend not just on your diplomatic ability, but to quite a large extent upon luck; thus if you are Germany and have stabbed France, you don’t really have much influence upon what happens in the Balkans, or what the alliance structure there is. 

The alternative approach is what one might call the “scatter technique”; I have been trying it out in a few games with quite promising results, and it is worth considering from time to time, if only for a change. In this approach you give up the attempt to achieve massive superiority in one area, in exchange for a flexible strategy aimed at gaining smaller amounts of ground in various areas, and above all steering the whole game in the direction that you want it. 

The most publicised example is the rather embarrassing (for me) NGC Committee game, run in Dolchstoß, where I have Germany to Sharp’s Russia, Scott’s England, Bullock’s Austria and Pimley’s France. In this, I moved A(Mun)-Sil to parry a fancied (but non-existent) Russian stab. having got that far, I ;then moved to Galicia. Galicia is perhaps the most important province on the board, as it borders four supply centres and is crucial to the Austro-Russian conflict in any game. In the North, England was pressing me hard, and I badly needed Russia as a counterweight. My idea was that the A(Gal) would be sufficient to win Sharp round; if I helped him in the south his Austrian front was secure, but if I helped Austria then he was in trouble. In the event, the result was not very satisfactory as England chose to launch a death-or-glory attack against me with all his units, and Russia’s stance continued to be equivocal at best; last turn, however, Russia threw his weight on my side in return for my taking Rum (with his support) from Austria. In the meantime, though, I’ve lost Hol and Kie and the unit could probably have been better used at home. 

But if the method was a marginal failure in this game, it has been a success in the NGC International game, against pretty stiff opposition with the otherwise unsatisfactory country, Italy. Italy is ideally suited to this method because of its central position. By committing a couple of units to the west, a couple to the east, and the remainder, mostly fleets, as a mobile reserve, Italy has gained a sort of casting vote in every conflict area on the board. Thus an Italian army in Bur, having passed through Mar in a spring turn, and is in between four French and four German units. Another army is in Rum, between two Austrian, two Turkish and two Russian units. The action of these units, and others, is decisive for the outcome of each turn, but by themselves they do not threaten anyone. Italy is therefore in an ideal negotiating position, courted by every other country and offered supply centres on every front in return for help. 

Progress is not spectacular, but gradually Italy has become one of the big three countries (with Germany and Russia), while maintaining the capacity to prevent the fast growth of the other big powers, by generally siding with the small ones, unless very substantial inducements are offered. This is what I mean by “steering” the game; the scattered units are able to decide the outcome of each battle, and to encourage attacks in the “right” places (the most vulnerable parts of the main rivals). I don’t know if I’ll win that game, but I think the results so far, by 1905, have justified my strategy; my units are now beginning to group again as I gradually acquire the numbers to cover each front with several units, and I am reasonably optimistic about the position. (But God help me if the other players read Hannibal!) 

These two examples give an idea of the possibilities and the dangers of the approach. It should NEVER be used unless one is willing to negotiate intensely with every other player if necessary; nor should one make medium sized stabs (e.g. taking two centres) under any circumstances – either stab to kill, or make it known that your units are acting more or less as mercenaries, as above. If the other players are not the kind to forgive you having aided the enemy last turn, then forget the whole idea. Most players, however, will try and persuade a single unit (or two) on their borders to side with them, even if it was hostile last turn, rather than bear a grudge against self-interest. 

It may be that a combination of the two methods is best. Anyway, give it a try and write to Hannibal with your experiences… 

Reprinted from Hannibal No. 18 – December 1974

Check out the follow-up article – Son of Scatter Theory