Playing Italy, Part I

by Jake Orion


I receive a lot of specific questions regarding how to play particular countries. In response, I thought it would be helpful if I just went into more specific details for each country in my next series of articles. Italy is my third country in the seven-part series. If you have not read the three-part series on opening strategy, I’d suggest that you read it before getting into the details of this article. Remember, strictly military issues like many of the ones mentioned below often tell little about the wonderful game of Diplomacy. Determining a player’s true intent, making alliances with reliable neighbors, and working the balance between establishing security and leveraging expansion are really of paramount importance. Please never forget this.

This article hits the very basics early, but later goes on to detail more specific recommendations, so please bear with it if you are a more experienced player.

A brief remark: This two-part article is longer and far more detailed than my previous articles on Turkey and Germany. Those who have been kind enough to write have repeatedly requested more information and more details. This article means to supply those.

Geography and Opening Position

Italy protrudes majestically from south-central Europe into the tepid waters of Mediterranean Sea. Simple observation reveals sundry topological features which differentiate this pious dominion from its brethren nations. For one, Italy shares with Austria the only two adjoining home supply centers on the playing field, namely Venice and Trieste. This geographic singularity proves to be one of the most fascinating caveats in the game. Without question, it is the most prominent case of a unit remaining on a home supply center and yet simultaneously proving to be an immediate threat to a neighbor’s lair. As a consequence of the Venice-Trieste proximity, Austria and Italy reciprocally have to address the possibility of an instantaneous breach of their homelands’ sovereignty. The abutment, almost by act of subtle genius, excites the ultimate debate between assuring security and leveraging expansion. However, from a less dogmatic perspective, the implications of the geography pragmatically translate to Italy’s needing to designate at least one army to remain on its home turf (for security purposes). This is a logical solution since Italy has two armies at the game’s onset and usually does not have a pressing desire to convoy both those land units to distant territories. However, before we move on, it would be well to observe that Diplomacy players do not like to have their units meandering aimlessly. By nature, a Dip player’s field-marshal hormones (well-documented in all sound medical literature) subliminally propel their despot’s brain into ordering the active utilization of all of his county’s military resources. As a result, many Italian totalitarians break down at some time and end up ordering a homeland army to embrace a more engaging military posture. This is an important reality whose implications will be addressed in detail later. What I wish to get across here is that the Italian temptation actively to use Italian armies in the first two years often seduces Italy into launching capricious land campaigns into Austria, Germany (Munich), and/or France. Often, these myopic-minded campaigns turn out to be fruitless and disastrous. Without a doubt, this is the most common error that fledgling Italian rulers make.

Another interesting geographic feature about the Italian realm is its gratuitous supply center, Tunis. Tunis is the only neutral supply center not situated adjacent to another supply center. This trait often is perceived as a benefit, but I contend that it usually proves to be nothing but an impedance. I say this because, after Italy liberates its Tunisian neighbor in the fall of 1901, it then has to extend its forces across at least one sea in order to threaten another supply center. Therefore, Italy has the logistical burden not only of going to Tunis, but also of redistributing the Tunisian unit after the city has been conquered. This encumbers Italian opportunities for obtaining a build in year two. Quite simply put, it takes extra time for Italy to get into position to even try to acquire a fifth supply center (attacking Austria excluded). This means that Italy rarely grows quickly — a reality that is critical to understanding how the Italian nation must posture itself in its negotiations.

As for land territories, Italy has two that border foreign real estate: Venice and Piedmont. Piedmont borders Marseilles and Tyrolia (in the highest respect to the venerable Swiss, I shall forgo mentioning their nation when elaborating on Diplomacy’s horrid spectacle of conflict). If Italy is planning on heading west, Piedmont acts as a causeway. Similarly to the Tunis situation, the Piedmont buffer slows Italy’s chances for expeditious growth and makes the Italian aim all the more foreseeable.

Then there is Italy’s infamous northeastern front. Here one can easily discern a rich density of succulent Austrian supply centers. Nicer still, those supply centers are readily accessible by land and Italy starts with two armies. How convenient. Just trick the Austrian Kaiser to head east and the bounty which is Austrian-Hungarian will be overrun, thus allowing Italy to propel itself to the Roman glory days, right? Maybe, but improbable. We’ll talk more about this later.

To summarize, when starting off as Italy, always consider three basic things:

  1. Expansion in the first two years is very likely to be slow. This attribute suggests that Italy is better suited to just observing the board at first, and then later developing a campaign with a foreign power(s).
  2. The Ionian Sea (Italy’s soft spot), needs to be protected at all times. Due to the presence of the Austrian fleet in the eastern Med region (not to mention the likelihood of a Turkish fleet in the eastern Med), Italy is usually forced to commit one fleet to occupying the Ionian Sea. Also, Italy has to make a serious effort to minimize the number of foreign fleets in the Mediterranean. Otherwise, it cannot defend itself.
  3. Italy is not weak offensively if it can dedicate its full firepower toward a military campaign. However, in practicality, the Italian nation nearly always ends up having a weak offensive. This is because Italy usually has to dedicate one unit to guarding the homeland and one unit to defending the Ionian Sea. Now, it does not take Napoleon to figure out that Italy can occupy the Ionian and guard the homeland while simultaneously attacking one nation — Austria. However, as we shall see, attacking Austria is by no means always the best option. The art of playing Italy is knowing when doing such a thing makes good sense and when it proves to be disastrous. Remember, this is Diplomacy. One not need optimize his military position to assure optimizing his military success.

Strategy Basics, Part I

Italy largely concerns itself with three nations: Turkey; France; and Austria. Let’s evaluate each of these three countries and their implications from Italy’s perspective.

France, which usually lies to Italy’s west (joke), has considerable access to the Mediterranean waters via the Mid-Atlantic Ocean and Marseilles. It is one nation which arguably can destroy Italy as long as it can free up its military units from northern affairs. A French invasion of Italy is done by building two fleets after 1901 (after France conquers Spain and Portugal) and then launching the French naval armada into the Med. Three fleets is more than ample firepower to push back Italy’s two-fleet navy and capture Tunis and/or Rome or Naples. Although one does not see a French invasion of Italy very often, such an attack is quite feasible, especially since France often gets Belgium. This makes it relatively easy for the French to conduct a mission in the Med while comfortably defending its northern lands. Worse still, France starts off by sliding units south, into the Iberian. France can easily launch an attack into the Med from the Iberian on year two. Sounds wicked indeed for Italy doesn’t it? Actually, it is. If France sends even two fleets into the Med in 1902, Italy’s hopes of surviving are slim to none. This is because such an act of aggression makes it very likely that the wolves to Italy’s east will smell blood and encroach on the Ionian Sea. From there, foreign occupation of the Italian homeland cannot be stopped. So what have we learned here? What we learn here is that France is a great threat whose forces have to be diverted away from the Med. How do we do that? The goods new is, Italy usually does not have to do anything. France is often better served by deploying its units in the northern region of its country. I will quickly highlight three reasons why this is so:

  1. France knows that attacking the Italians means that it can very possibly find itself in a two-front war.
  2. France rarely can launch a three-fleet attack into the Med without greatly aggravating England (who is unlikely to take kindly to France’s building two fleets).
  3. If France attacks Italy, especially in 1902, it is a slow victory which usually ends up resulting in the Turks’ or the Austrians’ getting the lion’s share of Italy’s loot.

Here a few suggestions to deter possible French aggression:

  1. Point out the aforementioned reasons why France should not attack Italy. They are excellent reasons.
  2. Keep positive and close ties with France to mollify any French impetus to attack. This may sounds simple, but rest assured, it is effective (I hate to point this out but my feedback questions convince me that it is necessary).
  3. Hold off from attacking any foreign power (namely Austria) in the first year. This way, when France scans the map looking for easy prey, it will see that Italy is not engaged in hostilities (hence it has its complete military ready to defend its homeland). This is a great deterrent to attacking any nation. Plus, it ties in nicely with the understanding that Italy cannot grow quickly. Note: these two things correlate because Italy can use a slow growth or “wait and see” strategy, not only to give it time to distribute its forces, but also to deter foreign powers from seeing Italy as potential prey (this is an especially valuable posture for Italy to have in 1902 and 1903).

Okay, now let’s take a look east-southeast. Here we see nestled in the corner of the Continent the Turkish nation. Although Turkey does not begin the Diplomacy journey with a fleet in the Med, it certainly has the capability of threatening the Italian people. In fact, Turkey is the most likely nation to cause the downfall of Italy. Wait a second, one might object, Turkey usually gets only one build at the end of 1901 and therefore Turkey can place at most only two fleets in the Med. Why is a two-fleet attack so detrimental to Italy? Well, it is correct to say that a two-fleet attack on Italy does not directly spell Italian doom (unlike a three-fleet French attack), but it does mean that Italy has no real chance of growing. With two fleets present in the Med by 1902, Turkey has certainly made peace with Russia and is certainly looking to make grounds west. That means that Turkey is either attacking Austria or Italy, or both. Yes, it is possible that Turkey could keep its fleets idle in the Aegean and the Eastern Med, but by virtue of the field-marshal hormone theory, Turkey will eventually utilize those fleets to try to overrun the Ionian. Lies, dishonesty, and basic stabbing are often worth the Sultan’s effort for a chance to seize the Ionian. That sea just gives Turkey too much military leverage and growth potential for the Sultan to ignore it. What’s important here for Italy to realize is that a simple demilitarized zone in the Ionian will probably not suffice. Italy has actively to encourage Turkey to stay clear of its precious Ionian soft spot.

Italian sensitivity to Turkish Med fleets is so high that, often, Italy effectively declares war on the Sultan once it sees the Ankara fleet heading into the Med. If this occurs, the two nations usually knock fleets in the Med and make no progress whatsoever (unless Austria or Russia actively intervenes against one of the nations). I have always argued that a war in the Med between Turkey and Italy is fruitless early in the game. I cite two general reasons for avoiding an I-T conflict:

  1. When I-T fight, it is very possible the southeast quadrant of the game map becomes a two-on-two battle (e.g. R-T vs. I-A). Such a battle is unlikely to yield a victor quickly. Therefore, another power on the board is likely to have an easier time of it and become the champion power of the Continent.
  2. Even if R-A-I together team up against Turkey, Italy usually gets only one supply center at best; usually either Smyrna or Greece. Neither of those supply centers is easy to defend.

It simply makes better sense to let R-A attack Turkey alone and seek better gains to the west, knowing that Turkey is too preoccupied with hostile neighbors to trouble Italy. In fact, the Turkish matter is so important to Italy that we might make a few general points regarding Turkey before we move on:

  1. If Turkey establishes an R-T early on, this is very bad news for Italy. Italy must either help gobble Austria and then hope that it can convince Russia to try to swallow Turkey next (not very common), or it must support Austria and actively seek a means to have either Turkey or Russia change its alliance. In short, Italy cannot live with an R-T alliance; eventually, that alliance will consume the great Italian lands; so the Italian ruler must make plans to prevent that alliance or to break it up or destroy it.
  2. If Turkey sides with the Austrians, Italy could be in trouble, but is not necessarily in trouble. As long as Turkey builds armies and not fleets, Italy is probably safe. Turkey’s armies will likely roll through Russia and eventually look to attack Austria in the shake-out phase (as opposed to attacking Italy). If, however, Turkey has a fleet or two in the Med and has Austria’s assistance, then you can be assured that Italy will lose the Ionian Sea and be in terrible trouble.
  3. R-A allying against Turkey is sheer bliss for Italy even though Italy rarely gets a large booty in the conquest if it joins in. Again, I-T conflict early on is usually fruitless.

In summary, Turkish growth is a great threat to Italy, but that is not to say that the two cannot coexist. Italy is quite safe as long as the Sultan does not litter the Med with fleets. This a simple concept that, in reality, proves to be a very challenging thing to accomplish. Because of this, it is not often that T-I share a victory. In most cases, the successes of these two nations are inversely proportional. This is especially true if you consider both the opening game and the shake-out phase. If Turkey and Italy survive after the first few countries have been razed (probably Austria and/or Russia in this case), Italy now stands in the middle of the board with a strong Turkey to its east. That usually spells bad news for Italy. One quick comment about the shake-out phase; I-T-E and I-T-G are the only two realistic possibilities for Italy sharing a victory with Turkey. I-T-F and I-T-R are nearly unheard of. It is good to think about this when assessing your strategy before the shake-out phase.