Stages – Thoughts on the MidGame and EndGame

by David Hood

It has become customary in the Diplomacy hobby to speak of strategy in terms of an “Opening”, “Midgame” and an “EndGame”. Admittedly, these arbitrary divisions originated in the world of Chess, and their application to Calhamer’s classic may be somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, due to the nature of the board and the play of the game, these are some generalisations and conclusions that one can observe in each of these “stages” of play that are useful in formulating strategy.

Let’s consider exactly what we mean by “MidGame”. While commonly used by many authors, it is not so easy to pinpoint exactly what they mean by the term. The concept is fairly important, however. If the reader has played only a few games of Diplomacy thus far, each one is very distinct and generalisations on strategy are hard to come by. But, after a couple of dozen games, you will note that they do go through distinct phases, each of which has its own demands if you want to survive to the next. So, first, it is useful to have a look at a few of the ideas for defining beginning of the “MidGame.”

1. “When the two main alliances begin a race with each other to destroy their respective enemy.” This was first proposed by Gary Bruce in “Claw & Fang” (#69). To be fair, Mr. Bruce didn’t present this as a definition, but simply as the thing that often kicks off the MidGame. Unfortunately, many games never go through such a stage, for only one dominant power or alliance rises out of the opening few turns. Gary’s “definition” simply isn’t universal.

2. When the “barren” zone (Piedmont/Tyrolia/Bohemia/Silesia/ Prussia/Livonia) is first crossed in force. This is no doubt the oldest definition, and the one I’ve read bandied about most frequently. On the other hand, such an even can occur very early in a game, perhaps as early as the Spring 1901 and often by the Spring of 1902. On the other hand, if the east and west spheres are each dominated by a single power around the same time, this may never occur, or may occur only a season or two before the win is declared. Final analysis of this definition shows it to be unduly dependent upon the German alliance structure.

3. “The Spring after the first of the seven powers is reduced to two or fewer Supply Centres.” This definition does have the advantage of being very specific, and it has been used in various articles to analyse performance in sample games. Again, however, this can occur very early-even as soon as Spring 1902. Thus, it

can come before strategies are fully developed, and might reflect only an isolated event such as an early NMR or very successful blitz by a triple alliance.

4. “When the opening alliances start to obstruct the progress of those successful in the opening game.” This is Randolph Smyth’s definition, a fairly flexible one that takes in the entire board. It emphasises the changes in strategic thinking that must accompany the new phase for the leading players. On the other hand, it’s a little hard to say exactly when this is occurring. Moreover, as with the first two above, it may never occur in a game. If one alliance has been unduly successful in the opening moves, it may simply continue to roll to victory unchecked for the rest of the game. Many triple alliances, such as the England/Germany/Turkey or France/Italy/Russia pacts, can go all the way to a three-way draw without obstruction or the players involved ever changing their emphasis.

If none of these satisfy you, let me propose two more:

5. The MidGame is the period between the Opening and the EndGame. No, no; I’m serious! Those two phases of the game are relatively easy to define. The Opening is when alliances are weak and fluid, when all the players are exploring their options and jockeying for position, and the board is sorting itself out into stronger and weaker powers. The EndGame can be said to be when the focus of the surviving players is directed to determining the outcome of the game, when the final decisions are made that will bring the game to a close in a draw or a victory. Thus, the MidGame is what falls between these two stages. Unfortunately, like the fourth definition, this one is somewhat vague, subject to varied interpretation, and probably only recognised in a specific game by hindsight.

6. This one is fairly complicated, but it is my favourite: A player is in the MidGame when his first victim has been crushed, and he has engaged his second victim; the game is in its MidGame stage when either two players, not allied, are both at their MidGame or one player is engaged with his third victim. For example, if England and Germany have pushed France down to Spain and their attack on Russia is in full swing, while Italy/Russia/Turkey have stomped Austria out of existence and now Russia and Turkey have turned on Italy, we are at the MidGame. Or suppose Austria and Russia have together knocked out Turkey, and Austria has just also stabbed Italy; when Austria and Russia attack Germany. we’re at the MidGame stage, even if Italy has not yet been dispatched. The second or third victim does not have to be destroyed to define the MidGame, just that there is a serious war pursued by the attacker. And this must be an attack sparked by the primary power; thus, in the second example, if Germany attacked Austria. I’d say we were still in the Opening Game, as Austria may be stymied at this point from making progress against Italy. This definition, then, attempts to look at whether the players have gone beyond the reasonable goals of the opening turns.

No matter how you define it, however, the MidGame is the time for each player to re-evaluate the strategy that has served him so well (or poorly) in the Opening stage. It is the period when relations with the non-neighbouring powers become increasingly important. Alliances tend to be more stable, because the victims (often other alliances) are larger and the players can afford to devote a unit or two as protection against stabs by their erstwhile allies. Yet often the MidGame will see a stab in one or more of the initial alliances, and possibly the formation of new alliances between powers on different sides of the board. It is, in sum, the time when you lay the foundation for the drama of your EndGame.

Such a distinction between the stages of the game is important, since it stresses the conclusion that the focus of the MidGame is on strategy, not negotiations nor tactics. Until this point in the play, the primary basis for your diplomatic interchanges has mostly had to do with the question of specific moves to make to take centres from another power. But now, during the MidGame, your negotiations will centre upon broader notions of alliance structures and/or stabs. Tactical considerations still play a role in the discussions, but usually strategic concerns are foremost.

A reasonable question at this point might be why the focus of negotiation changes at all. Why don’t the successful alliances just keep right on going after the fall of the first target? The answer is, of course, that some do. But then again, many do not. One partner stabs the other, usually just before the latter has had a chance to regroup from the initial campaign against the common enemy/target. As much as this may appear to be haphazard to the onlooker, there is really a recognisable reason for this MidGame bloodshed. Simply put, it is far easier from a tactical perspective to conquer one’s own “Heartland” (namely the east or west half of the board) than it is to break into the opposing Heartland in a major way. Due to the insulation provided by the Tyrolia/Bohemia/ Galicia and West Med/North Africa/Gulf of Lyon strips, the two Heartlands are very distinct. It is usually far easier to pick up, and hold, new centres in one’s own than in the other one. And the easiest way to accomplish this is by stabbing the initial partner on one’ side of the board, sometimes with a non-aggression or active alliance with a member of the other successful pact in the other Heartland.

It is imperative, at this point, to stress that this observation is a general one. Individual situations will vary. In fact, one can only apply this principle strictly and completely to Germany, France and Austria. The other four countries must be, to some extent, considered individually.

The MidGame situation is often quite different for the Tsar, mainly due to Russia’s unique geographical location relative to the other powers. Instead of being clearly associated with one Heartland or the other, Russia is in the unfortunate position of straddling the map’s primary stalemate line, and thus the boundaries between East and West. It is this central placement that leads to the high number of eliminations for Russia, as foreign units swarm over its territory in a mad rush to reach the other side of the stalemate line. Why is this important to remember for Russia’s MidGame strategy? For the same reason it is a target – its proximity to each heartland – a Russia that has survived to the MidGame is likely to have a foothold on both sides of the stalemate line. One of the main purposes of diplomacy at this stage of the game is to secure a firm alliance or position with which to speed over the line for a strong finish during the EndGame. Russia, in the MidGame, has already achieved this objective, so the result is a quick entry into her EndGame. A bunch of purple units spanning the stalemate line is usually on their way to forcing a quick victory, or at least a two-way draw.

While Russia’s ideal MidGame situation is just a quick transition to the EndGame, the Italian player often benefits from a longer MidGame development. This fact is, likewise, attributable to its geographic location on the Diplomacy map of Europe. Like Russia, Italy sits astride one portion of the primary stalemate line (in the Mediterranean); but whereas Russia is actually a part of each Heartland, Italy lies in neither. The reasons for this quirk should be obvious. Domination of the West must include either invading Russia (at St. Petersburg) or being allied with it. But domination of the Western heartland can certainly be done without ever having any contact with Italy whatsoever. Again, in the East, it is quite possible to control the Balkan “knot” of centres while at the same time having no contact with the Italian “boot”. Therefore, since the pre-MidGame sees interest in the rapid subjugation of one of these areas by every other power, Italy is often in little danger during that time-frame and left free to pursue her own interests.

That, alas, is not at all true when the next stage comes. Italy sits astride the sea lanes linking the East and West Mediterranean, so a concerted push into the other Heartland by a naval power must necessarily be at the expense of the green fleets. As she tends to be a primary target during this period of the game, good play of Italy is dependent upon skilful diplomacy during the dangerous MidGame. Sometimes this can take the form of a non-aggression or protective pacts within one Heartland while at war in the other; sometimes it involves actively intervening in or defending against aggression from both directions at the same time. Due to this tendency to be spread thin during this stage. Italy is much more dependent on the other players and their forces in the MidGame than is Russia, which can occasionally strong-arm its way to a victory on its own.

At the corners, England and Turkey again constitute variations on the general theme of the MidGame due to their unique position on the map. The very insularity that is their strength in the Opening becomes a pitfall now. Being so dreadfully far from the stalemate line makes a win by one of the corner powers less likely, since they usually have too far to fight for that 18th centre. Unlike the other powers, however, just surviving into the MidGame virtually guarantees at least a strong survival for England or Turkey, and often a share of any draw. The key for these two powers in the swirl of MidGame diplomacy is to work towards an alliance with a power in the other Heartland to help get their units across the stalemate line. Tactically, this often involves charging across it and then working “backwards” from that position into one’s own Heartland to pick up additional centres. This differs considerably from those other powers, which can afford to dominate their Heartland and consolidating their position before poking their nose across the line.

But, even with these specialised cases in mind, one can make the general observation that the MidGame demands a greater emphasis upon strategy than the negotiation-dominated Opening and tactics-dominated EndGame. Perhaps most demanding on the Italian, the MidGame play will be difficult for any player who tries to just steamroller his remaining opponents without proper consideration of long-term effects. (Perhaps only Russia has any chance of storming its way through the MidGame to a victory.) And, given the fact that it is during the MidGame that many a game is won or lost, I would urge that careful attention be paid to the unique characteristics and challenges of this stage.

In my experience, there are two kinds of Diplomacy players, no matter what else anyone else may tell you. There are “Tacticians”, and there are “Talkers”. Some of us are very good at negotiations; others are experts at the making and breaking of positions on the map-board. Rarely does the highest level of both abilities manifest themselves in the same individual. I, for instance, am a poor tactician. . . and so am not the best person to write about the EndGame. This stage of a match revolves around the epic struggle for victory, or to force a stalemate. Much of the action centres around the lines of spaces that stretch across the board from Spain to St. Petersburg. The struggle for them showcases the tactical abilities of those still involved in the game. Which is why, as a “Talker”, I don’t much like the EndGame. There aren’t any negotiations!

Well, not much anyway. Fact is, there actually is some talk going on during this stage of the game, and understanding its importance is often crucial to your final finish. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is to list the common EndGame situations and touch upon how negotiations might affect each one.

First, there is the “Fair Fight”. In this configuration, one power has become dominant in each of the East and West. The final turns consist of each of these trying to force their way across the mid-board stalemate line to gain the 18th centre. An example might be a showdown between England and Turkey, who would be fighting over centres such as Munich and/or Marseilles. Some of the most interesting elements of this situation concern the presence of the smaller powers still remaining in the middle. These three- or four-centre nations can play the role of “Kingmaker”. This is the diplomatic element in this type of EndGame at its height. I have even seen that third player force himself into a three-way draw by skilful manipulation of the two behemoths.

Next, there is the “Not-So-Fair Fight”, where we see an alliance in the process of overrunning the rest of the board. The residual power on the other side of the board often has no other choice but to die fighting. For public consumption, the goal of this sort of EndGame is a 17-17 split between the two members of the alliance. But there is often the temptation for one or the other to stab for a solo win. Intimations of this may give some bargaining leverage to a third party.

Third situation is the one I call “Australian Doubles”. This features a two-power alliance on one end and a single large power that has dominated its Heartland on the other. If the latter has consolidated quickly enough, he may be able to force his way to victory over the combined weight of the other side. More often, though, the lone great power has trouble enough just trying to maintain a stalemate line of his own. Sometimes he is able to negotiate with one of the opposing powers and so engineer a stab, but only if his promises of a subsequent two-way draw are credible enough. Only a few top players are able to finesse a victory in such a situation.

Fourth, we have what is probably the most common EndGame situation, “Doubles”. Two successful alliances face each other and fight over the stalemate line. Both are trying desperately to prevent the dreaded four-way draw. A stab on one or both sides of the line might avoid the unsatisfying “tie”, but these usually have happened in the MidGame. And, if a stab does come, it often only transform the “Doubles” into one of the above situations…

Every experienced player has also witnessed at least a couple of games where triple alliances have formed in each Heartland. The MidGame began with the elimination of the odd-man out (usually poor Italy). Now, two triple alliances face each other across a rough stalemate line, waiting and manoeuvring for the anticipated stab that will break the game open. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this the “Bloody Mess”. Everything – negotiations, tactics and strategy – gets so entangled in these games that both that I have seen ended up in very silly four- or five-way draws.

There are many EndGames which I have studied which do not fit in any of these categories. In some, I have even noted that negotiation can play a major role. No doubt about one matter, though, if a player wishes to be successful, he must have an appreciation of all the nuances of the final stage of the play of a game of Diplomacy. However the above is a useful list to base a discussion of EndGame tactics upon. But I’m not the one to conduct it. I’ll leave that to my fellows.