The Janissary: A Mid-Game Strategy for Turkey

by Paul Barker

“The Janissaries are said to have been formed originally from the sultan’s share of the prisoners of war…” [Adrina Stiles 1989.]

There are no prisoners in the game of Diplomacy, but perhaps a mutually advantageous lifeline can be thrown to a player who is otherwise about to be vanquished by the advancing Ottomans?

The challenge of the Mid-Game will face every player of Diplomacy who has avoided having to take an early bath. This phase is certainly one which has attracted a small number of “how to” articles when compared to the plethora of opening strategies which seem to come around again and again. It is a crucial phase where the contenders for a possible win come through, or the eventual draw starts to take shape.

Quite what constitutes the Mid-Game is open to some debate. David Hood offers six definitions for it in his “Stages” article in “The Gamers’ Guide”. I won’t regurgitate them for you here. Suffice it to say that I endorse his observation that “no matter how you define it, however, the Mid-Game is the time for each player to re-evaluate the strategy that has served him so well (or poorly) in the Opening Stage”.

The Turkish Mid-Game is especially challenging. The Ottoman occupies a strong defensive position in his corner. It can be broken and can be subject to a Lepanto, but unlike his likely adversaries at least the Turk isn’t sending his units away from where the action will be in the subsequent stages.

Let’s assume that Turkey has come out well from the initial tussles between the powers of the South-Eastern portion of the board (Turkey, Austria, Russia and – most probably – Italy). What does Turkey do next? Quite possibly become embroiled in a contest against one of the other three powers in that quadrangle. Unless, that is, there has been such a drawn-out contest with multiple stabs and switches of sides that an alliance to stop an advancing potential game-winner or strong alliance from the North-Western triangle is the best way of hanging on for a draw. Whatever happens the Turks risk throwing away any chance of a win.

That is not to say that it is impossible for the Turks to cross the various stalemate positions for a win. However, it is a very demanding task. The Janissary option can boost your Turkish chances of doing so.

Turkey and England face a similar problem when trying to force their way beyond potential stalemate positions. Their home centres are such a long way back from the likely front lines. While other powers may straddle, or be within reasonably easy reach of, such positions, newly build Turkish units may well be four to six moves away fro even getting into position. A lot of defensive shuffling can be accomplished by your opponents while you bring up a fresh unit to the action around, say, Iberia or Munich.

It can be particularly galling for a Turk to build three new units after a successful year only to face the frustration of the excruciatingly slow plod to get them into position. The importance of traffic management should not be overlooked! There is also most likely the question of how many fleets should be providing a convoy pipeline through the Mediterranean.

Maybe your play of Turkey has turned out so well that you handle all of this with ease. Maybe not though. You could no doubt also use a friend. This friend could be a lesser power in the North, such as an England who has taken a few knocks. It might alternatively be your Juggernaut ally – a Russia who may well be running a far stronger steamroller than you are. There may be someone else to sound out though…. Someone closer to home.

The Janissary strategy draws a battered but not eliminated Italy or Austria into your force pool. The actual situation will quite naturally vary from game to game. Turkey faces up to the drawbacks of the corner position identified above while Italy or Austria is thrown a lifeline to save them from the quick-exit sandwich that follows being caught between the advancing Turks and another foe coming from the west.

The art is to judge the best moment to make the offer. Before considering that, lets be clear what the offer comprises.

The terms of the Janissary revolve around a Turkish guarantee that Austria or Italy will be kept in the game TO THE END unless Turkey is able to take a win. In return the Austrian or Italian units become Janissaries. These remaining units, which probably number from one to three, are sent west in concert with the advancing Turks. They seize or maintain the tempo of the Turkish advance. They move to secure inland objectives like Munich and/or steam westwards through the Mediterranean before their opponents can stop them. The Turk doesn’t snuff out the Janissaries as the compensatory builds would be way back from the front line in Constantinople or wherever. As the Turks advance any remaining Janissary home centres will probably be swallowed up, but as a redress replacement centres are found as the Janissaries help to gain ground for the alliance.

Not only does this make it hard for the Janissary player to stab the Turks, he also has a front line role. This cannot be over-stressed. A key aspect is that the Janissaries are not signed-over units. Rather the Turks and Janissary discuss tactics every turn (within the overall plan outlined above). The survival of the Janissary units depends upon the development of sound winning tactics in concert with the Turk. This strategy does not assume that units are signed over to Turkey. It is based upon mutuality and the need for the sort of “trust” that we always talk about in our communications with each other (ahem).

How many times do you enter the Mid-Game to see the Diplomacy aspect of the game recede as alliances settle down? The strongest power is often the loneliest power. The Janissary is someone to discuss tactics with. Someone to bounce ideas off. “It’s good to talk”…

Tempo is a vital aspect of success in Diplomacy games. Sometimes one can be “on a roll” with continued advances and centre gains. Games solidify as the leading powers lose tempo. The Janissary maintains tempo following the season of its instigation due to the creation of Turk-friendly units where they are most needed. The alliance wrong-foots the opposition who are not expecting a power on the brink of elimination to switch sides to its conqueror. The discussion of tactics matches that between any well-coordinated coalition which may oppose the Janissary.

When should a Janissary be proposed? It should not be mooted too early, but it is vital that lines of communication have been kept open even while you are attacking your eventual ally. Make sure that you send a letter every season even if you don’t get a reply. Of course, a player who regularly replies to you in such a situation is more likely to be receptive to your offer and should indeed be a more reliable Janissary.

If Austria is the choice your Turkey is perhaps on seven to nine units at the time the offer is made. With Italy as the choice the Austrians have probably already been crushed and you are on a higher count. Whichever one is chosen they should preferably be on two or three units, although a token single unit Janissary should not be sneered at. It is possible for both to be kept in the game as Janissaries. So the right time is when the talkative foe is down but not out and preferably on or about to be reduced to two or three units.

Who gains the most from the alliance? What is really on the table for the Janissary? For the Turk the strategy is one that can bring a win closer to fruition. The Janissary has to be convinced of the Turk’s sincerity in promising not to gratuitously eliminate his position in the endgame to wrap up a draw. If truly convinced of this, then a likely elimination is turned into a draw for the Janissary. If the opposition gets its act together and a draw is forced, the Turks might end on, say, fifteen centres and the Italians or Austrians on two. And a draw is a draw, er, isn’t it? [Yes I know that is another can of worms.]

The principles outlined in this article can be applied to other combinations of countries. They are, however, particularly apt for the Turks. That is not to say that the Janissary strategy should prey on the mind of every Turkish player. Rather that the forward thinking player should be prepared to offer it if the right circumstances develop.

Oh, in 1826 Mahmud II had the Janissaries massacred.

First published in The Tangled Web We Weave No.1