Sacrifice Openings in Diplomacy

by Nicky Palmer

In a recent article in issue 36 of the excellent American zine The Arena, the editor, Edi Birsan, commented, in the friendliest possible way on an analysis of openings in British postal games which Mick Bullock had sent him. He observes that Germany never attacks Russia with 3 units in 1901 in British games, that Austria never goes all out against Italy, and that neither Turkey nor Russia try to grab the Black Sea as often as common sense would recommend, and concludes in general that we are short on theoretical opening knowledge and furthermore rather an unadventurous crowd, uninterested in wild death-or-glory charges on hapless neighbouring countries. He anticipates that as we get more experienced we will start to play like the average American player. 

As a start towards more adventurous Diplomacy, I invite you to consider “sacrifice” openings. The idea is well known in chess, where it takes the form of some material (usually a pawn) being surrendered to the opponent in exchange for a superior position. People play them not because they are particularly sound – the overwhelming majority appear to lead to a disadvantage against best play – but partly to surprise opponents and partly for fun, as most of them guarantee a lively game (an exception is the Queen’s Gambit, but then that’s one of the few that appear theoretically sound). Now, in chess, surprising opponents is of doubtful value, although some players do play badly in openings unknown to them. One trouble is that most of the sacrifice openings are quite well-known too, but the main problem is that the fellow can spend half an hour staring at the board before he replies to your bizarre approach. In Diplomacy, by contrast, he has already moved when you pull your rabbit out of the hat, and very possibly he has already sent off provisional retreats and builds which didn’t allow for your line of attack. Surprise is therefore of great value in Diplomacy, especially in the prophetic builds games. 

A sacrifice opening in Diplomacy is, by definition (mine), an opening in which the country involved gives up a chance of taking as many builds in 1901 as it might have, not merely to defend the dear old home country (the usual reason for this) but to position his units better in 1902. An extreme example, called the anti-Tunis opening for reasons which will appear, is this: in Spring 1901, Italy decides to attack Austria, and has reason to believe that either Russia or Turkey will help, and that France will be busy elsewhere for the first year or two. As usual, he moves his units towards Tyr, Ven, and ION. Austria either blocks the Tyr-Ven moves by the two armies or not: either way the armies cannot take Tri by themselves unless Austria is under heavy Russian or Turkish pressure, and in the former case not even then. What Italy usually does then is to continue to press away with the armies, sending the fleet to Tun and building a second fleet. In 1902 he returns from Tun and takes the ADS, and in 1903, at last, Trieste falls. 

With spirited Russo-Turkish co-operation this timetable may be accelerated, but frequently these two potential allies will be at war, leaving only the odd unit over to help against Austria. By 1903 Austria may well be off the hook, with two or three new units and the potential ally to his East having lost interest. Furthermore, France may be breathing down your neck. The anti-Tunis opening gives up Tunis in 1901 by moving the fleet to ADS. In 1902 Italy has an excellent chance of breaking the Tri defences if Russia or Turkey are prepared to use at least one unit to cut Austrian supports; if one or them will contribute two units it is almost a certainty that Austria will be dying by Winter 1902. If the gamble (and all sacrifice openings are essentially gambles) comes off and you get a 1902 build, Tunis should still be open to you in 1903 together with another Austrian supply centre giving Italy 6 units in Winter 1903, which is pretty good. Furthermore, you are likely to be underrated by the other players for a few years after they see you passing up the Tunis build. The danger, of course, is that you will again miss a build in 1902, because Austria out-guesses you, but in that case you would certainly not have got anywhere against him without the F(ADS), and still have only four units after 1902 or even after 1903, so you would probably not have one anyway (if you would be content to be third or fourth in some game then of course sacrifices are as unsuitable as they are in chess if you want a draw). All the same, you are risking a speedy and ignominious exit. 

A less startling (but safer) example is the Celtic Solidarity Opening, which follows on a successful French stab towards England in spring 1901: 

England; F(Edi) – NWG, F (Lon) – NTH; A(Lpl) – Yor.

France: A(Par)-Pic; F(Bre)-ENG; A(Mar)-Spa or Bur. 

In Autumn 0l England will probably order F(NTH) S F(NWG)-Nwy; A(Yor)-Lon; he can’t leave NTH empty without leaving Germany a hole, and he will reckon the non-supply centre Wales an unlikely target. So France can move F(ENG) C A(Pic)-Wal, and next turn the new A(Lpl) will not suffice if Germany will cut the NTH support for Lon, and England will already be on the ropes. 

Another opening which is semi-sacrificial (giving up the possibility of an extra build) and safe is Russia moving to Gal and Ukr in S01 and (if the move to Gal is successful) to Boh and Gal in A01; again this will work because Austria will expect Russia to grab for Vie or Bud. 

Finally, the Western Anti-Tunis Opening, an example, of the potentially. devastating effect of surprise in games with prophetic builds. France has read this article, and chuckling evilly, he plays the Celtic Solidarity Opening’s first part in Spring l90l, succeeding as above. Italy has rather gathered that this would happen, and plays the innocuous-looking F(Nap) – TYS, Armies stand, making peace with Austria and if necessary explaining his TYS move as springing from a desire to show disinterest in Greece. In Autumn 1902, France gets Spa, or possib1y Bel instead (if he makes up with England to the detriment of Germany). He prophetically builds in Bre and in the latter case Par, guffawing repulsively. However, Italy moves his units to Pie, Ven, and GoL in Autumn ’01) and swipes Mar in Spring 1902, establishing an almost unbreakable bridgehead which can be expanded in the following turns. This is in fact the only situation allowing Italy to attack France in 1901/2 with any confidence. 

Other similar manoeuvres can be invented in the same way as the opportunity arises; the common factor is the use of a surprise refusal to take a possible or certain gain. In my view, the tactic is best used by countries like Italy which are otherwise handicapped as “slow starters”. In general, semi-sacrifices in which a gain you probably wouldn’t get anyway is rejected in favour of a positional manoeuvre are likely to prove profitable, while outright sacrifices like the anti-Tunis openings (especially the one against Austria) are much more speculative and should really be played by players who don’t mind risking a quick knock-out if it gives them an increased chance of outright victory, or just for fun. 

Reprinted from Hannibal No.6 (Feb 1974). 

Comment by Stephen Agar

One thing worth pointing out is that these such of openings are far less effective if the other players make full use of conditional builds. I would say that it is very rare for me to receive true conditional builds from players – often I just get a list of builds in order of preference. Sometimes the failure to use conditional builds properly can be devastating. I recall one recent game where, as Austria, I took Warsaw in A01. I had promised the Russian player that I wouldn’t and not only had he believed me and failed to cover Warsaw, but his builds weren’t conditional, so he build F(StP)nc which meant that he had nothing to stop Austrian A(War)-Mos in S02! 

High-risk strategies worth exploring often centre around either: 

(a) the capture of a crucial sea space in A01 which is not usually occupied until later (e.g. an English fleet in MAO, BAR or SKA; a French fleet in NAO; a German fleet in BAL or even GoB; Italian fleets in TYS, AEG or ADS, a Russian fleet in BAL etc.); or 

(b) an unexpected direct attack (e.g. Germany: A(Mun)-Sil, A(Ber)-Pru; Russia: A(War)-Sil; F(StP)-GoB-BAL; Austria: F(Tri)-ADS, A(Vie)-Tyr, A(Bud)-Tri).