The House That Jack Built

by Richard Egan

Most of the articles in Vienna to date have dealt with a specific power, placing an emphasis on its opening moves. These openings are indeed one of the most crucial parts of the game, yet perhaps the attention paid them has obscured the importance of the very next stage of the game itself a watershed – the 1901 building session. Admittedly much of the strategy discussion has been aimed at allowing for a country to secure the maximum number of builds, but of course not all seven countries can gain all possible builds, and contests develop over key centres like Belgium and Greece. By 1902, as a direct consequence of this, an ascendancy will have been established by the powers which have achieved control of such centres as these: the neutral centres were obviously included with the specific intention of fuelling the wrangles between players, to cause friction which might flare into conflict, to be the subject of diplomacy, and to attract units away from the concentrated home centres. Those powers which sit on “extra” or “bonus” supply centres in Autumn 1901, which have achieved more than their “expected” number of builds (four for Austria, England, Italy and Turkey; five for France and Germany and five or six for Russia) will be perceived as the more successful both in terms of their strategy and their diplomacy. Those falling below what might have been expected of them will be perceived the weaker.

Yet achieving the most builds by no means equates with real strength in a game such as Diplomacy. The two are related but do not always go hand in hand. Once a hierarchy of sorts is established, players will be influenced as to where to place their allegiance by the “scale of threat” presented by rivals as much as by running with the winning pack. The choice has to be made between taking the “easy option”, attacking the weaker powers in the hope of securing more builds to make oneself the stronger to resist potential enemies, and taking the “tough option” and teaming up with the weak to cut the strong down to seize. Here, a power with, say, six units may look the stronger on the board, but in letter-writing circles he will become a dangerous menace, one to be resisted before he runs away with the game, and any potential allies will want some measure of “equality” – they will expect the bigger partner to hold back in the following turn(s) to allow them to catch up.

Already, the 1901 builds have influenced the course of the game, even before they are brought into action with the Spring l902 moves – Alfred Mahan -would have approved of a game like Diplomacy, where the “fleet (or army) in being” is as potent a factor in conditioning responses as a unit operation. Yet even so, one would not want to encourage such a threat to develop – overcoming a six-unit Germany, for example, can be a mammoth and very distracting task, and could argue that as much emphasis ought to be placed upon depriving a rival of builds as is placed upon securing them for oneself. As France, for example, you might-just as well make sure no-one else can get Belgium if you cannot get it for yourself: to offer support for an ally is a sensible and friendly gesture, but one has to be certain of his intentions before conceding this. Why is he not supporting you -instead?

Such an attitude may appear selfish if you allow it, but the “build factor” is so essential to the balance of power within the game that to be duped, to be the gullible fool who helps everyone but himself, can be to ensure that you are the first out to the early bath. You are not going to win any real, permanent allies if you are prepared to concede them nothing, and give and take is the sine qua non of an alliance, but once you have given him that centre, you are going to be hard pressed to get it back – even if it is on the doorstep of your own home centres. Here, your presentation is all-important, and you have to appear reasonable so that your “ally” does not resent your unwillingness to help and so looks elsewhere – indeed, so that one is persuaded that you have as much right to the centre as he does, so why not “leave it till later”. Once you have restricted a rivals options for expansion, you are halfway to defeating him. Even if he is your ally, you have done something to check any grandiose plans he may have had for you, and forced him to work on consolidating the alliance he will consequently depend on all the more both for security and future expansion. Yet where denying centres works best is when they are denied to opponents. Without builds a power is without strategic flexibility: limit the builds, and you limit that flexibility.

Nowhere in the game will this be as keenly appreciated as in England ,where the 1901 adjustments are seen as the first option for France and Germany to build fleets for the taking of the only island on the board. To stop them building is as secure a short-term objective for England as is snatching the fifth supply centre.

Moreover, the psychological effects of standing-off another player when he was hoping for extra builds can be a powerful weapon in your diplomatic arsenal. Everybody, after all, is after builds, and in 1901 these will usually be from neutral centres – with the notable exception of the Austro-Italian struggle, few players do actively seek other home centres in 1901: a France which gets into the Channel in 1901 will invariably use the fleet to bear on Belgium rather than bother with London. Inevitably, the English player will be more concerned with losing that home centre, and will backtrack and use a unit to cover his home centre. This consideration lies behind advice that caution be used in opening moves, with a mind to security as well as gaining centres – and in this example the English player would doubtless consider himself better off had he ordered A(Lpl)-Yor rather than A(Lpl)-Edi. Home centres are perceived as being more important than neutral centres – obviously you cannot build in a neutral centre, and thus home centres gain precedence, so that when planning ones strategy for securing 1901 builds, care should be taken to ensure that the “homeland” is amply protected – in the final analysis, as we have seen, it is more important than foreign expansion.

Of course, the balance between risk and security is what determines a player’s style: the neutral centres are a lure with their promises of builds, and how others respond – and how you yourself respond – can be a give-away as to intentions and habits. If this is interpreted, it can allow for anticipation and out-manoeuvring: a cautious player who defends his home centres rather than go all-out for builds will probably make a less treacherous ally, but might be difficult to stab if you have to eliminate him later in the game. A player who takes a lot of risks and stakes all or nothing can be far easier to eliminate, but might make a good ally for that very reason in the sort-term. Then again, if you are not the sort of player who likes to stab anyone, you will be looking for an ally who plays the same sort of game as yourself. As yourself: what would you do if you were Italy with a F(ION) at the end of Spring 1901 and an Austrian offer of support into Greece?

This applies as much to your choice of builds as to openings – your builds can strengthen your case against one particular power, or increase your options. It is here that provisional build lists enter the picture – it is quite legitimate for you to outline a series of contingencies for your builds (e.g. build F(Ank) if Russia occupies BLA etc.) More than one player has forgotten to make his 1901 builds conditional and has then found himself unable to defend against an attack from an unexpected quarter.

Earlier it was inferred that builds were essential to strategic flexibility: obviously a power with six units is going to have more options than one with only three. Yet this is not all – the nature and placing of these units can say a lot about your intentions. England, for example, will keep a keen eye on what France and Germany builds: F(Bre) of F(Kie) will inevitably worry him, whereas F(Mar) is probably meant to get round the Piedmont bottleneck and F(Ber) is almost certainly aimed at Sweden or St.Petersburg. Then again, due to the lack of relevant coastal supply centres, fleets in Marseilles and Berlin, if coupled with fleets in Brest and Kiel, suggest a total commitment against England. After builds such as these there can hardly be any going back – the units have to be put to use after all, or else the builds will be wasted. For this reason Autumn/Winter can be more decisive than Spring.

Given this, it should be possible to plot the intentions of other powers simply by looking at their builds. For their own convenience, most GMs list builds on the Winter adjustments in the order of precedence listed by the player, so that even where two or more builds are gained, it should be possible to determione which was the first choice, second choice etc. To interpret builds, a projection such as this could be used:


N = Neutral Expansion S = Security

? = Several Possibilities A = Austria as the target

E = England as the target F = France as the target etc.












StP ncES/N/E
StP scG



I am not going to make any great claims for this, but as a guide to the interpretation of FIRST BUILDS it is largely a statement of the obvious.

First published in Vienna No.8 (March-April 1985)