The Game of Diplomacy

by Richard Sharp



Any novice, given a brief run-down of the rules and a quick sight of the board, would pick England as an obviously strong country. The defensive position looks almost impregnable - at the start of the game no enemy unit except the French fleet in Brest is within two moves of an English home centre, while there are no less than four neutrals that England can reach in the same period. In both respects England compares favourably with any other power on the board.

In face-to-face play, England does indeed do well. But in the postal game, which allows more accurate play and thus affords a truer picture of a country’s real potential, England comes off relatively poorly. Of the first 319 postal games to finish in Britain, England won only thirty-three, equal with Austria and behind Russia and Germany; and on the ‘Caihamer Point Count’ scale (which allocates one point for a win, the point being shared among all survivors if the game is drawn) England ranks a mediocre fourth behind Russia, Germany and France. Clearly things are not as good as they look.


As a corner country, England does enjoy natural defensive advantages, and these are enhanced by its island status; invasion of England is always a chancy affair, as indeed history has shown. To be sure of landing an army, an aggressor will normally need two fleets adjacent to an English province - one to convoy the army in and another to support the landing. This is very difficult to arrange, especially as England’s control of the crucial North Sea is guaranteed from the start.

However, defence does not win games. And the very advantages that protect England from attack in the early stages make expansion difficult. Time after time, one sees England go down the drain in the same manner: a promising start based on defensive alliance with France and an attack on Scandinavia gets bogged down at St Petersburg, and England is left with a totally exposed western flank. At this point France puts the boot in, and England’s much-vaunted defences collapse as French fleets move into the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea, and eventually the English Channel. This disaster, known as leaving the back door open’, accounts for the great majority of English collapses. The fact is that the alliance with France, as normally played, simply cannot lead to an English win (though it may well lead to a French one).


To win, a country must occupy eighteen supply centres. It is essential to have some idea before you start of what these centres are likely to be.

At the most optimistic estimate, it is hard for England to find an eighteen-centre empire which does not involve some control of the Mediterranean. Three home centres, three Scandinavian and two Low Countries makes eight; attacks on other powers will produce St Petersburg, three German centres and two French, for a total of fourteen. At this point things become rather more like hard work: it is very unlikely that England will penetrate any further into Russia, as Moscow and Warsaw are easily held from the south, and the only realistic prospect of future gains lies in the south: Spain, Portugal, Marseilles and Tunis would bring the score up to eighteen. The trouble is that by the time England has finished mucking about in the north, the western end of the Mediterranean is likely to be sealed; it is a very common sight for England to be stuck on thirteen or fourteen centres, unable to proceed further, and obliged to watch while another better-organized country mops up first place. The Mediterranean cannot be forced once a reasonable defence has been set up; it follows that England must make a bid in the south before France or Italy can close the door. Thus it begins to become apparent that Anglo-French alliances are no way to play for an English win.


England’s choice of openings is restricted. Leaving aside the completely pointless ones, one is left with three permutations for the two fleets: NWG and NTH, NIH and ENG, or NWG and ENG. The army can sensibly move only to Edi or Yor in the first case, Edi, Yor or Wal in the second, Edi or Wal in the third: a total of only seven different openings. The latest survey in fact lists twelve English opening variations, but the seven accounted for above make up over ninety-five per cent of all recorded English starts - the others are mainly errors, with a few deliberate idiocies thrown in. (All opening statistics gratefully taken from Mick Bullock’s New Statsman, No. 3 (January 1978)

The Northern Opening, F(Edi)-NWG, F(Lon)-NTH, is by far the most popular pattern, accounting for about two-thirds of all games. The Yorkshire Variation has recently overtaken the Edinburgh in popularity, and about time too - certainly what difference there is between the two army moves seems to me to favour the Yorkshire line. It is certainly true that F(Edi)-NWG, F(Lon)-NTH, A(Lpl)-Yor is the only opening that gives England a hundred per cent certainty of a build in 1901 : even if the worst happens with France going to ENG and Russia moving A(Mos)-StP, England still gets his build with A(Yor)-Lon and F(NWG) S F(NTH)-Nor (not the other way round, as an attack on the North Sea by Germany cuts the support for the taking of Norway).

So what advantages does the Edinburgh Variation have? The apparent gain is that the army can now be convoyed by either fleet, and the inference is clear: England intends to use F(NWG) to convoy the army to Norway, while F(NTH) is occupied elsewhere, perhaps taking part in the argument over Belgium. It is ironic that the Edinburgh Variation is habitually represented to Germany as being more pro-German than the Yorkshire; if anything, it is in fact rather less! But the main difference in the two lines remains the defensive value of A(Lpl)-Yor, and this seems to me to make it the superior choice.

The popularity of the Northern Opening as a whole is more difficult to account for. England is starting off in the wrong direction, making a beeline for the St Petersburg cul-de-sac. France is offered the option of taking the English Channel, and Germany is unlikely to be enthusiastic about the prospect of being encircled by England. The opening is safe enough defensively, at least in the short term; but it leaves England’s two main problems unsolved: what to do about France, and where to start looking for eighteen centres.

It must be more promising to move F(Lon)-ENG... if we can get away with it. But I am convinced it is better to let France into the Channel than to risk a stand-off there. Fortunately, the initial move to the Channel is not very good for France, and if he says he won’t go there, there’s a fair chance that he may mean it. I do not play to the Channel as England unless I am convinced France will let me in - either by arrangement or by accident.

Provided France is above the moron class, it is not too difficult to persuade him to let you take the Channel. Your argument is, of course, that France and Germany each have two easy builds in 1901, whereas you have only Norway; you therefore have a better claim than either of the others to take Belgium. Say this with a straight face, as if you believed it, and see what happens.

France, if he is experienced, will point out that England doesn’t need two builds in 1901 ... unless, of course, he has anti-French ambitions, in which case ... You concede this point (what else can you do?), but point out that Russia is going to move A(Mos)-StP - this may well be true, not that it matters - and that unless you can be sure of Belgium you will have to let Germany take it unopposed, since you will need both your fleets to occupy Norway. On the other hand, if France will let you take Belgium, Russia takes Norway, and the situation for Germany is now rather threatening.

If this isn’t enough, you can improve the offer: if you start with F(Lon)- ENG, F(Edi)-NTH, A(Lpl)-Yor and France moves A(Par)-Bur or -Pic, he can support your F(ENG)-Bel, while you use F(NTH) and the army to keep Germany out of whichever he has not yet occupied out of Holland and Denmark. This is a good offer, and one that France would be unlikely to refuse: it slows down Germany’s initial growth, and also ensures that the English fleet has to vacate the Channel in autumn 1901 to get a build. France keeps his options open: he can change his mind about Belgium if, for instance, Russia fails to move to St Petersburg, or England stupidly moves A(Lpl)-Wal ; but if all goes to plan France can afford to co-operate. Belgium, after all, changes hands with great regularity in the early years of most games; and France can wait until 1902 for his turn without any serious disadvantage.

If you judge that France is a fool, or thinks you are, it is safer to offer to demilitarize the Channel, then take it by stealth. You must judge from France’s attitude whether he intends to keep the bargain or not: if he talks earnestly about ‘game-long alliance’, ‘two-way draw’ and the like you can risk it - you’ll be right about seventy-five per cent of the time, which is good enough. In this case, of course, you do move the army to Wales. This approach is best when Russia doesn’t play A(Mos)-StP. Now you can take Norway unopposed, and can afford the luxury of a convoy to, say, Picardy. It goes without saying that if France is foolish enough to let you into the Channel, he is almost sure to defend Brest; Picardy will catch him out most of the time.

There is little more that needs to be said about England’s choice of opening. The remaining option is the one sometimes called The Splits - F(Lon) -ENG, F(Edi)-NWG - with the army going to either Edi or Wal (incredibly, there are three recorded cases where it has moved to Yorkshire). This opening is pro-German to the point of grovelling. I once induced England to play it as part of an elaborate long-term bargain: England was never to occupy the North Sea, in exchange for which Germany undertook to build no fleets at all. For the short time it lasted, this plan worked well enough, as the absence of any German fleets is a benefit which justifies the sacrifice of the most valuable province on the board. Once again, though, you must be certain of taking the Channel, and certain too that Russia is not moving north. Granted these conditions, the better place for the army is Edinburgh, and indeed this has been the most popular choice in the few cases where the opening has been tried. Provided you are sure of being able to play F(NWG) C A(Edi)-Nor in the autumn, there are several constructive and interesting options open to the Channel fleet, notably the deadly F(ENG)-MAO!


England can profitably negotiate before 1901 with every other country except, perhaps, Austria, who has problems of his own at this stage, and is unlikely to look with favour upon proposals that he should attack Germany or Russia. Russia, oddly enough, is the best bet. Ask him politely if he is considering moving north, and say that if he is you will consider allowing him into Norway. This apparently quixotic gesture - giving up your only certain build to a country that needs it less than you do - is not really as silly as it looks. If you are planning an early assault on France, as you almost certainly should be, a Russian army in Norway is the best guarantee you can have of immunity from attack in that direction. Russia himself cannot attack you without first building a fleet on the north coast of St Petersburg, an event which signals the coming attack three seasons before it arrives. Germany will not be able to take Sweden, and will therefore be more likely to co-operate with you against France, having no other realistic option except to attack you, which is admittedly possible but difficult.

A more subtle advantage is that by making this overture to Russia you are likely to find out the truth about his plans for the northern army. Only a maniac would move to St Petersburg having first turned down the offer of a free gift of Norway. If you know Russia is not going north - for instance, he may be facing a strong Austria and Turkey, and not be able to spare the unit - then your attack on France has even better prospects.

If Russia does accept your offer, your next contact should be with Turkey! You are happy enough for Russia to move north provided Turkey attacks him in the south - and Turkey will no doubt be encouraged in this direction by a reliable report that the Russian army is going the wrong way. (Probably Turkey was intending to attack anyway, and you’re preaching to the converted.) One of the familiar problems of face-to-face Diplomacy rears its head here: if Russia spots you and Turkey deep in conversation at this stage, he will have little difficulty in guessing what the subject is.

Germany is your most difficult decision, and everything will depend on the ability of the player. If he is weak, unimaginative and prone to lasting alliances, you are on a good wicket, and no harm can possibly come of being nice to him. In the natural course of events he will tend to trust you rather than France, since he is more vulnerable to attack by land than by sea; also, you can help him against Russia, while France can only march through him on the road east. The Anglo-German alliance is a very strong one, and entirely favourable to England - rarely indeed does Germany win games based on this relationship. The basic premise is that England builds fleets while Germany builds armies; England moves round the edges of the board while Germany punches through the centre. The combination is devastating, but more important is the fact that Germany is never placed to stab England - he has to build a fleet or two, and move them laboriously into position, with no possibility of camouflage.

My only postal win as England was based on such an alliance. Germany, an old friend, was one of those not uncommon players who have all the vital ingredients except the most vital one of all - killer instinct. He has never played a bad game, and has never won one; I doubt whether he will ever do either. Such a character is the perfect Germany to your England, as that game, 1973-DI, was to demonstrate. I made rapid progress against northern Russia and France, while Germany slammed away devotedly at central Russia and Austria. I did not play at all well, but still managed to win fairly easily, the eventual stabbing of Germany being almost embarrassingly easy. He had done all the hard fighting, while I had wandered round the edges picking up the bits. At no time from autumn 1901 on was there the remotest possibility of Germany turning on me - he simply could not have done it had he wished. Probably he didn’t even wish.

Italy is not very important to England early on, though their relationship can be a critical one in the middle game. It is hardly worth while trying to induce Italy to join you in an assault on France; few players agree to this suggestion, and all the others immediately tell France about it. Even when you do find a compliant Italy, it is doubtful whether his assistance is going to be worth the price you have to pay - loss of the Mediterranean. For what happens when France has gone? Does Italy promptly remove his fleets to the far end of the board and start battering away at the Turks? Like hell he does. He leaves a ‘token defensive force, old boy’ of F(Por) and F(WMS) - try getting past that.

The ideal position for Italy (from an English point of view) is fighting a protracted and unsuccessful war with Austria ; this will tie his units (probably no more than four in all) down on the wrong side of his home country, and if you can achieve a quick kill against France you can grab your end of the Mediterranean unhindered. If you’re very lucky you can even sell your presence there to Italy as ‘coming to help’, and the last sound he makes will be a sob of gratitude.

Which leaves the Enemy.

France is the only serious threat to England’s domination of the western seas. The fleet in Brest is more menacing to England than all the other hostile units put together. He may move it down to the south coast of Spain in 1901, leaving it unobtrusively pointing due east from the neighbourhood of Barcelona. Do not be deceived. A French attack on England can be mounted with lethal swiftness. Never mind that he has moved the fleet to southern Spain - unless you can see some definite use he can put it to down there, it’s a safe bet that it’ll be back before long. If Italy has his back turned on France, don’t imagine that France will gobble up this easy target: first he must neutralize the major threat, which is you.

For years I could not see any realistic plan for Anglo-French co-operation. Every idea foundered on the simple facts: England must occupy the Mediterranean to win, he must go through the Mid-Atlantic to get there, and none of this is going to amuse France at all.

At last, finding myself in a game where France was an extremely desirable ally and Germany an unknown quantity, I devised something - an Anglo-French alliance run on the lines of the standard Anglo-German one, with England providing the fleets and France the armies. An essential precondition was that England should occupy Brest from the start, thus preventing France building any fleets for a surprise attack. In return, of course, France would get rather more than his usual share of captured German goodies. To my delight and surprise, France accepted this suggestion - perhaps my appeals to his imagination, pioneering spirit and so on were successful, perhaps he just couldn’t be bothered to argue. It is certainly worth noting that if France expects England to move to ENG in spring 1901 it is often better to let him in; and once that has happened Brest is at risk anyway, so why not surrender it voluntarily and keep on friendly terms? France can afford it ... just. For a couple of seasons all went perfectly, until I possibly overplayed my very strong hand by indulging in a series of double-crosses, so that France’s military expansion never quite worked out as planned, though England’s naval supremacy prospered, if anything, rather better than foreseen. Whatever the cause, France ratted on his agreement, retaking Brest by force. But I had achieved a lot: my defensive position was rock solid, since France could easily be prevented from building in Brest for some time to come. And I had seen enough to be convinced the plan could be carried through successfully, if a France can be found who would accept it. It does not, of course, offer France any realistic chance of a win; but if he is the type who will settle for second, he may just buy it. I described this gambit facetiously in Dolchstoß as the Hey Bresto (by analogy with the better known Key Lepanto, which it rather resembles), and the name seems likely to stick.

In conclusion, England’s prospects can be seen to be pretty good, provided that he keeps an eye on the object of the game. Almost any alliance will favour England rather than his partner, the exception being the equal-terms partnership with France. In a strong game, an outclassed England might do well to play the Northern Opening and ally with Germany - this is generally good enough for at least third place, and quite often for a four-way draw.

Above all, when playing England, keep an eye on your opponents’ fleets. Make it the first goal of all your negotiations to ensure by guile or by force that no foreign fleet remains active west of Gibraltar. Only in this way will you be able to afford to build some armies in the middle game; and without a few armies, you can hardly hope to win.

England is a strong country (in Diplomacy, anyway) ... but only if you play it right.

The Game of Diplomacy is (c) 1978 by Richard Sharp. It is reproduced here with Richard's permission.

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