The Game of Diplomacy

by Richard Sharp



I dislike playing Turkey in face-to-face Diplomacy. In the postal game, on the other hand, I absolutely loathe it. I have never won a game as Turkey, nor with one brief exception did I ever seem likely to. I find it claustrophobic, inflexible and frustrating. On the other hand, Turkey is the most indestructible country of all, if you count that an advantage — to me, it just means I linger for hours (months in a postal game) under a moral obligation to submit orders, with no hope of winning. A country for tenacious, uncommunicative, unambitious tacticians, Turkey bores me to death.


There are only five provinces from which a hostile unit can first land on Turkish soil, a defensive advantage shared with England and no one else. If anything Turkey’s defences are even stronger than England’s as England’s back door is really a side door and can be reached from either direction, while Turkey’s can be opened only from the narrow corridor of the Eastern Mediterranean. When attacked, Turkey can simply retreat behind his frontiers and pull up the drawbridge; overcoming the barriers requires a combined and sustained effort by two enemy powers, one from each side. And if the southern Russian fleet can be eliminated early on, Turkey’s position becomes almost impregnable.

Unfortunately, all the same arguments apply in reverse. The bottleneck access to Bulgaria means that deployment of armies is maddeningly slow until the Black Sea has been secured and can be used for convoying armies out of Ankara. The need to keep a unit in Constantinople to support Bulgaria makes the problem more acute in the early stages; and the shifting of fleets from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, or vice versa, is interminably slow. I remember a press release from one struggling Turkey in a postal game — Masochism rules OK’. That says it all.


Like England, Turkey suffers from being in the corner farthest from the stalemate line, which means that seventeen centres are much more easily achieved than eighteen. The most natural seventeen are three home, four Balkan, three Austrian, three Italian, Tunis, Sevastopol, Moscow and Warsaw. The eighteenth will usually have to be Marseilles, Munich, Berlin or St Petersburg, all of which are easily held from the other side. For Turkey to get a fleet to the other side of the line is a feat of almost inconceivable difficulty, though it has occasionally been done. All in all, it is not surprising that Turkey gets more two-way and three-way draws than any other country, and ranks only a miserable sixth on the win list.


I remember a friend telling me of a nightmare he had had, in which he was shut up alone with an unreliable ball-point pen, a pad of absorbent paper and a supply of weak instant coffee, and asked to write 5,000 words on Turkish opening theory. In planning this section, I have understood how he dreamt he felt.

No country has less choice in the opening. The New Statsman survey lists eleven variations (excluding errors), the same as England, but some of the variations are so nearly identical as to be hardly worth a separate entry. Worst of all, all the openings are unambiguously committing, either for Russia or against.

The army in Constantinople goes to Bulgaria — the only case of a completely unanimous move, played in 534 games out of 535 — yes, some fool misordered it! Russia’s northern fleet move to GOB comes second, with only twenty individualists playing it to Finland instead. So we can ignore that, and describe the various openings in terms of the moves played by the other two units.

The most popular, not surprisingly, is the Russian Attack, F(Ank)—BLA, A(Smy)—Arm. This simple taking of the bull by the horns is played in over a quarter of all games, among them all but the latest of my own appearances as a reluctant Turk. My way of looking at it is simple. If Russia says he won’t go to the Black Sea, either he’s lying, in which case I must go there to defend myself; or he trusts me, in which case I go there to take advantage of this error. The move to Armenia is obviously logical: it always succeeds (Russia has never tried moving~the fleet there, not surprisingly), and against some of the simple Russian openings described in the last chapter it offers good attacking chances.

If Russia stands off the fleet move (as presumably happens in twenty-eight per cent of all games, as Russia plays there forty-five per cent of the time and Turkey sixty-three per cent), Turkey will just try again in the autumn. Depending on the opening he has played, Russia will have various options at this point: he can stand the fleet off again, or try to leave Sevastopol open for the second fleet he is sure to need, e.g. with A(Ukr) S F(Sev)—Rum and perhaps A(Mos)—Sev, hoping to stand off an army attack from Armenia. (It is usually right for onlookers to assume that the stand-off was not prearranged when the army has moved to Armenia.)

If F(Ank)—BLA succeeds, Turkey has got off to the best possible start. However, as already discussed under the Russian openings, he is not necessarily going to make a quick killing against a competent Russia, unless he can rely on Austrian help; and this is unlikely, as the prospect of a powerful Turkey grinding down Russia and occupying Sevastopol and Rumania is hardly one that Austria can find reassuring. With the Russian fleet (presumably) in Rumania after spring 1901, the most likely line of attack for Turkey is A(Arm) S F(BLA)--Sev, A(Bul)--Rum, which succeeds against the ‘best’ Russian moves ofF(Rum)—BLA, A(Ukr) S A(Sev)—Rum, with which Russia at least makes sure of taking the Black Sea. Against a good Russia, try the brilliant’ A(Arm)—Sev, A(Bul)—Rum ... F(BLA)—Con! If Russia has not opened to Sevastopol, of course, Turkey’s attacking prospects are rather better: but he should always assume in this case that Russia will defend Sevastopol.

There is no doubt about it: the weakness of the Russian Attack is its very menace. It almost guarantees Austrian hostility, or at least the absence of Austrian friendship (which is not quite the same thing). And if Austria is going to rally to Russia’s side, Turkey faces some pretty nasty possibilities, including the possible loss of Bulgaria in the autumn. The most favourable conditions for the opening are when you suspect Russia may be playing a version of the Northern Opening, and Italy will be attacking Austria; or perhaps Russia is also intending to move on Austria. (My own strategy has been to propose to Russia an alliance against Austria, and then attack Russia instead, which makes it likely that I can count on Austrian assistance; this is all right unless Russia is able to convince Austria of Turkey’s duplicity!)

Gaining in popularity nowadays is the Russian Defence (in which the fleet again moves to BLA but the Smyrna army goes to Con). This is a reasonably sound opening, which contests the Black Sea — an arranged stand-off is very common — and also allows Turkey to support Bulgaria in the autumn, or if he judges it promising to move A(Con)—Bul and A(Bul)—Gre/Ser. This is perhaps the least committing Turkish opening: the move to BLA can reasonably be represented to Russia as a defensive one when it is not coupled with A(Smy)—Arm, while to a naive Austria it may be described as anti-Russian. However, it will be difficult to retain this ambiguous posture through the autumn; if there has been a stand-off in BLA, Russia will no doubt want to move his fleet to Rumania ... and what is the Turkish fleet to do now? Taking the Black Sea at this stage is a fairly unambiguous act of aggression, while allowing it to stand is unlikely to enrapture Austria. The ghastly Constantinople bottleneck, which is at the root of all Turkey’s troubles in the opening, prevents him getting the army safely out of the way and making the only non-committal build of F(Con). A deliberate misorder, such as ~F(Ank)—BAL’. is a useful possibility here!

If Russia has moved to Rumania in the spring, he will not be best pleased to see a Turkish fleet in the Black Sea, even with the army going to Con; once again Turkey’s problem is finding a plausible target for the fleet other than the obvious ones of Sevastopol and Rumania (a favourite man~uvre here is F(B LA) C A(Con)—Sev, which never works, to the perpetual surprise of not very bright Turks). One suggestion an optimistic Turkey may try on a weak-minded Russia is that the eternal casus belli, the Russian fleet, be eliminated by a Turkish attack on Rumania in the autumn, Russia agreeing to disband the fleet provided Turkey abandons the Black Sea, i.e. orders A(Bul) S F(BLA)—Rum. Frankly, if I found a Russia who would accept this monstrous suggestion. I should order F(BLA) C A(Con)—Sev, on the grounds that he is far too thick to make a reliable ally anyway.

Of the other possible openings for Turkey, the only two played with any frequency are F(Ank)--Con, A(Smy) stands and F(Ank)—Con, A(Smy)—Ank. There is no effective difference between the two unless Russia moves to BLA, in which case the army is clearly better off in Smyrna, moving to Ankara in the autumn with the certainty of keeping it and the possibility of a standoff allowing a build there. These two openings I therefore regard as identical, A(Smy)—Ank simply being an inferior way of arriving at the same result; between them they account for nearly a third of all Turkish spring 1901 moves, and may thus reasonably be regarded as the most popular start of all.

The fleet move to Constantinople is obviously violently pro-Russian; the assumption is that the fleet will m.ove out into the Aegean in the autumn, while a second fleet is built in Smyrna. It is the classic prelude to the ‘juggernaut’ alliance, and should produce a violent reaction from Italy and, indeed, from everyone else. There is no question about the efficiency of the opening; whether it is wise to lay one’s cards on the table so blatantly, and whether the alliance with Russia is desirable in itself, are more debatable points.

Other countries should not be fooled when this opening is coupled with a Russian move to the Black Sea; this will certainly be prearranged, even if only in the sense that Turkey will have said, 'Go there if you must, though I’d rather you didn’t.’ This is exactly what I have done in my latest despairing effort as Turkey; Russia duly went. Hey-ho. It is hardly within the bounds of possibility that Russia will make a random attack on a Turkish supply centre in autumn, rather than making sure of Rumania. The tell-tale is the Russian A(Mos) ; if this has moved to Sevastopol the possibility of anti-Turkish intentions cannot be discounted; but if not, the whole thing is a put-up job. The significance of the move to Sev is this: if Russia is expecting F(Con)-AES in the autumn, he has the possible stab F(Rum)—Bul(ec) S by AUSTRIAN A(Ser), A(Ukr)—Rum, A(Sev)—Arm —one of the most efficient early stabs in the game. The move to Sev is an important part of this attack, because Russia must take Armenia with an army before Turkey suspects and defends against it, which will enable him to put up a prolonged resistance. So players of Turkey should be on the watch for this one: don’t agree to Russia moving to Sev, and if he does do it, don’t move to the Aegean but support A(Bul).

Minority openings for Turkey are the schizophrenic F(Ank)—Con, A(Smy)—Arm — a sort of Turkish Hedgehog, infuriating both neighbours —and the excessively tame A(Smy)—Con, F(Ank) stands (or misordered), which is as good as saying to Russia, ‘I’m going to attack you, but I’m waiting till your back’s turned.’ This attitude, and the clear indication of insanity it affords, have earned this opening the memorably macabre title of the Boston Strangler.

In summary, the only thing to be said in favour of Turkey’s opening dilemma is that the choice should not take long. I must admit to having had little success with the Russian Attack, and I am forced to conclude that a more subtle approach may be better.


Friends? What friends?

I remember that the first time I played Turkey in a postal game, I searched the most devious corners of my mind in vain for a plausible reason why anyone should be kind to me. Eventually I gave up, and wrote to all my neighbours a letter of devastating frankness saying, in effect, if you can see your way clear to allying with me, I shall be so surprised that I shall be quite incapable of attacking you.’ This line of argument, not surprisingly, attracted no takers, and I was set upon from all sides, fortunately with more zeal than efficiency.

France traditionally does well when Turkey does, but the two countries are in no position to co-operate early on, and correspondence between them is generally limited to an exchange of insincere good wishes. Germany’s main interest in the south-eastern corner (and all the other corners too, come to that) is that no one should do well. So of the western triangle, only England is likely to be able to take part in any serious negotiations with Turkey early on.

England and Turkey have a common enemy in Russia, and though they cannot co-ordinate their attacks, they can at least exchange information profitably. It is very much in Turkey’s interests for England to launch an early attack on Russia ; among other virtues, this makes it safe for Turkey to adopt a non-committal posture towards her northern neighbour in 1901. However, there is little Turkey can do to coax England in the required direction, short of the usual smear campaign explaining how Russia is a notorious liar and snake-in-the-grass who wins most of his games by 1905; this may relieve Turkey’s feelings, but is unlikely to carry much weight.

In the east, Turkey faces three potential enemies: whatever their own differences and secret hopes for each others’ rapid dismemberment, Russia, Austria and Italy are likely to be united in their plans for Turkey.

Of the three, Russia is both the biggest threat and the best hope of an ally. I have said something in the Russian chapter on the notorious ‘juggernaut’ alliance. From the Turkish side of the Black Sea I regard this with mixed feelings: it is still true that the partnership can sweep all before it, but it is also true that Russia is apt to get the better of the bargain. I am not entirely sure why it should be so, but Turkey always seems to be overstretched the Turkish units advance through the Mediterranean in line-ahead formation, while the Russian armies roll westwards in a solid phalanx. Russia gains centres more frequently, and has only to wait for a season in which Turkey has no builds due, then build a fleet in Sevastopol and slide the knife in.

If Turkey contemplates a long-term alliance with Russia, therefore, he should enforce some pretty strict safeguards (Russia will often accept them, being arrogant enough to assume he can shrug them off when the time is ripe, but if Turkey handles them carefully he can get Russia quite efficiently tied up). The one to avoid is perhaps the most frequently seen, no doubt because Russia cunningly suggests it himself: this is the occupation of Rumania by a Russian fleet and Armenia by a Turkish army, with repeated stand-offs in Sevastopol — this, of course, simply ensures that Sevastopol is always vacant for a build!

Something has to be done to restrict the south Russian fleet, certainly. One solution, for the courageous Turk only, is to shepherd it out through Constantinople and let it form a part of the Turkish naval forces in the Mediterranean theatre. This is in fact extremely sound for Turkey ~f the initial maneuvre can be carried out safely, which may require some very careful tactical manipulations. Better still is the voluntary disbandment of the fleet following a pre-arranged Turkish attack; this is the only circumstance in which the initiative genuinely passes to Turkey, and few Russias are likely to accept it. My recommendation is that you start by demanding the ‘disbandment’ safeguard, and when Russia refuses you magnanimously settle for a compromise: the Russian fleet is to be returned to Sevastopol after establishing occupation of Rumania, while you occupy Bulgaria with a fleet on the east coast, and the two repeatedly stand each other off in Rumania. Serbia, Budapest, Galicia, Ukraine, Armenia and the Black Sea are to be left vacant (or a second confrontation can be arranged between a Turkish A(Ser) and a Russian A(Bud), which constantly attack each other). This scheme of things is virtually foolproof: Russia can only stab you at the cost of losing Rumania, which gives you a build — obviously F(Ank)! If you can set the position up successfully, you should be fairly sure of at least a draw, and in fact you may be able to obtain a small initiative: e.g. if things so develop that you find yourself building two units one winter to Russia’s none. Should this occur (and it will be rare), you can if you see it coming order F(Bul)(ec)—B LA, build F(Con), A(Ank); or simply build the innocent A(Smy) and order it to Armenia in the spring. However, the system is open to the criticism that it permanently blocks the Constantinople bottleneck, forcing you to convoy any army that you want to move westwards. Even so, I can only stress again that this alliance is worse than useless as a winning prospect unless adequate safeguards are built in.

Relations with Austria are extremely difficult. He will know the horrific figures: in only one per cent of games, if that, do Austria and Turkey occupy the first two places — the success of one and the survival of the other are almost totally incompatible. This is obvious enough even if he doesn’t know the statistics: a glance will show him that his traditional colonies of Serbia and Greece are right between Turkey’s jaws. If Austria is going to do well, he has to ensure that no fleets can come against him from the east: that means eliminating Turkey, and blockading Constantinople.

I honestly do believe that a long-term alliance between Austria and Turkey is just not possible, unless quite exceptional personal circumstances dictate it (if I play Turkey and Austria is played by an incredibly beautiful nymphomaniac blonde, she’ll have a chance; it would help if she was rich too, but I suppose she would be). However, short-term liaisons are common enough — no, forget the blonde, I’m back to theory — and can as easily be turned in Turkey’s favour as in Austria’s.

Austria’s concern early on will naturally be to cause a war between Turkey and Russia, the more laborious and complex the better. If you can convince him of your good intentions in this respect, you have a chance, especially if he is under attack from Russia and/or Italy. He will be particularly helpful if Russia appears to be getting a free ride in the north, ensuring that your progress will be slight. He is unlikely to go so far as to offer to support you into Rumania in autumn 1901, as that would give you an army adjacent to one of his home centres, and potentially two armies against Serbia; but he may well accept an offer of support from you. There are some pretty doublecrosses available in this diplomatic climate. An extended example will show the sort of position that can arise.

In an opening season where everyone but Italy has made moves highly favourable to you (though all of them are common enough openings) the relevant moves are as follows:

ENGLAND F(Lon)-ENG, F(Edi)-NTH, A(Yor)-Wal

GERMANY F(Kie) -Hol, A(Mun)-Ruh, A(Ber)-Kie

RUSSIA F(StP)(sc)-GOB, A(Mos)—StP, A(War)—Gal, F(Sev)-Rum

TURKEY F(Ank)-B LA, A(Con)-Bul, A(Smy)-Con

AUSTRIA A(Vie)—Tri, F(Tri)—Alb, A(Bud)—Ser

ITALY A(Ven)-Tri, F(Nap)-I ON, A(Rom)-Apu

Your pre-game Diplomacy was, we’ll say, non-committal: you promised Austria that you would move to BLA but said you could not make any firm guarantees about going to Armenia; and you managed to give Russia the impression that you would not go to BLA, but were careful not to say so in as many words! Russia promised to go to Galicia and did; Austria said he would play ‘the usual boring routine opening’ and has. The Italian move to Apulia, characteristic of the Lepanto Opening (see Italian chapter), strongly suggests that the stand-off in Trieste was a phoney, though you naturally don’t hint at this in your dealings with Austria, preferring to congratulate him on his brilliant guesswork.

In this position your strategy for the coming season is crystal clear, and your overtures should be as follows:

To Italy: ‘Get your hands off Austria, you swine. Can’t you see that Russia’s going to walk away with this game?’ (This serves no particular purpose except to give the impression you have been fooled by the stand-off in Trieste.)

To Austria: ‘Ouch. I wish I’d gone to Armenia — you were right. Russia’s really put in some hard work, and got a tremendous position: he’s unopposed in Sweden, and he’s likely to get Norway as well; what’s worse, you can’t afford to defend both your home centres, so he might even get one of those. Look, we can’t let him get jour builds, for God’s sake; I suppose I could have a go at Sevastopol, but that might not work. ... Hey, I know what! I’ll use both my units to support you into Rumania ! It’ll mean you can’t support yourself to Greece, of course, but Italy’s unlikely to go there anyway. I know it won’t actually benefit you, because you can’t occupy Ser as well, but at least it’ll be one build Russia doesn’t get. Then all you have to do is order A(Vie)—Tri, keeping the grease-balls out, and you should get a build and be able to retake whichever centre Russia decides to go for. Of course, he may decide to get clever and order A(Gal) S AUSTRIAN A(Ser)—Bud to spoil your self-stand-off — these novices are always trying that chestnut. It can’t work out too badly, anyway.’

To Russia: ‘Well done — very pretty! What? ... Oh, the Black Sea — no, I don’t think I actually promised not to go there, did I? Anyway, listen to my suggestion — I think you’ll agree it’s just as well I did. The thing is, you don’t wantfour builds — asking for trouble, that is. Well, Austria’s asked me to support him from Ser—Rum and attack Sev, and I’ve agreed ... put that axe down and listen, will you? Now, he’s admitted that the stand-off in Trieste was a fake, so he’s going to order A(Tri)—Ser. He’s hoping to get three builds, the sucker. I’ve fixed it with Italy that he takes Trieste this time, so all you have to do is decide which you prefer — Vienna or Budapest. Italy will keep Austria out of Greece (that’s the advantage of diverting the Serbian army, see?), so Austria and Italy finish with only one build each and you get three. I only get one, but I eliminate your southern fleet — that’s worth a build to me, and we can form a really strong alliance once the fleet situation is cleared up. ... If you don’t trust me you can always order F(Rum)—Sev, and if I’ve double-crossed you, you can build a new fleet. ...‘

To England: ‘For God’s sake keep Russia out of Norway! Or have you settled for second place?’

Having thus prepared the ground, you have to judge reactions from the others. But you have left yourself several options open. Perhaps the most important reaction will be England’s: if he shows no interest in Norway, your best bet is probably to stick to the exact letter of what you promised Russia. But if England is going to be co-operative, you can afford to stab Austria, without too much fear of a subsequent Russo-Austrian alliance forming against you. This of course you do by ordering F(BLA) S AUSTRIAN A(Ser)—Rum, A(Bul)—Ser, A(Con)—Bul. This can hardly turn out badly. Why, you might even be able to patch up relations with Austria — you didn’t say you wouldn’t take Serbia, did you?

This lengthy example should serve to illustrate the kind of relations that can go on between Turkey and Austria: prickly, devious, but stopping short of open war. The problem of commitment is a serious one for Turkey: more than any other player, he will find it difficult to remain on the fence until his neighbours have committed themselves, but skilful exploitation of Austria’s own duplicity may enable him to keep the issues opaque for long enough.

Between Italy and Turkey there can be little but out-and-out hostility. True, they can co-operate very effectively in the dismemberment of Austria; but if Turkey does well out of this, Italy is likely to be next on the menu; and if Italy does better, Turkey will find himself with a heavy obstacle to be moved before he can expand along his traditional sea routes. Each is likely to be the second victim (after Austria) if the other allies with Russia; while an alliance between Austria and Italy against Turkey is both popular and effective. Most of the successful Italy—Turkey alliances I have seen have been of the unnatural ‘cartel’ type — unbreakable pacts, verging on the unethical, in which the alliance becomes an objective in itself, more important than victory, with a draw the almost inevitable result. The only recorded Italy— Turkey draw was such a one.

There is an exception, so rare as to be hardly worth recording: when Russia plays the eccentric Livonian System (Northern Variation). This total commitment to the north by Russia gives Turkey a genuine alternative to westward expansion in a lasting alliance with Italy against Russia and Austria. However, my acquaintance with this is confined to theory — I doubt whether it has ever actually occurred.

What more is there that can be said? I admit to irrational prejudice against Turkey; it just doesn’t suit my style. I like to have an interest in every corner of the board, whereas Turkey’s activities are likely to be permanently confined to the south-east, and relations with the western powers are quite often non-existent. So far I have been quite successful at avoiding it; and I hope to continue being so.

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

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