The Game of Diplomacy

by Richard Sharp



This chapter takes a further look at the tactical aspect of Diplomacy, a relatively unexplored field, probably because it is rightly regarded as less interesting than the strategy and negotiation aspects of the game. The fact remains that, however well you play, however cunningly you keep your options open, you will occasionally find yourself defending grimly against adamant opponents; and more frequently, one hopes, you will be out on your own driving for the win, with everyone else resolutely trying to stop you. Tactical blunders in winning positions are infuriating and frequent; it is tragic to throw away the fruits of your hard work by carelessness or ineptitude at the last moment. I know - I’ve done it.


Every experienced player knows of the existence of stalemate lines, but few have attempted to describe them in detail.

It is possible to construct a stalemate line at almost any angle across the board, running through Switzerland and out to the edges. Some are more commonly seen than others; a very familiar example is shown in Diagram

3. In this genuine double-sided stalemate position, a Russo-Italian alliance controls the eastern half of the board while England and Germany hold the west. There are exactly seventeen supply centres in each section - not essential for the four-way stalemate though it obviously can be if less countries are involved. The position shown can be held very easily from both sides, as follows:

ENGLAND F(NAf) S F(WMS), F(Spa)(sc) S F(GOL), A(Mar) - Pie, A(Pru) & A(StP) S A(Liv)

GERMANY A(Bur) & A(Ruh) S A(Mun), A(Kie) S A(Ber), A(Ber) S ENGLISH A(Pru)

RUSSIA A(Sev) S A(Mos), A(Ukr) S A(War), A(Gal) S A(Sil), A(Boh) stands

ITALY F(IOS) S F(Tun), F(Nap) S F(TYS), F(Tus) S A(Pie), A(Tyr) stands

Note that the western allies have only thirteen units, their opponents only fourteen. It is of course an essential characteristic of a sound stalemate line that it must embrace as many supply centres as it requires units to hold it.

Diagram 3

Countless variations of the line exist, but not all are perfect from both sides. Diagram 4 shows a position superficially very similar to the preceding one, with the line dividing the board into the same two groups of seventeen centres. The western powers are in the driving seat now, however. They can certainly force the draw if they want it, with the same defensive moves as in the previous example; the eastern allies cannot break the line. But the defences are not solid in the other direction: the Russian A(War) can support Prussia or Livonia, but not both. If the western allies can guess correctly they can break through, though a certain amount of risk is involved, and once the breakthrough occurs it is very difficult for the eastern allies to withdraw to the safety of the previous position, as the critical province of Silesia becomes vulnerable. Good players in the eastern half of the board would probably salvage the draw, but it may well be a close thing.

Diagram 4

Fleets are vital in the making and breaking of stalemate lines. Consider Diagram 5, perhaps rather improbable but extremely striking as an example of the defensive strength of England. Russia and Italy have over-run almost the entire board, though Russia has lost St Petersburg in the process, and with it the vital northern fleet. Yet the seven English units are not hard-pressed to hold off the twenty-seven enemy ones. The Mid-Atlantic fleet attacks Portugal, while one of the others follows up to the Mid-Atlantic with support from the remaining two. Italy’s best efforts are fruitless - whatever he does England will eventually occupy Portugal and gain a build. Once Portugal has fallen to an English fleet the line can be held by a mere six units, enabling England to detach two for offensive operations if he can see any future in so doing. An interesting lesson emerges here for those who wish to make successful attacks westward from the Mediterranean: a fleet in Portugal is a vital part of the attacking force. In the present case, an Italian fleet in Portugal would be able, with great difficulty and expenditure of time, to make its way via the north coast of Spain to Gascony, and so on northward, destroying the English line from behind. The operation would not be without risk : remembering that the ‘coastal crawl’ is illegal, Italy would have to order F(Por)-Spa(nc), F(Spa)(sc)-GOL! It is a position where England could theoretically hold out for ever by guessing right each time (should he attack Portugal or defend the Mid-Atlantic ?). In practice, of course, Italy would eventually prevail. Note that the remarkable position in the diagram is only possible because France and Germany have been kicked out of the game; if any one fleet could be raised by the eastern powers anywhere north of Gibraltar the English defence would crumble very rapidly. The diplomatic position would be very interesting here: Russia must stab Italy to win, and Italy would therefore have to come to terms with England very quickly. In the ensuing readjustment it is quite possible that England would be able to break out in strength and come back into the game. No other country on the board can hold this extreme minority stalemate line indefinitely, though Turkey can - and frequently does -put up a very fierce and prolonged resistance with a tiny number of units.

Diagram 5

Minority stalemate lines are not too easy to find, and require great accuracy in setting them up during actual play. One that can be achieved and quite often is occurs when Russia and Italy are defending themselves against England and France in a four-way ending (other permutations of countries can bring about the same position, but that is the most common). Oddly enough, I played Italy in two postal games at about the same time (1973-DW and 1973-H B) where this situation arose: France and England were in both cases locked in an unbreakable alliance, which forced Russia and myself to adopt the same tactics. In the second game, which proceeded rather the faster of the two, we made a mess of things: I was not then certain what the stalemate line should be, and the inefficiency of my ally hastened the end. This made me more determined than ever to force the draw in 1973-DW, particularly as France in this game had played England in the other, so also knew the score! After more than four years of actual playing time, the surviving nine Italian and four Russian units managed to hold the line against the twenty enemy ones (we had a fourteenth centre, but could not arrange things so as to build for it). The position of the defensive units was as shown in Diagram 6.

Diagram 6

Obviously this line can never be broken. Minor variations are possible -an army in Serbia, for instance, could replace one of the easternmost Italian fleets - but in all essentials the position has to be as described.

It is well worth familiarizing yourself with the few positions of this kind, so that if you do find yourself being pushed rudely backwards (and it can happen to anyone), at least you know a prepared position you can try to hold. Bitter experience has convinced me that ad hoc solutions, devised on the run, simply don’t work; it’s vital to make sure you have the right number of each type of unit to hold the line when you reach it.

The stalemate line is perhaps the most important single concept in Diplomacy tactics. Its effect on strategy is profound. To take a simple example, of which we shall hear more later when discussing English strategy, England’s rather poor record in British postal play is the result of widespread failure to allow for the stalemate line; by the time England has finished messing about in the far north the western end of the Mediterranean will have been sealed for good, and England’s victory chances are completely gone. In the last chapter I mentioned the diplomatic value of the wandering unit, and now we can see its corresponding tactical benefits: one lone unit beyond the stalemate line makes all the difference to whether the line can be held or not. If England can sustain one fleet east of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Russia a fleet west of the Baltic, Austria an army west of Switzerland, and so on, the chances of that country being penned behind a stalemate line are virtually nil. This very elementary strategic truth is often overlooked.


This is the simplest of all tactical coups, and one of the most common. Take the most frequent instance of all: in spring 1901 France starts with the safe, quiet Gascony Opening, F(Bre)-MAO, A(Mar)-Spa, A(Par)-Gas. Italy meanwhile puts an army into Piedmont. France is not at all pressed to keep Marseilles, obviously, but would like to leave it open to build a fleet for use against the insolent Italians. He therefore orders A(Gas)-Mar, A(Spa)-Mar, the self-stand-off; unfortunately Italy can wreck this by supporting A(Spa)- Mar, thus depriving France of one of his builds! This is known as the Reinhardt Gambit, though where the ‘gambit’ comes in is a mystery. Obviously the threat of the manoeuvre is more valuable here than the manoeuvre itself; the possibility of the self-stand-off gives Italy a reasonable alternative to attacking Marseilles, and presents France with an awkward guess.

Another common case occurs in Austria, when Austria begins with the undeservedly popular A(Vie)-Tri (stood off by Italy), F(Tri}-Alb, A(Bud)- Ser, and Russia invades Galicia. Quite often one sees the fatuous self-standoff A(Vie)-Bud, A(Ser)-Bud, F(Alb)-Tri, a panic defence of the home centres; Russia simply orders A(Gal) S AUSTRIAN A(Ser)-Bud, and Austria has kept his home centres but his doom is sealed. An intelligent Austria would of course order A(Ser) S F(Alb)-Gre, A(Vie)-Tri; now he is certain of a build (barring an unlikely Italo-Turkish attack on Greece, in which case Austria might as well pack up and go home anyway). So once again the self-stand-off is not a very good defence, but its threat is enough to cause the opposition an extra guess. It is a minor but useful tactical weapon, seen at its best in situations like the following: England has F(NAO), F(ENG) and F(Bre); he is under attack from the south, and needs a temporary stop-gap defence to ensure that the enemy F(MAO) does not break through into the undefended northern seas. Though the odds are in any case against the attacker, England can make sure with F(NAO)-IRS, F(ENG)-IRS, F(Bre)-MAO. The self-stand-off closes the Irish Sea gap, and the attack on MAO ensures that the enemy cannot open a new gap with a Reinhardt Gambit.


This is a name I coined myself for another common tactical ploy; no one else seems to have thought of an alternative name for it, and it is quite appropriate, so I shall stick to it. Essentially, it is a ‘self-stand-off’ in a province occupied by a hostile unit. Diagram 7, an actual one from a postal game (1973-EB), shows its value. In this game I was experiencing for the first time the tactical nightmare of trying to defend Austria against the dreaded triple attack from Russia, Turkey and Italy. I had survived autumn 1901 quite well, considering, having correctly guessed that the inept Russian player would go for the flashy play of supporting the self-stand-off in Budapest (mentioned disparagingly above), and that Italy would move to Tyrolia rather than attacking Trieste with no certainty of success. As a result I had obtained two builds, but by an incomprehensible blunder of the kind often seen when provisional builds are being used (see chapter 10) I had built a useless fleet in Trieste instead of the badly needed army.

Diagram 7

Ultimately, of course, there is no defence in these positions, but while mounting a desperate diplomatic offensive to try to split the triple alliance I had to find the best stop-gap defence; I had one offer of assistance, in that I was reasonably sure the German A(Mun) would attack Tyrolia. Note the total uselessness of standing and supporting: every possible support can be cut. The scissors in Galicia works admirably, though: A(Vie)-Gal. A(Bud)- Gal prevents A(Gal) supporting any attack anywhere, the usual object of the scissors; moreover if A(Gal) moves out by dislodging one of the armies attacking it (e.g. A(Rum) S A(Gal)-Bud) the other army moves into Galicia and Warsaw is defenceless: ‘Koning’s Rule’, incorporated in the 1971 rules revision, specifies that no stand-off can occur in this case - ‘a dislodged unit has no effect on the space from which its attacker came’. This would not be a very happy result for me, true, since Italy could take Trieste, but as so often it is the threat that counts. I made sure Russia was aware of the disadvantage to himself in attacking me in this way, knowing that he was not the type to accept a personal reverse for the benefit of his allies. Armed with this certainty I was able to put up the best defence possible in the circumstances; shortly afterwards Italy decided there was nothing in this for him, and joined forces with me to attack Turkey.

The scissors occurs most commonly in very crowded areas around the centre of the board, where a defender needs to make two armies do the work of three.


This tactical device is very entertaining; it is the one case where two countries working in unison have the advantage over a single country. The case quoted has arisen in two games I have played, so I judge it to be a fairly common one.

Austria and Germany are attacking Italy, and looking for a quick kill. The relevant units are Austrian A(Tyr) and A(Tri), German A(Ven), Italian F(Nap). Note that if A(Ven) is Austrian as well, Austria cannot be sure of taking Rome or Naples in the next two seasons; he has to outguess Italy, moving to either Rome or Apulia, whichever the Italian fleet does not go to. With the two countries, there is no problem: the German A(Ven) stands, and Austria attacks it with support! Germany now has the advantage of ‘moving’ (i.e. retreating) after Italy, and there is no problem. The manoeuvre is quite common and worth remembering. If, however, the Italian F(Nap) is replaced by A(Rom), Germany must attack Rome; if A(Ven) stands Italy can ruin the coup by supporting it, an attractive resource!


This is one of the rarer tactical ideas, but highly satisfying when it does occur. The following example comes from a face-to-face game played in 1973.

Russia has just launched an attack on Germany, successfully grabbing Denmark in an autumn season; the relevant units in spring are Russian F(BAL), A(Pru), A(Nor), A(Den); German A(Ber), A(Kie), F(HEL), A(Bur). Russia can be reasonably sure that Germany will order F(HEL) S A(Kie)-Den, A(Ber) stands, A(Bur)-Mun; this appears to tie down F(BAL) to the defence of Denmark, thus saving Berlin until A(Bur) rolls up to provide the necessary support. Russia keeps the initiative neatly by looping A(Kie):

F(BAL) C A(Den)-Kie!, A(Nor)-Swe, and probably A(Pru)-Sil, which is a better tactical position for this army. Russia is now virtually certain of gaining a further centre, which seemed very improbable before, though Germany may still survive with inspired guesswork.

The loop is occasionally useful in the Constantinople area as well, though there are not many recorded instances of its being brought off successfully. Interestingly, it was illegal under the old rulebook, in the opinion of some experienced American gamesmasters.


I came across this one in the splendid international game 1974-N, already mentioned earlier in this book. France and Germany were in the process of setting up England for a quick kill early in the game, always a difficult task unless plans are laid very carefully. As often occurs, there had been a minor disagreement in 1901 over the ownership of Belgium, which had remained precariously neutral. In 1902 France and Germany agreed to let England take Belgium : their motives were not entirely altruistic, however, and it was agreed that the English fleet in the North Sea must occupy Belgium itself, and not convoy an army in. To ensure that England did as he was told, France ordered an army to Belgium, while Germany ordered another army to support English F(NTH)-Bel. This ~conflict’ would guarantee that England could not change his mind and put the army in (‘Sorry, chaps, I misunderstood’). The tactic is not as common as one might think, though I can recall using it in a postal game when an unreliable ally was supposed to be taking a vacant enemy supply centre, so that (to ensure at least that one of us took it) I found myself ordering A(Mos)-StP, A(Liv) S GERMAN A(Fin)-StP. Schizophrenic indeed.


Strictly speaking, annihilation is not a tactical move in itself. However, it is an often overlooked point that the annihilation of an enemy unit may be worth considerable sacrifices. One of several mistakes I made while converting my winning position in 1974-N into a losing one was underestimating the power of a Russian fleet that had broken out behind my lines in the north. I was worried about the growing menace of a Franco-Turkish alliance moving against me from the south, and decided the Russian fleet was only a pin-prick. In fact, as usual, it managed to tie down several vital units in defence against a mere one; had I reacted earlier and spared one more unit to guarantee the annihilation of the troublesome fleet, the temporary loss of ground in the south would have been a modest enough price.

In an earlier game, 1973-AK, I managed things rather better: two Italian armies had managed to squeeze through a gap in my southern defences (I was playing Russia this time), and were making a damned nuisance of themselves occupying my centres two at a time. I pulled back two extra armies from the front, allowing Italy to press forward a little in that area, and eventually hunted the two raiders down in Rumania and Bulgaria, annihilating them simultaneously with a satisfying crunch. The sacrifice was well worth while, as the territory lost to Italy elsewhere was eventually regained and this time I was able to use all my armies at the front, instead of having to maintain a police force in the rear.

The self-stand-off comes in handy when playing for annihilation, enabling two units to cover three of the possible retreat spaces.

It is a most important point to remember, when you have established a roving unit, not to let it wander into places where it can be too easily annihilated. Most provinces have five or so adjacent territories offering a choice of retreats, but some have too few for comfort. Many a fleet has come to grief in the Skagerrak ; many an army has been hopelessly squashed in Denmark. Worst of all is Portugal, the only province on the board from which retreat is always impossible!

Particularly valuable, especially for England, is the annihilation of all fleets in your area. As England I make it a high priority to try to squash any fleet remaining west of Gibraltar; Turkey, too, finds his defences immeasurably stronger once the Russian fleet from Sevastopol has been disposed of.


Disbandment of a unit in order to build another unit elsewhere is a familiar tactical manoeuvre. It is essentially the same as annihilation, except that the country being attacked is assumed to exercise a choice; in fact it is possible that no choice exists, but the principle is always the same provided that the ‘victim’ has consented to the destruction of one of his units.

The object is in many ways similar to annihilation - the removal of a single unit, generally a fleet, whose type makes it a constant threat.

A fine example of this sort of ploy occurred in the postal game 1976-HO, a supposedly expert game in which I, as England, had weathered some not very expert attacking from France and Germany, and now wanted to start the process of eliminating all rival shipping concerns in my area. The opportunity arose when Germany incautiously retreated to the dead-end Skagerrak. This allowed a double coup leading to a dramatically improved position:

first I supported the northern Russian fleet into the Skagerrak, annihilating the German one; and on the following turn I attacked the Russian one, with Russia’s permission, enabling him to disband it and rebuild an army in Sevastopol. This suited me admirably; I wasn’t sure that Russia was so delighted about it, though, so I made sure that no retreats were available, and Russia naturally ‘disbanded’ with a good grace.


By way of conclusion to this chapter, here is one of the many known variations of the so-called ‘Pandin’s Paradox’. This is mainly for entertainment, as such positions never occur in play. However, it is relevant in one way:

it serves to show that the rules of Diplomacy are not yet cut and dried, and that it may occasionally be possible to exploit a loophole, real or imaginary, in them.

This particular paradox first appeared in issue 47 of Erewhon, an American zine produced by Rod Walker, in 1971, and was formulated by Len Lakofka. The orders are:


ITALY F(Tus) S F(TYS) C A(Rom)-Tun

FRANCE F(WMS) & F(GOL) C A(NAf)-Tus, F(Tun) S F(WMS)

And the paradox is: ‘The Italian attack on Tunis cuts the support for F(WMS), therefore the English attack on WMS succeeds, therefore F(WMS) is dislodged, therefore A(NAf) never arrives at Tus, therefore the support for F(TYS) is not cut, therefore the English attack on TYS fails; but, starting the other end, the French attack on Tus cuts the support for F(TYS), which is dislodged, therefore A(Rom) never arrives at Tunis, therefore the support for F(WMS) is not cut, therefore A(NAf) does arrive at Tuscany, therefore the support for F(TYS) is cut, etc.’ Either interpretation is perfectly sound: the only trouble is that they are mutually exclusive! In all such cases the safest answer is to rule that ‘all units stand’. There are many other such cases in the more serious-minded American Diplomacy press; one should be plenty for present purposes.

A word of advice: if you think you have discovered a new tactic, check with the gamesmaster first to see how he would rule. This precaution saved me embarrassment once. I was conducting a rather nervous invasion of Germany; I had a fleet in the North Sea and an army in London which I wanted to transport into Belgium. I agreed with France that he would convoy my A(Lon)-Bel, while I used the North Sea fleet to support his A(Bel)-Hol - a routine type of manoeuvre in which France runs no risk, since if he fails to gain Holland he keeps Belgium instead. However, I was considering transferring my affections to Germany by ordering A(Lon)-Bel, as agreed, and F(NTH) S A(Lon)-Bel; the French fleet would thus be co-operating in the annihilation of its army colleagues! I did not remember seeing anyone try this before, so I checked with the gamesmaster, who said he would disallow the move under the rule prohibiting self-dislodgement. I was surprised - the rule says that I may not support a successful attack on one of my own units, but it says nothing about convoying. I scrapped the plan without too much regret - its principal attraction had been amusement value, anyway - but still shudder to think what the position would have been if I’d ordered it and had it disallowed. Not easy to explain away. ...

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

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