(A Personal View on Opening Strategy)

by Stephen Agar

Playing Russia rather frightens me; you have to do well from the beginning of the game in order to keep the momentum necessary to keep your four home centres together. The southern triangle is crucial, for if you have not consolidated your position there to the extent that you can afford to build units elsewhere, then you may well find that you start losing home centres to Germany or England or even both. It looks as though Russia starts the game with a one unit advantage. It might be more accurate to think of Russia as two players who start the game with a combined two units disadvantage. So what are the main options?

Russia can choose to ally either with or against Turkey. The former, the infamous Juggernaut, is a very strong alliance indeed which tends to favour Russia once it gets going, the latter has a more uncertain future, but can result in good short term gains. However, all the time you have to look over your shoulder to see what England is doing. An English army in Norway or a fleet in the Barents Sea in Autumn 1901 will send alarm bells ringing as St Petersburg becomes vulnerable to an English attack.

The fact that St Petersburg often ends up being something of a cul-de-sac for England does not seem to deter many Englands from attacking Russia before France or Germany. On the other hand if Russia dare to send A(Mos) north in S01 she may well secure Scandinavia, but at the expense of a disaster in the Balkans. A real dilemma. With 108 different Russian openings to choose from, at least you have plenty of choice.

What now follows is an Russian openings frequency table from the 1887 finished games that Richard Sharp had statistics for when he published issue 15 of The Number Game about a year ago. All the statistics in this article are based on figures supplied by Richard Sharp and Steve Doubleday, for which many thanks.

Russian Openings >= 0.5 %

Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 30.10%

Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 10.55%

Mos-StP; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 8.37%

Mos-StP; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 6.15%

Mos-Sev; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 5.14%

Mos-Sev; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 4.88%

Mos-StP; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 4.35%

Mos-StP; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 2.44%

Mos-Ukr; War-Sil; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 2.12%

Mos-Sev; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 1.43%

Mos-Ukr; War Std; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 1.27%

Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; StP-GoB; Sev Std = 1.01%

Mos-StP; War-Ukr; StP mis; Sev-Rum = 0.95%

Mos-Ukr; War Std; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 0.95%

Mos-Ukr; War-Sil; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 0.90%

Mos-Lvn; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 0.74%

Mos-Sev; War Std; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 0.69%

Mos-Sev; War-Sil; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 0.64%

Mos Std; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-BLA = 0.58%

Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; StP-Fin; Sev-Rum = 0.53%

Mos Std; War-Ukr; StP-GoB; Sev-Rum = 0.53%

Not What It Once Was

The impression that many have is that Russia is not as successful as it once was in postal Diplomacy, possibly because it is now more fashionable to play defensively at the beginning of the game and waiting to see what happens, rather than embarking on an alliance from the outset. The available statistics do seem to support his theory to some extent. Of the 488 games with Boardman numbers from 1972-1979, Russia achieved an outright victory in 19.46% of games. Applying the same mathematics to the 517 games in the period 1980-88 shows that Russia now only achieves an outright win in 16.44% of games. Therefore Russia's success rate has fallen by more than 15% when you compare the 80's to the 70's, which looks statistically significant to me. However, a similar check on the average number of supply centres held in Autumn 1901 shows little change - in the period 1972-79 an average Russia held 5.38 supply centres in A01, but in the period 1980-88 this had fallen to 5.32, a drop of only some 4.3%.

Interestingly there has been a noticeable change in the way in which Russian openings have been played in the 70's as opposed to the 80's. There has been a massive increase in the popularity of the Southern Defence (Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; Sev-BLA) particularly at the expense of the Austrian Attack (Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; Sev-Rum). In 1972-79 the average yearly frequency of F(Sev)-Rum compared to F(Sev)-BLA was 48.55% to 41.46%. For the period 1980-88 the balance had shifted to 24.74% to 69.1% - the popularity of the move to Rumania has halved while the popularity of the move to the Black Sea has nearly doubled! Could it be that the failure to take Rumania in Spring 1901 accounts for the decline in Russian success? Or is the popularity of the move to the Black Sea because Turkey is more likely to attack Russia? Well, I did a similar analysis of Turkish orders for F(Ank) for the same two periods and whereas the average frequency for the years 1972-79 was 61.95%, the average for the years 1980-88 was 75.83%. So both Russia and Turkey are more likely to go for the Black Sea than they used to, though Russia is the more aggressive. As to which came first the F(Sev)-BLA or F(Ank)-BLA, well it's chicken and egg isn't it.

The following table lists the 8 main openings for Russia and compares the averages of the yearly frequencies for the period 1972-79 and 1980-88.

Common Openings - Trends (all have F(StP)-GoB)

1972-1979 1980-1988
Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; Sev-BLA 20.84% 36.24%
Mos-Ukr; War-Gal; Sev-Rum 15.15% 8.00%
Mos-StP; War-Ukr; Sev-BLA 7.10% 8.92%
Mos-Sev; War-Ukr; Sev-Rum 5.86% 4.02%
Mos-Sev; War-Ukr; Sev-BLA 5.66% 4.83%
Mos-StP; War-Ukr; Sev-Rum 5.59% 3.69%
Mos-StP; War-Gal; Sev-BLA 2.13% 9.88%

Relative Success

In issue 15 of The Numbers Game Richard Sharp published some statistics comparing the opening used by Russia against the final result achieved. To obtain these figures Richard ignored all openings played less than 10 times in 23 years and used Calhamer Points as the yardstick of success (1 point for a win, 1/n for a draw where n = the number of players sharing in the draw). The following table shows the number of Calhamer points you could expect to earn playing the opening in question 100 times. As Richard noted, such statistics have limited value because of the inevitable distortions from NMRs and dropouts, but one thing is clear. Of the six openings featuring A(War)-Gal, five of them feature in the top seven openings - therefore A(War)-Gal is definitely a good idea (especially if you order A(Mos)-StP). The case for F(Sev)-BLA and A(Mos)-StP in themselves remains unproven, though it is clear that A(Mos)-StP is certainly not a disaster. In the above-average openings, A(War)-Ukr only appears when it is accompanied by F(Sev)-BLA, and F(Sev)-Rum generally only appears with A(War)-Gal. Which only goes to show that failing to defend both Galicia and the Black Sea is not a good idea. Similarly, the prospects for an attack on Silesia in S01 do not look good.

Relative Success (F(StP)-GoB in all cases)

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)Std = 21.83

A(Mos)-StP; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)-BLA = 20.48

A(Mos)-StP; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)-Rum = 19.88

A(Mos)Std; A(War)-Ukr; F(Sev)-BLA = 18.48

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)-Rum = 17.27

A(Mos)-Sev; A(War)-Ukr; F(Sev)-BLA = 17.17

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)-BLA = 16.14

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)Std; F(Sev)-Rum = 15.79

A(Mos)-Sev; A(War)-Ukr; F(Sev)-Rum = 13.71

A(Mos)-StP; A(War)-Ukr; F(Sev)-BLA = 13.57

A(Mos)-StP; A(War)-Ukr; F(Sev)-Rum = 11.74

A(Mos)-Sev; A(War)-Sil; F(Sev)-Rum = 11.54

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)Std; F(Sev)-BLA = 7.80

A(Mos)-Sev; A(War)-Gal; F(Sev)-Rum = 7.13

A(Mos)-Ukr; A(War)-Sil; F(Sev)-BLA = 2.27


Head North Young Man?

Taking the usual caveats that this article does not claim to be a thorough analysis, but merely a summary of how I approach playing Russia, I believe the first question that must be answered is do you send two units northwards (A(Mos)-StP)? I think that provided Russia is reasonably certain that he won't face an Austrian move to Galicia and a Turkish move to the Black Sea then she should throw caution to the winds and follow those 24.78% of Russia's who go for Scandinavia from the beginning. The odds are that Germany will not allow you into Sweden in the event that Germany does what 71.8% of all Germanies usually do and opens F(Kie)-Den. I am told (no statistics are available) that it was far more common for Russia to get Sweden in A01 in the 70's than today, but the fashion these days is for Germany to try and keep the Russian genie in the bottle. The extra army in the north can tip the balance into persuading Germany to turn on England, or failing that it can at least ensure that the Russian position does not crumble in Spring 1902. Remember that Russia can be very vulnerable to attack from England in 1902 or Germany in 1903 for want of that second unit in the north from the beginning.

A move of A(Mos)-StP does not necessarily bring quick success. Norway is seen as the traditional first build for England and 64% of Englands open to NWG and NTH, in which case you cannot prevent England from taking Norway in A01. If the failure to get Norway is combined with a stand-off over Sweden then geography will prevent a combined attack on either Norway or Sweden in S02, unless you choose not to go for Norway at all with A(StP) and order A(StP)-Fin. In turn a move to Finland in A01 has the disadvantage that the inevitable English unit in Norway can move to (or retreat to) StP, which rather defeats the purpose of a Northern Opening.

Of course two units in the north means vulnerability in the south and there is no easy way out of this problem. If you haven't got nerves of steel you may decide that the A(Mos)-StP opening isn't for you. The main problem with only two units in the south is that to cover against an early attack from either Turkey or Austria you really need to open to Galicia and the Black Sea (which when combined with A(Mos)-StP and F(StP)-GoB has been christened as the Octopus and advocated by Richard Sharp for many years). That's fine as far as it goes, but it does raise the possibility of no builds in 1901 - if there are stand-offs over BLA and Gal then Russia can only attack Rumania with a single unit in the Autumn which Austria or Turkey could stand-off. Furthermore, by trying for Rumania in the Autumn at all you could lose the Black Sea to Turkey. Therefore, the Octopus (frequency some 6.15%) is for those who believe that either the move to Galicia or the move to the Black Sea will succeed. If you have every reason to believe that both moves will be stood-off then I think that Russia needs the extra muscle of A(Mos) to protect its stake in the Balkans.

Another option is to still send A(Mos)-StP, but order A(War)-Ukr and F(Sev)-BLA in the south. The advantage is obviously that the two southern units can combine on Rumania in A01, the disadvantage is the vulnerability to an Austrian move to Galicia which lays Warsaw open to a sneak attack. Richard Sharp characterised this opening as a limp Octopus and thus christened it the Squid (frequency 8.37%). The remaining two permutations are to order F(Sev)-Rum combined with A(War)-Gal or A(War)-Ukr. I would not recommend either of these openings as they leave Russia very vulnerable to a Turkish attack, while the latter is tantamount to suicide if Austria and Turkey occupy Galicia and the Black Sea respectively. Whatever you decide to do with A(War) and F(Sev) the available statistics clearly suggest that A(War)-Ukr is less likely to lead to a win than F(Sev)-Rum.

South for the Sun?

Any bold move is brilliant if it works, foolish if it doesn't. If you are deeply unsure of your two southern neighbours and suspect the worst, then you may be wise to forsake my preferred northern opening and push A(Mos) south. Your objectives are threefold: to protect the integrity of the Russian home centres, to get at least one build and to be in a position to influence events in 1902.

Turkey orders F(Ank)-BLA 71.25% of the time and when it does it is accompanied by A(Smy)-Arm one times in three. Even if a sure alliance with Turkey can be stitched up, a combination of F(Sev)-Rum and F(Ank)-Con will set alarm bells ringing throughout Europe, especially if linked to A(Mos)-Ukr. For many the need to protect Sevastopol is paramount and they would recommend a move to the Black Sea, possibly as part of a pre-arranged stand-off with Turkey. I am not so sure. As I indicated above the move to the Black Sea has become more popular as Russian success has declined. There is an argument that it is more important to get a build then to keep Turkey out of the Black Sea. On balance I would probably bottle out and cover it, but a braver man might think twice.

I feel honour bound to mention the possibility of ordering F(Sev) to stand, given the fact that this opening tops the relative success table above. I would guess the reasoning is that it is agreed with Turkey that the Black Sea will be demilitarised and that Turkey will not move there if he knows that Russia will end S01 with F(Sev), A(Ukr) and either A(War) or A(Gal). The disadvantage is that if Turkey replies with a Russian Attack (F(Ank)-BLA, A(Con)-Bul, A(Smy)-Arm) then Turkey can be sure of taking Rumania unless Austria intervenes (A(Bul) S F(Ank)-Rum; A(Arm)-Sev).

I am less equivocal in recommending A(War)-Gal. In a game I am currently playing in as Austria in Bloodstock I walked into Warsaw in Autumn 1901 and Moscow in Spring 1902, just because Russia let me into Galicia on the first move. Austria may well say that the move to Galicia is necessary self-defence, but if Russia permits that move to succeed, Austria is then in a position to threaten both Warsaw and Rumania. The statistics above as to how successful Russia is when it fails to move to Galicia speak for themselves. If you are interested Austria moves to Galicia only some 44.79% of the time and supports herself in only 0.83% of games. So if you go for Galicia, you have a 50/50 chance of getting in. However, remember that because F(Ank)-BLA is so popular, there is a 31.91% chance that you will be facing an Austrian move to Galicia in combination with F(Ank)-BLA.

There is always the temptation to order A(War)-Sil. Resist it.

That only leaves A(Mos). A(Mos)-Sev is extremely anti-Turkish. If your aim is to go for Rumania then a move to Ukraine is just as good, but Sevastopol puts leverage on Armenia which is the back door to the Turkish home centres. If, as suggested above, you decide to order F(Sev)-BLA then the move to Sevastopol is useless unless you can be certain of taking the Black Sea. That only leaves A(Mos)-Ukr which is the preferred option. The move to Ukraine means that you have two units on Galicia (assuming the move there didn't succeed) and two units on Rumania. That at least maximises your chance of a build whatever happens, though Russia can never be guaranteed a build if Austria and Turkey co-operate.


Early diplomatic objectives should be (1) try to keep Austria out of Galicia, (2) persuade Turkey not to move to the Black Sea, (3) encourage England to attack France and (4) encourage Germany to move F(Kie)-Hol. A(Mos)-StP is a strong opening provided you are sure that you can take either Galicia or the Black Sea. If you suspect that you are going to be the odd one out in the Balkans, then push A(Mos) south. Order A(War)-Gal. F(Sev) will usually go to BLA, but keep an open mind. A(Mos)-Ukr keeps your options open. Whatever you do, get a build!

First published in Spring Offensive No.10


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