The Lack of Diplomacy Opening Theory
By Jamie Dreier
is an essay I wrote for and distributed to players in my Newbie game, Younguns.
I had given the players some standard (Gamers' Guide Second Edition) comments on
their opening moves, but said that I would not comment much after that. I
decided to explain why not: why there is nothing general and standard and useful
to say about openings beyond the relatively simple remarks from the Gamers'
believe there are two reasons. It is instructive to compare Diplomacy with
chess, which has voluminous opening theory, and with backgammon, which has much
less, but still a substantial amount of opening theory.
is an extremely obvious difference between Diplomacy, on the one hand, and chess
and backgammon, on the other, and that is the number of players. Two player
games are not susceptible to coalitions. Everything that's good for one player,
in chess or backgammon, is bad for "every other" player in the same
game. And this means that tactics dominate those games completely. Once you find
the tactically best move, you know what your best move is. It is a mistake in
Diplomacy to assume that the tactically best move is the overall best move. Let
me explain by an example.
speaking, it is almost always better to have more centers than fewer. That is,
comparing two possible future positions, you should almost always prefer the one
in which you have more centers, from the tactical point of view. But it is a
notorious fact that for some powers, rapid early expansion is to be avoided like
the plague. This is a consideration for every power, but for some more than
others. Russia is especially vulnerable. If Russia gains four centers in the
first two years, she looks so big and threatening that she is likely to attract
a coalition against her. Even an eight-center Russia cannot survive a concerted
attack by England, Austria, and Turkey (say). In the endgame this matter is even
more touchy than in the opening.
rate of growth, there is commitment to an ally. It is pretty easy to see why the
Churchill opening is superior, tactically speaking, to A(Lpl)-Yor. A(Lpl)-Edi
preserves the possibility of convoying across NWG, and has no tactical
disadvantages compared to A(Lpl)-Yor. But, England might wish to signal an
intent to ally with Germany. She might hope to persuade Germany to move against
Russia, or at least to remain neutral in a coming war against Russia. A(Lpl)-Yor
almost proves that England will be convoying across NTH, likely leaving NWG free
to move to the Barents Sea, and ruling out F(NTH)-Den, F(NTH)-Hol, or F(NTH)
moving into or supporting a French move into Belgium. If diplomatic
considerations favour alliance with Germany, A(Lpl)-Yor may be preferable to the
Churchill, despite its tactical inferiority.
this is one main reason that there is little in the way of opening theory in
Diplomacy. Whatever tactical considerations might be adduced, they can always be
swamped by diplomatic ones. And diplomatic considerations are much less
susceptible to analysis, depending as they do on psychology, and on extremely
for the second reason, a less obvious one. Allan Calhamer, Diplomacy's creator,
said that there is no luck in Diplomacy after the initial random assignment of
powers. He was mistaken. Diplomacy does have lots of luck in it. Let's see why.
fix ideas, take this fairly common scenario. Turkey has made peace in the
opening with her neighbours, leaving her free to sail out into the
Mediterranean. Getting the jump on Italy, and probably with an assist from an
Austrian fleet in Greece, Turkey dislodges the Italian fleet in Ionian, which
retreats to TYS. Italy, let's suppose, has no army available to defend Naples.
Turkey has two main options. She can order F(ION)-Tun, or F(ION)-Nap. F(ION)-TYS
might be good, too, but let's suppose Turkey feels she needs the immediate build
if possible.) Italy also has two options: she can defend Tun with F(TYS)-Tun, or
she can defend Nap with F(TYS)-Nap. Now, which is the better move for Turkey?
Well, there is no better move. Suppose F(ION)-Nap were better. Then Italy would
be able to tell that it was. So Italy would order F(TYS)-Nap. That means F(ION)-Nap
is not as good as F(ION)-Tun, for obvious reasons! Likewise, F(ION)-Tun could
not be the 'better' move. There is no "better move," tout court, here;
there are only the better move given that Italy orders F(TYS)-Nap, and the
better move given that she orders F(TYS)-Tun. And Turkey doesn't know which
Italy will order.
speaking, Turkey must adopt a "mixed strategy." This is a term from
game theory. It means that Turkey should be introducing a randomising factor,
say, the toss of a coin. (It could be a weighted coin -- maybe Turkey believes
that taking Nap will be more damaging to Italy than would taking Tun, and so
will weight her coin toward the Nap side. But her ideal tactical mixed strategy
must give some chance to F(ION)-Tun, and some to F(ION)-Nap. Note that Italy is
also forced into the same strategy. The luck factor is now obvious. To take an
Italian center, Turkey must be lucky. To hold all her centers, Italy must be
lucky. Luck does play a role in Diplomacy.
Note: I have just explained the fact that Diplomacy is a "game of imperfect
information." This is another term from game theory. The idea is this: when
you submit your orders, you don't know what orders others will submit. From the
perspective of the game theoretician, you could pretend that all other players'
orders have already been submitted and plotted on the board, but you can't see
the board. You have to make your move in partial ignorance of the current
position. You have imperfect information. Since chess has sequential moves, it
is a game of perfect information. Backgammon should be thought of as an
imperfect information game, because each player is ignorant of the dice rolls.
Imagine that a thousand rolls of the dice for each player are made in advance,
but the players can't see what they are. They are revealed one at a time. Think
of these as part of the position, and you see a parallel with Diplomacy.
luck factor in Diplomacy makes the combinations of opening strategies explode.
There are infinitely many possibilities! France could order A(Mar)-Bur, or A(Mar)-Spa,
or A(Mar) S A(Par)-Bur (among the plausible openings). That's three. But she
could also toss a coin to decide between A(Mar)-Bur and A(Mar)-Spa. And she
could give the coin any one of an infinite number of weightings.
explosion of possibilities threatens to make opening theory unmanageable. The
explosion can be tamed to some extent, temporarily. Compare backgammon, where
first moves for each possible opening dice roll are well-analysed, but there is
virtually no opening theory after that. Diplomacy is similar. Both are games of
imperfect information, where luck is a factor, and the variety of probabilities
leaves analysis in the dust.
believe that these two factors -- the combinatorial explosion engendered by the
information imperfection and the infection of tactics by considerations of
allegiance, coalition, and diplomacy -- are what make the game so interesting;
that these are responsible for the remarkable absence of useful opening theory
article is reprinted from The Diplomatic Pouch No.1
I see the thrust of this article I disagree with it on several points of detail.
For example, the Northern Opening, Edinburgh Variation (which the Americans call
the Churchill Opening) is by no means clearly superior to the Yorkshire
Variation, for the simple reason that the former may end up denying England any
build at all if Russia opens with a Northern Opening and France orders F(Bre)-ENG.
The move to Yorkshire means that England can still put two units on Norway if
necessary and cover London. Indeed, unless England has a particular reason to
leave his options open for convoying with NWG or NTH, I would say that the
Yorkshire Variation is undoubtedly the wiser move. You will note from the
Richard Sharp article elsewhere he called the Yorkshire Variation
"obviously superior". Which goes to show there may be merit in knowing
the basic of opening theory after all!
to the out and out guesses, I believe these happen far less often than James
makes out. The Tun or Nap dilemma which James refers to probably wouldn't be
such a dilemma in real life - other factors would determine which centre Italy
would rather lose if he had to and Italy would be sensible to order accordingly
(to attempt to out-guess Turkey and lose the more valuable centre would be less
than optimum play, unless diplomatic leads suggest that the chance of success is
good). There are so many other factors to take into account around the
Mediterranean (Where are the French? Will Italy get a build that season anyway?
Where is the next Turkish fleet? Is Turkey in a position to convoy into the
mainland? etc. etc.) that the optimum strategic play will be apparent to Italy
and the consequences of attempting a double-bluff and failing will be obvious.
believe that Opening Theory in Diplomacy is useful for the first year, not the
first move. Unlike Backgammon, the position of the pieces after the first two
moves is crucial and the choice of opening does directly influence how many new
centres you can take and how many of your own home centres can be taken by
others. Some openings are "safer" than others, but can lead to fewer
gains (e.g. a Southern Hedgehog compared to a Balkan Gambit, Budapest