Pact of Steel

Powers: Italy / Germany

Stage: (Early Game) Mid-game

Primary target(s): France; Austria-Hungary

Also known as… ???

Associated 3-way alliances: Central Triple; Guillotine; Sublime Triple; The Viennese Waltz

The fact that there are no other known names for this alliance tells us that this is not a usual Early Game alliance, although there is an opening associated with it that is, if played, unpredictable. (If you do know any other names for this one, please let me know in the comments.)

I don’t usually start with a note about naming an alliance but, as it breaks my usual rules for naming things (isn’t that what rules are for?), I’m going to do so here.

I’ve named this alliance after the WWII alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This is simply because there is no other historic alignment between the two countries (outside of multi-national ones). I might have gone for something Roman but, frankly, Rome didn’t expand very much into Germania, so that’s a little useless.

Anyway, let’s quickly look at the one aspect of the I/G alliance that is actually useful in the Early Game: the opening that I call the Munich Muddle. Here are the relevant moves (non-key orders in square brackets]:

SPRING 1901Germany: A Mun-Ruh, A Ber-Kie, [F Kie-Den]; Italy: A Ven-Tyl, A Rom-Ven, F Nap-ION

FALL 1901Germany: A Ruh S Kie-Hol, [F Den-Swe]; Italy: A Tyl-Mun, F ION-Tun, A Ven-Pie

WINTER 1901Germany: A(Ber); Italy: F(Rom), A(Ven)

From here, Germany works to get Italy into Burgundy, and Italy attacks France.

Germany is giving Italy Munich with the agreement that Italy will then vacate as soon as possible. Italy’s fleets attack the western Med spaces and France finds themselves having to hurriedly defend. There is an element of surprise with this, especially if France can be persuaded to support Italy into Munich via a false Savoy alliance, but this is lost when Italy moves to Piedmont in F01 and builds a fleet in Rome.

In truth, though, this opening needs to isolate France (England either joins a Guillotine alliance or is persuaded to not interfere) AND Austria-Hungary is aware of what Italy is doing, either within a Central Triple or an Adriatic alliance; after all, the Italian S01 moves look very much like a typical F01 attack on Trieste. At the very least, Austria needs to be persuaded to not order F Tri-Ven in S01.

It’s easy for the Munich Muddle to stall. France can block A Mun-Bur pretty easily, even with a supporting German army in Ruhr. And, if England isn’t along for the ride via the Guillotine, they’re not going to want to see Germany and Italy causing a French collapse without getting some piece of the Garlic bread.

Another possible Early Game alliance between Germany and Italy could see them cooperating to attack Austria-Hungary, of course. Given that the prevailing wisdom is that Germany should stay out of Austria in the Early Game this is unlikely. Austria-Hungary protects Germany from incursion from the other side of the Neutral Zone (the line of non-SC spaces diagonally stretching from the south-west to the north-east of the board that separates the West/North from the East/South).

While the Pact of Steel might form in the Early Game, then, it really doesn’t come into its own until the Mid-game, when Germany and Italy can more effectively tell where they want to work together. This allows Italy to secure themselves from French attack, and Germany builds the northern alliance they want to utilise. The usual Early Game aspect would see Germany not interfering with Italy going after Austria, preferably with Turkey’s help rather than Russia’s, and Italy not threatening Germany from Tyrolia.

In the Mid-game, France is still often the main target. If France has made typical growth in the Early Game, they could well be looking to push fleets into the Med. Given that this brings these fleets too close for Italian comfort, cooperation with Germany seems to be the solution. And, if France isn’t doing this, Italy might well want to take advantage of it!

Given how big a threat France is in the game anyway, Italy should have plans to deal with that, and the Pact of Steel is the most useful solution alongside the Kraken (I/T alliance). The Kraken alliance, though, will almost certainly involve Turkish fleets pushing west at this point and, well, that seems to replace the French threat with a Turkish one. Compared to this, Italy and Germany are somewhat insulated from each other.

Again, Austria-Hungary could be the target Mid-game. If Italy has prospered through an alliance with Austria, then the chances are that the two are fairly well-balanced. If Italy has ambitions beyond being stuck in the high single-digit SC count, then they’ll need to attack Austria at some point. And, if Germany wants to cross the Neutral Zone, Italy is the easiest power to work with (possibly alongside Turkey if Russia is Germany’s target).

All this being said, the Pact of Steel is probably better as a defensive alliance. The two powers, forming a vertical line from north to south across the board, can work together to protect themselves from defeat via an attack from the west or the east. This suggests that the Pact of Steel is best as a way of preventing a loss – surviving – in a game where a Leviathan or Juggernaut is threatening to sweep the board.


The Savoy Alliance

Powers: France / Italy

Stage: Early game (and beyond)

Primary target(s): Germany

Also known as… The Ultimate; The Napoleon

Associated 3-way alliances: The Spaghetti Western; The Swiss Star: The Oktoberfest; The Trident

This isn’t a common Early Game alliance, to be fair, simply because there isn’t very much the two powers can do together, even though they are neighbours. France tends to be invested in the Northern Triangle, whereas Italy is usually kept busy in the Southern Quadrangle. (Yes, I called it a Quadrangle; sue me.)

Given their diverse areas of interest, it is much more common for Italy and France to arrange a NAP (Non-Aggression Pact) and a DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) in Piedmont. Even then, it’s fairly common for neither player to worry overly much about either. Italy moves west so seldom that France isn’t worried about A Ven-Pie, and France is almost always more concerned with Burgundy or taking all of Iberia to be interested in A Mar-Pie.

Every once in a while, though, the Franco-Italian alliance may form with the aim of attacking Germany. It can be a pretty well-hidden alliance, if only because nobody expects the Savoy. Italy moves A Ven-Tyl (often with A Rom-Ven) and France orders A Mar S Par-Bur. Germany finds that Munich is neighboured by Italian and French units but shrugs: Whatchu gonna do?

At this point, Germany may try inviting A Tyl-Mun, and either hope for A Bur-Mun, or try to instigate the order. Result: Italy and France bounce in Munich. Job solved; Germany builds A(Mun) in W01 and the threat’s gone.

If Germany is less cocky than this, as they should be, they’ll probably order an army to Munich, just to be on the safe side. This could mean missing a second build in W01 but, well, Munich’s safe.

If Germany is facing a Savoy alliance, though, Munich is far from safe! France or Italy will support the other into Munich and, even with an army build in Kiel/Berlin, Munich stays occupied.

Who gets Munich? Both France and Italy have good arguments to say that Munich goes to them. For France, Munich is the stepping stone to controlling northern Germany and the Low Countries. For Italy, it’s an important fifth unit (along with Tunis).

For me, Italy should be the player to get Munich. Italy’s gambled on non-aggression with Austria-Hungary to push north, which is a risk in itself. If Austria decides that this presents an opportunity, Italy is likely to need the extra build. Even if Austria doesn’t attack Italy, the next step for Italy is to concentrate their units east, either in Austria-Hungary or the Balkans.

On the other hand, France has Spain and Portugal in the bag. If the Savoy is to prosper, France will concentrate on a northern campaign; with an army in Burgundy and a friendly Italian army in Munich, Germany is going to find it hard to defend against a French attack unless they’ve got England onside.

Added to this is that, as Italy prospers in the light of the Savoy, France can build a decent argument for taking Munich later in the game. Whether Italy should allow this is questionable: it is their defence against a French stab; whether Italy can stop this is another thing altogether.

Here, then, is another weakness of the Savoy alliance: Italy’s comparative poor tactical position against a strong France, regardless of whether Italy takes Munich or not. Italy must prosper quickly elsewhere, using Munich as the springboard to attack Austria-Hungary usually. And they have to ensure that Turkey doesn’t grow as a result of Austrian weakness, as they’ll be pushing through the eastern Med waters.

The fact is that, once Italy has Munich, their attention has to move to the east. That army in Munich is often left to work with French forces moving aggressively towards Germany, and Italy rarely benefits much from French success. France may see fit to support A Mun-Ber once they have Belgium, Holland and Kiel, but this simply makes the two Italian armies in Germany reliant on French support and tolerance. This isn’t a great situation once France is free to stab… unless Italy has succeeded in securing all three Austrian SCs and can defend against France from the south-east.

On the other side of the coin, if France does support Italy into Kiel, they’re given Italy control of two German SCs that prevent further French expansion eastwards. This means France has to rely on fleet builds to overcome England, otherwise they’re boxed in. The only other solution is to push fleets into the western Med seas – which is, in itself, a challenge to Italy.

The only triple alliance that is clearly associated with this is the Spaghetti Western of France/Italy/England. This is incredibly bad news for Germany. England’s inclusion generally means Germany is doomed from the start. But it isn’t a great alliance for France, honestly. I mentioned above that France has to head north against England if they support Italy into Berlin (and make no mistake, Berlin should be an Italian target in a Savoy alliance eventually). With a Spaghetti Western, France is immediately boxed in and must be the player that snaps the pasta, moving against England or Italy, while trying to carry the alliance with the other power along with them. The problem is that the other power really shouldn’t go along with this because – guess what? – they’re next.

An alternative 3-way alliance to bolster the Savoy is the Fig alliance between France, Italy and Germany. In this case, Germany heads east in conjunction with Italy, and supports France against England. The problem the Fig has is that all three powers are more-or-less working independently in the Early Game and simply agreeing to cooperate passively.

Finally, a note on naming this alliance the Savoy.

The House of Savoy was the ruling house of following the unification of Italy. Its connection with France is that it originated in what became the French province of Savoie. Honestly, I could have stuck with the name I originally gave this alliance – the Napoleon – simply because, during the Napoleonic Wars, northern Italy was united as the Kingdom of Italy under the rule of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. It was this, Napoleonic France’s intercession in Italy, that sparked nascent Italian nationalism and led to the ultimately failed rebellion by Italian nationalists against the Austrian Empire in 1848 but also to the successive War of Unification that lead to Italian unity in 1861. And another Napoleon – Louis Napoleon (or Napoleon III), Emperor of the French – was instrumental in giving Italian nationalists the opportunity to defeat the ailing Austrian Empire.

The only other name I’ve found for the I/F alliance, the Ultimate, is certainly an over-exaggeration!


The Leviathan

Powers: England / France

Stage: Early Game (and beyond)

Primary target(s): Germany, Russia

Also known as… The Entente Cordiale; The Western Juggernaut

Associated 3-way alliances: Western Triple; Spaghetti Western; Triple Entente

The E/F alliance is one of the most successful in the game. Given that it is often held to be a mistake, this is surprising.

In his book The Game of DiplomacyRichard Sharp says that E/F is an atrocious idea. Why? Because it favours France over England:

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.

“The Game of Diplomacy.” Sharp, R. Arthur Barker, 25 Jan 1979. Accessed from The Game of Diplomacy, Chapter 4 22 Jan 2023.

He’s speaking here from the perspective of England at the start of the game. From France’s point of view…

England is unequivocally an enemy in the long term. The threat a strong England poses to the French sea areas cannot be ignored. Because of the feeble English habit of becoming unprofitably enmeshed in a Scandinavian war, the eventual conflict is usually resolved quickly and terminally in France’s favour. The only error you need to guard against here is compla­cency: it is tempting to believe in England’s good intentions as he sails away into the midnight sun. Don’t: he probably won’t get a chance to attack you, but if he does he’ll take it. 

“The Game of Diplomacy.” Sharp, R. Arthur Barker, 25 Jan 1979. Accessed from The Game of Diplomacy, Chapter 10 22 Jan 2023.

Here is the major issue with the E/F alliance: England and France are natural enemies, in both Diplomacy and history. For England, France is the only power that can easily get behind you; for France, while England may not be Germany, England is in a unique position to drop their units south later in the game, while France is tied down in the south.

However, all of this theory is nothing more than theory; in reality, certainly in modern play, the alliance is known as the Leviathan (or the Western Juggernaut) for a reason.

If you’ve only heard of one alliance in Diplomacy, it’s probably the Juggernaut (yes, that is the correct way to spell it!). The Russo-Turkish alliance is renowned (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for rolling over the board – which explains the name, of course. Unstoppable.

The Leviathan alliance is, perhaps, not quite as potentially undeniable as the Jug but it’s pretty close, it seems. Despite the tension that exists as the game gets older, E/F seems to be successful.

We have to put this in context. The E/F alliance is very strongly represented in FTF and vFTF games. Online, where the players tend to be less experienced, it’s not quite as visibly successful.

The other reason the E/F alliance is so widely used in FTF and vFTF play is that it is a great tournament/league alliance. In these formats, scoring systems usually mean that gaining a decent number of SCs, possibly playing for a board-topping tie between the powers, will usually give a good result from the game. In a standard, one-off game, where players are more likely to be playing for the solo, while the Leviathan is an ideal way to start, it’s a problem later in the game.

The way this alliance can work is for England to concentrate mostly on building fleets while France focuses mostly on armies. France will need some southern fleets so that they can make progress in the Mediterranean and this can also cause some additional tension – England doesn’t like French fleets!

The two cooperate against Germany, certainly in the Early Game. Once Germany is eliminated (or weakened beyond recovery) then France is often left to finish Germany and move through the Med, while England will concentrate on Russia.

Having said that, England will often allow a decent number of units to push into Scandinavia. This is so they can focus on Germany’s northern most SCs – Denmark and Sweden – while also pushing through to St Petersburg. The chances are that England will also want to get an army in Stp.

The Anglo-French alliance may be the real alliance within false 3-way alliances. One such is the Western Triple (E/F/G), where Germany becomes the prey of the Leviathan as soon as they become a barrier to E/F success.

Another associated alliance is the Spaghetti Western (E/F/I). Italy’s involvement means a quicker breakthrough into Munich for someone (France or Italy – from Italy’s point of view it should be Italy!). As soon as possible, France is then often in a position to stab Italy, as the latter’s units are often concentrated in the east.

A stronger 3-way alliance associated with the E/F is the Triple Entente (E/F/R). In this alliance, Russia is separated enough from E/F that they aren’t as easy a target. Still, England is certainly in a position to do so. What tends to be more likely, though, is that the TE breaks down when France and Russia decide to sandwich England. As England, the only real way to protect yourself is to occupy Brest or St Petersburg… or both!

No matter what follows from the Leviathan alliance, it is clearly a successful one. Unlike the Juggernaut, where Italy, Austria, Germany and England all have a clear interest in stopping it, the only powers that are directly threatened by the Leviathan are Germany and Italy (possibly Russia, though it’s comparatively simple for Russia to block England’s progress if they see it coming). This means that Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia are often slow to see the Leviathan‘s threat.

In the end, France will need to attack England to win, in most cases; England will almost always need at least two French SCs (as well as Spain and Portugal) to win. The problem is that this alliance is often one that is difficult to break down from within.

Which brings us back to the warnings against it.


The Alliance List

I’ve had previous posts about the alliances in Diplomacy but I haven’t really looked at them in any great detail. To some extent, that’s because they depend very much on how players play them.

The idea for this extended series (very extended – it’s a bungee cord of a series!) is that I’ll look at every alliance that’s out there: 2-way alliances, 3-way alliances, and more (well, OK, one more).

This post will simply feature a list of posts. You’ll have to click on each link to find out what I think about the alliance.

I should say that, when I’ve named each alliance, which I probably have for each one, I’ve often used my own name. Not always, though; I’ve used names widely used in the Hobby where I know them. (I’m also going to state at this point that I know there’s an alliance out there called the Behemoth and I’m trying to find which one it is!)

2-way Alliances

England’s alliances

France’s alliances

Italy’s alliances

Germany’s alliances

Austria-Hungary’s alliances

Turkey’s alliances

Russia’s alliances

3-way alliances








Grand Alliance

The Beautiful Game: 2. The Perfect Setting

If you haven’t read how the Great and Good ABC invented Diplomacy, then it’s probably time you did. You’ll understand a lot more about the game by understanding what he was aiming to achieve. There are a number of places you can do this, but try this article: “The Invention of Diplomacy” or this one: “A Dozen Years of Diplomacy” are perfect places to start.

Of these two articles (there is, as you’d expect, some crossover between the two as they’re on the same subject) it is the latter that I want to use today. In “A Dozen Years…” Calhamer has these paragraphs:

People have sometimes asked why I chose the scenario of 1914. That period was a period in which there were several Great Powers which were more or less equal in power. It was a period of alliances and coalitions. It was also a period, as I have indicated above, that we know a lot about today. Europe between the wars is not so good, because … the break-up of Austria-Hungary, the contraction of Turkey, etc., create too great a power vacuum in the Balkans. One game based on the world as of 1940 had to resort to Brazil as a Great Power, to balance the board. The destructiveness of present-day warfare makes it very difficult to model so as to represent the choices at all realistically.

Also, I believe it would be a mistake to model the present, because simple and unrealistic conclusions might be accepted uncritically. Something relevant to the present day can probably be learned from the existing game, but the required carry-over guards against hasty conclusions.

“A Dozen Years of Diplomacy. Calhamer, A. B. Diplomania #12, Aug 1966. Accessed from The Diplomacy Archive, 28 Dec 2022.

So, there you go, reason given.

Well, almost, I suppose…

If you read Calhamer’s articles, you can tell he’s fascinated by the international politics of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Me too.

When I was studying for A-level history, the course involved two branches: British History in the 19th century, and European History from 1789 (the French Revolution) to 1914 (WWI). We didn’t quite cover the latter period of European History. I think the last part of the syllabus we covered was about the ‘Scramble for Africa‘. I was a history buff before studying A-level History… I was well and truly hooked after it, for which I have to thank my teacher, William Barber. He even got me through the part of the O-level syllabus on architecture, and he deserves a helluva lot of credit for that! Gothic, Perpendicular… zzz.

For me, international politics in what is called the ‘Modern Era’ of history – post-(French)revolutionary – is fascinating. The interplay between the major European powers in the period after Napoleon’s defeat; the rise of liberalism (not the misnamed ‘liberalism’ of US politics, by the way, but the rise of the middle classes in politics) and nationalism, and the conflict these movements had with old-style imperialism in Europe; the unification of Italy and Germany, etc. Fascinating.

Following the unification of Germany, Otto von Bismarck took his place on the European stage. Bismarck had been Minister-President and Foreign Minister of Prussia from 1862. He was the major architect of Prussia’s re-emergence as a top level power in European politics. Prior to this, the Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary in Diplomacy) had been the major power in German politics.

The Habsburg Empire (or the Austrian Empire) and the Kingdom of Prussia were the two major powers in the German Confederacy, formed in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna to replace the Holy Roman Empire. This brought the many German states together as a bulwark against further French expansionism after the Napoleonic Wars. However, until 1866, Austria had been the leading power in the Confederacy.

In 1866 Bismarck used the excuse of Austria reneging on the Gastein Convention to launch a war against Austria. The Austro-Prussian War saw Prussia victorious and the Austrian Empire become the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria-Hungary). It was ruled by the Austrian ruling house, but the Kingdom of Hungary had some self-determination. It also saw Prussia ascend to the leadership of the Confederacy.

In short order, Prussia formed the North German Confederation, separating the mainly Protestant northern states from the mainly Catholic southern states, under Prussian leadership. Initially a customs union, the NGC became a political union.

In 1870, the NGC went to war with France. At the time, France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III. It was Bismarck’s intrigues that caused the war; although it is debatable that his publication of the Ems Dispatch had any significant impact in causing the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1, it shows something of Bismarck’s methods: take a carefully edited version of a discussion and publish it. Again, Prussia (the NGC) was victorious. Again, it affected the defeated power: the Second French Empire dissolved, the Paris Commune was formed, and France became a republic again.

The more important outcome was the unification of Germany. The King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in 1871 in Versailles, no less. Bismarck was made Chancellor of the German Empire.

Bismarck was forced to resign as Chancellor in 1890, following a feud with the German Emperor Wilhelm II. He died in 1898.

Bismarck’s foreign policy became known as Realpolitik. This is best expressed as ‘pragmaticism’ – Realpolitik in foreign politics was about studying the national interests of other states and responding to them. Despite some of the tactics Bismarck employed being similar to those of Trump, Bismarck’s strategy had one driving interest: what was best for Prussia and how to achieve it. Trump’s version is clearly what was best for Trump and how to avoid appearing the numbskull he clearly is.

Now, if you haven’t picked up the influences on Diplomacy from this, let’s remind you that, when Calhamer first invented the game, it was called “Realpolitik”. If you want further proof, here’s the first draft or the rules; don’t expect to be able to read them clearly, though!

Of course, Diplomacy starts in 1901, in the post-Bismarkcian era. At that time, Bernhard von Bülow was Chancellor of Germany. However, Bismarck’s influence on European and German politics was so entrenched that any change, in both style and strategy, was almost impossible. The “Dual Alliance” with Austria-Hungary from Bismarckian; the “Triple Alliance” with Austria-Hungary and Italy was Bismarckian; the “Reinsurance Treaty” treaty with Russia was Bismarckian, although it wasn’t renewed after Bismarck left office.

Realpolitik meant taking the most practical route to further your interests. This is the driving idea behind Diplomacy. Bismarck created what has been described as a ‘web’ of agreements with other states. The Dual Alliance with Austria protected Germany and brought the two German speaking powers together. The Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy smoothed over the differences the two other powers had over Austrian lands on the eastern Adriatic coastline, which Italy claimed.

Bismarck strove to alienate the UK from Russia, France from the UK, and Russia from France. He accepted the Entente Cordiale, an Anglo-French agreement aimed at mutual support against German aggression, stating that it didn’t affect German policy. His main aim was to prevent France and Russia allying against Germany; whether this was ever achievable or not is up for debate but it failed under his successors with the Triple Entente, a treaty between the UK, France and Russia. He strove to build a better relationship with Turkey which led, eventually, to the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (Italy being swayed by Anglo-French promises of territory from Austria-Hungary).

Although the period from 1871 is probably more in line with the ideas Calhamer sought to bring into his game, it is clearly the lead up to WWI when the game is set, the post-Bismarckian era. And understanding Bismarck’s policies explains why: no matter what the subterfuge involved in Realpolitik, Bismarck managed to maintain wider European peace post-1871, in terms of keeping the major powers from conflict with each other. From 1901 onwards, German politics saw war as inevitable, specifically against Russia.

Diplomacy is adaptable to other eras. However, given that WWI was a conflict between European powers primarily, this is the perfect era for the game to be set. Calhamer explains why it wasn’t appropriate for other eras, certainly in Europe. Although it has been adapted to other European eras, these require much greater modification of the European state system of the time to make these variants playable.

All of this adds to the beauty of the design behind Diplomacy. There are some aspects of Realpolitik that I’ve heard decried by Dip players. This, for me, is silly; the game is based on Realpolitik – how can you complain about similar methods being used in Diplomacy?

For instance, the forwarding of messages. This has been around for ages: in Postal Diplomacy, letters from one player to another could well be forwarded to a third player. It is frowned upon in the Hobby, mainly because it discourages honesty in the game. In actual fact, it’s probably more likely to make the player who receives the forwarded correspondence trust the player who forwarded it less: if they are doing it to someone else, to whom are they forwarding your correspondence?!?

Bismarck used this a lot, although he went a step further and edited the correspondence. This is, of course, much easier in PBEM or Online play. The point is, of course, in these formats, can you really trust the message sent to you?

The time leading up to 1914 is ideal because the era saw the breakdown of Realpolitik. Europe was heading to war between the major powers, something that Bismarck had prevented. The major powers were playing the game of national interest, and this was probably at its height, just prior to the age of interdependence. It was also the height of multi-power imperialism by influence in Europe.

All of this is captured in the game… when it is played to the Calhamerian design. There’s no era in history which better reflects the design of the game.


SEE ALSO: The Ugly Game

The Beautiful Game: 1. A Unique Strategy Game

When the Great and Good ABC invented Diplomacy, he created a game that was completely unlike anything in the war-gaming or strategy-gaming world to that point. Even today, there is nothing quite like Diplomacy.

At the time, strategy games tended to be 2-player games. There’s nothing wrong with 2-player games, of course, but Diplomacy was the first multi-player pure strategy game. There was Risk but that game used dice. With Diplomacy, the element of chance was removed. (Again, I enjoy games that involve chance, too, but I’m writing about Diplomacy here.)

The only element of chance is in the power you draw at the start of the game. They’re not perfectly balanced (if you’ve ever tried to play a balanced Dip variant, you’ll understand why) and some powers are in a better strategic position than others.

You can, then, be lucky (or unlucky, of course) in the power you draw at the start of the game. However, it’s more about how you play the game in relation to the power you draw. You may have powers you prefer to play, or powers that you play better than others.

You can be lucky in the players in the game. A Dippyist (more experienced Dip player) in a game Diplopups (novices) will be rubbing their hands with glee. You might be in a game with a player controlling a power that borders your own who quits games – you get the benefits from them sloping off in a sulk when things don’t go perfectly while another player on the far side of the board ends up cursing the quitter.

You may get lucky in those situations where you’re making a guess as to which way another player will move, and get that guess right.

But luck isn’t chance. Chance, in a board game, relates to the roll of a dice, the drawing of a card, the spinning of a wheel, etc. In Diplomacy these elements are absent. Instead, you’re playing a game similar(ish) to the strategy of Chess and where the your skills of persuasion are brought to the fore.


The fact that Diplomacy involves 7 players makes it a unique game. Certainly, as I said above, that was the case when Calhamer invented the game. Strategy games tended to like the classics: Chess, Draughts (‘Checkers’ if you prefer), Reversi/Othello, Backgammon, etc. Diplomacy was invented to be played by a group of friends or family.

It means that, while you’re vying for the best tactical position on the board, you’re dealing not with a single opponent, but with another six opponents, all trying to achieve the same goal. It makes it a more complicated game… perhaps. And it makes communication between players so important.


It’s also not a war game. It looks like a war game, sure. It’s based on a modified map of Europe; it has military units; it is about achieving dominance over the continent by imperialist means. But that’s just what happens on the board.

Diplomacy is played off the board. It’s about working with your opponents to achieve your aims. It’s about communicating with other players. It isn’t the only board game about communicating, although that’s stretching the term ‘board game’ to encompass the wider genre of ‘table-top games’. Sure, there are games like Werewolves and Pandemic, some of which are card games, others board games, but these are co-operative games, in which you win or lose as a group. Diplomacy is about cooperation to win as an individual.

Diplomacy is about communication, negotiation, persuasion, cajoling, threatening… all with the aim of achieving your own objectives. It means you have to find ways to buy an alliance that benefits the other person (why else would they cooperate with you?) as well as yourself.

When is a turn not a turn?

Diplomacy isn’t like many traditional board games, such as Monopoly or Ludo, in which players take turns to make their moves. However, it does involve turns.

A ‘turn’ in Diplomacy is a Diplomacy/Movement/Retreats/Adjustments collective. The turns are based on seasonal periods: Spring 1901, Fall 1901, Spring 1902, etc. However, it isn’t about one player moving their pieces about the board, and then other players doing so. You don’t get the chance to respond to moves made by other players in your turn… you don’t get a ‘your’ turn.

In face-to-face Diplomacy games, orders are read out and moves made ‘in turn’. So, the player controlling England might read their orders out first, shuffling their pieces about the board; then the player controlling France will do the same, then Germany, etc.

However, all the orders are said to take place simultaneously. What this means is that the player controlling France can’t change their moves based on what the player controlling England has done. You’ve written your orders, you’ve submitted them, and you have to stick with them. If England had the temerity to move their fleet to Brest, then you can’t change the order for your fleet from moving to the Western Mediterranean Sea to move to Brest! It is, as some would say, a fait accompli. Tough.

Compare this to other strategy games. If black moves in Chess, then white can move to counter it. Not so in Diplomacy: you live and die by the orders you wrote without truly knowing what the other players were planning to do.

There’s no other game like this.

Parity of units

In other war games (again, Diplomacy isn’t a war game but the movement on the board is similar to a war game so I’m going with that) different units have different strengths and abilities. Let’s take Chess, again: pawns can move one space forward; rooks can move vertically or horizontally as many spaces as possible; bishops move similarly to rooks but diagonally; queens – well, they do what the hell they like, as long as it’s in a straight line.

In other games, there are different types of units. A cavalry unit can usually move further (faster) than an infantry unit, for instance, and – in the right situation – is probably ‘stronger’ than an infantry unit (except for those wicked pikemen).

In Diplomacy, the pieces can only move one space at a time, and they are equal in strength. If two armies try to move to the same space, they stand off and bounce back to their starting positions; fleets are equal in strength to armies.

There is truly no game quite like Diplomacy.


SEE ALSO: The Ugly Game

The Beautiful Game: Introduction

I’m not talking about the board. The image above shows, in my opinion, the most beautiful board design available (and, possibly, the best pieces – it’s just a shame that the pieces are slightly too big for the board!). I do love the original European version of the board, though, enough to have mounted it and have it on display!

(I should point out that this isn’t my mounted version.)

I have to admit that my attraction to this version is more emotional than anything. It is gaudy! But it was the first board I had and, well, you never forget your first love. More than anything else, it’s clear. By contract, the original board, published in North America, was a physical representation of Europe in 1901 (adapted for gameplay, of course) and wasn’t anything like as clear, in my view.

And, as I should be concentrating online, Playdip’s map is beautiful, regardless of what you think of the mechanics or the site itself:

The movement indicators aren’t perfect, but that’s just about the only complaint I’d have.

No, here I’m thinking about the game itself, online of FTF, tournament or friendly game. I am going to write about what is beautiful about Diplomacy.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I can look at someone who is conventionally perceived as being ‘unremarkable’ and see them as being beautiful. Hell, I could be beautiful myself… OK, that’s a stretch, but you get the point.

With Diplomacy it isn’t the aesthetics, good or bad, of the game that makes it beautiful, though, but the gameplay.

In this series of posts, I’m going to discuss what, for me (the rest of you can go jump!) makes the game beautiful. There’s a list of posts below that are part of the series.

However, there’s another side to Diplomacy: the ugly side. So it only makes sense to look at what is ugly about the game, too… but that’s for another series!

What do you think? Beautiful or ugly? Let me know!


SEE ALSO: The Ugly Game

Dealing with Bovine Faecal Matter

In a game like Diplomacy, where the real play takes place off-the-board, and you’re dealing with people whose objective is to persuade you that you’re going to be better off doing this rather than that, there’s a lot of bovine faecal matter flying around.

How can you spot it? How do you deal with it? And how can you make your own pile a glittery, fragrant, splodge of attractiveness?

Spotting the BFM

With some people, eventually, you know that if their mouth’s open, or if they’re writing to you, they’re BFMing. They just can’t help themselves. Their ego is bigger than their mouth and it just spills out of them.

This isn’t very helpful early in the game, especially if you’re trying to work with them, of course.

With others, they’re BFM artists, skilled in hiding their outpourings under a pile of sweet-smelling grass. You don’t realise it’s there until you’ve sat down to enjoy the chat with them. When you stand up, you’re walking around with a brown target pasted across your ass.

I was once in a game, playing Italy, and trying to ally with Russia. The player controlling Russia had commitment issues; if I were a betting man, I’d be prepared to put my life-savings on them being single – not that I’d lose much!

I’d successfully attacked Austria and there was, for me, a kind of 3-way alliance with Russia and Turkey in play to cement this attack. I say ‘kind of’ because that’s what was happening on the board. In truth, I was working with each one individually and, in fact, Russia and Turkey were going after each other, too.

In fairness to Russia, I was flirting with Turkey at the same time that I was flirting with Russia. What can I say? I was trying to be some kind of Lothario, getting them both onside while trying to keep control of what they were doing, especially towards each other. I know – shameless.

However, it was increasingly clear that Turkey was the weaker of the two players, both tactically and personally. They didn’t communicate well and they made a couple of silly errors. And, I have to say, Russia had reached the same conclusion.

Additionally, Germany and France were successfully crushing England in the north, so much so that they were becoming a danger to Russia and I respectively. We needed to get our act together to deal with this.

Russia, however, repeatedly refused to take any risks. I kinda get this when playing online. There’s nothing to go off other than the words you read: no body language tells, no watching the other person disappear into the far corner with the player you’re supposed to be allied against, etc.

Because of this, Russia kept coming back to me with: “You could stab me if I do that.” They were right – I could – but what they just wouldn’t allow is that by doing so I’d make myself the sacrificial pasta on the Franco-German altar. Russia was my only real alliance option if I didn’t want to lose the game.

This is an example of how to spot the BFM. Russia had to know that, by stabbing them, I was going to fall out of the game, but they kept using the excuse that they couldn’t risk being stabbed. In fact, they also played the “you’re rude” card when I called them out on this. Come on, don’t call me rude when I’m pointing to the pile of smelly stuff you keep leaving in my inbox!

There are other ways to spot the dung, though. If someone tells you to do something that carries no risk for them, there’s a reason they’re doing this. It might not be obvious but they’re not in the game to help you win. Work out what they get from your actions.

When someone seems to be attacking you on the board, while repeatedly and consistently telling you that they’re absolutely no threat to you, that’s a good sign. The board does lie… but it’s more truthful than the person who badly wants to make you believe what they’re writing. Look around the whole board for clues. Look back through the history of the game to see how they’ve approached the game before. Look at what would happen if they did attack you as well as what would happen if they actually did what they say they’re going to do.

If someone is promising to help you achieve something that relies totally on their support, but which is also putting you at risk, treat it with caution. Russia, in my example above, was right to point out that they were leaving themselves open to a stab from me. But don’t allow this threat to your security to blind you to what else is going on. What do they gain from stabbing you (apart from an SC)? What would that do to the balance on the board? It might not be BFM after all.

Dealing with the BFM

Spotting it is one thing; how you deal with it is another. The worst thing you could do is to kick it dismissively away in the direction of a fan. Not a good outcome…

There are, perhaps, two options, here: You can either shovel it up and chuck it back, or delicately step around it. Which option you choose depends on the situation you find yourself in.

If you decide to confront the other player, you need to make sure that you do it diplomatically, or you confront them so outlandishly that it at least makes them chuckle.

Diplomacy is the name of the game so being diplomatic is often my first choice. I’m not going to suggest that there’s a ‘right’ way to be diplomatic in the face of a big dollop of squishy evilness dropped in your messages but what I tend to do is try to be honest about it. Often it means stating that I can see where they’re going with their advice but, well, I think this might be a better thing to do. Yeh, I know – answering their pile with a pile of your own.

Confronting them can also work, especially if you’re obviously over the top with what you send to them. Humour isn’t guaranteed to keep them onside when you let them know exactly what opening their gift-wrapped pile of stinking promises means for you, but it’s better than being in their face with an accusation. If you can make someone laugh while you’re shovelling it back in their face, that’s at least not a total negative.

On the other hand you can pretend that you’ve not noticed it. You’re sending the message: “Ah, I love the countryside; such rich aromas.” You’re then left with what to do about it.

Lying is something to avoid, in general. However, when you’ve picked up the smell behind the sickly fragrance they’re selling you, lying is a good option. “Yes,” you say, “that looks good to me. I’ll have a shovelful of that, thanks!” Of course you’re not going along with it but the chances are that the other player will feel so pleased with their ‘success’ that they’ll assume you’ve fallen into it.

But what do you do on the board? Sometimes the effort spent in defending yourself from the coming stab is more harmful than letting the stab happen. What happens if you let them stab you? How big a disaster is this?

Diplomatically, being the victim of a perfidious stab is actually pretty good. “Oh my,” you cry to others, “did you see what they did? How can you trust them?” I know the sympathy vote doesn’t always work but this isn’t the point of this: getting others to see just how untrustworthy that player has been is the point.

But we’re talking on the board, not off it. So you have two options if you catch the BFM in time: (1) defend against it, (2) let it happen. What will either option do for your game plan?

If you can defend, can you afford to divert resources to do so? If you have the chance of taking two SCs and losing just one, then it may be better to let it happen. After all, you’re coming out on top.

This needs you to analyse the position after the event. Will you be in a position to stay alive, no matter the one unit net gain? A good stab will be such that you’re going to be losing ground after the fact, regardless of whether this doesn’t seem to be the case from the maths. Fortunately, few stabs are actually that effective.

Serving your own BFM

There are, of course, times when the BFM should come from you. Honesty is usually the best policy but, if you’re being scrupulously honest, are you going to win? You may not want to win, I suppose, although for me this poses the question: Just why are you even playing the game?

It’s possibly easier to say what you shouldn’t do, rather than what you should. Let’s start on the board.

If you’re thinking of stabbing, is this the right time to stab? It’s very tempting when you’re in double figures, or approaching it, to decide that now is the time to stab your ally. This, however, is often the time to not stab them! Your ally is likely to be in a position, in terms of SCs and units, of being approximately your equal; that’s usually how a successful alliance works. If you stab them, you could steal a lead on them but they could well be able to build an alliance against you. It’s no good stabbing them now if they can then prevent you from moving on to win the game.

It’s often better to stab when you’re on 5/6/7 SCs than when you’re on 10/11/12 SCs. Unless you can see clearly how to convert your 13/14/15 SCs to 18, then you’re probably better off biding your time a little. The fewer SCs you hold when you stab, the more forgiving the other players (other than the victim!) will be, if only because you’re not yet in a position to potentially win the game.

Preparation is everything. What I’ve found is a beautiful way to move towards the stab is to support your ally in progressing their units towards a common enemy while you have your units supporting them. A player who is reliant on your support to make progress is unlikely to stab you, of course, but – more importantly – you may be able to put your units into a position where you can gain by removing your support. If you can get your units between your victim’s units and their vulnerable SCs, this is perfect.

What you shouldn’t do is provide ‘tells’ through your correspondence. The best way to spot a stab coming is to recognise when your ally changes the style of their correspondence.

When you are preparing to stab someone, or to otherwise betray them, it is very easy for your messaging to reflect this. One way is to let your indifference to the alliance show is by reducing your commitment within correspondence.

It’s natural, when you’re going to throw something away, to not show it any consideration. In Diplomacy it’s all too easy, when you’ve made the decision to not continue to work with someone, to reduce the effort you put into your messages. If you stop discussing strategy in detail, then your ‘ally’ should be wondering why.

Equally, it’s easy to over-compensate. Oh, you say to yourself, I’m not going to let them see I’m going to stab them. I’ll put more effort into our discussions. The more I write, the more they’ll believe me. Actually, with some inexperienced players, you could get away with this; with a better player they’ll be wondering why you’re suddenly going into much more detail, or being much more emphatic.

Consistency is the key, here. If you’ve been openly discussing strategy, keep openly discussing strategy. If you’ve been less communicative, then don’t suddenly tell the other player what you’re going to do with your units.

Nobody likes change, really. In Diplomacy, when someone changes the way they’re corresponding with you, this should be telling you that something has changed in their outlook on the game. If you don’t want to give your betrayal away, then don’t change anything you’re doing.

On the board, have solid reasons for suggesting the orders you want to see happen. Don’t try to persuade someone that leaving two or three SCs unguarded against your units is a good thing simply because they’re doing the right thing. They’ve got to see that this is consistent with the game plan for the alliance, and they’ve got to see a way for them to prosper.

That’s an important aspect of getting someone to swallow your BFM: Avarice. If your victim can see that a set of moves, no matter how risky, is going to gain them an extra SC, and this is consistent with improving the chances of the alliance, a lot of players will go for it. Progress is progress, after all. With some players, they may need to see something even more attractive: just how many SCs could they gain from this? Wahey!!!

“Wahey!!!” almost always outweighs “Woah!” in someone’s thinking.

Openings: Seven Reasons to Think Again

Here’s a question a lot of Diplopups (novices) ask, and a lot of Dippyists (players with more experience) like to debate: What’s the best opening moves for each power?

There is just one answer to this question, but it isn’t simple:

Whatever are the best moves in your situation.

There you go. Job done.

Pfft. If you know me, you know I’m never shutting up that quickly.

Why ask this question?

If you’re a Diplopup, you’re likely to ask the question because you’re looking for a foolproof way to start the game and build a decent position. Nothing wrong with that except that, in Diplomacy, nothing is foolproof.

If you were able to guarantee what other players will do, perhaps… assuming you’re not the fool you’re trying to proof against. In any game of Diplomacy, though, anyone could do anything that you don’t expect.

So asking this question as a novice is understandable, there just isn’t a good answer. There are openings that you probably shouldn’t make, but no openings that you can make that will secure you and get you into a great position in all circumstances.

When a Dippyist asks the question, they’re looking to create a discussion about the pros and cons of each combination. Discussion is always good when there’s something to bring to the fore that is perhaps missed. That’s why I’m asking the question, after all!

It’s all situational

I like using England as an example. One of the reasons I’m using England as the example here is that I’ve discussed English opening moves already in the blog. (I just noticed, in looking for the series, that I haven’t finished it! I’ll have to remedy that… sometime.)

What do you need to consider when making a decision about which opening to use? Well, there’s a long list and I’m going to (try to) present it in some sort of sensible order below:

  • Which players can I work with? This isn’t a simple question. There will be some players in the game who play the game similarly to your way of playing; if you want a comfortable alliance, they’re the choice to make. There will be some that play differently from you, and it could be that you find this uncomfortable. However, I often find myself allying with one of the latter players, simply because I feel I can use this difference to my advantage. For instance, if I find a Carebear in the game, I can probably guarantee that I’m in a solid alliance; alternatively, if I find a Unusist, I can judge when I think I’m likely to be stabbed and get my retribution in first; also, I can offer them a good deal that they’re likely to take.
  • Which players can I trust? This is a different question. I might think I can work with a player, for whatever reason, yet also feel that they’re not being open to me. If France tells me they definitely aren’t moving F Bre-ENG, then I usually find myself planning to deal with that order. My rule of thumb on this – and it isn’t always a good one – is that if someone tries hard to persuade me that they’re definitely, absolutely, not going to do something, especially at the start of the game, they probably are going to do it.
  • Which players are open to decent levels of communication? Let’s be honest here, all of you who understand the game will communicate with everyone at the start of the game. You’ll also be prepared to have a decent level of correspondence with everyone, too. So what do you do if a neighbour doesn’t seem to have a similar commitment? First ask yourself why they’re not doing this: there could be a good reason. However, often that ‘good reason’ is that they’re not vibing with you. (I just used ‘vibing’… sooooooo cool.)

Now, I’ve not yet finished my list, but this is where I want to pause.

You’ll have noticed, I hope, that I haven’t even considered on-the-board questions yet. Don’t worry – they’re coming! But there’s a reason for this: you shouldn’t be considering on-the-board decisions seriously until you’ve considered the people in the game.

A mistake a lot of people make when discussing opening moves is to only consider the pros and cons of this opening in comparison to these openings. That’s fine: it’s something you’ve got to consider. But, when you’re in a game, there’s no point in making final decisions about where you’re moving your units without considering the players.

Some people do, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is because they go into a game thinking either ‘I’ve used this opening before and it worked then so I’m gonna use it again’ or ‘I’m going to try something different this time – let’s try this!’

Well, you know, fair enough. If that’s how you want to play the game, that’s fine, but the problem is that you’re putting tactics before planning. That’s always the wrong way around. Your strategy has to be based on something you at least think you understand about the game you’re playing now and not based on something that worked in another game, probably with other players.

So, by all means, enter some orders at the start of the turn. That’s good advice: it’s better to have some orders entered, in case something happens and you don’t get the chance later on (bad internet connection when you want to enter those orders; real life interrupting, etc), and have your units do something than to not have any orders in at all. But don’t become married to those provisional orders. Change them when you’ve considered the items above.


  • Which supply centres do I need to take? Once you’ve made some decisions about the people in the game, then you can start considering which SCs you are going to target. There’s a solid argument that, in many ways, this is not up for debate for some powers. Turkey, for instance, should be planning to take Bulgaria no matter what – letting someone else in there is going to cause security problems, and not that far down the line. By all means try for shock and awe, but avoid shock and awful. The extension to this thinking is ‘What SC(s) will I need to take next?’ This is important, too, and involves thinking about what follows.
  • Where do I need to move? Once you know which SCs you’re aiming for, then you can work out where you need to be to take those SCs. Again, for Turkey, this is almost a dead cert as far as Bulgaria is concerned: you need to order A Con-Bul. Fair enough. But if you’re also looking to take Rumania, for instance, this probably needs to include F Ank-BLA and A Smy-Bul. Then you can support A Bul-Rum with your Black Sea fleet. But, perhaps, the better way includes A Smy-Arm in S01… then A Bul S BLA-Rum and A Arm-Sev..? And, if you’re allied with Russia, where are you going to want to be against Austria (or Italy)?
  • How can I secure my alliances? This is, perhaps, a surprise inclusion, but it’s definitely something you need to think about. The chances are that, to get all those lovely SCs you’re wanting to get you’re going to need an ally, or two… or more. And you definitely don’t want to be the odd-player out in your area of the board. So, what can you do to secure that alliance? Well, frankly, nothing works better than making someone an offer they can’t refuse (although forgedabou’ the swimming with the fishes threats). In a Diplomacy Games podcast Andrew Goff said that he tries to make people a deal that does a little more for them than it does for him. This sounds nuts to begin with but he goes on to say that if he can get three or so decent deals, which each offers the other players slightly more than he gets out of it, then he is coming out on top overall. You should, then, be looking to make sure you are coming out of 1901 with something on the board, but certainly secure in your alliance.
  • Can I afford to make enemies? Often, in S01, the answer is no. If you make an enemy from the get-go, then the chances are you’re going to make more than one… and given that this is likely to mean you’re isolated, you’re going to struggle. The other aspect to this is that you can never guarantee that the alliance you think you have will work out in reality; don’t, therefore, antagonise a any player unnecessarily. BUT this doesn’t mean do nothing. Too often players get so tied up in not making enemies that they don’t try to do anything that could threaten anyone. This isn’t about walking a tightrope between gains and isolation, it’s about turning the tightrope into a rope bridge at worst – still tricky but a little more secure.


Be wary of people who tell you that you should always do this when playing that power. For instance, a number of people tell you that England should always target France first. From a purely tactical point of view, this makes sense – France is the biggest barrier to England winning the game. However, it just might be that the player controlling France is the best person to ally with for you.

There are no inarguably right moves for you to take, no matter which power you are playing in a game. The only right moves to make are those that further your interests in that game at that time.

What I’ve found is that people who tell you that this opening is the best to make base their recommendation on their experience, often in a small number of games. It has worked for them a few times so it’s bound to work for everyone all the time.

It isn’t.

PBEM Diplomacy – New Events Coming in 2023

I’ve had a lot of time on my hands recently – far too much time, in fact. One of the outcomes of this was the start of a new project based on playing Diplomacy by email.

I was thinking how I haven’t played a game of Diplomacy by email for ages. In fact, I haven’t played by email very much. I found Diplomacy online through Playdiplomacy and that was it. The (almost) perfect solution to playing Dip.

PBEM Diplomacy came along years ago. It effectively ended PBM (Play-By-Mail) Dip, which was a lot slower for obvious reasons.

There are lots of people who play PBEM Diplomacy but I don’t believe there is a widely known PBEM Dip tournament or league. I could be wrong – it happens – but I’ve not heard of it.

So I came up with a number of PBEM projects:

  • Initially I thought of the PBEM Diplomacy World Championship, a tournament that would run annually.
  • Then I thought of what I’m calling the E-Diplomacy League (or EDL).
  • I thought I might run a team event, similar to the now extinct (I think) Diplomacy World Cup, but I’d need to consider that more.
  • And, of course, there are also possibilities for Gunboat events, too.

Why PBEM? Because I think it is a slightly different way to play. It has a history in the Hobby and is something I think a lot of people might be interested in. And it’s something that is missing from the Hobby right now, certainly for tournament and league events.

The question, then, would be how to organise it. I decided I’d do it by Forum, so I created a new forum for the events: E-DIPLOMACY. You register on the forum right now, although I’m still working on it.

I’m away from organising these events yet. In 2023 I’ll be running the EDL and the PBEM DWC. I’m going to come up with a couple of scoring systems for these events, which will be posted on the forum.

If you’re interested, take a look: E-DIPLOMACY.

%d bloggers like this: