A discussion on the value of Greece, and the virtues of opening with the Balkan Gambit.
Greece sits adjacent to the Ionian and Aegean Seas, key spaces for the control of Italy and Turkey respectively, and on land borders the heart of the Balkans in Serbia as well as the primary Turkish expansion route in Bulgaria. By virtue of neighbouring such valuable real estate, as well as of course being a supply centre, Greece becomes a key space in its own right, and one worth fighting for (or having a pliant ally inhabit).
Not only is control of Greece usually a prerequisite for controlling the south-east region of the board, but how Greece is taken and occupied dictates to some extent how the occupant wishes the battle to progress. A fleet in Greece and the battle is for the seas, or an army in Greece and the battle is for the Balkans. Of course in either case the battle for Greece itself may still be on.
Like all provinces on the board, their immediate importance is proportional to their proximity to battle (or a potential battle). So once the region is safely secured, ownership is less important, though a division of supply centres between allies in a safe and even manner is always a touchy subject. With respect to the role of Greece in this regard it can be prudent for an Austrian player to cede Greece to an allied Italian or Turkish fleet as an example (assuming one receives some compensation, and preferably done with an eye for stabbing to regain the centre at a later date).
The most obvious point in time in a Diplomacy game where Greece and its neighbours are thick with battle is the opening, although the generalities discussed above apply at all times. However it is the opening of the game, the position of Greece in the “triangle” of Austria, Italy and Turkey, and the question of whether or not Austria should open TRI-ALB (with an accompanying BUD-SER) in Spring 1901 that prompted the writing of this article, so that is what we shall now focus on.
In the sample of recent face-to-face games that I saw Austria fail to open TRI-ALB, in each case there was a common theme of a strong Turkey and a weak, if not eliminated Austria come the transition from the opening to the middle game. Looking for a larger sample of games to test the hypothesis that this trend continued, I turned to the 2006 Owls Tournament. Overall in this tournament, the Austrian performance was abysmal, but in those games which featured the (misnamed, since it is not a true gambit) Balkan Gambit of BUD-SER and TRI-ALB, the Austrian results were noticeably stronger.
To pick up the neutrals of Serbia and Greece and obtain two builds puts Austria in a strong position for 1902, covering many of its initial defensive weaknesses. Even in those unfortunate circumstances where a home centre is lost to an aggressive neighbour, taking Serbia and Greece with an army and fleet respectively not only provides an Austrian with the maximum military force to attempt to win back the lost dot or two, but also provides the greatest number of diplomatic options.
Since the game of Diplomacy is about the diplomacy more than anything else, particularly in the early game, it is the wealth of diplomatic options available that provides the most convincing adverisment for Austria to get its fleet to Greece in 1901 (preferably coupled with A SER to ensure that an opportunistic Turk does not interfere with its safe passage). An Austrian F GRE in 1901 can rightly profess to be everyones friend. From the Italian point of view, the Austrian fleet is best placed in Greece not only so that it is away from Venice and the Adriatic, but for the pressure it can place on Turkey and its ability to fight for the Aegean Sea. From the Russian point of view, it keeps Turkish growth in check, and is ready to pounce on Bulgaria. For the Turk, there are offers of support into the Ionian and/or Rumania that can be dangled, presenting either Italy or Russia as a more attractive target than the (now) Austrian Greece and Serbia.
Conversely, if TRI-ALB is not ordered in Spring 1901, there are many things that can go wrong for the Austrian. Italy is likely to be the most unhappy, and more susceptible to offers to attack the Austrian. Russia will still be unhappy, especially if Turkey is given a free reign in the Balkans. Turkey on the other hand will be delighted, and more than likely will be looking to take one of Serbia and Greece for him or herself, or at least ensure that they are not Austrian. Such action is attractive to a Turk since it can usually be enacted without any fear of immediate retribution.
All of these considerations together would appear to be a glowing recommendation in favour of opening with the Balkan Gambit. It is my experience that most good players seem to know this and open accordingly, with rather extenuating circumstances required for a deviation. Not all readers though are (yet) highly skilled or experienced, and there is also some literature out there advocating the hedgehog approach to the opening (TRI-VEN, VIE-GAL, BUD-RUM/SER), which really needs to be called the ugly (for Austria) Turkish dream it is.
Just because Austria can (for most practical purposes) force Greece in Spring 1901, does not mean that it is hers forever given this fluid game, and in fact it would be prudish to take stock of some of the dangers abounding. The fastest Italian way to gain control of Greece is to get Turkish support for a convoy of APU-GRE in Fall 1901. For the Turk in a Juggernaut alliance with Russia, RUM-SER coupled with F AEG S BUL-GRE in Spring 1902 wins Greece often, and always if Italy has taken Tunis with a fleet. These are not the only ways of course, for example a Turk may want to place a fleet there to force the Ionian against a non-compliant Austria, and this just illustrates the beauty and flexibility of this great game we play, that there are multiple ways for multiple countries to end up in control of this important supply centre they call Greece.
This article first appeared in the OWLS newsletter, September 2007.