I Didn't See That Coming. Now what?

Richard Mulholland


I have been playing as a replacement player in many games for on the judges and I haven't found much in the postings that describes the specific issues I am often trying to address. So I have packaged up some of my observations about the special situation of a decent position that has gone bad. I hope that this article gives you enough information to be willing to hold on to a country who's position is breaking down or to feel comfortable taking up a replacement position in a game that someone else has abandoned.

Diplomatic Strategy

It seems that there are some players who start out a game with the best of intentions, play well for a while and are deeply surprised that thei r loyal ally stabbed them a few turns before they were going to stab. While most players stick it out to the bitter end, a fair number just up and quit. This leaves all of the people in the game out in the cold. Leaving aside the moral argument about whether this is a good thing or not (remember, this is Diplomacy after all -- there are no morals), let's examinew this situation. The remaining players are unable to continue their game until a volunteer arrives and takes over the position. So even though the volunteer has exactly the same layout of armies and fleets, he is perceived much differently than his predecessor. This is because he has chosen to join the game even though he is at a disadvantage. In effect, the volunteer is helping everyone, even his wayward former ally, just by agreeing to participate. (Note: I refuse to use the he/she construction, although that is exactly what I mean here and wherever else I use the pronouns he, his, or him.)

While this not a issue that can be negotiated in advance of joining a game, often one or two of the other players, who were unwilling or unable to deal with the previous player, will make positive overtures to the volunteer player. It is a situation very much like the beginning of the game, when everyone is trying to figure everyone else out and all possibilities are open. The only real drawback, is that the volunteer's position is very likely going to get worse before it gets better; so, the initial offers will often be for limited objectives. Even so, by converting a neutral player into a natural future ally, the volunteer can gain limited control of one or more units than the previous player could have hoped for.

In summation, the diplomatic situation that follows a successful stab is a fluid one to begin with, if in addition an outside volunteer is required to continue play, then many opportunities are available. Keep these in mind when examining a position that is beginning to come apart.

Territorial Considerations

The whole reason the situation is fluid and players have dropped out is because an alliance has just broken up with one side stabbing the other in a big way. It is almost certain that the volunteer player is in a bad position, with at least one or two supply centers at serious risk of being lost in one or two turns. Often though exactly which centers will be lost depends on how the defense is organized. Since the volunteer does control who gets the goods he must use his power and make a decision Sometimes the decision will be wrong, but no decision will be wrong more often.

So, how to decide? Well it is difficult, but certain principles apply here. The key principle is to ask "What will this country and my opponents look like two turns from now?" Avoid decisions that would separate units or supply centers from each other. Having interior lines and many opportunities for support makes for a stronger defense and befuddles opponents with too many options to guess exactly what you will order. Also try to force opponent(s) to deploy their forces in a way that leaves them open to stabs by their neighbors. All it will take is one false move by an opponent's neighbors to quickly take the pressure off and allow a reconsolidation. Remember to focus on one or two home supply centers that can be the cornerstone of your defense, because without empty home supply centers, rebuilding is very difficult even if adjacent supply centers open up in the future.

Armies and Fleets

It may seem that when a country is losing centers armies and fleets aren't much of a concern, yet this is not the case. Choosing exactly what gets disbanded is at least as important as what gets built. Also remember that there are two ways to disband units, during the adjustment phase units are selected to be disbanded, but any displaced unit can be disbanded instead of retreated to an adjacent province. The combination of these two methods allows for very rapid changes in force balance.

Ok, but why is this a good idea? The reason is because often countries have a natural type of unit that best defends it and attacks it. For example Austria, France and Russia are very hard to attack with only fleets, and England, Turkey, and Italy are hard to attack with just armies. So if you don't have the right type of units for defense, try to disband the ones that aren't pulling their weight.

Similarly, take opportunities to dislodge enemy units that have no retreat available. These will have to be rebuilt at home in the next adjustment phase and march all the way back to the front line. Even if a supply center has to be put at risk to make such an attack, it is almost always worthwhile because there is one less threatening unit in the neighborhood, and even if the center is lost, the builds are still going to be turns away from the front lines.

With all this focus on getting the right type of friendly units in the homeland while disbanding the threat units of the same type, it may seem that units far from home are useless for the defense of the homeland. This isn't always true. If these units can possibly get into the rear area of an opponent, he will have to divert many units to chasing them around. Even if these units far away can only get into a remote undefendable supply center for one fall turn, it could allow a build at home right away if the there were any retreat disbands.


Every game has a point where someone who was in a good position gets into a bad position quickly. This is not always a bad thing, even when it happens to you. These turning points in the game are the opportunities to make real changes in direction that can result in a stronger defensive position, a better unit mix, new allies, and the elimination of wayward former allies.

Remember these rules and you can recover from even the most egregious stabs:

  1. Encourage your enemies to attack someone else for a change.
  2. Encourage everyone to attack your enemies.
  3. Take chances.
  4. Fight like hell.
  5. Never give up.

Richard Mulholland

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