Winning With Italy

By Steve Ray


It seems to be a truism in Diplomacy that Italy is a weak country that's hard to win with. Several writers have argued the problem is more one of style -- that Italy requires a different kind of play than most other countries -- but such statements are followed up with few examples of what they mean.

I've found that Italy's poor reputation doesn't really hold up in reality. Since going online about a year ago, I've played or am playing in eight e-mail games. Of the four that have finished, Italy was a solo winner in two games and survived to the end of a French solo in a third. Of the remaining four games, Italy's doing quite well in one, has been eliminated or nearly so in two others, and it's too early to tell in the fourth. Not a bad showing, overall.

I've seen quite a range of Italian behavior, from several perspectives, and feel qualified to comment on Italian weaknesses, strengths and strategies.


The two main Italian openings are the Lepanto in all its variations, and the "Go Fasta" approach -- both of which, I feel, mostly support conventional thinking about Italy.

I agree with the author of "Geography is Destiny" that the Lepanto opening is actually a high-risk, low-payoff gamble for Italy: I've seen more Italians get hurt by Lepantos than succeed. This probably is becoming more true as time passes, since everyone expects Italy to do a Lepanto, eliminating the surprise that is crucial to the Lepanto's success.

The Go Fasta approach, while effective, is too specific and requires a lot of things to fall into place around the board: No Russia/Turkey, France leaving you alone for three or more years, Turkey agreeing to trust you when it comes to capturing and divvying up Balkan centers, Russia agreeing to join you against Turkey instead of joining Turkey against you, and so on.

I intend this article to be a general discussion of Italy's strengths and weaknesses, from which players can build their own strategies. While I will describe one strategy that springs from this discussion, I think it's more important, when playing Italy, to know your advantages and limits than to cleave to a specific set of moves.


It seems like everyone can rattle off a list of Italian weaknesses, so I might as well start with them.

1. Just one guaranteed 1901 build, in an isolated spot (Tunis).
Okay, this is annoying. But it also means Italy doesn't make any enemies in 1901, unless it chooses to.

2. Further growth usually requires taking another power's home centers.
True, and this is a small problem, as all of Italy's neighbors are going to be watching which way it goes in 1902. Still, most powers have to do the same thing after 1901, and most of its neighbors can't plan their own attacks and build a defense against the possibility of an Italian assault. In that situation, few powers other than Austria will even attempt to build that defense, preferring to rely on buffer zones and diplomacy to fend off an Italian attack.

Combine that with the fact that Italy is a hard-to-invade power, and I find Italy usually gets the luxury of picking who to go after and who to partner with.

3. The Trieste thing.
The single biggest wrecker of Italian chances are inexperienced or greedy Italian or Austrian players: those two supply centers (Venice/Trieste) adjacent to each other are a constant temptation/threat to the player across the border. Luckily, there is a simple truth that balances that: Nine times out of ten, when Italy or Austria attack each other early, both get eliminated early as well. So if Italy can persuade its neighbor to view things even slightly long-term, it should be in good shape.

Even if that doesn't work, all is not lost: It's easier for Italy to stab Austria than the other way around. Especially in the early going, Italy can cover Venice a lot easier than Austria can cover Trieste. And by the time 1902 rolls around, Austria usually has at least one other neighbor to contend with, and suddenly war with Italy looks very uninviting. So if Italy can get through 1901 without a successful Austrian attack, it ought to be okay.

4. Hard to mount an attack.
True. To attack any neighbor other than Austria, Italy has to cross a bunch of empty spaces: Tyrolia and Piedmont by land, and a minimum of two sea spaces by sea. Further, Switzerland constricts the land routes into one-space chokepoints, so that any meaningful attack on France or Turkey requires naval support. This means it's hard for Italy to bring decisive pressure to bear on her neighbors and nearly impossible to get dual use out of her units: units setting up for an attack on one front usually aren't in position to defend against attack on the other.

The main ramification is that Italy has to plan its attack carefully if it's going to have a chance to succeed. But as we'll see, these buffer spaces can be a strength as well. Her neighbors don't generally see her as a threat that has to be guarded against, and it allows her to effectively fight a two-front war.

5. Strong candidate to get squeezed.
Italy is an inevitable target of a Russia/Turkey, Austria/Turkey, or any Western combination. Usually the basis of any such alliance is that one power goes through northern Europe by land while the other power goes through the Med by sea. A single such alliance is bad enough; being on a board where there are two can be downright frightening. That makes it paramount for Italy to intervene early and often in the formation of such alliances. Failing that, join one side or the other: It's possible to set up an F/E/I, for instance, where England goes north, France goes through Germany and Italy goes east. Failing that, fall back on Italy's natural defenses. If Italy has enough navies, she can become a very hard target to any would-be invader.


Italy's strengths have been loosely described elsewhere: mainly, that she's hard to invade by land and her central position gives her a sort of swing vote on who will succeed and who will fail around the board. But why is that, and what does it mean?

As I see it, the strengths that geography has handed Italy are:

1. A board edge to the south.
Don't underestimate this one. It's one direction Italy doesn't have to worry about, and it makes Italy harder to flank.

2. Sea areas to the east and west that serve as easily defined and defended buffer zones.
Yep, they're annoying to cross when Italy's on the attack, but they're a great defensive bonus. Unless there's a concerted "Get Italy" campaign -- and those aren't exactly common -- most of Italy's neighbors won't bother trying to come after her by sea in the early going. And if they do, they have to telegraph their intentions at least a turn in advance.

3. Switzerland to the north.

The impassable Alps protect Italy far more than any other power, discouraging German and French attacks. It also serves as a psychological dividing line for her troops: See #6, below.

4. Natural non-touching allies in England, Germany and Russia, and several good reasons why France, Turkey and Austria all want to be Italy's friend.
No matter what country I'm playing, part of my basic philosophy in Diplomacy is that non-neighbors make the best allies. They can work together to great effect, but because they don't share a common border, it's very difficult to stab each other.

For Italy, this means England, Russia and -- to a slightly lesser extent -- Turkey make the best allies. She can use England to control France, and Russia to control Austria and Turkey.

Germany can't help much directly at first, except maybe in an invasion of France; but Germany serves a very useful purpose as a secondary target for Italy's allies. Once Italy and England have crushed France, for example, England's far more likely to go after Germany than turn on Italy. So Italy has an interest in seeing a strong-but-not-too-strong Germany on the other side of Switzerland. Not only will it distract her initial allies, it may allow her to have a bigger share of the spoils: If Russia has to worry about Germany, he may let her have Budapest and Vienna instead of arguing over them.

That's not to say that a strong Italian-German alliance can't work: they both want to avoid getting squeezed by the edge powers, after all, and can help each other out without directly competing for centers. Italy could also adopt that not-too-strong Germany as a junior partner when the time comes to dispatch one of her former allies. But all things being equal, she's probably better off looking farther afield for her friends.

So distant powers make the best allies. But even Italy's close neighbors have reasons to want to be her friend, especially in the early going. Austria doesn't want a four-front war; Turkey wants help against Austria, and doesn't want to see a Lepanto; France wants to secure Portugal and Spain, and he realizes the value of the Piedmont/Gulf of Lyons/Western Med buffer zone while he sorts out who will have the upper hand in the west.

What this means is that in most games, if Austria is rational, Italy doesn't have to fear a determined attack for the first few game years -- and maybe longer. So she can afford to take a more long-term view of growth, play hard to get, let her neighbors court her, and otherwise take her time committing to a side or a strategy.

5. Once Italy has five units, she can fight a two-front war more effectively than any other power.
With the board edge to the south and Switzerland protecting the north, Italy can usually defend one border with two units while waging war on the other border with the rest of her military. No other power has such a neat split -- or the ability to defend one front so securely with so few units.

6. Ability to look small.
This is a HUGE advantage. Switzerland and the Italian peninsula form not just a physical barrier, but a psychological barrier as well. Precisely because Italian units on one front are usually far away from the action on the other front, most people perceive Italy to be smaller than it is. If Italy has four units attacking France and three involved in the Balkans, the Western powers will perceive a four-unit Italy and the eastern powers will perceive a three-unit Italy. Sure, on an abstract level they know Italy has seven centers; but because half those centers pose no conceivable threat to them, they discount it. What this means is Italy can get pretty big before the rest of the board starts perceiving her as a board-wide threat. It also means Italy can often successfully argue for an even-up split of captured centers, even if she's twice as big as her allies.

7. Ability to influence activity, both militarily and diplomatically, on both sides of the board.
This isn't only an advantage; it's necessary. Italy can directly affect everybody on the board. Given a choice, who do you think England will listen to more: Turkey, who can't do much other than offer good wishes, or Italy, who has units available to directly affect what happens to England's neighbors? A successful Italy will be extremely active diplomatically, using the potential of her centrally located units to influence events all over the board. Often, by promising to commit a single unit, Italy can get another power to commit its entire military to a joint plan.

Germany and Austria have this same power, but they tend to be viewed as much more threatening than Italy, because they are surrounded by supply centers and have several invasion routes to choose from. Many times, other players would rather Germany and Austria die quickly than risk one of them getting too big to control. Because Italy is hard to attack and, conversely, has a harder time attacking, she's better able to gain military and diplomatic leverage from her central position.

Italy can gain leverage from withholding support, as well. If she wants to see the Balkans in turmoil for several years, she can alternately withhold support from the various alliances -- or actively encourage a "get the leader" approach, wherein the two smallest powers gang up on the biggest one. This can sow a lot distrust among the Balkan powers, making it difficult for them to form an alliance without Italy's help -- and thus, without her blessing and active participation. She becomes a "neutral" power broker, whom all sides trust to one extent or another.

8. Not in the middle of things.
No country has to go through Italy to grow; an adroit Italy can steer the big conflicts away from herself by making herself a hard target and being active diplomatically. France can go through Germany; Turkey can go through Austria or Russia. If Italy can offer her neighbors an alternative, they may gladly avoid starting a protracted and relatively fruitless war with her. This usually will only work into the midgame, however, so Italy should be on the lookout for the player who's about to make a bid for a solo; he'll stab her early if he thinks that's the best way to get to 18.

9. Tunis.
Yep, Tunis is a strength. Along with Tyrhennian Sea, its an anchor space that can influence events all across the Mediterranean. A fleet in Tunis can go either east or west, quickly shifting the balance of power in the Med and serving as threat and deterrent to both France and Turkey. A fleet in Tunis also can help Italy hold Ionian even as its mere presence defends your western frontier -- one of the few Italian spaces with that power. Tunis should not be occupied and then automatically abandoned: it should be used as one of the pillars of Italy's Mediterranean strategy.

10. Venice.
Like Tunis, a pivotal space, with a twist. Because it's a home center and right next to Trieste, Italy has an excuse to keep an army orbiting around it all game long. And that army can quickly shift between three fronts -- Tyrolia, Piedmont, and Trieste, as well as heading into the boot to defend the homeland against a seaborne invader. If Italy keeps an army in Venice and a fleet in Tunis, in one turn she can shift from a seemingly harmless defensive position to attack east or west, without warning.


Now that we've discussed the general, what sort of strategy does this suggest? Here's one idea to get you started. But there are endless other possibilities.


If one of Italy's big long-term problems is being crushed by a board-edge alliance, why not substitute yourself for one of that alliance's members? Join England and/or Germany in an assault on France, and then when the western assault begins, you'll be part of it, instead of its first victim.

Spring 1901 Diplomacy: In going after France, it's crucial to get English help: You need fleets to crush France quickly, Germany's not much use in the first year, and you can't exactly surprise France.

What you can do, though, is present France with a two-front war and the classic fall move dilemmas of going for Portugal/Spain or defending Brest/Marseilles. Keeping France from getting a build is almost as good as getting a build of your own.

The one thing you don't want France to do is order A Marseilles-Piedmont; that would let him stand you off and walk leisurely into Spain in the fall. Avoiding this shouldn't be too hard, though; he usually doesn't want to order Marseilles-Piedmont, either. Make a point of demanding the usual DMZ between France and Italy. Tell France you want peace, that war between Italy and France is insane (especially for Italy), and to guarantee it you'd like to see DMZs in Marseilles, Piedmont, Gulf of Lyon, Western Med and North Africa. Also ask for a French promise never to build in Marseilles unless absolutely necessary -- and then to only build armies. Your keen and detailed interest in setting up such a DMZ should convince the French that you're serious about not attacking him.

Meanwhile, ask the British for help against France. Point out that France can't win a two-front war, and that ordering the London fleet to the English Channel will foil any attempt by France and Germany to set up a Sealion invasion of England.

Should you ask for German help? Maybe. You don't want word of your plans getting back to France, and Germany is the top candidate to leak them -- it doesn't particularly want to see England and Italy allied and surrounding it on three sides. Plus Germany has its own agenda in 1901, locking up its surrounding neutrals. If you do approach the German player, do it by sounding out his feelings on the subject, and without mentioning your cooperation with England.

Spring 1901 Orders: England: F London to English Channel; Italy: A Venice to Piedmont, A Rome to Venice, F Naples to Ionian

Fall 1901 Strategy: Assuming France ordered the usual Brest-MidAtlantic, Marseilles to Spain, Paris to Burgundy (or Picardy), he now must choose whether to contest Belgium and/or press for the Iberian centers, or cover his home centers. No matter what he does, if he guesses wrong, it costs him a build. You and England can further muddy the waters by pleading paranoia and other good intentions , leaving him unsure of whether you're actually coordinating an attack on him, or planning to continue the attack.

England should by all means attack Brest. The question for Italy is whether to attack Marseilles or not. I sometimes flip a coin, but I'd add that, psychologically, most players would rather risk losing the Spanish build than seeing an Italian in Marseilles. Plus, a French army in Marseilles keeps France from building a fleet there. So the best bet may simply be to order your Piedmont army to hold. This also allows you to plead peaceful intentions toward France, keeping him off balance just a little longer.

Fall 1901 orders: England: F English Channel to Brest; Italy: A Piedmont hold or to Marseilles, F Ionian to Tunis, A Venice hold or to Piedmont

Winter 1901 builds: Come winter, you and England build fleets and go full-bore after France in 1902. If France guessed wrong on either Brest or Marseilles, he only gets one build. His sole fleet is probably stuck in Portugal, far from the action. Thus crippled, he can't fight both you and England -- and if Germany steps in, he collapses even faster.

In dividing France between you and England, MidAtlantic/Gascony/Burgundy form a natural DMZ to split your gains -- you get Por, Spa, Mar; England gets Bre, Par and Bel. If it was a three-way invasion, you're also in the best position in the post conquest squabbling: you can join with England or Germany to squeeze the other out of their French gains, while it's difficult for England and Germany to do the same to you, thanks to the aforementioned DMZ.


While you're helping carve France into pieces, you need to ensure a stable eastern border. Here the trick is to participate without getting drawn in. If you don't actively threaten anybody, everyone will want to be your friend.

You'll need to spare two units for the east -- an army in Venice and a fleet in Ionian. That will keep your neighbors from taking a poke at you. Those units can cause a lot of havoc without ever moving -- supporting units into Greece and Trieste, setting up arranged bounces, or simply doing nothing: If Austria doesn't consider you a threat, that's one more unit he can throw into the fray elsewhere, even if you don't actively assist him.

Your goal: Make sure no Balkan power gets too big too fast. If Russia and Turkey go after Austria, come to Austria's aid; if Turkey gets greedy, help Austria and Russia defend.

The best thing you can do is stir the pot: Encourage Austria to ally with Russia, and Russia to pretend to ally with Turkey; then encourage Austria to stab Russia and ally with Turkey; then encourage Russia to make peace with Turkey to deal with perfidious Austria; and so on. Do it right, and before long the only person that anyone in the region trusts will be you.

That can keep the area in turmoil, with few stable alliances forming, for a long time -- long enough for you to win your western war and turn east in force. But if necessary, you can pick an ally and force a conclusion in the Balkans -- letting the ally do the heavy lifting, and once again taking long enough for you to settle your western affairs and bring decisive force to bear.


So there you have it. Use Italy's ability to fight a two-front war to defend in the east while you replace France as England's ally in the west. Use active diplomacy and selective military intervention in the Balkans to keep any serious force from emerging there before you're ready. Look small while preparing to grow very, very big. One way to win as the Italian player.

I'd be curious to know if this discussion inspires other players to come up with their own Italian openings and strategies. Perhaps Italy can experience a, er, Renaissance in Diplomacy circles!

Steve Ray

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