Of Triangles, Spheres, and Balance

by Jasper Dupuis

Hello and welcome to the second installment of the Honest Truth, where we dispense of the wishful thinking that pervades some articles. As referenced in the first article, the inspiration for this series was another article, stating that "strong diplomacy will ensure that Turkey and Austria won't enter BLA and GAL, respectively," written from a Russian's point of view. Well, that set me off. And I also seem to have stepped on a few toes writing that article.

Well, put on your steel-toed boots, we're doing it again. This time, our analysis will focus on Italy. Let's start with the natural advantages and disadvantages of the starting position, as well as how the stalemate lines could be a factor in our thinking.

Italy is blessed with a very strong defensive position, behind only Turkey and England. Two armies across PIE and VEN can defend the mainland of Italy from any land assault from one side (not both), and the two fleets Italy is assured of — if a conventional opening is played — ensure that Italy can make itself a very unappetizing target for either Turkey or France individually. In itself, this should indicate that elimination comes very seldom to the Italian player. However, statistics do not bear this out at all, and neither does the general sentiment of the Diplomacy hobby.

Italy is also fortunate enough to start off on a stalemate line, though granted not as important as the main north/south line from MAO to STP. This line hold western fleets from entering TYS and ION, and greatly impedes eastern (Turkish) fleets from entering ION.

Now, it would be nice if Italy started with two fleets, but we have to deal with the reality. Italy is a land power to start, a naval power in the midgame, and a land power again at the end-game if pushing for a solo or a 3- or 4-way DIAS. With this in mind we have to put those armies to work at the very outset, build fleets for the midgame, and prepare our armies for the endgame again for the final push.

There is no discussion over the move F NAP  ION. Even if attacking France is your goal, tipping your hand before F1901 is very dangerous for Italy.

There is, of course, the Lepanto (A ROM  APU). I still use this opening about half the time I play Italy, or at least as far as my 1901 moves. For those who don't know it involves convoying an army to Tunis in F1901 and then, if you follow the opening, making a convoy to land that army in SMY or SYR in F1902. It is risky to say the least, and takes a certain level of skill in your Austrian neighbour to resist the allure of your underdefended centers. In any case, as far as 1901 goes, the Lepanto is a good opening. If you do decide to swing west in 1902 for whatever reason, that army can be used to deny NAF to France, which can be a very useful thing indeed, and lets you attack Spain without risking leaving WMED (convoying A NAF  SPA via WMED). More on convoys in a second.

The only other two openings worth considering are the ones I'll name "Tilting West" and "Tilting East." Tilting West involves A VEN  PIE and A ROM  VEN in S1901. This defends you against all Austrian attack except a suicidal one, and lets you think about maybe sneaking in to MAR or to TYR and TRI in the fall. You can paint this move as anti-Austrian to France and anti-French to Austria if you don't think they speak very much. All the same, if you intend to attack France, moving to PIE in 1901 is not advised as it greatly increases the chances of a F MAR build, something we absolutely do not want. There are possibilities for a A ROM  TUS option where you arrange a bounce with France in spring, keeping a sneak attack on TRI an option.

Tilting East is a more anti-Austria opening, which requires A VEN  TYR and A ROM  VEN, creating a strong attack on TRI in the fall. If you are sure Austria won't defend himself by bouncing either of these moves, this can be a very strong move. It also can take pressure off of Russia if you think he needs it by making Germany think twice about MUN. I don't advocate that move, but every game is different so we'll make allowances. If you do take MUN for some reason, it's best to just pass through to BUR in 1902 as long-term payoff from MUN for Italy is absolutely zero.

I won't consider the possibilities if you take TRI/VIE or MAR, as if you do one of those you have already junked what I have to say in this article. I will say that if you manage to take MAR in 1901 you are well ahead of the game and are almost assured survival — already better than many Italians who have gone before! But the consequence of failure is very high.

Now, we haven't really talked so much about what's best for other nations and what you can expect the first couple years in terms of threats. Well, unlike Russia (ahem), Italy is unlikely to come under attack until at least late 1902. It remains a truism of Diplomacy that until one of the triangles is resolved, Italy will remain relatively undisturbed. This must be used to full advantage, but first we need to discuss the triangles.

Diplomacy is a game of triangles. England, Germany, and France are the western triangle. Russia, Turkey, and Austria are the eastern triangle. Russia, England, and Germany are the northern triangle. France, Italy, and Turkey are the southern triangle. A/I/G are the central triangle. Use your imagination and find more, if you can. But those are the five major ones worth considering .

Openings generally have the game split into western and eastern triangles, with minor action around the northern and southern ones. Until one power is clearly on the way out in one of the main triangles, few actions are taken by the other two powers beyond their own triangle. France and Germany on their way to eliminating England, for example, won't have the manpower to waste attacking Italy (for France) or Russia (for Germany). Now, there are two cases that clearly work against Italy with this point in mind: the Juggernauts. Whether it's F/E or R/T, either of these alliances easily allow the southern partner to put pressure on Italy while still dealing with the main threat. Any signs of these alliance structures should be taken very seriously, as it means tough times ahead and decisions have to be made about how you will intervene in the forming game dynamic. The number one goal should be to turn the southern partner against the northern by stonewalling their progress. Prop up the central power under attack as much as possible and keep talking! You should have some idea of what everyone is thinking by this point.

The balance of power must be maintained. Until you're ready, that is. Once the balance starts tilting, your power as Italy is greatly reduced.

Italy is in a unique position in that the Italian player can bide his or her time waiting for the right time to venture into either triangle. I greatly favour this wait-and-see approach with Italy, and is why I still use the standard Lepanto opening for 1901 as opposed to my more aggressive tactics when I play Russia. If you notice either F/E or R/T becoming strong allies, that is your absolute first priority to deal with. R/T may be tolerable if you are sure Russia will side with you once Austria is done, but that is your judgment call to make and involves natural spheres of influence, something we'll discuss a bit later.

Given Italy's inability to greatly influence 1901 events unless you take TRI or MAR, you need to take advantage of your ability to make your vote count as much as possible, as it were. If F/G team up against England, you should almost always move immediately against France to take Iberia. If A/R team up on Turkey, help yourself to some of Turkey or Austria, whichever presents the better target. I would suggest Turkey in such a case, mind you.

Turkey, France, and England are your biggest long-term threats. If these powers are not under attack at the start of the game, you will have to deal with them sooner than later. Keep this in mind through all your decision-making processes. Remember that as Italy, you need to keep things balanced until everything is tilting your way — then let them go.

Use your convoys to your advantage. F WMED, F TYS, F ION and F AEG/EMED create a board-wide convoy chain with great strategic importance. The ability to transfer armies from one side of the board to the other is a great benefit that only England truly shares. Once you have four or five fleets, it's time to think about building one army for each fleet built, or maybe even two armies. It also lets you defend spaces at the same time you're moving through them (A NAF  WMED  SPA, F WMED C A NAF  SPA, F GOL S F WMED, for example, defends against an attack on WMED and attacks SPA at the same time).

Also, keep in mind the goal.

What are we after, anyways? 18. Ok, let's count: Italy and Tunis (4), Iberia and Marseilles (7), Trieste-Greece-Smyrna (10), Ankara-Constantinople-Bulgaria (13), Budapest-Vienna-Serbia (16). This leaves you to take two of BRE/PAR/SEV/WAR/MOS/MUN for the last two centers for 18.

Let's talk about natural spheres of influence. Have you ever played with that guy who, as Germany, insists that Marseilles should be his spoils of an alliance with Italy? Or maybe the Russian who insists Smyrna should remain Russian or else it's war? If you have, I share your pain. These poor players do not understand that these territories are well beyond their ability to influence to the degree you can. That is what it comes down to.

This is why I would never advise alliance with England against France. England is better placed to take advantage, and you and he share identical spheres of influence in the French area: SPA/POR and MAO. Not a good combination. Other examples might be allying with Turkey against Austria — you are exchanging a daddy long-legs spider (looks scary, but harmless) for a tarantula (looks scary and is actually terrifying). If the security of the Italian homeland is important — and it should be to you — you have two main concerns: making sure you make alliances with powers who don't share your exact spheres of influence, and making sure your enemies have a second front to deal with.

Ladies, gentlemen, and Diplomacy players, have you seen Russia?

Russia fits the bill exactly for what Italy needs in a long-term partner. No overlapping interests. Many shared threats. The ability to open a second front on enemies. The lack of tactical cooperation — keeping the alliance secret and strategic in nature, rather than obvious and tactical. Vital opening positions on stalemate lines. The ability to exert influence on both sides of the north/south stalemate line. I could probably come up with more sentence fragments, but you get the idea. Consider this next time you draw the green pieces if you haven't before.

The worst that can happen for Italy is for the central powers to be disorganized and allow E/F and R/T alliances to develop. In this case, pick whatever looks more promising, and make it a 2v2 fight in one triangle. And hope. And talk. Make it obvious that a continued alliance between the aggressors will result in the southern neighbour getting nothing and the northern neighbour continuing to grow. Who's going to like the sounds of that? Be nice, though. You don't want a stubborn attitude to set in. You are intervening on behalf of your friend, the balance of power, look how big Russia/England is getting, they won't need you soon, etc. These are all lines of thought that could be your ticket to breaking up the dreaded juggernaut alliance.

The honest truth? With Italy, you need to make things happen. Let things get moving in 1901 and then decide in 1902 how you want things to change. Then, create your own reality. With everyone else's intentions already plain to everyone else thanks to the 1901 moves and builds, you have the unique ability to take advantage of weaknesses and strengths across the board.

There are truly too many hypothetical situations with Italy to discuss them all, since all decisions need to take board-wide dynamics into account and these are far too variable. But when in doubt, maximize your flexibility while keeping diplomacy options open across the board. Don't alienate other nations, and don't drive wedges between other nations either. You never know when you'll need to organize against a larger threat, such as Russia. This is a large risk: Russia can do so well that Italy will still be messing around in Spain when he starts pushing a solo. If this is the case, it's time to start building bridges.

Prepare to be surprised by other powers in 1901. Be flexible. Talk with everyone constantly. No one will have anything to hide from you at the start (and neither will you unless you chose to lie about TYR or PIE), so take advantage of this to build open friendships from the start.

Jasper Dupuis

If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.