In the current world of Diplomacy, it is generally accepted that France is one of the best countries, if not the absolute best country in the game. Statistical data from recent games also tends to back up the idea that France is in fact the best country. No doubt one of the reasons for this is its great versatility. France has many options from the outset, both in long-term strategy and specific movements. Perhaps since this is the case, there doesn't seem to be a standard French opening used throughout the Diplomacy community, as there is for countries like Germany and Turkey. However, I believe there to be an excellent first year sequence which allows France to maintain its versatility, as well as continued growth through the early going, without sacrificing any of its defensive ability or potential diplomatic ground.
Most players would agree that France has an easy claim to both Iberian centers, and a possible, yet tenuous claim on Belgium. It's also rather clear that the other powers will not have any reasonable chance to grab either Spain or Portugal within the first two years unless they take rather drastic and surprising actions. Therefore, I propose that the claiming of both Spain and Portugal be put off for the first year, and efforts be focused to ensure that Belgium fall under early French control. It is also more desirable to take Belgium and only one of the Iberian centers, so as to avoid the dreaded Early Leader Syndrome that often comes from becoming a 6 center power by the end of 1901. To that end, I suggest the following opening moves:
|F BRE - MAO|
|A PAR - PIC|
|A MAR - BUR|
The diplomacy that must go along with these moves is much like diplomacy one would pursue for any French opening. Demilitarization of the English Channel is paramount, and demilitarization of BUR is preferable as well, although it generally helps out later if you did not actually tell the German you would stay out of BUR. More on the reasons for this later. Negotiations with the Italian ought to be typical as well: a standard agreement to keep PIE as a DMZ, and possibly also WES, LYO, and TYS, although I would hesitate to agree not to build fleets in MAR if the Italian asks this of you. You might suggest instead that you will inform him ahead of time of any decision to do so, although ideally you'd rather not have to do that either. None of this is particularly earth-shattering diplomacy, and all of these things should probably be done regardless of what opening one chooses to make.
Assuming the move to BUR succeeds, which is by no means guaranteed, but is more than likely, and England has kept his DMZ in the Channel, and Italy has not moved to PIE, you are in great shape. Belgium will likely be yours and you should take POR with your fleet in the MAO. Hopefully you never explicitly stated that you would keep BUR a DMZ. You are likely better off saying from the beginning simply that you have no intention of attacking Germany, and allowing the German to assume you meant that you would DMZ BUR. When the German gets upset about your movement to Burgundy, as he almost assuredly will, you can play the game two ways. You can either ignore him completely, so that he gets worried about a possible attack on Munich, or you can assure him that you merely want to use the unit to secure Belgium, which is your actual intention. What you do should depend on the circumstances. If Italy has moved to Tyrolia, I prefer the former strategy as Germany will be very likely to move a unit back to Munich, possibly with support, and thus limit his growth for that turn. The choice of whether to take BEL from PIC or BUR depends on how much you trust the German, and how much you want him to trust you. If you do move from BUR, Germany will likely be willing to forgive the initial movement there, since it is clear you did not intend to attack him. I prefer to move from BUR, since it sets up well what you can do in the future.
The builds complete this opening sequence and I strongly recommend building two fleets. Doing so gives you the versatility to attack either England or Italy, and you won't have to commit to your target until the fall of 1902 if you play your cards right.
One of the reasons I find this opening to be so good is that it immediately marks Belgium, typically a hotly contested center, as a French center. Not only that, but you'll find that England and Germany will likely have no problem with this, since you won't be getting Spain the first turn. What people tend to overlook is that you aren't actually giving up Spain, you're just delaying your occupation of it for a year. There will be no one to stop you from taking it 1902, and so by executing this sequence, you get yourself two builds, and guarantee yourself a build in 1902.
I won't claim that this is the best opening in all diplomatic scenarios, but I do believe I can answer most of the objections people have to this, or provide modifications should things not go precisely as scripted. The most obvious problem is if Germany chooses to order MUN - BUR. The good news here is that you get bounced back to MAR, and you can still claim SPA for yourself, giving you two builds. Not ideal given the general strategy I'd choose to pursue, but not disastrous either. The other problems one typically might run into with this opening strategy are if England chooses to violate your DMZ and move to BRE, or if Italy chooses to violate his DMZ with you and moves to PIE. Those of course pose problems to this opening, but I don't believe they pose problems that are unique to this opening. The only way to counter the first move is to order BRE - ENG, and that's not particularly desirable. If it bounces, you're left with a fleet in Brest that has little to do for the fall move, and if it succeeds you've accomplished little that your other units couldn't have done, and you have likely angered England greatly. To repair that damage is far more difficult than to repair the damage a movement to BUR causes with the German. The only way to counter the second move is to move MAR - PIE, and while I believe this move may have some merit, it should not be considered unless you are quite sure the Italian is planning on making it. In that case, you may want to inform the Italian of your intention to move to PIE and thus stage a bounce in PIE, which gives you security on your border, and still allows you to claim a center, namely Spain, with that unit in the fall. Some people might claim that this opening doesn't provide with a good defense if more than one of these instances occur. This may be true, but how many French openings do provide solid defense against attacks by all three of your neighbors, and is that something that occurs often enough that you should defend against it? If you're positive of many threats to your nation, perhaps it is best to order BRE - ENG, PAR - BUR, MAR S PAR - BUR, but how often are we ever certain of such things? As I've stated, I believe this opening offers the best long-term opportunities for France, and at the same time does not expose France to any dangers that she does not face from any other typical opening.
To expand a little on this opening beyond the first year, I would recommend the following moves for Spring 1902:
|F BRE - MAO|
|F POR - SPA/SC|
|F MAR - LYO|
|A BEL H|
|A PIC S A BEL|
On the surface this looks like a blatant attack on Italy, and it can be if you continue to move in that direction, but it's also a great setup for an attack on England, an attack he might not expect. It's very easy the following turn to rotate all of those fleets as follows:
|F MAO - IRI (or NAO)|
|F SPA/SC - MAO|
|F LYO - SPA/SC|
A build of an army in Brest then allows you to make a convoy into England. Obviously whether you can do all of this in the 2nd year depends a great deal on how things have played out across the board, but often you'll find that you do have these opportunities. I prefer to attack England over Italy because I believe England to be a greater threat to France. Also, once England is conquered, you will find that there is almost nothing to stop you from eventually gaining dominion over Scandinavia, Holland, and northern Germany. It's unlikely Germany would have the naval power to compete with you, and it's also unlikely Russia will have been able to build fast enough to have sufficient fleets in north himself. If you choose to attack Italy however, you may find yourself competing with Austria for the spoils, depending on how things have played out in the east. If that isn't the case, and you can claim ROM, NAP, and TUN without much trouble, you will certainly find a growing Turkey on the other end and further growth will be very difficult, thus necessitating an attack on either England or Germany at that time. Thus, I prefer to attack England as you can always use subsequent builds to attack Italy, whereas you will not be able to use subsequent builds to keep the element of surprise for an attack on England.
I have used this opening with success to the tune of a couple of solo victories, as has my good friend Mark Banta. Some games to reference are classical_01, classical_03, classical_17, and galadriel.
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