An Italian fleet slipping past an advancing wall of French fleets into MAO via North Africa. A Russian fleet retreating from Norway to the Norwegian Sea. An Austrian army wandering around Silesia, Prussia or Livonia. These may all seem like doomed, unsupported units. But they may also be examples of strategically important moves, which I call "Playing in your opponent’s backfield".
By way of definition, a power’s backfield is an area behind its main lines — meaning it does not have many units there — where there is both freedom to move and multiple unoccupied supply centers.
The power of these units lies not in what they will accomplish, but in what they could accomplish if ignored. The Italian fleet could move into Portugal, Spain, or Brest — or if France has conquered England, even move to take centers up there. If left alone, it could in fact take a center every year. Likewise, the Russian fleet in the Norwegian Sea can move on Edinburgh, or move west to threaten Liverpool, or if given a chance could slide into the keystone North Sea. The Austrian army walking between Germany and Russia threatens Munich and Berlin on the German side, and Warsaw, Moscow, and St. Petersburg on the Russian side. In all of these case, the backfield unit has the potential to wreak havoc if left alone for long enough.
To prevent the backfield unit from carving out substantial new territory for its controller, the power(s) bordering that backfield area need either to drive it out of the danger zone, or else destroy it by dislodging it when it has no available retreats. Often this means dedicating two or more units to blocking off supply centers, or even more units than that to both block off supply centers and create the required supported attacks to drive off the backfield unit. The broader and better connected the backfield, the more it will take to deal with the intruding unit.
Such a unit can obviously be annoying, but what is this supposed strategic value?
Mostly it comes in terms of game tempo. Backpedaling to deal with the intruder stops or slows a power’s advance on other fronts, which can have important effects on how the game plays out. This typically comes either as buying defensive time, or re-directing other powers.
Sometimes the loss of tempo is enough to allow the intruding unit’s controller time to re-group or seek allies. If Italy has two or three fleets east attacking Turkey, the delay while France re-secures MAO may be enough to recall those fleets and defend Naples and Rome. While England chases down the Russian expeditionary fleet, the Tsar has time to seek new allies or secure advances in the south.
Sometimes the loss of tempo allows the intruding unit's controller to affect parts of the map not directly reachable. Imagine a situation where Germany and Russia have just cooperated to kick England out of Scandinavia, and it looks like England may soon collapse, likely leading to a full force invasion of the still-divided south. However, the Austrian army promenading through the G-R neutral zone may buy England crucial time. While the Kaiser and Tsar send nasty letters to Austria, and guard their frontiers, they are not going to be able to go after England so aggressively. Without others helping with the invasion of England, maybe France can be persuaded to help Austria cut up Italy instead. And with German and Russian armies having to penetrate the belt of neutral territories between them if they are to eliminate the Austrian army, the odds of conflict breaking out between those two powers goes up.
There can be several secondary benefits to a backfield unit as well.
It can be mentally distracting — in the MAO example, France may be more willing to protect Brest and hold off a year on taking Naples, even if Naples is strategically more important. Of course, it is never certain that another power will fall for the distraction.
Dividing a power’s forces can make it look less dangerous. For example, a six unit Germany may look less menacing to England and France if one of those armies is off in Galicia, so they only see five units in their vicinity. At the same time the southern powers only see one German army in their area, and so are prone to see an annoyance rather than a threat.
The backfield unit may be able to take a supply center temporarily, creating a brief weakness in an opponent, or allowing its controller to build a year sooner or change unit composition. As discussed below, however, moving into a supply center often leads to the backfield unit being less effective in its original role.
Finally, occasionally a backfield unit can be the advance unit for a later assault, such as an Austrian army in Prussia later supporting Galicia to Warsaw, or moving to Livonia to support a northern power into St. Petersburg. In particular, when a unit is sent into a backfield as a defensive measure, it may be able to lure new allies into that area.
To run a backfield unit effectively it is important to realize that the moment it sits on a supply center it has lost much of its effectiveness. It can certainly pass through a supply center if the option presents itself, but without support a backfield unit can’t realistically hold in such a location, and often the supply center is less well connected than the backfield location. For example, an Italian fleet moving from MAO to Brest can only exit Brest to four other provinces, none of them containing supply centers. In addition, two of those (Gascony and Picardy) are linear coastal locations which are apt to be dead ends. If the backfield unit is to stay effective it might be better to move to a non-SC province, such as the English Channel.
The use of ‘move’ in the above paragraph may be misleading. Often the preferred way to move a backfield unit is actually to retreat it. It is unlikely that the backfield’s owner can block all of the exits, so once the backfield unit is in a good location, it may stay there as long as it can. In addition by waiting to be forced into a retreat, the unit’s owner can see what spaces have opened up, so where may be the best spot to be next season.
Staying put does not have to mean ‘hold’ orders, of course. The two real alternatives are to attempt to bounce an enemy unit or to try to corrupt an enemy self-bounce. Neither is guaranteed success, but both are always worth considering.
The back field unit can be ordered to try and bounce a chasing unit, such as the Italian MAO fleet ordering to Spain in hopes of bouncing the French fleet that may move there from the Gulf of Lyon. If France does order that move unsupported, Italy has just kept the noose from tightening as quickly around the MAO unit. One additional benefit of such an order is that it can help disguise the fact that the back-field unit was not meant to move successfully. In fact an extreme case of this is to put in an order to attack a location that there is almost no chance of taking, as basically a disguised hold order.
The other trick that can be tried is to support an opposing unit in a probable enemy self-bounce. For example, if a Russian fleet has settled into Clyde, and England has an army in Liverpool and a fleet in the North Sea, England may try to cover Edinburgh by bouncing those two units. Russia may choose to order Clyde to support North Sea to Edinborough, possibly resulting in the key North Sea location being empty the next season, and bringing an English fleet that much farther out of position, and unable to support Norway from a possible Russian counter-attack. These attempts to support one unit of a bounce are apt to fail more often than not, but if there is no real advantage to moving the unit it may be worth a try, if only to cause your opponent to be reluctant to count on the self-bounce in a future turn.
There is one exception to the "don’t generally actually take a supply center" rule. This is when the backfield unit has served its purpose, and its owner would like to have that unit back home now. By sitting on a supply center, the unit can be almost guaranteed a dislodgement in short order, allowing it to be dissolved — hopefully after a brief service commemorating its distinguished service behind enemy lines.
The backfield strategy is certainly not always useful, nor is it
always feasible. However it can an effective tool for any diplomat
looking to buy a bit of time or space. So next time you are looking at
the map, look at the empty spaces, and see if one of your units would
look good back there.
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.