by James Handscombe

It's all a question of timing (as the bishop said to the actress. Some of us have it, and some of us… don't (as she tartly replied). The story, unfortunately doesn't tell us whether said clergyman and doyenne of the theatre were playing Diplomacy or not; but I rather guess that you, dear reader, are that way inclined (if not, then I suggest you recalibrate your search engine).

For example, suppose you draw Turkey in an email game. You don your fez, rootle round the attic for your hookah, and order your Grand Vizier to send out initial letters to the remaining six powers (of course, a truly fiendish diplomat would also send one to himself in order to cover his tracks — but we'll assume that only your Grand Vizier has a mind that convoluted). Days pass.

You get an enchanting (but entirely pointless) letter from the English, an earnest message of good will offering an alliance from the Austrian (or possibly his Hungarian twin brother — their handwriting is difficult to distinguish), a bizarrely non-committal note from the Italian, a confession of incompetence from France, and a ruthless note of good will from the German.

More days pass. You plan an anti-Russian alliance with Austria, who has also heard nothing from the Tsar, and try to mess with the minds of the remaining great powers.

The deadline approaches and no communication has yet sailed southwards across the Black Sea. Finally, you get a letter offering alliance against Austria, agreeing to a DMZ in the Black Sea and apologising for the delay. What do you do?

It's obvious isn't it? You go along with Austria and move into Armenia and the Black Sea, secure in the knowledge that Russia hasn't had long enough to arrange to stab you properly and so will probably go along with what he offered (what's that? You think he and Austria might have been in cahoots from the start and that you're about to be royally stitched? Forget it, the Grand Vizier is on your side in this scenario).

Anyway, you hold your breath as you await the Spring 01 adjudication. Unfortunately you get the timing wrong, pass out, and have to be aroused by your harem. When you come to, this is what you see:

Moves in Spring 1901

(Click for a full-size view in a separate window)

Russia is in a mess in the south, but thanks to German incompetence is looking fine at the other end of the board. Austria has proven faithful, Italy has sent his armies southwards for the summer, and France and England appear to have had a love in.

You get a message from Russia accepting your treachery and suggesting that a swift convoy across the Black Sea would provide you with two builds and a chuckle at the expense of the rest of Europe. Austria, meanwhile, seems happy to cut Ukrainian support, accept your help into Rumania, and generally act as your Bear-destroying skivvy. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem keen to act against the green menace — and those southern armies can only be headed in one direction (and it's not towards France).

You ponder, smoke another pipe, buy another fez, and decide that you can't face having your units in Southern Russia as the Popemobile convoys into Syria. So you order to Bulgaria and Greece. This leaves you with the problem of what to tell your schizophrenic ally with the red counters. He's likely to have 3 or 4 units, a decent position, and, if he feels stabbed, a great reason to ally with Italy if he hasn't done it already. Ideally what you want is to send him a message explaining you're worried about your western shores and that you've chickened out of the Russian attack, but for him to get it too late to change his orders. Unfortunately, you can't send it at the last minute — it must look like you wanted him to have it in time to change his orders (the Grand Vizier had a hand in this plan). How long should you give him? Does it help you that you seem to live in a time zone five hours further east than him? The deadline is noon his time.

The interesting part comes if he gets the email in the time you gave him, he reacts to it, gets a build and still thinks you're his ally. You now stab him ruthlessly before he has any clue to your perfidy. Was your timing good or bad?

Fast forward a little. Same game, same fez, different concubine.

Later, in the Midgame

(Click for a full-size view in a separate window)

Italy and Austria have been eliminated, Germany is in anarchy, and the remaining four nations had until recently arranged themselves into two solid alliances. These have just broken down, with Russia building F(Sev) and then missing a turn, and France rather hesitantly invading the British Isles. You've professed friendship with the French and have agreed a peace based on the line of Mun, Tyr, Ven, Rom, Nap, Tys and Tun, with Apu and Ion demilitarized. Your fleet in TyS is the wrong side of this line, and France has issued an ultimatum that it retreats this turn or the peace is over. What do you do?

Your timing's all wrong. You can't stick to the peace with France long term, as he is clearly headed for 18 centres; but neither can you fight two Russian fleets and three French ones. If you could wait a couple of turns, then with one or two French fleets moved out of the Med you'd fancy your chances; but that would mean giving up TYS, a space you're unlikely to get back.

Made your choice? Fancy your chances?

Well, this isn't a tactical treatise, and I'm not sure there even is a right answer to tell you. My purpose in writing this article was just to highlight the importance of good timing. You can be too early or too late (and sometimes you can be both at the same time, which is rather an alarming predicament). Some of the consequences are psychological, some diplomatic, and some strategic; but you can't get away from it (and nor could the bishop).

Timing is everything.

James Handscombe

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