by Charles Roburn

Are you tired of seeing Italy lose game after game? Have you tried standard gambits and more aggressive approaches alike without success? Do you want to try a variant where the green units have a better chance to sweep across the map?

John Norris' Milan variant is an attempt to bring Diplomacy's weakest country up to the same level as the others, by giving the Italian player interesting new options.


Italy has long been generally considered to be the runt of the litter in Diplomacy — and the results bear that out. As mentioned in an article that appeared in the S2007M issue, Italy's track record is horrendous. Analyses consistently show that when you look at statistically significant numbers of games, Italy has the fewest recorded solo victories of any Great Power. Furthermore, it's far behind the second-worst performer of the seven — Austria-Hungary.

Why does Italy do so poorly?

Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons is the way that Venice and Trieste border on each other. The Ven/Tri border represents a unique situation in standard Diplomacy: it is the only spot on the board where the home supply centers of two different Great Powers border directly on each other. This one fact alone is often held to be largely responsible for the generally poor overall performance of Austria and Italy relative to the other five Powers. As Richard Egan discusses in his article "Weak Sisters Diplomacy", this immediately puts both countries at a huge disadvantage. They must each face the threat of a first-turn attack that will occupy one of their home SCs without warning. This means that they each have strong incentive to maintain a garrison there to protect it, and if they do that immediately pins down one of their three units at game start. Even if the Pope and Archduke manage to avoid early conflict, in the long run the border is likely to be a constant source of tension.

Another reason that's often identified is Italy's limited scope for expansion. Tunis is the only neutral supply center that Italy can be sure of taking in 1901. After that, the only way to grow is by attacking someone else. Unfortunately, Italy's options there seem to be more limited than those of other Powers. In S1902, a Russian fleet in Sweden can immediately support a new Russian unit from StP to Norway; German units in Holland and Denmark can support follow-up attacks to Belgium and Sweden; Austrian, Russian, and Turkish units in the four Balkan centers can all work against each other. But Tunis doesn't border on any other supply centers; it doesn't offer leverage for a follow-up attack the way that these other neutrals do.

So the only option after Tunis is to attack another Great Power. But that seems more difficult for Italy than for the others. For one thing, there's the problem of getting an ally. The same lack of leverage that leaves the Pope with no prospects beyond Tunis means that the Pope has less to offer his potential friends. The articles linked to above explore many of the negative consequences of this situation:

Italian solos are still possible, but it's no wonder that they're relatively rare! So how do you fix all this?

The Milan variant tries to address these problems by:

The variant does this with just a few simple changes to the map.

Map and Rules

At first glance, the Milan map seems very much like the map of standard Diplomacy:

However, on a closer look you can see that in the area of Italy, things are not quite the same:

There are three subtle, yet very significant changes:

In practical terms, what do these alterations mean?

Together, these changes should mean that in Milan Italy is well able to head westward, where in Diplomacy Italy's orientation tends to be more heavily weighted toward action in the East. An early eastern strategy is still entirely feasible; but a western strategy is possible too. Italy has more plausible choices, and hence more diplomatic leverage.

As a subtle side-effect, this westward slant means it should be easier for Italy (or any power who completely invades Italy) to cross the main stalemate line at Marseilles and Spain, and to do so earlier than in standard Diplomacy. That stalemate line can still be held; the addition of a border between Savoy and Burgundy doesn't circumvent it. However, it does require an extra unit to defend the line from either side: an Army Savoy can cut any defensive support in Munich, while Army Burgundy can similarly launch or support an attack on Savoy. This in turn means it may take an extra move to get that unit in position to secure the line. So this should make for a marginally more fluid game on that basis alone.

Of course, these changes to the map affect more than just Italy!

Great Powers

The Great Powers used in Milan are the same as those in standard Diplomacy. However, the slight changes to the map's topography should ripple outward to affect all of them, such that they play a little differently than in the standard game.


Austria-Hungary has to be considered one of the main beneficiaries of the changes in Milan. With that vital buffer space now in place between Trieste and any Italian armies, the Archduke is free to use all three of his units without fear that Italy will slip into Trieste directly behind him. Suddenly, a strong move of A Vie-Gal, A Bud-Ser, F Tri-Alb can counter a combined Russo-Turkish attack, while still guaranteeing Austria two builds from Serbia and Greece. Italy has improved chances of growing in the west, which should draw her eyes away from Austrian centers. The Dual Monarchy's chances of survival seem a lot better than they are in the regular game!

Given that Austria in Diplomacy tends to do well as long as it survives the early years with a reasonable amount of strength, in Milan her performance should improve.


At first glance, it seems that England should also improve her standing. Italy's greater capacity for heading west against France weakens the Third Republic, which in turn is good news for the Prime Minister. A stronger Austria is more likely to do well against Russia, and eventually even Germany. These are all potentially good things from England's point of view.

The fly in the ointment, however, is that a strong Italy is likely to be a threat to England in the long run too. Once those green fleets sail past Gibraltar, the PM is going to have to look to his own defense. A strong Italy also makes it more difficult for England to seize Tunis as an eighteenth center; and for England, Tunis is generally the most accessible center on the other side of the stalemate line.

Overall, the changes should more or less even out for England.


Where Italy and Austria gain from the changes in Milan, France is pretty much a loser. In Diplomacy, Italy was the least of the President's immediate worries; but in Milan, the Pope ranks right up there with the PM and the Kaiser. A determined Italian-German alliance now has the means to force Burgundy, and a new Italian F Rom can be on Marseilles' doorstep before help from the East can arrive.

As mentioned above, this can cut both ways; if France decides to head south, a sudden move toward Rome is now easier than in the standard game. But with two other powerful neighbors to consider, it seems more likely that Italy will be the one to attack France first, rather than the reverse.

Still, France retains many of the features that make her such a powerhouse in Diplomacy: an edge position, two easy neutrals in SPA and POR, and the flexibility to send fleets north or south around Gibraltar. So while the changes in Milan should work out to France's disadvantage relative to her position in standard Diplomacy, that position was already so strong that the Third Republic should still be competitive in Milan — or so we hope!


Like England, Germany should find Milan to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Kaiser's feared neighbors in France and Russia have new problems to worry about. In the longer term, Italy's strength could also be useful in an alliance against England once France has fallen.

On the other hand, a large Austria or Italy may launch a strike to cross the stalemate line at Munich before Germany is ready to face it. Even as an ally, either country should be in better position to claim a larger share of any spoils — which of course means less for Germany.

Overall Germany should likely do about as well as before — or, considering how close Munich is to the strengthened Austria and Italy, maybe a little worse?


Since the main point of the variant is to strengthen Italy, it would be a terrible waste if it didn't! For all the reasons listed in Map and Rules above, Italy can be expected to do better in this variant than in standard Diplomacy.

The changes are subtle, however, and don't automatically transform Italy into a powerhouse. The problem of having only one accessible neutral remains. Austria, a close Italian neighbor, is also stronger — still a problem in the long run. So careful diplomacy and good play are still required for any Italian victory!


The changes in Milan should make Russia less strong than it is in Diplomacy. But by how much? It's hard to say.

On the one hand, Austria can now afford to order A VIE-GAL in 1901 without risking Trieste or giving up Greece: and the new buffer of Venetia means the Archduke can face the east more easily, so Austria is potentially a more dangerous opponent and powerful ally. On the other hand Italy too is stronger, so Italy can be a good Russian ally against Austria.

But Italy is also more likely to look west than in the standard game, and if she does this is harmful to Russia in two ways. First, it gives Austria freer rein to resist a Russian offensive, or even launch an attack of her own on the Tsar. Secondly, the natural target of any westward push by Italy is France; and France is Russia's natural ally against their dangerous mutual neighbors, England and Germany. If France is weakened, these two should be better able to attack Russia.

This won't necessarily happen, of course. The changes in Milan don't force Italy to head west; they just make it easier if that's what the Pope wants to do. But overall, it seems that Russia will not do as well.


Turkey is the only Power that effectively borders on both Italy and Austria; so you can expect that this country will perform less well than usual in the Milan variant.

However, the situation isn't entirely one-sided. Turkey still enjoys the same enormous defensive potential as in the standard game. Austria's newfound strength may be directed against Russia as easily as against Turkey. Italy's options for heading westward are another plus, since they make it more likely that the Pope will explore options in that direction rather than trying a Lepanto. And if he doesn't, Turkey can still hope that France will take advantage of the shortened distance between Marseilles and Rome by sending an army to Savoy to distract Italy before it's too late. And in the very long term, if Turkey prospers, it's slightly more likely that yellow units will make it across the main stalemate line before it can be shut off.

Still, Turkey is another country whose performance will probably suffer from the changes overall.


The ostensible goal of Milan is to strengthen Italy, the weakest performer on the Diplomacy map, without unbalancing the game in other ways. Does it succeed?

Before answering that question, it's important to have some way of ranking the Great Powers in Diplomacy to begin with. Even going by articles on the Pouch, it isn't easy to come across a consensus. In Geography is Destiny, Paul Windsor summarizes results from articles by Conrad Minshall and Matthew Self. In his Introduction to 1900, Baron Powell looks at results from over 3500 games (also taken from different sources, including articles by Tim Richardson and Thaddeus Black). All these results agree that Italy is at the bottom of the pack overall; but the ranking up from there varies — depending both on the actual numbers of solos, draws, and survivals, and on the weight given to them in each calculation system.

Still, there are some consistencies. France, Russia, England, and Turkey are ranked the top four overall (in one combination or another) in all three studies. Austria and Germany come in 5th or 6th. In Baron's analysis (based on the largest sample size), the top contenders are France and Russia, with England and Turkey a fair distance behind the two leaders.

Based on these results, to succeed in its goal Milan should strengthen Italy greatly, weaken France and Russia by a fair amount, and weaken England and Turkey and/or strengthen Austria and Germany minimally. That way the playing field should be levelled, and each Power should have a more equal chance of winning.

From my analysis of the Great Powers above, I think the variant should succeed on most of these counts. It strengthens Italy and Austria; weakens France, Russia, and Turkey; and leaves England and Germany more or less even compared to before. I am a little concerned that Germany may fall to the bottom of the list, but that may not be the case.

Besides — somebody has to be last.

Counting to Eighteen

As always, I still believe that the closest eighteen centers for each Power provide a good indication of that country's overall prospects. So let's see how the slight topographical changes in Milan affect them:

Swiftest Route to Victory in Milan
(0 Moves)
Centers Reachable In...Total
1 Move2 Moves3 Moves4 Moves
Austria Vie, Bud, Tri Ser, Rum, Mil, Rom, Mun, War, Sev, Bul, Gre (6 of 7) Tun, Mar, Kie, Ber, Mos, Nap, Con N/A 34
England Lon, Edi, Lvp (None) Bre, Bel, Hol, Den, Nwy Swe, StP, Kie, Par, Spa, Por (4 of 5) Mar, Mun, Ber, Mos, Tun 44
France Bre, Par, Mar Spa Lon, Bel, Mun, Mil, Rom, Por (8 of 12) Lvp, Edi, Nwy, Den, Hol, Kie, Nap, Tun, Tri, Ber, Vie N/A 37
Germany Kie, Ber, Mun Hol, Den Mar, Par, Bel, Swe, War, Vie, Tri, Mil (5 of 11) Spa, Bre, Lon, Edi, Nwy, StP, Mos, Rum, Ser, Rom, Bud N/A 33
Italy Mil, Rom, Nap (none) Tri, Mar, Tun, Mun, Vie, Gre, Spa (8 of 10) Bud, Ser, Kie, Ber, Bul, Con, Smy, Por, Par, Bel N/A 38
Russia StP, Mos, War, Sev Rum, Nwy Swe, Ber, Mun, Vie, Bud, Ser, Bul, Con, Ank, Smy (2 of 8) Gre, Tri, Kie, Den, Edi, Lon, Hol, Bel N/A 28
Turkey Con, Ank, Smy Bul Sev, Rum, Ser, Gre Tun, Nap, Tri, Bud, Mos War, Vie, Rom, StP +5* 45
Cells starting with "(x of n)" indicate that if the Power already holds all closer centers, it only needs x of the n supply centers listed in the cell to reach eighteen. Italics indicate that the italicized center is not needed at all, except as an alternative to a closer center.

*There are only seventeen centers within four moves of Turkey. The eighteenth Turkish center must therefore be one of Spa, Mar, Mil, Mun, Ber, or Nwy, adding five moves to the total count.

Some interesting points come out of this analysis:

Offhand, this makes it look like the changes to the map will actually worsen Italy's performance if you go by the move count alone. However, there's another important factor to consider which mitigates the effect of the count: Italy has more choice. Where there are exactly eighteen centers within three moves of Italy in Diplomacy, in Milan there are a total of twenty. And if you look closely, you can see this is because Italy has dropped only one center from her Diplomacy list (Rum), gaining in exchange three centers in Milan (Por, Par, and Bel). And all three of those centers are in the West.

Still, that doesn't seem like much of a bargain offhand. It looks like Italy has gained only minimal flexibility in Milan, and the increased number of moves required to reach eighteen offsets even that little — in fact, they may cancel it out entirely.

Is it worth it? Is Italy really better off in Milan than in the standard game?

There are many who would say yes. In Diplomacy World issue #80 (PDF file), in response to Stephen Agar's suggestions for improvements on the standard Diplomacy map (page 13), Toby Harris cites the Milan variant as one that already addresses many of the crucial points Stephen brings up. Later in the discussion Stephen counters with statistics which show that Milan actually helps England and Austria the most, with Italy tied for 5th with Russia, and France at the bottom — with a very large margin between the top two and bottom three. However, no sample size is given; so there's no way to tell whether these numbers are statistically significant.

Results on the DPjudge (and DipWorld)

When I ran my own three Milan games in the fashionista series on the DPjudge, the results for Italy were impressive: one solo, one 2-way draw (which really should have been a solo for Italy, but the player decided to keep his promise to vote for the 2-way), and one 3-way draw. If these results were typical, I'd have to say that Milan overachieves its goal of strengthening Italy!

But of course, three games are nowhere near enough to count: and two of my results were achieved by the same player (who was randomly assigned Italy twice), meaning they're more of a testament to that individual's skill than to the strength of Italy in Milan in general.

A larger sample — consisting of 31 games on the DPjudge and two from the DipWorld PBEM community — provides a different picture.

The table below combines results from 31 games from the DPjudge and two from DipWorld.

(I am grateful to Chris Dziedzic for pointing out the DipWorld results, and especially to Sam Tyler for helping me identify all the completed Milan games on the DPjudge without checking them one by one. Thanks, guys!)

Milan Results on the DPjudge and DipWorld
PowerSolosDraws SurvivalsEliminations
3 1 3 2 5 19
England 5 1 3 5 8 11
France 1 1 2 3 7 19
Germany 2 1 3 3 7 17
Italy 1 2 4 5 6 15
Russia 1 0 1 2 5 24
Turkey 5 0 5 4 10 9

Thirty-three games is still far too small a sample size for anyone to generalize from it; but there are still a few things worth noting in the results. We can see a few trends that have interesting implications:

So far, these results are different from what I expected, and I'm not sure what board dynamics explain them (if any — let me repeat that 33 games constitutes too small a sample size to come to any real conclusions!). I'm not too surprised to see France and Russia bumped down to the bottom; but I'm not certain why Russia seems to suffer so much more than France. I'm also not sure why England and Turkey seem to benefit so disproportionately.

If these trends continue, my best guess would be that I underestimated the indirect effect that an early Italian westward drive has on Russia. By attacking France first, Italy may be leaving not just Austria, but also England and Turkey free to concentrate on the Tsar. With France busy in the south, England can pursue a war in Scandinavia more freely; and so long as Italian fleets are occupied in the west, Turkey is even less vulnerable to invasion than before.

It may also be that Austrian players tend to overestimate their new strength. With so much less to worry about at his back, an Archduke may be tempted to take a much more aggressive stance against Russia — first opening to Galicia, then grabbing Rumania, and invading Russia itself — without fully considering how much this benefits Turkey, and how (combined with Italy's westward commitments) it may leave Austria facing the Sultan alone.

But this is all speculation on my part. Perhaps as more games are concluded, the results will even out; or if not, the trends and the reasons for them will become clearer.


In Milan, Italy isn't necessarily the strongest country. The results indicate that it's an average country, with a decently balanced chance of doing well or doing poorly. Considering where it starts from in standard Diplomacy, that's a huge improvement! It seems that Milan succeeds in its goal: it makes Italy much easier to play.

More importantly, however, Milan makes Italy much more fun to play, by giving the country new options. And no matter which Power you end up with, the subtle effects of those options radiate outward to provide a balance of power that's very different from what we find in Diplomacy — one that players will find well worth exploring.

Charles Roburn

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