by David Norman

One of the interesting things about Diplomacy is how varied the style of play is in different hobby groups around the world. But another equally interesting aspect is how the style of play has changed over time. One example of this is how the English Channel is dealt with in Spring 1901. The following is based on a conversation I had with an old time player a number of years ago.

Many years ago, in the early days of Diplomacy, the standard opening for England and France was to bounce in the English Channel. It was as common as the bounce in the Black Sea is today. It is an obvious opening. It protects both countries home centres from unwanted incursions by the other player, and saves having to cover their home centres in the fall. The problem for France is, it's not a great opening.

If France is to bounce in the Channel and get two builds, he somehow has to get both of his armies into neutral centres. There are only two ways he could do this.

  1. France could open to Spain and Gascony, to take Portugal and Spain in the Fall. However, this leaves him wide open to Germany moving to Burgundy. It rarely make sense to cover the English Channel so forcefully, while leaving Burgundy so open.

  2. France could make a play for Belgium — such as supporting Paris to Burgundy or opening to Picardy and bouncing in Burgundy. But Germany opening Munich to Ruhr or Kiel to Holland can scupper this plan. And England could also choose to go to Belgium rather than Norway — something that's far less risky if you know France is only getting one build.

So in general, France would only get one build in 1901, not taking the other of Spain and Portugal until 1902. And often it would be Portugal which fell second — which would mean it's the end of 1903 before that army gets back to France, significantly slowing France's growth down.

The problem is, how can France change this? It's clearly not in his interest to bounce in the English Channel, but equally, he doesn't want England going there unopposed. How can he arrange a DMZ there? What can he offer to England to make England stay out of the Channel?

As Diplomacy opening strategy developed, the common deal became that France would ask England for a DMZ in the Channel. In return for this, France would support England into Belgium in the fall.

France could now send his fleet to the Mid Atlantic, and could either support himself to Burgundy, or arrange to bounce in Burgundy while also moving Paris to Picardy. And then in the Fall, Marseilles and Mid Atlantic can take Spain and Portugal, while his other army supports the English move to Belgium.

It's a win-win deal. England and France are both a centre up on where they would otherwise be. And so it became the standard opening for England and France.

The problem is, it's now become too standard. England now agrees the English Channel DMZ as a matter of course, without asking for anything in return. So the support into Belgium now rarely happens, and France is now getting the extra centre in 1901 while England is no longer getting anything for allowing him to do so. And if England does ask for either a bounce or for something such as support into Belgium in return for not bouncing, France doesn't take kindly to it, and it can sour the relationship between the two powers for a number of turns.

It is often thought that France is the strongest power on the board. It could well be that this is a direct consequence of the change in opening strategy for the English Channel in 1901. A French power which only gets 1 build in 1901, and gets a second in 1902 with an army in Portugal, would be a much weaker power. And by the time the alternative opening had become well known, the map was already set in stone, leaving France as a significantly stronger power than intended.

Maybe it's time England started asking for a bounce in the Channel again?

David Norman

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