Sergio Lidsell and Bruce Duewer are writing a series of very valuable articles, giving an in depth look at the rules, strategy and tactics of the Machiavelli game. I advise you to read these if you want a complete understanding of the game of Machiavelli. (Additional link here).
The following article below is aimed at new players who have read the rules of Machiavelli (or here) and want to get started straight away without making any obvious strategic, tactical or financial mistakes. This article is more about a player's mindset. Seasoned players may also want to take a peak.
Do I need the same mindset for Machiavelli as I have when I play Diplomacy?
The correct answer is 'Yes'. However, the more accurate answer is 'No'.
Machiavelli and Diplomacy are in fact different games. They are games of negotiation that share similar movement and combat rules but that is all.
If you play Diplomacy well, you will know it is a game about stalemate lines. Your initial aim is to survive the opening game. However, the mid-game and end-game concern themselves with stalemate lines. If you want to solo you need to get to and breach the stalemate lines that separate you from the other players. If you are defending against the solo, you need to secure that stalemate line with units and supporting units.
There are no stalemate lines in Machiavelli. This game is about imaginative moves and the wise use of money.
Instant Elimination - Your Overriding Concern
Throughout the entire game you must always be on the alert for instant elimination. Not only your own but also how to do the same to other players. Players with a natural sense of stress inducing paranoia should do very well at Machiavelli.
Home Cities: Each nation starts with home cities. These are like your home cities in Diplomacy; the only ones in which you are allowed to build new units. You may gain new home cities during the game, but at the start you will just have 3 or 4 for the first few years of the game.
Instant Elimination: You will be instantly eliminated from the game if you lose all your home cities on any (version 1 rules) turn. You might have many troops all over the board, and even own many cities elsewhere, but if you lose your home cities your game is instantly over.
Some countries, for example Florence, the Papacy, Austria, Turkey and France (the latter to a lesser extent in version 1) are very vulnerable to an early-game exit. You might think you are safe moving a few of your units out of your home cities to gain some neutrals, leaving one behind to protect against instant elimination. However, Machiavelli has bribes. For 18d an enemy could buy your holding unit, move it to another of your home cities and sneakily move into your last home city as you vacate it.
Traditionally enemies can only bribe units they are adjacent to, so this limits vulnerable units. However, do not forget plague and famine might eliminate your key defending units. Plague is particularly brutal as you have no direct way of defending against it. You typically start with 3 or 4 units, so losing one of these in the first year and then defending against elimination is a nightmare.
Look at this example:
Both Florence city and Arezzo are both vulnerable to bribes as they are adjacent to Papal units.
Consider the Florentine moves:
Florence could be eliminated from the game in the first turn if the Pope buys the army in Florence, moves it to Pisa, and then moves Perugia to Arezzo.
Be careful. You have been warned.
Mobility and the Double Bounces are Cheaper than Counter-Bribes
Sometimes you will find yourself in a position where a bribe on one of your units could be devastating for your game or even eliminate you from the game due to losing all your home cities. (I must stress you should constantly be on the lookout for such potential game-changing bribes, as this is the nature of the Machiavelli game.) Sometimes you will have no other alternative but to spend money and counter-bribe especially if it is just a single unit that is vulnerable. Other times several units might be vulnerable, you do not have the money or you want to save your money for later in the game.
In Diplomacy you can build good solid defences with a chain of mutual supports. In Machiavelli this is more difficult due to the enemy's ability to bribe units. A powerful stagnant defence could be the catalyst of your downfall.
Unit mobility and the double bounce can be a cheaper alternative to counter-bribes. If you think an enemy may bribe a unit, try and block the potential destination of that unit with another unit. Do not forget the Diplomacy defence of the double-bounce. It is even more effective in Machiavelli.
With only two units, a fleet in Western Gulf of Lyon and an army in Swiss, the French player is vulnerable to bribes. If the unit in Swiss is bought and moves to Avignon, then France will be down to only one home city. If he counter-bribes Swiss, the loss in money may have a negative effect on his game later on. Every ducat counts.
So the double-bounce, Swiss to Avignon and Western Gulf of Lyon to Avignon, means he retains his position in Western Gulf of Lyon (a good defence from any southern attacks) and bounces any Austria move Swiss to Avignon if Swiss is bought. If Austria does buy Swiss and fails to take Avignon, then with a ‘buy’ bribe costing a minimum of 18d, it could have a crippling effect on his game. All France has to do is be a sore thumb, putting up a reasonable defence for a couple of years, and the Austrian could go bankrupt.
Your chances increase with your unpredictability. Unpredictability = Access to Cash.
Your chances in the game will significantly increase with your available cash. This means you need to keep your available loans for as long as possible. Your moves become very easy to guess if you have used up your loans too early in the game or if you have even gone bankrupt and can no longer borrow. Your enemies will have more to defend against if they are worried that you may buy or remove one of their units. The less available money you have, the easier it is for your enemies to attack you or defend against you. Money is strength. Playing the long game with money is typically the best option.
Balance is Key
Your primary aim of the early game is to survive but in such a way that all other survivors are reasonably in balance. Conversely if you are stabbed in a way that is likely going to result in your elimination from the game or removal from a draw, then you need to make sure you create as much imbalance as you can to make life hard for the ne'er-do-well that stabbed you.
In Diplomacy your early game aim is just to survive and this is the same in Machiavelli. Thereafter the Diplomacy game becomes an issue of stalemate lines. In a game of experienced players they understand a runaway leader can be stopped by an alliance that sits on and secures the myriad of stalemate lines all over the board. So if there is an imbalance in the game, where one or two players are pulling ahead, it is not a major issue as their growth can be checked by logically thinking players.
It is different in Machiavelli. There are no stalemate lines. Also, as players get eliminated you find that some survivors may not have frontlines with a potential runaway player. This exaggerates the runaway player's lead and the chance of a solo.
Remember the player who comes second to a soloing player is a loser of equivalent status to the first player to be eliminated from the game.
So in Machiavelli it is even more critical your alliance structures are mobile to ensure the balance of the surviving players is maintained. You are really looking for the top three or four powers to be reasonably equivalent, otherwise solos become very probable. Also you do not want to appear too weak or it will be in the other players' interest to eliminate you. One less variable in the game is always good. This is not like Diplomacy where a country with a single unit might be essential to a stalemate line’s defence.
Therefore it is fair game to discuss this balance with other players and you have every right to ask for their growth to be checked. If they are engaged in a move that could be a stepping stone to a solo (remember bribes can result in major swings) then it is your right and duty to demand those moves are not made until balance is regained elsewhere on the board. It can be very entertaining watching a player squirm trying to justify the dangerous move, pretending it is harmless or essential.
To use poker terms, if someone has a solo-hand then call-it in a public manner as possible (to those players who can do something about it). Then if that solo-attempting player continues with their attempt, they will typically cement an alliance against them, but most importantly cement that alliance within 1 turn. If it is early enough, then it usually results in the solo player losing to an alternative alliance. (This is not always the case as solo players who are smart will try and renegotiate a different draw.) Remember there are no stalemates in Machiavelli. A solo-attempting player cannot lurch to a stalemate and then insist on taking a draw if their solo attempt fails. In Machiavelli, if a solo-attempting player cements an alliance against himself, then that solo-attempting player is more likely to lose; providing it is early enough.
So what is Balance?
In the Machiavelli game you will gain the control of other player's countries. For balance to be retained, you would be looking for several countries being close to gaining a second country as the first player does so.
Gaining second countries can be offset by the health of a player's finances. If a player gaining a second country has a load of debt, but the other players' finances are healthy, then there still could be a reasonable amount of balance in a game. In general the state of player's finances is the key to balance; how much each is/will be earning and what is the chance of them repaying their debt. Remember, owning a second country adds to your income as if it were your own.
Try and grow equally with your neighbours and keep an eye on everyone on the board. If someone is getting too strong, or getting a large treasury, they will potentially solo if you do nothing. If someone solos, everyone else loses. Petty feuds locally might need to be put aside immediately if this occurs. Good players know this and will always react irrespective of what has occurred earlier in a game.
Diplomacy is more forgiving in respect of a runaway leader in part due to the stalemate lines. You can rush to those stalemates to stop the solo. There are no stalemates in Machiavelli.
Also in Diplomacy you can only build in your original home country so it generally takes a while to get troops to the new front lines. In Machiavelli you can gain building rights in home countries you annex. These can be nearer the front line and can also surround your new targets, so this will make solo attempts more rapid and more difficult to stop.
Slow-Boating is More Effective in Machiavelli than Diplomacy
Another good tactic in Machiavelli is to slow-boat (to actively not grow as fast as you could) in order to get other players looking like someone who could potentially solo, especially in a game of experienced players. I am not saying you should make yourself weak, instead I am saying you should become more powerful in a less conspicuous way. If you can do that, you can get the entire board focused on the potential solo-attempting player, and you can get some heat off you locally.
And don't forget, if you are new and do make a mistake that slows you down, you can always claim in your EOG (End Of Game) you were slow-boating. Then if you make a mistake in a future game your enemies will start to fret, wondering what new sneaky subterfuge you are engaged in.
Newbies have a Right to Exist
By this point in the article you are probably thinking, 'I will never remember all this'. Don't panic. Who cares? Just have fun. You are as important a player as any of the old-hands.
A typical newbie mistake in both Machiavelli and Diplomacy is to try and please other players too much. They leave their borders open to attack to those players they are trying to please, and then inevitably the other player takes advantage of them. Remember, you newbies have as much right in the game as everyone. If someone asks you to clear a border of your troops, but they keep a troop in striking distance, don't do it, tell them where to go (and make them buy their own map and bus ticket). You can do it politely, e.g. 'I think we both should park a single unit on or near our borders for mutual piece of mind'. An experienced player, who is not in the process of taking advantage of you, will not have a problem with that.
Note: If you are going to park a unit on your border, make sure it is not adjacent to your neighbour’s unit, or they can buy it and you will have 2 units rapidly entering your territory. Try and keep a space. Double-bounces can be useful for this.
I guess a general rule for newbies is it is OK to listen to advice for attacking moves from experienced allies (as they will generally be more inventive) but tell them (diplomatically) where they can shove their mutual defensive suggestions, as they are likely going to be to their advantage, even if they appear to reasonably even. Remember, old hands are crafty scumbags; at least I know I am.
For defence, I advise newbies to listen to the ideas of their enemies. They will be the first to point out weaknesses in your defence strategies as they will be panicking about balance issues. If you don't understand how dangerous your defence is ask them to explain.
You don't have to attack someone to slow them down.
It’s not what you do; it’s your potential to do something. The general rule is you don't have to attack someone to slow them down. Just building non-aggressive troops near someone's border can force them to split themselves and put a drain on their resources by having to build excess troops in the winter phase. Remember in Machiavelli everything is about money. If you are draining someone's money you are draining their strength.
Units behind enemy lines
In standard Diplomacy it is not the end of the world if an enemy unit gets behind your lines. You just assign a troop to follow it, always moving to its current location. You only lose 1 supply centre max, and will constantly cut its supports. However, the only real effect a wandering troop has in standard Diplomacy is in the end game when it has breached a stalemate line. It could ruin your defence against a solo.
However, in Machiavelli the general rule is not to let a troop behind you lines. It’s not a case of stalemates, as there are no stalemates in Machiavelli. It’s the bribing potential that is the problem (in adjacency games).
Most nations are 3 home city powers. A single enemy unit can take 2 of those cities with a bribe on one of your units in the locale. So if a third nation or the same nation can rapidly get to your 3rd city on the same turn, you are out of the game with no chance of reply.
So the general rule is don't let enemy troops behind your lines especially if they are close to your homeland where you could have 2 or more home cities taken out by a bribe-attack.
The general rule is to avoid it if you can, especially near the start of the game.
It is fine to take out large 2-year loans that will be due way after you expect the game to end (if you otherwise did not take out that loan) if you see someone potentially attempting a solo.
Otherwise you should aim to service your debt (only paying interest on the never-never) or pay it down. Bankruptcy means you cannot take out any more loans, and that makes your actions more predictable. The longer you can service your debt, the more likely you will be able to pay it off as you expand and become richer.
If you are growing strong it is OK and essential to let others to grow strong as well
This general rule may sound a bit weird, but it is true. Real solos (those not gained by mistakes of others) are incredibly rare, especially in the 23-center/3-nation games. Generally you are after a 3-way draw.
If you are after a 3-way draw you can afford and generally should let 4 powers (including yourself) grow strong.
This provides a good game balance, ensuring it is difficult for a single player to solo. Four players can generally evenly spread themselves across the board and prevent a solo. Three players will generally find it difficult to stop one of their number taking a solo, unless it is the end of the game and they are balanced in every respect, as typically there will be a weakness somewhere on the board. That weakness, imbalance, or void in the board, could be the contributing factor to a solo.
If you are one of 4 equally strong players aiming for a 3-way draw, then it is much easier to prevent voids or imbalances anywhere on the board. There are 4 possible 3-way draws involving those 4 players, only 1 of which excludes you. That is a 75% chance of a shared 3-way draw. Those aren't bad odds.
Should I, Just Because I Can?
This is really just an extension of the Imbalance Section, but I think it is important enough to put it separately.
In Diplomacy if an ally is completely acting stupidly and is leaving themselves open for attack, where you could get to and secure a stalemate line, then they are fair game. Go for it, just attack them. They asked for it.
However in Machiavelli, due to balance issues, this might not be the case. Will eliminating someone from the game allow another power to grow unchecked? Remember, a player is eliminated if they have no home cities. These cities can even be distributed among several players. To gain their home country (and therefore building rights as if you were that player) you must control every home province and city of theirs in a single turn. The latter is a hard task. Elimination usually occurs a lot sooner than annexation.
So to retain a good balance, and credible frontlines between players, it might be better to allow that player to survive.
Conversely, much to the shock of Diplomacy players who might cry foul and point the finger of suspicion, there are occasions where it might be a good idea to assist someone to take a country. It may make them more powerful than you, but will their increased power help check an imbalance elsewhere on the board where they can make a difference?
Use Loans for Game-Turning Events
Try and save your loans for as long as possible.
Most new players take out debt for very trivial activity. They see the 25d of potential loans burning a hole in their pockets. They typically spend it on inconsequential activity. The tip is to not waste money. Use your loans for game-turning activity. Always ask yourself, if I spend so many ducats here, will I get a return on this in a maximum of a year or two’s time?
So what are good uses of money? A good use of money would be if you can dream up a set of moves including a bribe that would remove a player from the game immediately. Note, I am stressing immediately, otherwise the attacked player could make a bribe of his own that could reverse the situation. Due to the debt you would both incur, with no instant reward, the latter would probably mean you both will have little effect in the game thereafter.
Early bribes, even major ones like a buy, can be useful if there is a major income benefit as a result. You will gain another player's home country and income (as well as building rights) if you can gain every home city and every home province of that player on a single turn, spring, summer or fall. Other players will generally be trying to stop this, so using loans to ensure this is again a good use of money.
Large debt is Safe if Everyone is Committed Elsewhere
If you are taking out a loan always look to see the general state of play around the board. As long as everyone else had committed to attacks elsewhere, this is a good idea as you will have time to recover your finances. If your other neighbours were not committed or could easily extract themselves from their commitments, then such a bribe might not be the best idea. In that case it is best to attack your enemy without bribes.
Cloak of Invisibility
If you have bad debt it is a good idea to try and become invisible for a year or two. Machiavelli is probably one of the very few games when doing nothing can sometimes be a very good strategy. When you are engaged in this strategy an extra unit moving around in an unpredictable way behind your front-line is probably more useful than counter-bribes on your frontline units. Be annoying to eliminate, you will be surprised how someone will seek another softer target instead.
Money is too Tight to Mention
As mentioned above, money is strength. The ability to borrow is strength. Money in your treasury is an even greater strength. Most of the game will be spent counting ducats. Every ducat is important.
In Machiavelli money is tight. Typically in a game (unless you make it to the end of a very long game) you get just 1 major (buy) bribe. So if you waste money at the start you can find yourself at a major disadvantage through the rest of the start and mid game, as the buy-bribe is no longer available to you. New players generally fall foul of this tactic, being too eager to spend.
I know I am repeating myself, but I need to stress a major tactic in Machiavelli is to keep the enemy uncertain. If you can have the potential to bribe in numerous different ways, the enemy has too many things to defend against. That uncertainty gives you a strength advantage. So if you blow your cash too soon, your actions, or potential actions, become a lot more predictable. Predictability is very bad.
You must make every ducat count. Always think risk and reward.
Cause Rebellion - The Most Underrated Bribe, Even By the Pros
Most new players tend to consider unit removal (12d) or buying units (18d) as the key bribes. However 'removals' and 'buys' can be counter-bribed, so you might need to over-bribe to make them take effect. So do not underestimate the less expensive bribes. Sometimes they can be more effective.
Consider the situations where you might be close to taking over a player's home country, or might need to retake one of your home cities to get back in the game. A 'cause rebellion' cannot be counter-bribed. It costs 9d to cause a rebellion in an annexed city or 12d in the owning player's city.
Another bonus is a unit in a province where a rebellion is started cannot convert to garrison. If that was their instruction, it will fail, so it has the added advantage of wasting an enemy's order. Not only do you get a +1 strength bonus into the location, but you know the enemy won't be able to skulk to garrison.
Assassination - The Hail Mary Pass
Some people like assassination; some think they are a waste. I generally fall into the latter group. Yes, they can be devastating but they only succeed from a 1 in 6 chance to a 1 in 2 chance. They are expensive, costing 12d per 1/6 chance. Personally I consider the assassination attempt the equivalent of the Hail-Mary pass, pretty much your last play of the game, and only then if there are no other better options.
Repaying or Servicing Loans
I am always amazed how many players, including seasoned players, believe they will have to go bankrupt because of the 25d maximum principal allowed. In reality, they can service that loan indefinitely, on the never-never, paying only the interest.
The general tip here is always to use the ‘Pay to Bank’ command with any excess cash you have in your treasury on any turn when a loan is due. This will maximize the amount you are allowed to borrow as payments to the bank are processed prior to taking out loans.
Also another tip is to spread your loans as evenly as possible over spring, summer and fall, as this will assist you in servicing or paying down your debt in future years.
The following is an example of a real in-game situation that occurred in fall 1456. The loans and treasury were as follows:
The principal debt was 22d (12 + 5 + 5 = 22), giving the mistaken belief only an additional 3d could be borrowed. This would give only 14d, 4d short of the 12+6d debt to be paid off this turn. However, this was wrong due to the sequence of command resolution in the financial element of the turn. The first thing that happens in a turn is the payment a player makes to the bank. This will firstly pay off any interest of the imminent debt, and then if there is any excess the principal will be paid down. So when the player submitted the following command with his orders:
The finances looked like the following just prior to the 'Taking Out Loans' element of the turn:
This meant he had a 17d (7 + 5 + 5 = 17) principal, allowing for a maximum new loan of 8d. Since he only needed 7d to pay off the imminent debt of the fall turn he avoided bankruptcy with the orders below. Note: Generally I like to take out loans in 1 year 5d blocks where possible, leaving any excess, especially when that excess is even, as a two-year loan. This helps minimise interest. So the orders were:
Plague and Famine
People coming from Diplomacy generally do not like plague and famine due to the randomness. However, they add to the game immensely.
Instead of viewing plague and famine as random events that bash you if you are unlucky, you should be viewing these as normal events that need to be guarded against. They are a part of life; just mitigate against them. The latter is part of the game.
Famine is nothing to worry about. It is reported to you in a winter turn and you just have to make sure you are not in that location by the end of spring or pay for a famine relief there. You get a chance to avoid it.
The only major newbie mistake I see with famine is maintaining a unit in an area hit by famine, when there is a strong likelihood that someone could keep you in that location by bouncing you in your escape route
Plague on the other hand is brutal, as it happens at the start of summer and you don’t have any warning or chance to avoid it. However, each territory has a chance of plague from 0% upwards. See the map on the page Disaster Probabilities in Machiavelli. If you have a choice of destinations in the spring, go to the one with a lower plague chance; if possible go to locations which don't get hit by plague at all.
Also plague hits targets in groups. Try to avoid going to locations which share the same plague group.
Have this mindset. You are likely going to lose at least one unit to plague so if possible make sure you build 1 extra unit in the Adjustments Turn, so any plague loss won’t make you vulnerable or wreck any attack plans.
Obviously plague does not happen at sea, so get your fleets out if possible. However, always be careful, don‘t let your fleet leave your last home city if it is vulnerable to attack.
So please, new players, be aware that Machiavelli is a much deeper game than Diplomacy and for that same reason it is much more fun. You will make mistakes in your first game, we all did, but if you remember just a few of the above you should do quite well.
Every action everywhere on the board affects you. If someone is collapsing then that means that area of the board could potentially be vacated so those troops could be coming your way to open up a new frontline against you. Troop reassignment is immediate in Machiavelli. You disband troops you do not want in the winter turn and can immediately replace them for better positioned troops (or more useful types; armies or fleets) near the new frontlines. In Diplomacy you are stuck with the troops you have and then have to spend the time getting them to where they are needed.
Don't waste a single ducat, make each ducat pay. Try and get into the mindset that every ducat you spend must be either draining another player of a ducat of earnings or gaining you an extra ducat.
You don't have to directly attack players to drain their resources.
Try and avoid simple mistakes, as it can take a year or even more to recover from them.
Try and grow equally with your neighbours or you will get swamped by them. Aim to be in the top four countries, and then your chances of a draw significantly increase but don’t be afraid to slow-boat to avoid putting your head over the parapet.
Solos are literally impossible with experienced players. If someone is growing faster than everyone else, you have to stop them immediately. If you don't you will all lose a lot faster than you think.
And most importantly, Machiavelli is just a game. Laugh and learn from your own mistakes; please don't take it seriously. If you can manage to do this it won't be long before you will be trying to hide your maniacal cachinnation and fake sympathy as your enemies make the mistakes you hoped they would.
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.