THOUGHTS ON OPENING WITH FRANCE

by Alex Hartl


If there is something that holds true for all Diplomacy players, itís that nobody is disappointed when they draw France. France has two almost guaranteed opening builds and a good chance for a third, a buffer of empty provinces and seas to shield her from attack, a weak neighbor in Italy, and supply centers on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts which allow her to operate in both theaters of conflict with both land and sea units. About the only bad thing to say about drawing France is that if you donít win with style you may look upon yourself as a failure. Self-esteem being valued to the degree that it is in this day and age, I have offered a few thoughts on how you can emerge from playing France as the Diplomacy rock star that you imagine yourself to be.

For the first turn France needs to attempt to sort out 3 issues: Italy, Burgundy, and Belgium. While Burgundy and Belgium are usually high on Franceís ďTo doĒ list, Italy is not. This is because Italy, while capable of being a nuisance, cannot mortally threaten France for several years. France, however, must remember that, due to her secure initial position, she can afford to think a few years ahead. Of the three western powers France can best withstand an attack from the other two. It is very difficult for England or Germany, and even England AND Germany, to quickly make inroads against France. However, France is not well positioned to defend both its north and south. If France can induce Italy to go east, her defensive position in ensured. Furthermore, France can then correctly point out to England and Germany that their easiest path to expansion is with France at the expense of the other, not with the other at the expense of France. Fortunately for France, Italy often heads east with little or no encouragement from France, and once embroiled in Balkan intrigues finds it difficult to extricate herself from it. However, donít leave it to chance. Do whatever it takes to make it happen — lie, cheat, bribe, beg, threaten or do whatever works best for you during the diplomatic periods.

Burgundy is a worry for France because of all of the things that can go wrong during the 1st turn, German occupation of Burgundy is probably the worst. Fortunately, Burgundy is easily defended; and even more fortunately, Germany rarely goes there. An (admittedly quick) survey of openings shows that Germany opens to Burgundy about 1 in 4 games, but a good portion of these are pre-arranged stand offs. France should look at the German threat to Burgundy as an opportunity rather than a threat. Because Burgundy is important to both Germany and France they often discuss what to do about it, which is an opportunity for France to learn what Germany is going to do and tailor an opening with that information. If, for example, I know that Germany is going to move to Burgundy I often open with BRE-MID, PAR-PIC, MAR-BUR which will leave me with a shot at 3 SC and enables me to defend Brest without forgoing an Iberian supply center should England move to the channel. If I know that Germany isnít going to Burgundy then I like BRE-MID, PAR-PIC, MAR-SPA which accomplishes the same thing (or I consider directly attacking England with one of the openings that involve BRE-ENG, although I have never actually done it). For the record, if I am not sure about German intentions in Burgundy I favor playing the odds and assuming he wonít go there or I move PAR-BUR, MAR S PAR-BUR, BRE-MID if I chicken out.

Given my list of recommended openings it is clear that my view toward Belgium is to go for it. Many players in the western triangle demur from grabbing Belgium because they feel that the other members of the triangle will gang up on them for being too powerful. While this may be true in some cases, it is also true in some cases that players are inclined to ally with a powerful neighbor in an attempt to direct their energies toward another target. There is no way to tell which dynamic will prevail. so why not err on the side of possessing more supply centers? When playing aggressively for Belgium I have found the line, ďIím going to play for Belgium but wonít start a war if you happen to get there firstĒ as one that tends to mollify the other interested parties because it sounds ďreasonableĒ.

Negotiating dynamics aside. there are some practical considerations for having a go at Belgium. First, although France usually captures Iberia in 1901, there is no guarantee that English or Italian meddling wonít require that France forgo an Iberian build in order to protect a home center. If such a situation does come to pass, capturing Belgium could offset the loss and maintain Franceís customary 2 builds. Second, after picking up Iberia, France will either have to plunge into the heart of Germany or mount seaborne invasions of Italy or England to get her next bunch of builds. All of the alternatives require time, and will leave France vulnerable to attack in the interim. Having an extra unit on the border to guard against treachery (or as a springboard for attack) can only help matters, even if Belgium only serves as a place that enemies will have to take time to capture before they can do real damage to France proper.

If France emerges from 1901 in good shape she must now look to go on the offensive, which means attacking England, Germany or Italy. There are pros and cons for each option, so the decision of which nation to attack isnít as important as France's resolve to a) attack somebody right away, and b) try to predict the state of the board a year ahead before deciding on a victim. Attacking right away is important because the layer of empty provinces and seas that protect France and ensure her safety in the first year also delays France when she goes on the offensive. This is probably the only flaw in France's otherwise perfect position. France usually can usually consolidate her position quicker than her neighbors, so she must not allow them time to consolidate theirs. Donít dither, attack! Taking the time to predict the board a year ahead before attacking is an admittedly inexact proposition, but France should expend the energy to do so because attacking out of France does take time, and the last thing France wants to do is find out that she has attacked the wrong country. Your projections might turn out wrong; but better to be burned by a plan gone wrong than by a failure to plan altogether.

Now for the targets, starting with Germany. Of all of Franceís neighbors, attacking Germany offers the best chance of grabbing a build in 1902 and continuing first year momentum. Grabbing Belgium in 1902 (if not already captured in 1901) or grabbing Munich or Holland (if France already owns Belgium) is a realistic possibility for France if she manages to catch Germany off guard, or if France can convince England and/ or Russia to join in the attack. The drawback is that the spoils of attacking Germany are limited. France can count on possessing Munich and Belgium should her attack succeed; but the remaining German centers are bound to be coveted by Russia or England. Worse, these remaining centers are coastal provinces whose adjoining sea spaces will very likely be occupied by either English (in the North Sea) or Russian (in the Baltic) fleets, which will greatly weaken French claims to them and make defending them a risky and resource-dependent proposition. Also worth considering is that Germany faces the same drawbacks in attacking France as France has in attacking Germany, which means that France will be attacking a neighbor who is not likely to be an enemy. Because of the aforementioned drawbacks, I usually donít attack Germany unless I am pretty sure that I can get England and Russia fighting afterwards and use the conflict to grab a bigger share of the spoils, or to not worry as much about defending the spoils I won while shifting my attack elsewhere.

Attacking England has much to recommend it. In addition to be builds that can be obtained, France can eliminate her single most dangerous adversary. Elimination of England and her navy not only removes the English threat by definition, but it also removes the German threat because Germany can only access France through narrow land approaches, and — absent friendly fleets in the English Channel and threats to the Mid Atlantic — there is no way a German attack can succeed. Furthermore, attacking England in 1902 greatly increases the probability that Russia will continue to be a presence in the northeast, which will keep the German player looking over his shoulder and should give him pause about attacking while France is busy with England. Finally, attacking England is easier than it appears if you can manage to convoy an army there. If you can convince the English player to leave the English Channel is open, donít hesitate to grab it and convoy an army to Wales. Victory will come quick. If you think the English player may be suspicious you can try setting him up with a fake Italian attack by putting fleets (ideally) in WES and MAO to be followed by MAO-NAO(or IRI) and WES-MAO and by moving an army adjacent to MAO. The next move is to convoy that army somewhere into Great Britain.

The drawbacks of an English attack are twofold. The first is that it is difficult to pull off if England is vigilant. The second is that if France did not succeed in inducing Italy to head east, then France is vulnerable to an Italian counterattack. Any competent Italian player will try to hinder France because he will know that once France has disposed of England the French will start pumping fleets into the Mediterranean. Hence my earlier exhortation to make every diplomatic effort to induce Italy eastward. Part of Italyís plan for hindering France will involve talking to Germany, and if Germany managed to grab Belgium in 1901, Germany may very well decide to go for it. Fortunately for France, England is often lured to attack Scandinavia and is incautious about the channel and the seas to her west, and Italy often has no spare units to use against France. A favorable scenario for an English invasion often sets itself up for France, which is one of the reasons France has a high success rate as a nation; but if Franceís openings are geared to achieving this situation should by chance fail, and France will have a very good game. In short, look to set up England from the beginning and take the chance the second you get it.

Italy presents itself as a tempting target because it is frequently weak. Indeed, a powerful French attack into the Mediterranean has a higher probability of success than an equally powerful attack against either England or Germany. Unfortunately the risk of counterattack elsewhere is also higher, because the distance to Italian centers is great and requires time to conquer. This will expose France to two potential attackers in the north, both of whom are usually strong enough to make good on their opportunities. If France is confident that England and Germany are not going to stab, and also confident that neither England nor Germany will participate in an attack against the other, then attacking Italy may be the preferred move. Otherwise, it is better to settle matters in the west before heading east.

As stated earlier, none of the above options are better or worse than any of the others. It all depends on the situation of the game and the character of the player. The beauty of playing France is that there are many paths to victory. What is important in playing France is that the French player act decisively and with a cold calculating eye toward the future. Do this, and success will follow.



Alex Hartl
(alex.h@glogame.com)

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