As much time as I spend thinking about the game of Diplomacy and examining positions on the standard map, I've never given much thought to the basic configuration of the map and how it affects the powers. Sure, I've absorbed what others have written about stalemate lines, key provinces and which powers are most successful, but I'm talking about something even more fundamental than that: how the placement of each power within the context of the standard map affects its power, influence, and destiny throughout the game. There is a school of thought among historians that geography is destiny. I decided to sit down with a blank standard map and try to subject it to a more fundamental analysis of how it shapes the destiny of various powers and why.
My methodology primarily relies on the Caissic concept of "tempo" to describe the map-based relationships between powers. (One tempo is defined to be the movement of one piece from one province to another.) I first sat down to determine what were the minimum number of tempi required by each power to travel from its own home centers to 15 others (in the case of Russia, 14 others). In other words, what is each power's minimum tempo requirement for swiftest victory? I then used this "most efficient road to victory" information to extrapolate certain other data about each power's spheres of influence and competition under the assumption that these relationships should drive their behavior towards each other and, to a the extent I could, possible results. As a last step, I added to my analysis "known" quantities researched by others, such as stalemate lines.
Many of my conclusions support conventional wisdom, but I think it bears explaining how my analysis points to the reasons why conventional wisdom is correct. On the other hand, a significant number of other conclusions presented here defy conventional wisdom. I think that, in these cases, conventional wisdom might bear some re-examination.
Below, I've listed each power and its swiftest route to victory, as measured by the tempi consumed in marching/sailing from its home SC's to the minimum number of other SC's required for victory.
|Power||Centers Reachable In...||Total Tempi|
|1 Tempo||2 Tempi||3 Tempi||4 Tempi|
|Austria||Ser, Rum, Ven||Rom, Mun, War, Sev, Bul, Gre||Tun, Mar, Kie, Ber, Mos, Nap, Con||33
||Bre, Bel, Hol, Den, Nwy
||Swe, StP, Kie, Par, Spa, Por
||Mar, Mun, Ber, Mos, Tun
||Lon, Bel, Mun, Ven, Por
||Lvp, Edi, Nwy, Den, Hol, Kie, Rom, Nap, Tun, Tri, Ber
||Mar, Par, Bel, Swe, War, Vie, Tri, Ven
||Spa, Bre, Lon, Edi, Nwy, StP, Mos, Rum, Sev, Rom, Bud
||Mar, Tun, Mun, Vie, Bud, Ser, Gre
||Spa, Kie, Ber, Rum, Bul, Con, Smy
||Swe, Ber, Mun, Vie, Bud, Ser, Bul, Con
||Smy, Gre, Tri, Kie, Den, Edi, Lon, Hol, Bel
||Sev, Rum, Ser, Gre
||Tun, Nap, Tri, Bud, Mos
||War, Vie, Rom, Ven, StP, Mar, Mun, Spa, Nwy
[Note: These totals seem to differ slightly from those arrived at by Stephen Agar in his article on designing maps, published in the F1998M issue of the Pouch Zine, but I'll work with my own numbers for the purposes of this article.]
The spread here is actually surprising to behold (for me, anyway). The slowest powers, Turkey and England, must expend 66% more tempi to achieve victory than the swiftest power, Russia. That's a huge difference in starting potential for a game that makes a claim to good balance. It does, however, confirm the results of others' efforts to analyze which power is strongest by looking at various data sets of game results (see the W1995A issue of the Pouch Zine for two articles examining the statistical data available at that time on victories by the various powers in various formats of play). Russia consistently ranks at or near the top in victories in these analyses. The large advantage for Russia in opening potential, as measured by tempo requirements for victory, would seem to be a big factor in its favorable performance as a winning power. Curiously, while Turkey and England are consistently further down the list, it is actually the next three powers, as ranked by opening tempi potential, who are consistently at or near the bottom in victories.
For the record, in the two statistical analyses of games in the 1995 Winter Adjustment issue of the Pouch Zine, the powers ranked as follows:
|Power||Ranked By Wins||Ranked By Overall Results||Ranked By Survival|
|Power||Ranked By Wins||Ranked By Overall Results||Ranked By Survival|
We can see that certain powers are remarkably consistent performers across these statistics. It seems that with or without press, and measured by any standard, Germany and Italy are the two worst performers in the bunch. France, England, and Russia jockey for first, second and third rankings, but Russia's strength seems to be in victories, while England and France survive at higher rates and participate in many more draws. Turkey places a consistent fourth and Austria a consistent fifth. Interestingly, when one adds no-press games into the mix, Austria suddenly becomes a much more formidable power, winning and surviving with much greater frequency, while England's capacity for wins drops dramatically. Apparently, England is a power for diplomats and Austria is a power for generals.
One bit of conventional wisdom that the numbers would seem to support is that the dreaded Russo-Turkish "Juggernaut" alliance is likely to favor Russia more than Turkey. The tempo numbers possibly unmask the reason why. If both powers operate at top speed, Russia is going to race ahead of Turkey based on the comparative length of routes to new SC's on the map. You can't change the laws of physics.
Not all conventional wisdom regarding the relative strengths of powers, however, is explained by the tempo numbers. For example, Italy and Germany would seem to have more victory potential than France, Turkey, and England, if we base our analysis entirely on tempo count required to achieve victory. We know in practice, however, that in PBEM play this is not the case, so other factors are at work. We must look deeper into the map's design than this one, simple statistic.
There are two aspects of the "most efficient" 18 center victories outlined above that might make them more or less efficient.
|Power||Number of Supply Centers...|
|Listed But Not Needed|
In The Tempo Count
|Across a Stalemate Line|
But Required for Most-Efficient Victory
Numbers which are a range represent the presence of SCs in the count that could be on either side of very common stalemate lines. Here we see that the center powers, Austria, Germany and Italy, all run into significant trouble, as their most efficient victories require significant expansion across the major north/south stalemate line. Further, Austria and Italy have little or no flexibility to change that result without targeting more distant SCs. The impact upon England and Turkey is less apparently severe. France and Russia are not impacted at all by this stage of analysis because each power has the ability to build on both sides of the stalemate line. It is very likely no coincidence that France and Russia also consistently rank at the top of Diplomacy statistical analyses. One would think that being unhindered by stalemate lines is at least as important as being unhindered by distance.
If we were to modify each powers' victory SC list to maximize play on one side of a stalemate line, we would get the following results:
|Power||Supply Centers To Be...||Tempo Count To victory|
|Omitted From List||Added To List||Previous||Adjusted|
|Austria||Mun, Ber, Kie (8 tempi)||Con, Ank, Smy (11 tempi)||33||36
||No Modification Possible
||No Modification Necessary
||Mar, Vie, Tri, Ven (8 tempi)
||Any four from last category of list (12 tempi)
||Mun, Kie, Ber (8 tempi)
||Ank, Sev, War (12 tempi)
||No Modification Necessary
||No Modification Possible
England and Turkey simply can't improve their standing in this analysis. They will always be trading off one SC for another across a stalemate line. The center powers all lose ground in tempo efficiency and Russia and France, with their ability to build on either side of the line, are unaffected by this analysis, but improve relative to the center powers, by simply holding their ground.
After this modification, the likely, though not most efficient, tempo requirement for victory for each power is as listed in the right-most column of the table above. From this, we see that, save for Russia, the powers are much more closely bunched together in their tempo requirements for victory along the path of least resistence (at least theoretically). Russia is still a notable exception, being far in front of Austria, the number two power in tempo efficiency. If games were consistently decided as a matter of tempo potential, we would expect Germany, Austria, and France to all follow closely behind Russia in wins. We know, however, that though France does rival Russia in PBEM rusults, Germany is typically mired near the bottom of statistical rankings and Austria tends to fare poorly (though that its performance does improve in no-press games).
Why this disconnect? Austria has liablities based on the map that remain hidden from this analysis. The most important of these is that Austria begins with but a single fleet and is the only power with just one port. Further, that port is directly adjacent to an enemy home supply center, making it that much more likely that the port will by occupied by a defending unit during a build phase. It is enormously difficult, much more so than for any other power, for Austria to build a navy. Consequently, the idea of Austria actually following the quickest tempo-to-victory scenario described above, which relies on getting and holding Marseilles and Tunis, or forgoing German centers to employ fleet tactics against Turkish centers, seems to be pie-in-the-sky thinking. If Austria does not acquire these distant southern coastal centers, though, it's going to need a lot of centers across the north/south stalemate line to complete a victory.
Thus, despite the fact that Austria, as measured in the above chart, seems to have more potential for victory than any nation other than Russia, Austria has very signicant natural barriers to overcome, regardless of the direction it chooses for victory. To the north, the major stalemate line. To the south, the problem of mustering a navy. The presence of these obstacles explains the very common phenomenon of an Austria off to a quick start stagnating at a size of around ten SC's. That's the point at which the lack of a navy and the presence of the northern stalemate line become formidable obstacles to further expansion. Austria's better record in no-press games might, perhaps, be explained by the fact that a defense of the stalemate line typically requires the cooperation of two or more powers -- cooperation which in the absence of press is naturally more difficult. Under such circumstances, the presence of the stalemate line is less meaningful to an Austria off to a fast start; and, in turn, Austria's lack of fleets become less of a liability as SC's across the stalemate line become available to him.
Having discounted Austria's apparent tempo potential in the above analysis, we come to the conclusion that, based on the potential of their starting positions, the most powerful three nations in Europe must be Russia, Germany, and France. Two out of three of these are confirmed by actual practice, but we know that, statistically speaking, Germany lags well behind not only Russia and France in PBEM play, but consistently well behind England and Turkey, also. We have not yet discovered all of the important factors at work in the map.
Despite the emphasis on alliance structure in forming strategies and the prevalence of draws in the game results on PBEM judges, the primary goal of most players is still to achieve victory. Any Diplomacy chef intent upon whipping up a victory omelette knows that he must break a few eggs to achieve it. The problem is, if your ally is also an omelette chef, the eggs he needs to break are usually located in your own centers.
The number of other powers that are interested in acquiring your centers as a necessary step in producing their own victory has to be counted an important factor in the geographic security of any power. I call this factor the "Fear Factor." I surmise that the higher a power's Fear Factor, the greater difficulty a power will have in achieving victory, regardless of other natural advantages. As with the tempo analysis of the map, the Fear Factors for each power show that all powers are not created equal.
To calculate a Fear Factor, I began by considering the tempo analysis above and the idea that best strategy was dicatated by taking the swiftest route to victory. If the swiftest route to victory for another power necessarily runs through your own home SC's, then you have more to fear from that power than others. The closer the correlation between your home SC's and that other power's route, the greater the fear factor. [I stuck to home SC's to keep analysis reasonably simple. I don't think that trying to introduce "naturals" or other SC's into the fear factor analysis would change the results significantly.] Mathematically, I assigned an arbitrary value of five to the closest relationship of home SC's to each other on the board (Venice and Trieste). Centers spaced two tempi apart (for example, Paris and Munich) have a Fear Factor value of four, and so on down the line. If a power's home SC's do not appear on a rival power's list of SC's required for swiftest victory, the Fear Factor value is zero, regardless of actual distance. Thus, the higher the Fear Factor, the greater the degree of fear and, therefore, the degree of difficulty between powers. The Fear Factors I calculated for each power as a result are as follows:
|Power||Fear Factor From...||Total Fear|
As with tempo potential, there is a very large spread in Fear Factors. Adding the Fear Factor to tempo analysis provides a ready explanation for why England and Turkey's PBEM performance outstrips Germany's, despite Germany's considerable tempo advantage over those two powers. Germany tops the charts in the degree to which its rivals' paths to glory run through the heart of the Fatherland, creating a Fear Factor which more than triples its neighbor England. Germany is the only power whose home SC's are of interest to every other power in the board, and most of those interests are quite high.
Although Germany is often referred to as a member of the Western Triangle (meaning E/F/G), the Fear Factor numbers appear to indicate that Germany sits in the corner of an even stronger triangular interest: an A/G/R triangle. Each of these three powers has a minimum Fear Factor of ten with respect to the two others. Oddly, Diplomacy strategy articles mention little about the significance of this A/G/R triangle with respect to Germany, beyond universal advice to ally with Austria and fear Russia. Yet the map would seem to indicate that A/G/R should be vigorously negotiating early game alliances with and/or against each other in the same manner as E/F/G. Perhaps Germany's overall performance could improve if German leaders adapted their thinking and provided as much care to this eastern triangle as to the more readily identified western triangle.
The Fear Factor neatly explains at least some of the most common alliance behavior in Diplomacy. There are two ways to deal with a power that you fear must desire your centers: defeat it by military means or co-opt it by diplomatic means (that is, either make such a power your ally or convince someone else to attack it). The degree to which a power is interested in accomplishing one of these objectives is directly related to the strength of the Fear Factor of the other power concerned. Since the highest Fear Factor powers often make the best early game allies, the Fear Factor also explains the necessity for stabbing. The structure of the game map virtually demands it.
Combine Fear Factor analysis ranking with tempo analysis ranking of all powers and you get the following results:
|Power||Tempo Rank||Fear Factor Rank||Total Ranks|
The powers with the lowest total combined ranks should be the powers that do best. Admittedly, it's a grand oversimplification, but, if we assume that tempo analysis and Fear Factor have equal authority over a power's destiny, our analysis ranks the powers as such:
That leaves us with only one mystery to explain: why is Italy still ahead of Germany in this analysis when it fares significantly poorer in reality?
I think the answer to that lies in a deficiency of geography that applies to Italy alone among all of the powers: a lack of neutral supply centers from which a base of operations can be built. Looking at the map, we see that, in addition to the other generous advantages conferred on France (low Fear Factor, modest tempo requirement for victory, straddles the stalemate line), France has been given two neutrals in Iberia which are undisputedly its own. Additionally, Belgium is within two tempi of every French SC, making it likely that France will collect six units before engaging an enemy on his own turf. Germany and England share the Lowlands and Scandanavia in various degrees from game to game, but a successful opening for England will leave him with control of five SC's and control of all of the sea provinces around his base of home SC's. It is not unusual at all for Germany to collect three neutrals in the opening phase. A Russian start is poor if it doesn't result in the collection of two neutrals for six SC's after the opening. The rich haul of the Balkans draws A/R/T into early conflict, but the winner can look forward to rapid growth and a good strategic base of clustered centers from which to expand.
Then there is Italy. He's got Tunis. After that, the most likely SC's for Italy to obtain are someone else's home centers. [The unlikely scenarios of obtaining Serbia in a Key Lepanto or talking Austria/Turkey into supporting you into a precarious toe-hold on Greece being the sole exceptions.] If Italy can't talk his way into a Balkan SC (and he can never force his way in), then Italy has to commence war with another power from a mere 4 SC power base. And of these four SC's, Venice alone makes a good launching pad for expansion (and even this is hampered by the proximity of the Austrian build-center in Trieste). Isolated Tunis is about the worst possible base of operations on the map. No power other than Italy has such limited options for obtaining a fifth SC or such limited resources from which to move into the direct power vs. power conflict phase of the game. The only option to this slow start is a stab of Austria, and the traditional Austrian response to that maneuver is to ensure, at all costs, hat the Italian player learns from that game that it is not a good option. The fact that Italy is saddled with this sort of difficulty, while Germany is perfectly capable of a three-build 1901 can more than account for Italy slipping past Germany into last place amongst Diplomacy performers.
So there it is. Once we drop each of Austria and Italy a rank to account for their unique geographic disabilities, we are left with a ranking, based on map analysis, that more or less perfectly matches the proven results and conventional wisdom: geography favors some powers over others -- the powers rank RFETAGI, in that order. This analysis matches conventional wisdom -- a perfectly dull result.
Well, I hate conventional wisdom, and I hate boring results, so I've decided to expand the scope of this article a bit to include a case study in playing a power by geography. For the purposes of this illustration I've chosen the weak sister power of the game: Italy. The best part about this study is that at least some of the ideas to be gleaned from it are unconventional -- and Italy would appear to need all of the fresh thinking it can get.
Italy fares poorest in actual game results, and it's not even a close race. The objective analysis, however, puts Italy ahead of Germany in overall potential (before discounting based on lack of a neutrals power base) and as high as fourth place in the initial analysis of tempo potential (before discounting based on stalemate lines). Consequently, we must conclude that there is at least some unrealized potential among Italian strategests.
When we peruse the openings statistics here at The Pouch, we see that the most popular openings for Italy, the Tyrolian Attack (A Ven-Tyr, A Rom-Ven, F Nap-Ion) and the Lepanto (A Ven H, A Rom-Apu, F Nap-Apu) are in a dead heat. Throw in the openings that are basically a Lepanto with the slightly more daring A Ven-Tyr or A Ven-Pie and there is a clear numerical edge in popularity for Lepanto openings over openings that are viewed as primarily anti-Austrian (the Tyrolian Attack and direct stabs of Austria). Opening with an attack on France places a distant third in popularity. So the typical Italian PBEM player prefers to attack Turkey, Austria, and France, in that order. But if geography is Italy's destiny, are those preferences sensible?
If we look at the list of centers Italy requires for victory, Turkish centers appear on that list only in the very last batch of centers, which are three tempi removed from Italian home centers. If we look at the Fear Factor analysis, Italy's fear of Turkey (seven) is tied with his fear of Germany, but less than his fear of Austria (12) or France (10). Turkey, geographically distant and less to be feared than closer neighbors, seems like an unlikely first choice of target for Italy.
In its typical incarnation, the Lepanto nets Italy one build in 1901 and no builds in 1902, while at the end of 1902, three of four military units have traveled off of Italian soil, leaving a token defender to secure the homeland against all rivals. This one army must defend the boot against three rivals (A/F/G) whose combined Fear Factor is 29, while three units are committed to attacking an enemy whose Fear Factor is 7. Additionally, all centers within one or two tempi of Italian centers are bypassed (save Tunis) in the first three game years in order to attack centers three tempi distant.
I submit that this is not a rational strategy. The idea of the Lepanto is to deal with Italy's greatest early game rival, Austria (Fear Factor 12), through co-option. The problem with Arch-Dukes, however (as Michael Corleone might have put it), is that they don't stay bought. By the end of 1902, Italy's Lepanto position makes it an extremely good tactical target and strategic source of centers for Austria. In fact, most Austrians can't even wait for Italy to actually make the Fall 1902 Lepanto convoy to Syria to bring out the knife. In my experience, once Austria sees that second Italian army set foot in Tunis at the end of 1901, he's calculating the tactics of his stab against the sole remaining Italian defender.
Even if Austria withholds his hand, the most likely strategic result of a Lepanto alliance is to pressure R/T into an alliance of their own (in my experience, a natural consequence of the Lepanto that is vastly underappreciated by the average Italian leader). The resulting stand-off eventually occupies the attention of all four Italian units, making it only a matter of time before either France (Fear Factor 10) or Germany (Fear Factor 7) stroll into Italian SC's through the unguarded rear. Not to mention that even a successful Lepanto can still leave Italy mightily vulnerable to the same result (as well as to a stab by Austria and/or Russia). The combined Fear Factor of F/G (17) is nearly as great as the combined Fear Factor of A/T (19), yet the Lepanto assumes that Italy can afford to turn 100% of its attention east for the first three full game-years before finally earning that fifth center for all of its efforts. That approach is far too lopsided for far too little gain.
Geography would appear to dictate that what is Italy's least productive opening strategy is, at the moment, its most popular. Little wonder that there is a certain degree of underperformance in Italy's result statistics.
Italy's second most popular strategy is to attack Austria immediately. If we look at the list of centers Italy needs for its swiftest victory, we see that Austrian and Balkan centers figure most prominently, so the popularity of attacking them early makes some sense. Italy is dealing first with the neighbor he fears most, which also makes sense. Yet, many an author has opined that an early Austrian attack is doomed to failure and recommends against it. Indeed, it is the premise of Edi Birsan's seminal article on the Lepanto opening that an early attack on Austria is a doomed strategy. Given the extraordinary barriers presented by the map, however, the substitution of Turkey for Austria as a first target seems a poor solution to the poor success rate of Italian attacks on Austria. If most Italian attacks on Austria fail, it would seem to be a flaw in the typical execution of the attack, rather than a flaw in the fundamental idea of an attack on Austria, that is the difficulty.
Let's go back to the map and establish a few basics. First, Italy has two powers that are natural allies because they have a Fear Factor of zero going both ways: Russia and England. Second, Italy has natural rivals in four powers who split into two "naturally" opposed pairs: F/G and A/T. Most strategy articles I read mention that Russia is a natural ally of Italy, helpful for balancing against either Austria or Turkey or both, and most Italian players I've observed try to establish early and active contact with the Tsar. At the same time, though, there are almost no discussions of Italy's need to make alliance-level contact with England to balance Italy's Fear Factor rivalry with France and Germany. The map analysis exercise we went through above, though, conclusively demonstrates that nearly as much of Italy's fortunes depend on its Fear Factor relationship with F/G as its ability to make breakthroughs against A/T. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom as expressed in strategy articles essentially urges Italy to ignore the west in favor of the east. If Italy wishes to win, however, he owes the west just as much attention as the east. In my opinion, one reason that Italian attacks on Austria often lead to ultimate failure is that Italy failed to do what he could (and what he must) to influence the west, to ensure that F/G intervention and/or opportunism would not spoil his efforts against Austria.
Further, most strategy articles dealing with how to play Italy focus on Italy's relationship with Russia in planning and executing a stab of Austria, generally ignoring the role of Turkey. The conventional wisdom displayed in most of these articles is that Italy and Turkey are mortal enemies and assume that the purpose of an R/I alliance is to eliminate A/T as quickly as possible. Most authors treat Italy joining an I/R/T for the quick elimination of Austria as a foolish mistake (interestingly, the less efficient -- and I would argue less productive -- strategy of joining an A/I/R alliance against Turkey is treated with more kindness in the same articles). I fail to see, though, why siding with two powers whose Fear Factor vis a vis your nation is seven (R/T) to eliminate a power whose Fear Factor with regards to your nation is 12 (Austria) is a bad strategy, while the reverse is a good strategy. Initially, of course, the I/R/T alliance is not bad, as everyone recognizes its ability to swiftly dismantle Austria. The real keys, however, are:
In this respect, I highly recommend Leif Bergman's article "Go Fasta, Go Fasta" published in the Fall 1997 Movement issue of The Pouch. Though I do not agree with everything the author says in that article, he presents a good plan for Italy to effect the swift dismantling of Austria and to have a master plan, not only for what happens next, but very importantly, for playing the whole board in the meantime. Note that one of the most important components of this plan is for Italy to develop an alliance-level relationship with Turkey -- one that is functional for at least four years. Another critical compontent of the "Go Fasta" master plan is for Italy to have a relationship with the western powers and do whatever it can to affect the fate of the western shakeout. I happen to disagree with the author when he says that he prefers to see Germany grow largest among E/F/G (I think that Italy should prefer the zero Fear Factor England among the western powers), but feel that he is definitely correct that Italy should have a plan for influencing the west in his favor and that the plan should seek as its goal the inability of western powers to interfere with Italy's road to victory.
This advice is very much in keeping with the geographical dictates of Italy's position. Italy targets the nearest centers first, to maximize all-important early growth. Italy seeks success by allying first with weaker threats to his position to eliminate stronger ones. [The "Go Fasta" article correctly identifies Germany and Turkey, with Fear Factors of seven each, as preferable allies to France (Fear Factor 10) and Austria (Fear Factor 12).] Italy seeks to apply this principle in both the west and the east, because Italy's threats are contained in both halves of the board. The "Go Fasta" advice to ally oneself with Turkey and to work actively towards France's ultimate downfall contrasts sharply with the advice given in the typical Italian strategy article: treat Turkey as the enemy and behave with neutrality and friendship towards France. Geography, however, agrees with the "Go Fasta" philosophy.
This is not to say that I think that Italy should select Austria as the first target every single time. Far from it. The "Go Fasta" strategy is strongly dependent on R/T's cooperation in attacking Austria and is particularly dependent on Turkey's willingness to comtemplate a genuine alliance with Italy. The "Go Fasta" strategy is also strongly dependent upon the prevention of the formation of an Anglo-French alliance. If Italy cannot accomplish these diplomatic objectives, the implementation of the "Go Fasta" strategy is likely doomed to go awry. Italy must judge the diplomatic winds to be blowing in the proper direction before embarking on such a course. This is the other area in which I depart significantly from the author of the "Go Fasta" article. In his enthusiasm, he presents it as the only sensible way to play Italy and seems to largely assume that the diplomatic objectives he mentioned can be forced to come about. Experience has taught me that the personalities of six other players often cannot be so easily corralled. Conventional wisdom is correct when it opines that an Italian Spring 1901 attack on Austria is fraught with pitfalls. One should not embark on the strategy without being firmly satisfied that all of the diplomatic groundwork is in place. If it is not, then Italy must have another plan in mind.
Geography appears to indicate that Italy's most promising "Plan B" is attacking the West. Notice that I didn't say attacking France, but attacking the West. If we return to the list of centers required for Italian victory, we can see that if one eliminates the Austrian and Balkan centers from consideration, the only centers left are Tun, Iberia, and French, German and Turkish home centers. Further, we note that French and German home centers are closer, on the whole, than Turkish centers (Marseilles and Munich being reachable in 1901) and an attack on Iberia is also possible as early as 1902. Geographically, this collection of centers is much more promising as a base for future operations than Turkish centers. Unfortunately, Italy is no more able to work up a decisive attack on Iberian, French or German centers alone than it is able to take on Turkey entirely alone. So how is Italy to go about attacking the West?
Italy's diplomatic/military approach to F/G should be the same as England's ideal strategy: incite those two powers to war, then make a military commitment and ensure that Italy is on the winning side and prospers from that. When doing this, coordination with England is extremely important. Indeed, experience shows that whenever a player of France or Germany receives offers of support from both England and Italy to attack his neighbor, he can seldom resist the temptation presented by such offers.
Italy must be aggressive to succeed, whether playing east or west. In the early game, creating and respecting DMZ's in Piedmont and Tyrolia does a lot more for the security of Italy's neighbors than it does for Italy. If Italy has determined that the time is not ripe to head east, then Italy should occupy these key provinces early and often, and not apologize for doing so. In my own experience, I have seldom seen Italian armies occupy those provinces for long without being supported into an enemy center by a rival power. With correct diplomacy, Italy needs only to commit a single army to western affairs in the first two years to snare a build from either Marseilles or Munich. Since that army will, at the same time, be in a province that borders Venice (at least until it takes a center), it will also offer security against Austria during that time. The other army can remain in Venice, or -- if confidence in Austria is high -- can join its counterpart in a high conflict zone. The fleet is used to take Tunis and can move either east or west as strategy dictates.
Ideally, an Italy determined to head west would arrange an E/G/I alliance against France, since that represents using the lesser threats to Italy as leverage against the greater. It is very likely that Italy can get Mar/Spa from this and an opportunity for futher gains when the post-spoils stabfest begins. Italy should try to operate this anti-French alliance in much the same manner as the "Go Fasta" strategy against Austria. That is, Italy should be laying the groundwork for what happens after France's elimination before the first shot is fired and, meanwhile, should be attempting to influence affairs in the east to maximum Italian advantage. Here, the strategy for playing the "other half" of the board is assisted considerably by the fact that Italy likely will have as much early force commited to rear-guard duties (F ION, A Ven) as he has committed to the French attack. Alert members of the eastern triangle will see these "idle" pieces and attempt to woo Italy to committing them to action. Italy should remain talkative, but commit only for a good price. These pieces will also be available to cherry-pick faltering neighbors or prop them up, as the situation may warrant, in the shake-out phase of the game.
Were I to recomend a general strategy for the Italian player based on the findings discussed above, it would be this: seek in the pre-game to arrange affairs such that Italy will prosper by attacking Austria, while recognizing that it is often not possible to do so. While at this, do not neglect vigorous diplomacy with the western triangle powers. Going west is a good second option, but requires just as much preparation and groundwork as an attack on Austria. France is, to my mind, clearly the second target of choice, but ordering to Tyrolia and threatening Germany can do if the first two options are foreclosed. Save the A/I Lepanto alliance for those cases when a strong R/T has apparently formed and you know that you aren't foremost in R/T's thoughts and plans. If you succeed in stopping the R/T threat, though, don't expect France or any other western power to thank you for it with anything but his knife. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't stop the R/T, but perhaps it does mean that you shouldn't hurry to do it so quickly that your western neighbors feel comfortable eliminating you from the draw.
In my personal PBEM experience, I've seen many a Lepanto tried by Italy, but I've yet to see any succeed in even their initial objective, much less succeed in a long term sense. On the other hand, I've seen Italy both win and draw games that began with an Austrian attack and I've seen Italians who prospered early by targeting France (though I've never seen an Italian win that started that way, I don't think that was the fault of the opening or mid-game strategy in those cases). I've also seen one Italy that began to prosper after an early grab of Munich, but was stymied when Austria attmepted an ill-thought-through stab. The good news is that Italy lived to see Austria eliminated and Italy finished second in the game by SC count. The bad news is that France won that game. Geography would appear to dictate that Italy's preference for targets in the game would be listed Austria then France then Germany then Turkey. My own playing experience tends to bear this out. That this analysis is seemingly at odds with both conventional wisdom and actual practice might just explain why Italy is the bottom-feeder of the PBEM world, seemingly not even performing up to its modest potential. At the very least I would say this: the next time you draw Italy, try following the logic of the geography instead of the conventional wisdom. I don't think you have anything to lose.
The logic of the Italian case study in geography can be applied to the other powers as well, but I'm going to leave that to you. The optimal strategies for E/F/R are fairly straightforward and conventional wisdom seems to have more or less captured the logic of their geography. I think that Turkey is misplayed more often than the other edge powers, however, and prospective Sultans might wish to rethink the conventional strategies for Turkey in light of the analysis presented here. Austria could also use some fresh thinking, particularly with respect to the generally accepted principle that alliance with Germany should be automatic. Next to Italy, Germany is probably the other power that suffers most from a mismatch of conventional wisdom with its geography.
There are a number of bits of conventional wisdom that are, in my opinion, at odds with the geography of the standard map as presented in this analysis. Among other generally accepted principles that I think are untrue:
Indeed, why stop with the standard map? There are many popular map variants out there. I'm not a variant player myself, but perhaps someone who is would care to analyze their favorite variant's map, using this kind of analysis, and present their own analysis to the world regarding the Colonial map, the Modern map or some other variant map.
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