Most of the articles you've read on strategy in Diplomacy have probably been involved with how to manipulate your fellow diplomats into falling over themselves while you craftily manuever your way to 18 centers and the solo win. Certainly that is the primary goal of most diplomacy players, and a good thing to have in mind when starting out the game, but I'd like to discuss a situation which seems to arise far more frequently than the dilemma of deciding just how much crowing about your victory you can indulge in without being too gauche. It's 1906 and you have only three or four centers while a steamroller is rapidly approaching you, what do you do now?
First and foremost, don't write the game off! Comebacks by two center powers may be rare, but they do happen, and always remember that many games end in a draw, and you only need one center to be a part of a draw! But the end of the game is a long time down the road, how do you survive the problems facing you now? Your neighbors (the cowardly ones hiding behind you!) may tell you that you have a obligation to put up your best defense and slow the steamroller, and certainly there is nothing wrong with making a heroic last stand, it beats going out with a whimper. But, as General Patton said, you don't win wars by dying for your country, you win wars by making some other guy die for his country! Until you've lost your last dot, or someone has made it to a solo win, you are always still in the running. Any power that still has centers, even if its only one, can veto a draw, so you can never be counted out. If you can't find an ally willing to help you hang on and fight it out, try to find someone who'll keep you alive rather than see your centers go to his enemy. Remember the old maxim, my enemy's enemy is my friend.
A few years ago at a local Con, I had the folly of counting out a small player made excrutiatingly clear to me. We were well into the mid game, and after a few false starts, I, as Germany, had formed a strong alliance with France. We had finished off the perfidious English and were sweeping forward on our respective fronts, heading for a rendezvous in the southeast corner of the board. By the time Italy and Russia had patched up their differences and finaly finished off Austria, it was obvious that we had crossed the stalemate lines and barring silly mistakes on our part, they could not hold a defensive line. For several turns, they tried to slow out advance as best they could and campaigned hard to break up the F/G and get one of us to stab the other, but all to no avail.
Then, as French units were landing on the Italian boot, the Italian strategy took a sudden dramatic turn. Forsaking his homeland, he left two units to slow the French down, and sent the rest, including those forming part of the line against Germany, in an onslaught against the Russian. The Russian collapse was predictably sudden and total. It seemed that Italy had just decided that his position was hopeless and he was going to at least work out a few old grudges with Russia before he went. I was sitting fat and happy, and took full advantage of the moment to seize as many Russian centers as I could get, and then Italy lowered the boom with a new offensive. Not on the board, where I could have easily handled anything he tried, but on the diplomatic front. He pointed out to France that I had surged to within a few centers of the win and not only was it within his power to give me the win, but the only way to prevent my taking it was for France to immediately start cooperating with Italy on the defense. Suddenly, the F/G alliance was under an intolerable strain. In order to preserve the alliance, I would have had to ensure the growth of France while making no further gains myself and do this in the face of an Italy who had made it known he would throw his centers to me rather than lose to a two way draw. Any plan to keep the F/G alive would have required extremely careful manuevering and a lot of trust on France's part. France knew that if he continued the attack on Italy he couldn't prevent Italy from throwing the win to me, and trusting me not to take it if offerred was for some reason not a route he wished to take. That only left a few turns to find out if I could get the solo win, and when the I/F defense proved strong enough, the game ended in a three way draw.
The point here is not that you should always attack your ally when things look bleak, but that Italy did not let a tactically poor situation discourage him. Since he couldn't preserve his position by force of arms, he looked to see what needed to happen on the diplomatic front to ensure his survival. By attacking Russia, he realigned the board so that France could expect greater benefits from keeping Italy alive than from continuing the alliance with Germany. His position had not improved tactically, in fact, it had worsened, but he had introduced sufficient tension to make a tactically feasible result diplomatically impossible.
The thing to remember is that when faced with annihilation from a larger power, there are more options than simply resisting to the last man. If there is no other power willing or able to give you sufficient support to hold on, consider joining forces with your attacker! There is a lot of incentive for a large power to keep a smaller power alive if that power will work against the other remaining powers. Rather.than facing a delay of several years as it fights through the small power's defenses, the larger power's front line has suddenly jumped forward several provinces, and his units, through the proxy of his protectorate are already engaged with the next opponent. As the proxy makes gains, the master power will take its rearward centers, gaining centers perhaps more quicly than it would have by simply wiping out the proxy. If all you achieve as the small power in such an arrangement is to help the larger power to a victory, then perhaps a valiant last stand would have brought more honor and been more satisfactory, but many times you can use the changes in the power balance that you have created to your own ends. Perhaps your new protector had a partner who, now that he sees his ally suddenly surging ahead, will consider a stab? Maybe your move will finally convince the rest of the players to stop their silly squabbling and band together. Whatever happens, you are still alive and still affecting what happens on the board and that means you aren't out of the running yet.
David Partridge, a skilled Diplomat, also co-wrote the Randy Newman hit Short People. And his uncle was a Munchkin. His cousin is a Gnome.
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