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Diplomacy and the U.S. Army's "Principles of War"

by Tim Hoyt





After the First World War, in an effort to simplify the complexities of warfare and strategy to a manageable level, the U.S. Army formulated a short list of fundamental principles which guide warfare at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. These principles, to list them briefly, are Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.

At first glance, one might ask why these are applicable to Diplomacy? After all, Dip focuses (at least in theory) on diplomatic interactions between states, rather than strictly on military applications of force. Can a list which is intended to, among other things, teach young lieutenants how to lead small units into combat have much relevance to a game which deals with the conflict and fate of empires? In short, exactly why the hell am I writing this article? It's not like I'm getting paid, or anything [note: talk to editor about revising pay scale]. There are, in fact, two levels to Diplomacy. One level is psychological: players vie with one another to convince neighbors and non-neighbors, friends and adversaries, and even the occasional well-intentioned neutral to help them carry out nefarious schemes of European conquest. This level is extremely Machiavellian, and has most of the facets that make Diplomacy so unique. Personal judgment and timing are critical in a game which more than occasionally dissolves into a contest to see which partner can stab the other first. For some, this is the fun part.

The other level is more military-oriented. Any good nefarious scheme requires some sense of 1) what it is you wish to accomplish (conquer half of Europe), and 2) how you intend to do that, since you start with only one-sixth (a little more if you're the Tsar) of what you need to acquire in terms of centers and forces. In essence, you require a plan, and it's a good idea to have some idea of what you want before you start negotiating.

The Principles of War can be very useful in constructing a plan, especially for those who may have just started playing the game and gotten clobbered by people who used to be your friends but suddenly turned into slobbering, backstabbing, cannibalistic fiends with a penchant for mayhem and destruction. There is never a perfect strategy: in fact, there are a lot of strategies which are quite good, but fail to win games for any number of reasons. But any decent strategy starts with a few basic ideas, and the Principles of War are an excellent starting point, particularly for beginners whose heads are still swimming from their last debacle. Besides the inevitable "I can't believe he lied to me" issue, the primary cause of beginner defeats is simply lack of strategy.

OBJECTIVE: The purpose of the objective is to focus military efforts on a clearly defined and attainable goal. Your ultimate goal is clear: grab eighteen centers and mock all the other players as the miserable sycophants that you have forced them to become. Intermediate objectives, however, are necessary to get there. For Diplomacy purposes, TACTICAL objectives are the most immediate ones: who do you ally with in the first turns, with the intention of dealing with which enemies? OPERATIONAL Objectives look several turns ahead: how do you position yourself for a knockout blow of your enemy? Which states may be in a position to interfere with your plans, or to attack you? How will you approach them, and negate the threats they pose if necessary? STRATEGIC objectives focus on the long-term: after you've annihilated the initial enemy, what do you plan to do next? Be unscrupulous, and stab your ally? If so, you'd better be thinking about how to get in position, and who you'll get to help you do this dirty deed. Objectives can change during the game, as your allies prove more or less trustworthy and enemy coalitions appear to screw up your plans. Don't worry about it: adapt and carry on!

OFFENSIVE: You cannot win this game without taking the offensive. You cannot compete in this game without maintaining the initiative (which is probably a better word than Offensive for this principle, but I didn't write them). If you find yourself in a game where you are reacting, rather than forcing others to react, you may be in trouble. Not dead yet, to quote Monty Python, but in trouble. One easy way for this to happen is if you do not have operational or strategic objectives. If you have a lot of units not moving, you have probably lost the initiative at least temporarily, and you are certainly not taking advantage of opportunities to mass against another prospective opponent. If you've reached the midgame (one or two states destroyed) and you don't know what to do next, you've lost the initiative and you'd better do something fast or you'll be shark food. Being friends with everyone on the board is no security: trust me, they'll stab you in a minute!

There are, of course, times when you have no choice but to assume the defensive. Fight like hell to gain breathing room. Try to detach one of the allies, either through diplomacy with them ("I'll give you a better deal than France"), diplomacy against them ("hey, Russia--want a slice of the Kaiser while I tie him up for you?"), or focused and aggressive defense. Sometimes you can break a coalition by making sure that one partner doesn't do as well as the other. The defensive should, if possible, only be assumed temporarily: ALWAYS be trying to regain initiative! You never know when your opponents' coalition will collapse, or when someone will NMR (in a mail game). If you can't guarantee that your best possible defensive moves will keep you safe, then try to second-guess your opponent and attack to keep him/her off balance. Obviously, you want to preserve yourself as long as possible, but if you're going to lose a center, why not gamble and try to throw a monkey wrench in the works?

MASS: Mass, sometimes known as CONCENTRATION, is the intimately related to the principle of Economy of Force (see below). The purpose of mass is to mobilize superior power at crucial points for decisive success. In essence, if you can arrange it, you should only be fighting on one front at a time (a dead white male named Hitler, may he "rest" in eternal torment, found this out the hard way). You may not need a lot of units to succeed if your victim's pieces are tied up on another front: the jackal stab, where you overrun someone from behind while they're in a war on another front, is a time-honored tradition (think Stalin and Poland in 1939), and happens a lot to Germany, Italy, and Austria.

ECONOMY OF FORCE: The principle of Economy of Force dictates that only minimal force is directed at secondary or irrelevant objectives. Don't fritter away your pieces in useless moves. Don't leave a lot of pieces to defend against a possible stab by an ally (unless you're sure it's coming): it indicates lack of trust (a condition, if possible, you ought to keep to yourself) as well as wasting pieces you could be using to grab more centers. Holding in place is usually silly, if you can do something even remotely useful with the unit like offer an ally support, or can move to a more effective position. As France, there is rarely a reason to garrison Gascony unless one is in a pitched battle for Iberia and interior France. If you have a unit in Gas, and there's no immediate threat, get it somewhere else. You NEVER have enough units in the places you need them.

MANEUVER: Never underestimate the power of maneuver, even in a cramped little board like the one we play Dip on. There are usually several options for any combination of units, and while positions can be relentlessly broken down through attrition, creative use of units can sometimes achieve surprising results. Use of the Malicious Support order, discussed last issue (I always like to reference my own writings--makes me feel important. Plus, I may be able to talk Doug into giving me a commission on back issues that he sells through my shameless pandering. Whaddaya think, Doug?) is one example. Grab critical positions on the board, and hang onto them if at all possible. Among these are Nth, Mid, Ion, Tyl, and Mun--all of these are chokepoints, and they also figure highly in the establishment of stalemate lines (ask Bernard Finel--he's got a list of several hundred of them. Get a life, Bernard !<grin>). Convoys and the wide ocean spaces allow units to rapidly shift position, particularly in the Atlantic. Almost every possible position in Diplomacy has a weak flank: roll it up and the position falls (the exception, of course, are the stalemate lines).

UNITY OF COMMAND: This is especially applicable to alliances. If you're part of a coalition, and at various times you must be in order to win the game, you must coordinate your actions. It isn't enough to work with somebody, if you're not cooperating. Germany's pieces don't do you a lot of good in your attack on France if they're not supporting you, or if you are unable to support them for lack of communication, mutual hostility, or whatever. If you have ideas, try to submit them to your partner respectfully, asking for his opinion and suggestions, and encourage him to do the same. Sometimes you have to swallow orders that you "would never have made" in order to keep a coalition together. Sometimes your allies are, simply, cretinous. Bummer. Do the best you can. Try to talk out options as much as possible, and never be afraid to play out potential moves and countermoves on the Dip board or reference map.

SECURITY: This principle refers to the need to prevent enemies or possible enemies from achieving an unexpected advantage. This includes both the need to guard against a stab and also the need to maintain initiative when engaged in a war. It also means not giving away your secrets and plans unnecessarily. Security, at times, appears incompatible with Economy of Force: should Austria guard against Italy the first turn, or fling all its units to the east for the successful attack on Gre? At times like that, you just have to make a choice, live with it, and do the best you can. Perfect security isn't possible in this game, or at least not until you're extremely close to a win. Good Diplomacy may achieve a level of security that no combination of units can get you.

SURPRISE: The purpose of surprise is to strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which they are simply unprepared. Stabbing is one way. Another uses maneuver to attack where the enemy doesn't anticipate it: convoys can be particularly devastating in this respect.

SIMPLICITY: K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Relatively simple plans are usually the best. Don't get too caught up in how to take that vital thirteenth center in the fifth year, when it's only Spring 1902. Things change, and so must your plans. Simple plans are a hell of a lot easier to change, and to explain to allies.

So how does this apply to the new gamer? I'll use England as a test case, because its position is relatively secure and its options, compared to other states, relatively limited.

As England before Spring 1901, you decide on your objectives. "Hmm...let's see: first I'll take France with German help, and then assist the Germans against Russia while I weasel my way into the Med. I'll then have pieces from Stp (nc) to Tyn, which leaves Germany effectively at my mercy. I'll concentrate most of my forces on whoever is dominant in the eastern Med region, and leave my garrisons and one big build as the "stab force" against Germany which will eventually buy me my 18." Note that this plan is Simple, combines immediate (Tactical) and broad (strategic) Objectives, and it might even work. By gaining a German ally, you practice Economy of Force (don't need to guard against two potential enemies) and Mass (you can throw all your forces at France). You can keep Security by negotiating simultaneously with France, either bargaining for a neutral Eng or promising an alliance against Germany. Your attack should then benefit from Surprise, provided your German ally doesn't leak it. Of course, you could suffer the nasty little surprise of a Franco-German alliance against you, but at least you'll be blocking France from the Channel and buying yourself time to rethink your objectives and strategy.

The best negotiating position is to present Germany with a concrete Tactical Objective (in the fall, I'll support you to Bel, and then next spring we'll hammer into France) . This plan should, ideally, look more than a turn or two ahead (Operational Objective): telling Germany, for instance, that you'll divide up the French realm by giving him Bel, Par, and Mar (if he wants it), while you get Bre, Por, and Spa, for instance. Don't be too worried about promising away centers you don't own yet--you can always renegotiate, so be generous. You may wish to keep operational objectives flexible: for instance, plan on either convoying to Picardy in 1902 OR taking Mid, depending on France's builds. Also, stress that the alliance will continue after the vile Napoleon has been drowned in a butt of Malmsey: promise him support against the (inevitable) Russian attack, or offer to support him into Russian territories as part of the alliance.

In Spring 1901, Mass your forces (F Lon-Eng, F Edi-Nth, A Lpl-Yor or Wal). Don't waste moves, or order pieces to hold if they can position themselves more effectively or be useful (Economy of Force). Don't get TOO carried away by Economy of Force: garrisons are a good idea, at least some of the time. For instance, leaving one piece to defend against Russian perfidy in Scandinavia isn't a bad idea (particularly a garrison in Nwy), but a S1902 move of newly created F Lon and F Edi to Nth and Nwg respectively isn't doing a lot for the war effort against France. Unless Russia has demonstrated bad faith, reeks of untrustworthiness, or has built lots of pieces in the North, you may well be wasting pieces and needlessly annoying Russia. Heck, if you're allied with Germany you should be able to arrange a bounce around Nwy or Swe.. This exhibits both Economy of Force, and Unity of Command: together you each leave a one-piece garrison which temporarily forestalls all Russian moves in Scandinavia and frees your pieces up for an overwhelming joint operation on France.

As the attack on France proceeds, think about what to do next (Operational and Strategic Objectives): foresight will avoid the problems of losing initiative (see Offensive). As France collapses, some of your units will be freed for use elsewhere. Cooperate with Germany against Italy or Russia: although your forces are divided against multiple opponents, Unity of Command will make your combined forces more effective, and with France collapsing (say, around 1903) you can probably afford to open a second front (if one hasn't been opened for you!).

Alternatively, you can stab Germany, using most of your forces and leaving France to remain a pitiful husk, never to recover and possibly only fit to act as your puppet (BWAHAHAHA!). This wasn't part of your original strategy, but it might be attractive depending on the circumstances.

The Eastern powers, whoever they may be, will be very interested in what England wants to do after France is squashed (so will Italy, if it still exists). An apparent southern strategy can be rapidly shifted north (Maneuver) to achieve Surprise. Assume you have F Spa (sc), F Por, A Bur, F Eng, F Nth, A Nwy, F Bre. Russia may feel secure until you move F Nth-Nwg, F Mid-Nat, F Por-Mid, A Bur-Gas, A Nwy-Fin, F Bre-Eng, F Eng-Nth and threaten a major assault on the north including two armies (F Mid, F Nat, F Nwg C A Gas-Nwy; F Nth S A Gas-Nwy). Combined with German movement of armies to the east or a fleet into the Baltic, even a strong Russia might get worried. This move may be much better in the long-term for an Anglo-German alliance if, for instance, a Russo-Turkish juggernaut is in the process of picking the bones of Austria-Italy: England "proves" (temporarily, at least) that it is no threat to Italy, and may even gain reluctant Italian acceptance of British fleets in Wes for "joint defensive efforts", while simultaneously putting a lot of pressure on the Tsar. If you can prop up a weak but friendly state that is at war with your enemy, why not do it (Economy of Force), while you Mass on another front for a crippling blow to enemy? Never underestimate the utility of a well-played buffer state ally: by keeping it alive you deprive your enemy of initiative, and may ultimately take the Offensive against him while he is engaged on more than one front (the reverse of Economy of Force).

But enough of this. The idea, I hope, is clear. A simple plan of one paragraph provides the strategic focus for both diplomatic approaches and a series of campaigns aimed at eliminating enemies, depriving them of the initiative, and positioning your forces for ultimate victory. Doesn't that sound simple? Best of luck.


Tim Hoyt is now a prolific Dip World contributor.