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Napoleon's Mistake

by Stephen Agar




Napoleon almost won his own personal game of Diplomacy, yet despite dominating much of Europe he eventually came a cropper because he did not rule the waves. This article will suggest that the same is true of Diplomacy, that the French player who takes control of the seas and neutralises England can win the game, while those who head eastwards without first tackling London will merely be repeating Napoleon's mistake.

Rather than spend an article looking at various options on French opening strategy (you know the sort of thing, what to do about Belgium, should France take Portugal with an army or a fleet etc.) let's look one step beyond all that. France usually gets two builds and is not usually attacked in the first year. Of course there are exceptions, but by and large the western triangle does not resolve into open warfare until 1902. Therefore, lets take 1901 as read and consider France's options in the following years.

Where Are The Next Builds Coming From?

When you think about it there aren't that many options. Either France invades England, attacks into the Low Countries and Germany itself, or develops a Mediterranean strategy and heads east. After 1901 only Belgium is likely to be still neutral, so any expansion will bring France into conflict with a neighbour.

1. England

I don't have any ready statistics at my fingertips to back this up, but my feeling is that in practice the attack on England is probably the most common approach. Partly this is because France finds it difficult to live with the many fleets that England will build early on, partly due to a quite reasonable fear that as England needs to get in to the Mediterranean to win conflict is inevitable, and partly because it is easy. The unit which starts off as F(Bre) often ends up in Por or Spa sc by the end of 1901. To develop an attack on England will also require a build of F(Bre), something which, to an experienced English player, should start alarm bells ringing. That said, France will obviously explain it away on the grounds that it could equally well be said that the other build of A(Par) is anti-German and anyway F(Bre) will head south.

Whether it is better to attack in S02 or A02 depends on the strategy that England has adopted in 1901. Provided that France is confident that England herself is not going to attack in S02, it seems sensible to me for France to attack in S02 if England has not built a F(Lon) in A01, but to postpone the attack until in A02 if she has. My reasoning is that it is very likely England will have a F(NTH) at the end of 1901, therefore a build of F(Lon) gives England the leeway for a supported move to ENG if necessary (it may not even be a stab - she may want leverage on Belgium and cannot be confident that a move of F(Lon)-NTH will succeed). Of course, France should try to dissuade England from moving to ENG, but if there is a real likelihood of such a move it is probably better to allow it to succeed, than to shoot your bolt by ordering F(Bre)-ENG and having a stand-off. That would disclose your intentions for no immediate gain. Instead, move F(Bre)-MAO, F(Spa)sc Std. and if you're concerned about a possible English move to ENG, then protect Bre with A(Par)-Pic. All that is very plausible and to the unsophisticated eye does not necessarily appear anti-English. Come A02 your orders would be F(MAO)-NAO, F(Spa)sc-MAO - in through the back door. This attack can be devastating if England doesn't get another build in 1902, as it leaves Lpl wide open in S03. Therefore, diplomatic activity should be centred on encouraging English activity in Scandinavia but ensuring that none of it is successful.

As you would expect this strategy requires at least an accommodation with Germany. There is no point in putting fleets into the North Atlantic if there are German armies in Burgundy. However, it is a brave Germany who launches an all-out attack on France in 1902, as France will probably have three armies with which to defend herself - and if you do find yourself the victim of such an attack it is odds on that England will be joining in anyway. In my opinion the optimum line to sell to Germany is that he should concentrate on Scandinavia and the North Sea, while you attack England via NAO. Hopefully, England will have insufficient units to defend against everyone and will crumble in 3-4 moves.

Once England is subdued, French forces need to turn on Germany/Scandinavia, with an excursion into the Med. if resources permit. At this point an alliance with Russia could be helpful. I believe that it is at this point of the game that some French players spoil their chances by being unwilling to attack their German ally. However tempting it may be to build F(Mar) and send your fleets into the Mediterranean, the pickings their are not good and will never replace the centres available in central Europe.

2. Germany

If, for whatever reason, you are not minded to take on England at this stage of the game, the other serious alternative is to consider a push into Germany and the Low Countries. This is a more difficult plan as Germany's defensive position is far better than England's from the point of view of defending against a French attack. Germany is able to present a narrow three-space front to a French aggressor, which can be very difficult to crack. The danger is that England may have more to gain from an immediate attack on Germany, as it may allow her to make gains in Scandinavia. On the other hand, if it is possible to ally with Russia to co-ordinate an attack on Germany then it may be possible to use Russian armies to cut any support being given to units in Ruh and Mun. The pros and cons of this strategy differ depending on the fate of Belgium in 1901, so if this is your preferred line of attack this may be an instance when it is better to plan accordingly from the beginning.

A northern opening of A(Par)-Pic and A(Mar)-Bur will ring alarm bells in Berlin, unless it is part of an agreed stand-off over Bur. If such a stand-off is arranged, this would leave only two or three units with a claim on Belgium - F(NTH), A(Pic) and(maybe) F(Hol). If England supports a German F(Hol)-Bel then the prospects for an Anglo-French attack on Germany are not good anyway. Probably, the best solution would be to convince England to support you into Belgium, but if you can't guarantee it for yourself (and what England will help France to 3 builds?) I would caution against supporting English F(NTH)-Bel as giving two builds to England in 1901 opens up too many uncertainties. A further agreed stand- off with Germany or England over Belgium in A01 (if applicable) at least keeps the position open without allowing your neighbours to have too many builds in 1901.

Assuming a northern opening for England and a southern opening for Russia, a typical situation in this sort of scenario after 1901 builds would be:

ENGLAND: F(Lon), F(NTH), F(NWG), A(Nwy).
FRANCE: A(Pic), F(Bre), F(Por), A(Spa), A(Par)
GERMANY: A(Hol), F(Den), A(Ruh), A(Mun), F(Kie)

The three German armies in Mun, Ruh and Hol provide a formidable barrier, and even on the assumption of an all-out Anglo-French attack there will be no instant breakthrough. It is likely that Germany will occupy Bel in S02, but possible that he could be thrown out in A02 provided there is English support for a French attack. If Germany builds F(Kie) and moves to HEL then the situation is complicated further. As I see it, there is only way for France to make quick gains against Germany in 1902 is to enlist the help of either England or Russia in A01. If Germany has opened F(Kie)-Den, A(Ber)-Kie then in A01 she is vulnerable to a Russians F(GoB)-BAL and/or an English move of F(NTH)-Hol. Both would be best. Failing that it will be a slow process and you should be resigned to it taking some time.

Once Germany cracks it may be too difficult to take on England, who will have too many fleets to be an easy target. If Russia has joined in as well it may be difficult to take the attack any further. If this happens a Mediterranean strategy may be the only alternative, but will still leave France vulnerable to a stab from England. Richard Sharp has discussed the idea that France may surrender Brest to England to reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. This strikes me as good news for England (who can build armies one autumn and convoy them into France on the next move), but not in the long-term interest of France (who is precluded from building the western fleets needed to take on England).

3. Italy

Is this really a serious option? I have seen some powerful E/F/G alliances in FtF games, but they are few and far between in postal games. If you do try a E/F/G alliance, the pattern would be for England to go north through Scandinavia, Germany to turn east into Russia, while France pushes into the Med. The principal problem with a Mediterranean strategy is that you re are unlikely to make any quick gains, and in the interim you are vulnerable to a stab in the back from England. If you use your two builds in A01 to build F(Mar) and F(Bre) then you may well leave yourself open to an all-out attack from Germany in S02 as only two of your five units will be armies (and one of them may well be stuck in Por) and it is very likely that Bur could be forced immediately. Therefore, it may pay to be a little cautious.

Assuming a build of two fleets in 1901, in S02 France can order F(Bre)-MAO; F(Spa)sc-WMS; F(Mar)-GoL, followed up by F(MAO)-NAf; F(WMS) S F(GoL)-TYS in A02. But it is difficult to see how an attack on Italy can result in a build in 1902, as Tun will presumably be covered. A more flexible tactic may be to build A(Mar), F(Bre) which has the advantage of not signalling an immediate invasion of Italy, and then ordering A(Mar)-Pie, F(Spa)sc-WMS, F(Bre)-MAO. If Germany can be persuaded to order A(Mun)-Tyr then there is a possibility of a supported attack on Venice, while the build of A(Mar) at least provides some disincentive for Germany to stab you.

Any France who attacks Italy first isn't going to be sufficiently strong to make things happen on the Diplomacy board, her mid-game strategy will be about defending her home centres from her neighbours.


If you imagine that Switzerland is the pivot around which French fortunes will rotate, France will have to reach Mos at one extreme or Trieste at the other in order to win the game. Supply centres on the French target list break down into the following groups: .Core centres: Home centres and Iberia; England; Low Countries; Germany = 13 Plus five from: Den, Nwy, Swe, War, StP, Tun, Rom, Ven, Tri, Nap

It is very unlikely that France can win a game without taking the English and German home centres. This means that if Turkish or Italian fleets manage to seal the entrance to the Mediterranean then France needs to get into Russia to win the game. The more that France is able to push into the Mediterranean, the less centres needed in Scandinavia and Russia. If France can get as far as ION then she could win without any Scandinavian or Russian centres.

All things being equal (and they rarely are) it would seem easier and more efficient for France to despatch England first among her neighbours. In this enterprise, Russia would seem a natural ally, partly because she can weaken England by taking Scandinavia, and partly because Russia and Germany are natural enemies, and so an alliance with Russia will keep Germany in check. Once England is broken, France should use her fleets to take control of the coastal centres around the North Sea and make an incursion into mainland Europe. A strike into the Mediterranean is worthwhile and may bring in a few much needed centres, but the game will be won or lost in Germany and Scandinavia.