Neither Fish nor Fowl?

Italy is seen by many as one of the more difficult powers to play in Diplomacy.  When you consider the geography, you can see why… but we won’t be considering the geography until later in the post, so I’ll leave you in antici–


At the risk of offending any Italian readers, it has to be said that Italy has never been a major power on any stage.  It is one of the larger states within the EU today but this is saying not much at all.  Europe is full of small states, geographically speaking.  Let’s face it, Europe could fit into the back pocket of most continents.

For much of its history, ‘Italy’ has been a divided place.  Between the Roman Empire and the nineteenth century, when Garibaldi fought for the unification of Italy – gained in 1861 under the leadership of the Piedmontese king Victor Emmanuel – Italy was a land of small kingdoms, dukedoms and cities, not unlike Germany.

At various times, these principalities gained importance and influence.  Milan, Naples, Florence, Venice – all had some sway.  But, on the larger canvass of Europe, they were all mainly the puppets of other states: Austria, Spain and France.

And so it is back to the Roman Empire we have to go to find some lessons on playing Italy in Diplomacy.  This is not to say that Rome was renowned for its diplomacy but, when plotting how to win at diplomacy from a strategic point of view, the centuries long dominance of Rome over Europe gives us some ideas.

The Roman Empire stretched across Europe and north Africa, from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from Egypt to Britain.  And yet, never was the whole of Europe within the political-geographic Empire.


Compare the map above with a Diplomacy board.  Belgium and Munich are the most northerly SCs that would fall within an Italian empire in Diplomacy, with the obvious exception of London and Liverpool in England.

There are, ignoring Munich, Belgium, London and Liverpool, 19 SCs within Iberia, France, Italy, the Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, Turkey and Tunis.  The chances are that, to win, Italy will need to capture Munich – most continental power require this central SC – making 20.  Italy doesn’t need the north.

In Roman times, northern Europe was a waste of time.  It was full of “Barbarians” (the word means any people who weren’t part of the Greco-Latin world) who were more trouble to subdue than they were worth.  These northern tribes – Goths, Vandals, Franks, etc – were troublesome.  At various points they united to hand Rome a lesson in warfare.  So Rome simply kept them at bay – when she could.

In Diplomacy, Italy should see her empire being something like this.  There are times when forays into Russia, perhaps as far north as Moscow and Warsaw, become possible.  Occasionally, Belgium and Holland are captured.  And there will be possibilities in Berlin and Ruhr.

However, the basic Italian goal ought to mirror the Roman Empire: build it around the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.



It is difficult to show the geographical challenge Italy faces without looking at the Diplomacy board almost as a whole.  Here I’ve taken the south of the board:


Italy is smack bang in the centre middle of the board.  To the west she faces France, to the north Germany, to the east Austria-Hungary, Turkey and – a little further away – Russia.  She is often blocked from Iberia (Portugal and Spain) by France, and cut off from the Balkans by Austria, Turkey and Russia.

Getting units into France is difficult.  She has to move through Piedmont or around the impassable Switzerland and through Munich if she wants to go by land; alternatively, she can invade France from the Gulf of Lyons by sea.  Only Marseilles is accessible early in the game.

To her east, Austrian SCs are accessible.  If she manages to move A(Ven)-Tyl (Tyrolia) in Spring 1901, she can move to Trieste or Venice in Fall.  The problem is, Austria knows this and can use her A(Vie)-Tyl to prevent this.

Italy has a chance of Greece in 1901: F(Nap)-ION in S01 means she could move F(ION)-Gre in F01 or convoy an army from Naples or Apulia.  But Greece can be defended by Turkey –  A(Con)-Bul, A(Bul)-Gre – and Austria – A(Bud)-Ser, A(Ser)-Gre OR F(Tri)-Alb, F(Alb)-Gre.  Greece is the equivalent to Belgium in that three powers have a chance at capturing it in 1901.

The bright light in Italy’s 1901 options is Tunis (misnamed on the map ‘Tunisia’).  Simply by moving her Neapolitan fleet to either the Ionian or Tyrrhenian sea, Italy has no competition in capturing Tunis.  It would be a silly mistake for an Italian player to forego this SC… unless something immense happened.

After Tunis, though, Italy is immediately looking to get into either Austria or France.  And this is difficult.


Italy’s options are many but few of them are helpful.

The easiest target among her neighbours is Austria-Hungary.  This is simply because Austria is encircled by enemies (again, look at the map).  I don’t want to go into Austria’s predicament here (that is for another post) but she has as tough a time in Diplomacy as Italy.  Italy, Russia and Turkey often want a piece of their neighbour.

The Austrian Option

Austria-Hungary is simply tantalising for Italy.  As I said above, Vienna and Trieste are in striking distance.  What’s more, there is a named opening that provides Italy with a fantastic chance to take one or both of these SCs: The Key Lepanto.

Again, I’ll look at this opening in more detail in another post but the important aspects of it are that Austria and Italy ally.  Austria opens with F(Tri)-Alb, A(Bud)-Ser and A(Vie)-Gal/Bud.  Italy orders A(Ven)-Tri and F(Nap)-ION.  This agreement is usually accompanied by a side-agreement, aimed at protecting Austria, in which Italy doesn’t open with A(Rom)-Ven.

In Fall 1901, Austria orders F(Alb) S (supports) Ser-Gre and Italy orders A(Tri)-Ser.  Austria keeps her home SCs and capture Greece; Italy gains Serbia along with Tunis – using her fleet to move to Tunis – and everyone is happy, other than Turkey who doesn’t have the chance to capture Greece and who now faces allied Austrian and Italian units in moving distance of Bulgaria.  Italy might even leave Tunis alone, for now, instead ordering F(ION)-AEG or EMS (Eastern Mediterranean Sea).

In the builds, Italy builds another fleet in Naples, can pressure Bulgaria much more effectively (three units in moving distance), and take Tunis in 1902.  If this Adriatic Alliance of Italy and Austria can be converted into a Stuffed Turkey alliance with the inclusion of Russia (and why not?) then Turkey is good for the eating.

However, Italy may well choose a different tack and, rather than following the Key Lepanto changes it into a Stab Lepanto.  This is a very different scenario.

The S01 moves are pretty much the same.  Italy may even order A(Rom)-Ven.  This is especially powerful if she has encouraged Austria to move A(Vie)-Bud and Russia to move A(War)-Gal.  However, even without Russian agreement, Austria could be persuaded that this order is necessary to sow the seeds that Italy has stabbed Austria!

If Italy is clever, however, she will order A(Rom)-Pie.  In F01, A(Pie) can move to Tyrolia and still Italy is in a good position.

It is in F01 that the Key becomes a Stab.  Rather than following through with A(Tri)-Ser, as agreed, Italy either orders A(Tri) H (hold) or orders A(Tri)-Vie.  If she has an army in Venice, the latter is likely, with A(Ven)-Tri; alternatively, A(Ven)-Tyl is useful.  If she has that army in Piedmont, A(Pie)-Tyl is ordered, regardless of where the Italian army in Trieste ends up.

Should Austria-Hungary smell a stab, she can – of course – evict the Italian army from Trieste.  It depends what she has available to do this, however.  The army in Serbia and fleet in Albania could organise this on their own, but to guarantee success the order would have to be F(Alb) S Ser-Tri; the alternative – A(Ser) S Alb-Tri – could fail if Turkey ordered A(Bul)-Ser, which would could the support from Serbia and cause the move F(Alb)-Tri to fail.

Austria may have an army in Vienna or Budapest too.  If this is the case, she can use this army to move to back to Trieste.  However, if she does, then she has to move that army with the support of the fleet in Albania – any other order faces a potential cutting of support.  And, if she moves her army in Vienna or Budapest to dislodge the Italian army from Trieste, that army can simply retreat to either Vienna or Budapest, whichever SC is available.

So, for Italy, the Key Lepanto is a tempting opening.  For Austria, however, it is full of risks.  The thing is, unless Austria is played by an extremely gullible player, or a complete newby, she will know this – and therefore only agree to the moves if she is absolutely convinced Italy is an ally.

But here’s the problem with attacking Austria-Hungary: it is a good way to survive the game for Italy but not a good way to win the game.  It allows France to remain unmolested to Italy’s west and France is one of the powers that often does very well.  It usually means an alliance with either Turkey or Russia, or else an I/T/R alliance (The Vienna Sandwich).  If Italy allies with Russia, the latter does well (and is another big winner of games); if she allies with Turkey, the latter often becomes a bitter rival for control of the eastern Mediterranean seas – and leaves a strong power at Italy’s back later in the game.

And, if she forms a 3-way alliance with Turkey and Russia, the temptation is for the Vienna Sandwich to transform into a Juggernaut, the classic and game-ending alliance of Turkey and Russia.

Austria-Hungary is a tempting target and will see Italy prosper, if she is successful in defeating Austria, in the early game.  It leaves major problems in the mid-game and beyond, however.

The French Option

Instead, then, push west rather than east.  As we’ve seen above, though, France is much more difficult a prospect.  To defeat France, Italy has to be much more subtle, therefore.

Defeating France gives Italy a greater chance of winning the game.  It removes a power that has great potential to win herself.  It provides the possibility of gaining Marseilles, Spain and Portugal.  It means an alliance with either England or Germany and Italy is, often, protected from aggression from either of these until the latter stages of the game.

However, Italy probably shouldn’t go after France from the get-go.  Such a thing is unlikely to be more than an annoyance for France.  She can hold Italy at bay, perhaps even give Italy the chance to take Marseilles, and still survive.  This all depends on whether France is isolated within the NWT or not.

Should Italy discover an Anglo-German alliance against France, perhaps an early move west is a good thing.  She could order an army to Piedmont in S01 and move to Marseilles in F01.  Even if she doesn’t capture Marseilles, she could well be in a strong position against France, given this 3-way, anti-French alliance (The Guillotine).

There is an even trickier alternative opening which I call the Swiss Star.  For this, Italy needs to occupy Tyrolia in S01; her orders are A(Ven)-Tyl, A(Rom)-Ven and F(Nap)-ION.  Germany does something which guarantees Munich is empty in 1901, probably holding in S01 and moving A(Mun)-Ruh in F01.  The key, though, is that Munich is free in Fall.

In Fall 1901, Italy moves A(Tyl)-Mun, A(Ven) H and F(ION)-Tun.  Italy gains Munich and Tunis, loses nothing and gains two builds.  Germany loses Munich, gains Holland and Denmark, and has one build.  A successful Italian stab on Germany.

Well, not quite.  This is part of either a Guillotine Alliance or a Pact of Steel alliance between Germany and Italy.  In  S02, Germany supports Italy’s A(Mun)-Bur, Italy moves A(Ven)-Pie, F(Tun)-WMS; if she has built a fleet in Naples (which she should have) this moves to the Tyrrhenian Sea and if an army is in Rome, this moves to either Tuscany (very aggressively anti-French) or Venice (just in case).

Suddenly, France is under major pressure.  Marseilles is under threat from Burgundy and Piedmont, Spain is threatened from WMS, the Gulf of Lyons can be captured and the army in Tuscany or Venice can move to Piedmont or even be convoyed to Spain.

The problem is that, should Italy find herself unable to gain Marseilles or Spain in F02, she will need to hold on to Munich – and Germany will be somewhat eager to take the SC back.  Germany will therefore need to be patient.  Another problem is that this can be a long war unless both Germany and England are working with Italy.

On the other hand, removing France is – at least on the face of it – in the interests of both England and Germany as well as Italy, simply because France is potentially a major threat.

The Swiss Star opening is so effective because it looks very much as if Italy has moved against Germany in 1901; France shouldn’t be expecting the 1902 moves.  A good Italy should be able to persuade France to build and move to allow Italy to execute the plan.

There are options, too.  The Swiss Star could well become the Munich Star, an opening in which Italy double-crossed Germany by working with France in 1902.  This probably requires France to be in Burgundy, though.

Italy doesn’t need the Swiss Star opening to move against France, however, but she should look to wait until 1902 before making her true anti-French intensions clear.  A false Franco-Italian alliance can be masked by Italy quite successfully in 1901.  France may even stop considering an Italian attack and push north or east towards England or Germany.

The problem is Austria.  Can Italy persuade Austria that her apparently aggressive moves are, in fact, part of a more subtle plan?  Will Austria be happy with an Italian army in Tyrolia?  Will she want a stand off around Venice/Trieste as a form of guarantee?  Is she patient enough to allow the true situation to develop?  If Italy is to really threaten France, she will need a second build in 1901, if she can get it: will Austria allow her into Greece?  There are a lot of questions, made more complicated depending on whether Austria is knowledgeable enough to recognise that an Austro-Italian war is detrimental to both powers.

And, of course, there’s Turkey.

The Turkish Option

Turkey is usually Italy’s big problem.  If she allies with Turkey, she will eventually be turning west, towards France.  Turkey will have units at her back.  And Italy and Turkey both want the freedom of the Mediterranean waters.

For this reason alone, many experienced players look upon The Unholy Alliance of Italy and Turkey as a bad move for Italy.  Even if Italy attempts to maintain this alliance only until the defeat of Austria is complete, at this point Turkey could well be too strong, given her geographical advantages, to defeat.  Should Italy, at this point, strengthen her alliance with Russia, Turkey could well take an age to defeat… and what are the other powers doing in the meantime?

If The Unholy Alliance is extended beyond the defeat of Austria, giving Italy and Turkey the chance to carry the war to Russia, eventually Italy will be left with the same problem: Turkey sitting at her back.  In fact, in this alliance, Italy needs to take most of Austria-Hungary and hold two Balkan SCs if she is to be strong in the face of a Turkish stab – and this is an Italy that would be too strong for most Turkeys.

Italy, then, should probably look for an Adriatic Alliance or – better still – The Stuffed Turkey – to carry her game forward.  There are reasons, in either, for Italy to claim Greece and Smyrna as her own; from an Adriatic Alliance even Constantinople and Ankara – in short, the whole of Turkey.

Another possibility is the Wintergreen Alliance between Italy and Russia, masquerading as a Stuffed Turkey.  If the three powers can defeat Turkey, Italy and Russia can then successfully sandwich Austria.  The line between Italian and Russian SCs after this is better for both powers than any other scenario Italy can gain from an alliance in the South-West Quadrangle (SWQ).  This split could look something like this:


Italy would allow Russia to have an army (though probably not a fleet) in Constantinople and a fleet (though not an army) in Ankara – and certainly not armies in both Constantinople and Ankara!

Again, though, the question of whether Italy could win the game with this split.  There is little possibility of gaining an advantage against Russia in the area unless Russia is weakened by an attack in the north, requiring units to move away from the frontier between the Italian and Russian empires.  And, if that was the case, Italy would need to be strategically creative in also withdrawing her units to a position from which she could spring a stab.

What is does offer is the chance for both Italy and Russia to race to 18 SCs elsewhere and continuing cooperation in Germany.

Other Options

There are other options.

The Russian Option isn’t really something Italy can quickly get involved with.  For this to happen, Austria and Turkey would both have to agree to give Italy passage through to Russian SCs – and why would they?

This option is really the French Option, leaving Austria and Turkey to deal with Russia while Italy moves against France and then Italy working with one from Austria or Turkey against the other.  Which is risky in that it gives an Austro-Turkish alliance – The Carlowitz – a chance to mature into an anti-Italian alliance.

The German Option means moving north, perhaps using a Munich Star opening, perhaps not.  Munich is the target – and Italy is likely to need Munich to win a game – but it also means letting a dual alliance form from Austria/Russia/Turkey to defeat the other power in the SWQ and, once again, this runs the risk of this alliance becoming anti-Italian.  In some ways, either a Carlowitz Alliance or a Potemkin Alliance (A/R) is best and this gives the chance for Italy and re-form the alliance into an anti-Austrian one in the mid-game.

The problem with the German option is that Austria shouldn’t be happy about it.  Austria and Germany are almost always happy to at least leave each other alone via a NAP (non-aggression pact) as the one protects the other from attack.  If Italy manages to weaken Germany, Austria becomes extremely vulnerable.

(Incidentally, the reverse isn’t necessarily true: Germany might not be over the moon over Austria’s defeat and an aggressively anti-Austrian Italy, but she is unlikely to step in to prevent it, as Austria might if Germany was attacked by Italy.  Whether this is because German players have grown used to a weak or eliminated Austria, or because Germany simply can’t afford to split her forces to deal with it in many situations, Germany is likely to see an Austro-Italian war as somewhat inevitable.)

And, of course, history suggests Italy shouldn’t look north early in the game, if at all (beyond Munich).

And so…

Italy is a difficult power to play.  Strategically, she is at a disadvantage.  Yes, a guaranteed SC in 1901 (Tunis) but, beyond this, life gets hard.  There’s a reason why Italy – even united – never threatened Europe in the way that other powers did.

As I said right back at the beginning of this post, Italy’s successful history is to be found in antiquity in the form of the Roman Empire.  This wasn’t so much to do with geography as to do geo-economics.  Rome was well within the economically and culturally advanced regions of Europe.  Rome’s success was that she was an expansive, militaristic and advanced civilisation surrounded by divided tribes and comparatively weak city states, at least to some extent.  In Diplomacy, Italy doesn’t have those advantages.

For Italy to succeed in Diplomacy, she must be diplomatically able.  She needs to be able to persuade her neighbours that their interests match with hers.  She must be able to secure her east or west diplomatically while her forces head in the other direction.  She needs to see her opponents divided and she certainly needs successful early game alliances becoming pro-Italian alliances in later stages.

A distinguished player of the FTF game once wrote that Diplomacy isn’t won by wait-and-see players.  There is a large nugget of truth in this.  Certainly in tournaments, where players need to make quick gains and establish a large empire quickly, enabling them to survive and position well in the game, waiting to work around the opportunities in the game is unlikely to prove successful.

Italy, though, may well be one power where playing carefully, if not cautiously, and playing the long game is a better option, certainly in a standard game played from start to natural finish.

Italy does need to build a defensible position.  She really needs to plan her prospective alliance shifts around her strategic objectives, though, and to be able to modify her Grand Strategy as the game develops.  She should seek opportunities but not be opportunistic.

She needs a diplomat.


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