Still more thoughts on No-Press Opening Strategy

(The third instalment of a rebuttal to M. J. Yatchman's "...or Why is Italy Always Such a Jerk?")

Brandon Clarke


This is the fourth article in what has become a series reviewing NoPress opening strategy. M J Yatchman penned the first article which appeared in the S1998M issue of The Pouch. In the S1998R issue of The Pouch I wrote a rebuttal of M J's article, in which I discussed the opening options for England and Germany. I followed up with the third article in the series in the F1998M issue of The Pouch, discussing the options open to France, Russia, and Turkey, and promising to deliver this article, with it's discussion of Italy and Austria's options, in the F1998R issue of The Pouch. So, as promised - here it is. Complete with my answer to M J Yatchman's original question: "Why is Italy always such a jerk?".

My Theories on No-Press strategy

Throughout this series of articles I drawn together several ideas and proposed what I see as some central tenets of No-Press strategy, particularly applicable in the discussions of opening strategy. As a recap, here they are: That pretty neatly sums up my approach to No-Press play. It's not the perfect answer though. Recently I've managed to record 4 consecutive loses in No-Press play. But that's one of the wonderful things about Diplomacy in my view. There is no "one right answer". The game relies on 7 people's decision making, which leads to an huge variety of results. I've never seen two games that were exactly alike. In No-Press play you can have as many theories as you like. Sometimes they'll work, but sometimes in No-Press play you're going to be unlucky and lose out. You can play to minimise the chances of that, but sooner or later, even the most tactically sound player is going to come out with an elimination.

One of those 4 consecutive loses I've suffered lately was in the game YANG, on FROG <[email protected]>. I was Germany, and was well and truly stitched up by my erstwhile ally France, who went on to solo. France's EOG read, in part:

 Of course I think this player is missing out on a large part of what NoPress is all about. I responded, but perhaps the best response came from the player playing Turkey:
  Which just goes to show, doesn't it, that it all depends on your point of view, and preferences. That's one of the great things about Diplomacy - it's played by all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas. That's one of the things that makes it so challenging - not everyone thinks or plays the way you do.

Feedback from the last article.

I've found that one of the coolest things about writing for The Pouch is the letters you get, literally from all corners of the world, thanking you for your article, and saying how much people enjoyed reading it. It's kinda nice. I wrote Discovering the Religion of "Donism", an article about my first trip to play Tournament Diplomacy in Australia, which was published in the 1997 Winter Adjustments issue of The Pouch. Following that article I received mail from England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, India, The Philippines, Japan, Australia, New Zealand (of course), The USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Zimbabwe! If you haven't written anything for The Pouch, I strongly urge you to have a bash at it.

Following my last article in this series, I received a letter from Jeff Keller.

Absolutely. It almost always takes two turns to set up a successful move like that in NoPress. First there's the "signalling move", followed by the "actual move".

One way to signal is just as Jeff did here. Make the move, not expecting the support, and then repeat the move, hoping that, having seen your move and understood your intentions, your ally in the making joins in. Most of the time it's actually the "supporter" that does the signal, in my experience . For example, if I was Austria, sitting in Serbia after F1901M, and I wanted Italy to move the army he'd built in VEN to APU, and then convoy it to GRE, I might order A SER S A VEN - GRE. Even though there's no fleet in the ADR, and consequently no possible way that VEN can get to GRE this turn, the move is still accepted by the Judge. The idea is that Italy sees this, and hopefully has already moved VEN - APU. (If not, Italy tries to get an army to APU A.S.A.P.) Italy then orders A APU - ION - GRE, fully expecting your support.

The other way to signal a move is to use a fleet to convoy A VEN - GRE e.g. F BLA C A VEN - GRE. Now even though F BLA could never be involved in convoying A VEN - GRE, the order is still accepted by the Judge. You can also use things like F FIN C A PAR - MOS. (That's right, the fleet can even be in a coastal space!) Have a play around and try out different things. [Note: Some judges are different versions of the judge software to others. Consequently what works on one judge might not work on all of the Judges.]

Jeff Keller continued:

A chocolate fish for anyone who can take a wild stab in the dark as to who might have been playing Turkey... :o) That was one of the special treats of this letter - read on... Very plausible. Not just for Italy either. The concept is applicable to any country... just change "Austria" and "Munich" as needed. But remember, when you stab, stab hard, and don't stop stabbing till they're dead. Well, not often anyway. France is a viable option too, and so are Germany, and even Russia. See below. Two pearls of wisdom there.

And now faithful readers, the good bit... the icing on the cake. I love it when things like this happen...

Imagine that! :o) The Prophet strays from the one true path!

Onwards already! Italy and Austria then...


If anyone other than Jeff Keller has been paying the slightest bit of attention to what I've been rambling on about over the past two articles, you've probably gained the impression that MJ Yatchman and I don't exactly see eye to eye when it comes to the analysis of the NoPress game. Every now and then though, MJ comes out with something I just can't disagree with. The first part of his section on Austria was one such section:

MJ Yatchman wrote:

So true! It does, doesn't it? MJ's article asked why. He didn't answer that in his first article, but I've swapped a couple of emails with him, and he assures me he's going to write a follow up article, just as soon as I stop hogging the limelight.... next issue then, okay MJ? My answer is outlined below in the Italy section, but for now, let me just agree with MJ - the Italian stab IS the big danger for Austria, and it does happen far too often. Once more, MJ is right on the money. An Italian stab on Austria MUST be devastating. If Austria is not crippled by it Italy has in all likelihood angered a very nasty beast. Most of the time it will be fatal for Italy.

This is getting scary MJ! Say something I can disagree with! Then I'll be back on familiar ground.

Ah! I knew he couldn't last. Austria is not a bad country to get in NoPress. True, you can get ganged up on, but if you stop and think about how to play Austria then you can make a pretty good fist of it. The statistics show that Austria is a "boom or bust" country, ranking high in both eliminations , and wins. The lesson is that if you get going as Austria you often do VERY well. To me that says one thing loud and clear: Make sure you get going.

You may think that's easy for me to say, but think about it. Play Austria cautiously in the first few seasons. Don't leave yourself wide open, especially to Italy. As I said in the second article in this series, many experienced NoPress players regard F1902M and F1902B as the crucial phases in the opening game. So often they determine who fights who, or which alliance starts taking shape ahead of the others. This is particularly pertinent for Austria. If you can make it through to F1902B without finding yourself on the rack, you may well find that the countries surrounding you decide that the Austrian nut is proving too hard to crack. Then, their impatience may get the better of them, and they may turn against each other, (or indeed other countries entirely) in the search for growth.

MJ says:

...and I've gotta agree. In NoPress play, unable to discuss and co-ordinate with anyone else you've gotta have balls of steel not to move to GAL. Too many bad things can happen if you don't. True, not moving there is extending an olive branch to Russia, but (s)he's just as likely to swipe that olive branch out of your hand and beat you up with it, than accept it and work with you. IF you are going to leave GAL, I suggest you support A WAR - GAL. That way Russia can't possibly misconstrue your failure to move there as anything other than a desire for an alliance. Russia may, for example, think you didn't move to GAL just because you were trying to make a strong push somewhere else, and then form the opinion that they got into GAL through good fortune rather than good management, and THEN decide to exploit that good fortune by attacking you.

You also have to be pretty confident not to move to SER, as that opens up the possiblity of being bounced out in the fall. Setting your heart on RUM is a dangerous game when you're not able to negotiate an ally before the S1901M moves - too many bad things can happen in that game. And, IMHO, an attack on Italy in 1901 is folly. It's rarely successful in the short term, and in the long term is only likely to either (a) see your home SC's occupied by Russia and Turkey, or, (b) (which is just as unpalatable) will just see the Italian units gradually replaced by French ones while the French player sits there hardly able to believe their luck as you distract Italy for them, giving them a free ride through to the Ionian Sea.

However, it's not the opening move that's the most important one for Austria in NoPress play. It's the F1901M through to F1903M moves that are key. You goal in the opening game must be to make it through to F1903 in good position. If you can do that, and get Italy's forces scattered so that it's more difficult for Italy to muster forces to stab you with, that's even better. If you can do THAT, and get Russia and Turkey fighting, you're going to have a very enjoyable game.

So what am I on about? The trap many players of Austria fall into is they look at just the opening move. You have to give a great deal of thought to the next move, and the one after that (at the very least!) as Austria. Good players do that for all countries, but I say you're never likely to get far at all if you don't plan two moves ahead with Austria, whereas there are other countries where you can play it turn by turn. You need to look at the moves of ALL the other countries very closely in the opening moves when you're playing Austria. If there's any signals, thrusts, or squabbles you need to think about how that affects the likely future moves of mot just the countries involved, but those neighbouring those countries too. As Austria it's similar to being at the centre of a spiders web - everything that happens out there on the web around you affects all the other parts of the web, but every vibration rumbles down the silken threads and can be felt by you at the centre. Play that advantage to the limit.

If any of the countries around you (Italy, Russia, and Turkey) push against you, defend stoutly against that country, and wait for the pressure to mount against the aggressor elsewhere. Be patient, and cautious. While doing this, try to manoeuvre Italy so that the Italian units are far flung, and unable to co-ordinate against you. If an Italian unit is in TYR, defend first and foremost, but if you're able to spare the order support TYR - BOH, and after that support BOH - GAL. If you can get a single Italian army isolated in SIL or GAL you're doing great. That will (more often than not) tie Italy's interests to your own, AND make it much harder for Italy to stab you effectively. Also try to get Italian fleets as far East as you can. Once there they will be much more likely to continue attacking Turkey, than turn against you.

If on the other hand Italy is powering off to the West to do battle with France, then make sure you keep well away from the VEN/TRI border. Don't give Italy a reason to get spooked. Give the safe border they desire, but don't move so far away that, with builds, Italy can suddenly tear you open. Italy harassing France is good news for Austria. As long as you can hold off Russia and Turkey, preferably allying with one to take out the other, Italy's pressure on the West should see the Eastern side of the board resolved and ready for the midgame before the Western triangle are ready to face the major St.P - Naf stalemate line, and positioned as Austria is right on that line, you should be able to springboard across it and secure a strong position for the endgame.

And finally...

How to avoid being suck a jerk: Italy.

MJ set out originally and asked: "Why is Italy always such a jerk in NoPress play?". My answer is this: Many Italian players lack the patience, and experience, and the appreciation for the events across the whole board, and how they impact on their long term plans as Italy.

MJ's beef was that all too often Italy seems to attack Austria (often in the first year) just because Italy can. I agree,  and the response is predictable... Austria, faced with a hostile Italy, and potentially hostile foes in Russia and Turkey reasons: "Screw you Italy! If you want to try and take me down, fine. I'm going to make sure you don't profit by your short-sighted attack, and if that means Russia and/or Turkey walks into my undefended centres, fine... just as long as I take the Italian down with me.

The lesson is if you're going to attack Austria as Italy, it needs to be a stunning blow that all but eliminates Austria in one fell swoop. A cheap stab for one SC, particularly in 1901, is just plain lunacy. Austria is forced to fight back, and really cannot afford to stop fighting back until they at least have VEN, or are eliminated.

So why do so many Italians stab in the first few turns? I think it's due to an perceived lack of viable alternatives. That is a result of a lack of patience, and possibly imagination. However I think it's also due in a large part to a lack of experience playing Italy. I think many players would find that Italy is the country they have played least often... when you play with friends and you don't have 7 players, it's usually Italy that gets left either in civil disorder, or variations of 'missing man'. Also, because Italy is perceived to be one of the more challenging countries to play by many new Diplomacy players, it often gets placed low in their preference lists early in their career. All this adds up to a knowledge base amongst many players which is lacking in the "How to play Italy" department .

How to expand as Italy, without attacking Austria is not immediately clear to all who draw the green pieces, and as a result they decide to just attack Austria. There are two ways I play Italy - the patient approach, and Leif Bergman's "Go Fasta" approach. The Go Fasta approach, I believe, is better suited to press games where you can talk people into doing things that are necessary for your strategy to work (e.g. Turkey's land based building program...). Having said that, it can and has worked in NoPress play.

IF you discount that approach, then I think Italy demands a patient approach, and, more so than some of the other countries, a lot of forward planning. Often new players to the game follow a "grab the dots" mentality - they value expansion, and rightly so I suppose. However, this is often at the expense of an appreciation of positional play, and especially at the expense of an appreciation of the balance of power across the board. As Italy I find these two factors are very important.

Italy is the pivot on which many games swing. The western triangle (E, F, & G) and the Eastern triangle (A, R, & T) can both be affected by Italy's choices. As Italy I try to position myself (sometimes) so that I can lend strength where needed to prolong the battles in each of the aforementioned triangles, helping the side that seems to be losing. The idea is to be patient, and gradually make gains while trying to keep the other six powers embroiled in destructive squabbles with each other.

Sometimes attacking Austria IS a good idea, but in NoPress, without the benefit of talking to the other players, it's impossible to know whether your game is one of those times until after S1901M at the very earliest. You need to sit back and watch how the other players are opening. If England and Germany are going hard for France, then heading towards Munich to take some of the pressure off France is a very good idea. If you're already embroiled in Austria, you won't be able to commit anything to harassing Germany. Likewise, if France and England (and sometimes Russia too) are getting stuck into Germany, supporting Munich to hold can be very beneficial. Failing that, taking Munich for yourself so you get a share of the spoils can be worthwhile - often more because of the ability to interact with Russia and France in a friendly way than for the value of the SC alone. On the other hand if you want to attack France, then getting an army into Burgundy via Munich makes that task MUCH easier. In the East, Russia and Turkey's relationship impacts on your attitude to your Austrian neighbour more often than not. If they're at each other's throats, then perhaps you do want to attack Austria. That said, it can be very beneficial to hold off and wait until Turkey is despatched before turning on Austria.

All that could be construed as a big pile of non-committal waffle really. The point is that you need to wait and see how the game is developing before deciding whether you should attack Austria, and IF you do decide to attack, then deciding WHEN to do it. Attacking Austria in 1901 as Italy in NoPress is a BIG gamble. More often than not it will either fail, or galvanise other powers into power structures that are in the long term detrimental to Italy's interests. Earlier in this series of articles I said that it's a good idea not to ruffle anyone's feathers in the early turns when everyone is deciding who to attack. With Italy, it's also a good idea to wait until after people have started making that decision before you attack Austria (If you're going to at all). This is because you're very attacking Austria early may tip other's hands and affect their decisions. You want as many other players attacking each other as possible. If Russia and Turkey see you attack Austria in 1901 they may decide to leave attacking each other until later, as if they don't head for Austria now they might miss out. Similarly, England may see Austria in trouble. That might result in a strong Russia, which may see England to not push so hard into Scandinavia, but instead turn on Germany or France. Italy might want Russia coming under pressure from the English if war with Austria is the plan. It may well be worth holding off until England or Germany cross swords with Russia, and then pushing into Austria, as if Russia is under pressure in the north there are likely to be less resources free for reinforcing the south, which should see you having to do less sharing of the spoils in Austria.

Let me now look at what Mj said about Italy:

No disagreement from me. Sage words. It certainly can do. I'm assuming that MJ was talking about in the opening move, and not the following turns. In which case his advice is Good Stuff Maynard! Having said that, a stab on Austria should always be in the back of your mind. Never lose sight of the possibilities offered by a successful push into Austria. Without such a push you'll always have the threat of Austrian aggression hanging over you, and you'll find sustained growth difficult (but not impossible) to orchestrate. I personally think the longer you can hold off attacking Austria the better. Austria needs your help (more often than not anyway), and is usually happy to work with you against Turkey, or in the TYR - BOH - SIL - PRU corridor, giving you access to Germany and Warsaw. Again, I'm assuming that MJ was referring only to the S1901M move, in which case I'll concede it is pretty rare to see Austria sending it's fleet to Venice. However, bear in mind that a 1903, and sometimes even a 1902 attack into Italy by Austria are not that unheard of. MJ comes through with a solid conclusion at last. I knew we'd get on eventually! Ahhhh! It was too good to be true huh?. There are alternatives. Viable one's too. You can slaughter Austria. I've seen Italy get three builds in 1901 three times since I wrote the first article in this trilogy. The "don't stab Austria in 1901" credo is often heard. I think it's often given more credence than it deserves. What it really means is don't pin prick Austria in 1901 - if you can orchestrate a devastating stab against Austria in 1901 then you're off to one of the best starts you can get as Italy. The question is: "How do you do that?" I think the key is: If you're going to stab Austria in 1901 do it in the fall, not in the Spring. If you move VEN - TRI in spring there's two possibilities - you're trying for a Key Lepanto (Good luck to you in NoPress!), or you're having a go at Austria. Because of the "Vultures to the kill" that MJ alluded to in his article, few Austrias will see any alternative but to fight you to the grim death. I've only once seen an Austrian play out a Key Lepanto in NoPress, and that Austrian was me, and I got completed carved up doing it. I don't think Italy could really believe that there were Austrias out there who would go for it, so he pulled out and it devastated me. So hold off in the spring if you really must attack Austria - move to TYR and VEN and have a good go in the fall. Better yet open to PIE and VEN, and then support PIE - TYR in the fall, and build A ROM and move TYR - BOH, VEN - TYR, and ROM - VEN in S1902M and have a REALLY serious drive into Austria in 1902. Why?

Why not take it with the fleet, take VIE and TRI with the two armies, or MUN and MAR, or MUN and VIE/TRI and go for three builds? Sure that goes against my advice above to "wait and see" but claiming that you must convoy and army to Tunis in the fall is a bit OTT isn't it? Especially when you want to be able to co-ordinate your navy's moves with Austria to get that army back in the optimal way, and this is NoPress - that co-ordination is going to be hard. I think taking Tunis with an army in NoPress play can be a mistake. It burdens you in 1902, 03, and 04 with the task of getting the damn thing back where it's useful. The cost of a lost fleet move is often worth the better positioning you get with the army if you take Tunis with the fleet.

You can certainly do worse than this. Does it? I thought.... Sometimes. Perhaps you're sending your fleet that way too? Perhaps you're sick of getting bogged down in Turkey and want to try and bust out into the MAO and attack England? I don't know about this resoundingness bit! If France opens to the Channel and Germany joins in in a Sealionesque opening then you moving to PIE could be the one thing that saves England's hide and prevents you from facing down a strong FG alliance in 1904 or thereabouts. A strong naval French push into the Med is something you don't need. Moving to PIE can prevent France from getting a runaway start. You can always order PIE - TYR in the fall anyway... I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss this opening MJ. You might not be going there for gains. You might be going there to prevent French gains in England by exerting some pressure, and thereby taking a little off England. Quick French gains in England often lead to French fleets in the Med. That's not good at all for Italy. Or keep France honest... Why not? Surely caution is excusable? I think A VEN H is a pretty smart opening in NoPress. Austria usually wants to trust Italy. A VEN H is not anti Austrian. However it leaves Austria unsure as to what to do about you. That's not necessarily a bad thing. You haven't tipped your hand, but you've got Austria squirming... All I can say faithful readers is that I'm glad this is the last time I'll have to address one of these "No substitute" comments.

Italy in summary: Be patient. Lean on the west or the east as necessary to prevent a runaway destruction of one of the powers there by the other two. Wait until people start fighting if you can before you attack Austria. Better yet don't attack Austria at all. Together you can do great things.

But, if the only reason you're thinking of attacking Austria is that you don't know what else to do, think, wait, and then see if it still looks like a good idea in fall 1902.


And there we are! A full lap of the board from my perspective. I don't imagine all you you agree with me, but that's tough. I got off my chuff and wrote something for the Pouch. I never expected everyone to agree with my ideas. But if you've really got a bone to pick with what I've said, sit down and write something. Manus will be only too happy to publish comments. If you feel really keen, write something on midgame strategy for NoPress play.

I'm off to Australia again soon. Brandon's second annual cricket and Diplomacy tour of Australia is on from January 9th to January 27th taking in one day internationals at the Gabba, the S.C.G., and the M.C.G. and the Australian Diplomacy Champs in Canberra from January 23rd to January 26th. Look for a follow up to last year's "Discovering Donism" article in the new year. And if you're interested, there will be a "Brandon's 3rd annual cricket and Diplomacy tour of Australia" taking in the 1999 Boxing Day test at the M.C.G. and New Years Eve 1999/2000 in Melbourne. If you want to be part of the tour start planning now, and let me know.

"Barmy Army..." here I come. (I'll be the guy with the Barmy Army with the yellow, Black, and Red chequered top hat on.)

Brandon Clarke
([email protected])
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, click on the letter above. If that does not work, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.