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Strategy Article


Of Don Juan


Richard Egan


Vienna 3 (October 1984)


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Strong gongs groaning as the guns boon far, Don Juan of Austria is going to the war. - G.K. Chesterton's "Lepanto"

Austria-Hungary is one of the most challenging game starts on the board, and optimises the un-balanced nature of standard Diplomacy (a lack of balance which makes the game interesting, not unfair for my money, since it forces players to diplome). Firstly, Austria and Italy are in the unique position of sharing a common border between two of their own supply centres. All the other powers have "buffer zone” provinces between their belligerent or ‘home’ centres - in this context, look at the French obsession with Burgundy in Spring 1901, and the English fear of a French F(ENG).

Austria and Italy, however, can have no such security, either they must learn to live with each other in mutual trust, or suffer to have at least one unit bogged down in guarding the centre, sitting on it like some mother hen! Then again, they could try for a blitz, an early knock-out, but in Austria’s case this would mean finding some acceptable compromise to the east with Russia and Turkey - one which is unlikely to hand any Balkan builds over on a plate!

To my mind, Austria comes off worse: after all, once Trieste falls, Budapest and Vienna begin to look very vulnerable, whereas the Italian peninsula is a little harder to penetrate even after Venice has fallen. And to add to Austria’s worries, unlike Italy, he faces a total of three other neighbours (four in all), two of them obvious competitors for the neutral centres to the south. Admittedly there are four to share out, but this only attracts competitors all the more, and a lot of letters or a lucky break is needed if Austria wants to be sure of securing a second after Serbia.

The saving grace is usually an Anschluss pact with Germany, but this, whilst it secures the northern border, seldom extends much beyond a non-aggression pact, at least during the critical (for Austria) opening turns. Rare is the German player who will actually spare units to bail out his ‘ally’ if the deadly Russo-Turkish combine is laid on the board.

So, Austria must look around for a more committed partner. This is where the fun starts. Italy can sometimes be tempted with the promise of Greece for Autumn 1901 instead of his usual opening to Tunis (which he can pick up at his leisure in l902). Even so, it is not below some Italian players I could mention to sail happily into Greece at the same time as taking Trieste for a second build. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that not many Austrian players will trust the Italian sufficiently to agree to the “Key Lepanto Opening", whereby Italy is allowed to move through Trieste in Spring 1901 towards the Balkans as part of a long-term manoeuvre in an Austro-Italian alliance against Turkey (it is backed up, for Italy, with F(ION)-AEG or EMS in the Autumn of 1901).

Even so, this alliance is sometimes the only straw to be clutched at in the face of a Russo-Turkish Juggernaut. Remember that the Mediterranean is something of a proving ground for Italy and Turkey, and although Austria rarely gets heavily involved, he can often (even with only one fleet) tip the balance at sea in favour of one of the two main rivals, and win useful concessions in return.

This suggests Turkey as an alternative. An alliance with Turkey does not solve the Trieste-Venice problem, but it should be founded upon a greater degree of trust, at least early in the game. After all, A(Con), the nearest unit, is two provinces and the Bulgarian bottleneck away, and Turkey should, in my humble opinion always be given as much encouragement as possible to attack Russia (who said anything about being unbiased?). I say this because I feel that, in the long-term, Russia is the biggest single threat to Austria’s welfare. If Russia and Turkey ally, Austria is in deep trouble, whilst if they don’t, I’d rather face a victorious Turkey alone than the behemoth, once their war is won.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that Turkey can, and usually does build fleets (the emphasis here being on the plural of the word), whereas Austria is less flexible for building purposes, with only one coastal centre (remember the one on Italy’s doorstep?). This can be an embarrassment when you are trying to hold on to the Balkans. Often, central European Austria builds armies to explore the depths of inner provinces, only to see centres nearer to home fall behind her to a blitzish Turkish stab.

However, so long as you guard against this, an alliance with Turkey is still preferable to an alliance with Russia, just an alliance with Russia is preferable to

no alliance at all. You have to have SOMEONE on your side down south, even if, thanks to Italy, the ‘Southern Triangle’ is not as perfect as the northern.

The problem is that Austria is just so vulnerable, lacking the size of Russia and the geographical protection of Turkey. It sometimes is just TOO tempting, especially to supposed Russian or Italian allies. Austria is first out of the game more often than any other power (even if it does have a better win record than the likes of Italy), and since, as a central power, it usually conducts more than its share of diplomacy, one can only assume that it receives more than its share of treachery in return. Indeed, the statistics suggest that, if Austria can stay in the game long enough, he usually fares quite well.

The early moves, then, are the most dangerous. - weather these, and you’ re looking good, since a central position allows you to exploit the weaknesses of others, meddling in several crumbling pies. You’re likely to be able to exploit your neighbours weaknesses as they themselves begin to receive close attention from outside powers.

So, given this, let’s take a look at the Openings. If you’re being cautious (and God knows Austria NEEDS to be cautious), it’s worth looking at an opening known as the “Southern Hedgehog” F(Tri) - Ven, A(Bud.) - Ser, A(Vie) - Gal. This stands off an Italian stab / attack, seizes Serbia for a build, and forestalls a Russian attack. It has even been known to open up Rumania for annexation. Admittedly you might end up with only A(Bud) moving, but that means that both Russia AND Italy are after your blood, in which case you are lucky to be looking so healthy! If you do trust Italy and don’t want to offend him (or can’t arrange an agreed stand-off), then F(Tri) can stand, but then you might be passing up the chance to take Greece (see below), or, if Italy is having you on, risking A(Ven) - Tyr and A(Rom) - Ven (“I only said I wouldn’t attack Trieste”) – ouch!

The Southern Hedgehog is second in popularity in postal games only to the Balkan Gambit, which involves F(Tri) - Alb and A(Bud) - Ser. This can either include Vienna to Trieste (the most used) or Vienna to Galicia. The former leaves you rather open to Russia, a failing which the Russian will doubtless exploit, whilst the latter covers this (stalling A(War)-Gal), and is indeed the most optimistic of Austria’s sane openings

After all, you're on to take Greece with your fleet, perhaps supported from Serbia unless you’ve got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to snatch Rumania as well for three builds (“Sweet Dreams are made of this…”). How you handle Italy in your correspondence before this opening is a matter for deep thought.

These three openings, namely the two (Trieste and Galician) versions of the Balkan Gambit and the Southern Hedgehog, have been used in 27%, 18% and 12.5% of the first 1,000 Diplomacy games respectively (figures courtesy of Diplomacy Quarterly), and thus account for over 75% of all Austrian openings. However, as many as five other openings have received more than 2% of Austrian players attention there is, for example, the Vie - Bud version of the Balkan Gambit; the so-called “Houseboat” version of the Hedgehog (F(Tri) stands — see above) and a compromise between these two involving F(Tri) stands, with A(Bud) - Ser and A(Vie) - Bud.

Then there’s the Tyrolia version of the Gambit (at 9.3% this is quite popular), which lines up for an assault on Venice if you’ve made up your mind on who is the enemy, but again it’s a case of watch-your- back. Alternatively, I suppose it could be used to stall an Italian move against your German ally - or to line up against Munich yourself. Hmmm, a ‘special circum stances’ opening,I suppose.

Lastly, there’s the “True” or “Rumanian” Hedgehog, with F(Tri) - Ven, A(Vie) - Gal and A(Bud) - Rum. This really is laying strongly into Russia, and it succeeds a surprising number of times, since so many F(Sev)’s go to the Black Sea (or rather, try to). It is passing on Serbia, though that can be collected in due course so long as Turkey stays true.

Well, that concludes this little jaunt, I feel. Austria is a tricky one, and there remains a lot to be said - indeed this is no more than an overview, but hopefully we can return to this topic again at a later date.