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Strategy Article


Weak Sisters Diplomacy


Richard Egan


Vienna No.10 (May 1985)


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Two of the seven Diplomacy powers are to be consistently found at the foot of preference lists - when, as a consequence of- the survey of Vienna readers recently carried out, we published a "Preference Index" it was no surprise that they were close to each other, but well below the rest in the final tally. After all, these same two powers can between them claim both the poorest win record and the benefits of the cleaner water of the early bath. I write - but of course - of Austria and Italy, the "Weak Sisters".

The weakness of these two is often blamed almost exclusively upon the single border shared by Venice and Trieste. Allan Calhamer, the games designer who created the game of Diplomacy, has himseIf admitted: ".. Italy and Austria are considered to be the two weakest powers in Regular Diplomacy. One of the reasons for this is their mutual lack of security, because each has a home supply centre adjacent at the start of the game...".("Variations on a Theme by Calhamer".)

The adjacency of Venice and Trieste is certainly a unique situation on the gameboard. Inevitably it is a real handicap to both Italy and Austria, since from the opening moves each will be wary-of the other attempting to 'steal' their home centre, a security problem which often limits the options each is prepared to consider. France, for example, can order F(Bre) to MAO content in the knowledge that if England slips into the Channel, he can retrace his steps to minimise the damage and at least stand England out of his home centre in Brest. By contrast, Austria and Italy have no such 'buffer', between them and the natural emphasis placed on home centres is exaggerated in Austria's instance by the fact that Trieste is that powers only coastal home centre, where fleets must be built. For one of the Weak 'Sisters to trust the other sufficiently to move out of the offending centre is a risky venture indeed - hence (the 'Balkan Gambit' title for Austria's optimistic F.(Tri)-Alb, A(Vie)-Tri, A(Bud)-Ser opening (and even this guards Trieste from Vienna, even if other versions of this particular 'Gambit' do not). Yet the alternative is for each to sit units like mother hens on each centre, hardly a constructive approach, and surely unlikely to benefit either's poor performance records. All too often, one or other will move out at last, only to be stabbed, and it is the emphasis placed on the 'natural' unease between Italy and Austria that sponsors the lasting popularity of the 'Tyrolian Attack' opening for Italy (A(Ven)-Tyr, A(Rom)-Ven).

Yet this is also symptomatic of another problem. To, quote Calhamer again from the same article: "...Italy is unable to expand initially ; it is restricted to a purely defensive role in the middle years; and its prospects are limited to a minor share in a draw or a low place..." Since Italy is all but surrounded by sea provinces, adjoining only three land provinces (two of which are coastal), Venice and more especially Piedmont act as bottle necks which deny Italy manoeuvrability early in the game with its single fleet. Yet, unlike the other sea-bounded powers England and Turkey, Italy is centrally placed and unable to claim the protection of a corner position.

Consequently, most recommended openings for Italy aim at either "breaking out" or in shoring up the defences to play a waiting game, perhaps long enough to establish a role in the Mediterranean. Prime examples of' the former are the aforementioned Tyrolia Attack and the less popular French Attack (which features A(Ven)-Pie and A(Rom)-Ven or Tus). No prizes for guessing why the French Attacks is less popular -. the answer is that dread of Austria slipping into Venice. Yet also it is harder to force a way out of Piedmont in the early moves (before fleets can be brought to bear via GoL), and thus Italy tends to look to Austria when in an attacking mood. After all, Venice, borders two of Austria's provinces), not one, and unlike Piedmont, Italy starts with a unit in Venice, the springboard of Eastern Adventures. A defensive or cautious Italian player will prefer stand-offs over-Venice and Trieste (possibly arranged with Austria), perhaps moving A(Rom)-Apu to support Venice, if under attack, or to be convoyed to Tunis by F(ION) for a build and a Lepanto (which follows the F(ION) C A(Apu)-Tun opening up with a F(Nap) build, then F(ION)-EMS and F(Nap)-ION in spring 1902, prior to a convoy to Syria or Smyrma to attack Turkey, Italy's maritime rival in the Mediterranean).

Yet this accepts either zero or negligible building potential beyond out-of-the-way, Tunis in the early years. In a game where you win by capturing supply centres, is it any wonder (for all that patience is a virtue) that such a Power has a poor win record. The other six would seem to have head starts in the race to what George Anderson has dubbed "the Magic Eighteen."

Likewise, it is hardly surprising that Austria, surrounded and threatened on all sides and as concerned with survival as expansion in the early years, has distinctly inferior performance records. The rising popularity of the "Southern Hedgehog" Opening for Austria A(Vie)-Gal; F(Tri)-Ven, A(Bud)-Ser is testament to the invalidity of the claim that "all that counts is good diplomacy". If diplomacy were all, it would be the Balkan Gambit-(see above) that gained ground. The Southern Hedgehog is in fact a sorry statement: an opening that will stand off Italy and Russia and make sure of' the only secure supply centre against Turkish or even Italian ambitions, it is a confession that only by defending on all fronts can Austria even hope to survive. Yet it is too a realistic assessment of Austria's situation - a Balkan Gambit that leaves Austria. with Trieste and Vienna at the end of 1901 is a rare gem indeed.

Thus, in a way, Austria and Italy are different faces of the same coin. One has many options for openings, a great potential for fluidity of movement, and surveys the biggest bundle of neutral supply centres on the board- (Balkan shaped), but is surrounded by hungry wolves and has trouble simply defending itself with only three units. The other is initially easy to defend (if perhaps less so than England), but has a pitiful potential for early growth. It is when you consider the adjacency of Venice and Trieste as compounding these handicaps that the very real weaknesses of Italy and Austria seem so unfair.

Some disagree. In Zeeby No.34 Nick Kinzett, in answer to a letter on the subject, argued that "...their problems are in part exaggerated and in part a self-fulfilling prophecy of Doom (for example, postally they. frequently get left to inexperienced players who haven't bothered with preference lists)...", and the belief that the two countries are simply '"not used properly" is widespread amongst players at all levels of experience. Personally, I myself have maintained that the imbalances in the standard game are one of its assets, not a weakness, in that a '"perfectly balanced" game would seen bland by comparison. There is something of a challenge in playing Italy, and who knows - maybe one day I'll decide Austria isn't so bad after all. Yet it is obvious that as long as the great majority of players dislike these two countries, as long as they remain at the foot of preference lists, most games are going to suffer - if only because the people playing these countries may feel hard done by and, as Nick suggests, allow the prophecy to come true.

With this in mind, some people have sought a solution in subtle adjustments to the standard game - "variations" rather than outright "variants" - which are intended to give Austria and Italy a better start to the game.


One of the simplest suggestions, which seeks to reduce or eliminate the disadvantages we have examined above is the "Fleet Rome Variant", which gives Italy a fleet in Rome instead of an army so that she starts with two fleets and an army, like England. This simplicity is attractive - the board remains unchanged, and consequently the problem of the adjacency of Venice and Trieste is unaddressed. Several postal F(Rom) games have been started especially in Britain and records are being kept to see if this adjustment is to Italy's advantage.

By all accounts it is not, and if "Fleet" is anything to go by, I'll second that. The - -reasons are not that hard to fathom: the theory behind F(Rom) is that since Italy borders only three land provinces (two of them coastal), an extra fleet would enable that power to commence the maritime expansion most Italian players seem to prefer at an earlier stage. Tunis becomes an unfettered gift now, since it can be taken without passing up an offer of, say, Austrian support into Greece from Serbia, whilst the possibilities for attacking France or Turkey at an earlier stage were expected to draw Italy's attention away from Austria so that although the Adjacent Centres problem remained, its effects' would be minimised.

However, for all that the intention was to spread Italy's horizons, in fact this variant reduces the initial options to a choice over the army. Most likely F(Rom) will move out to TYS, meaning that F(Nap) can consider ION or Apu - and don't laugh at the latter, either. Without an army in Rome, an aggressive Austria can move to Tyr with A(Vie) and find Italy's A(Ven) quite without support unless F(Nap) opens to Apulia. The Tyrolia Attack is no longer an option for Italy (though I suppose the intention WAS to pull Italy and Austria apart), and Italy is that much more conspicuous to a France jealous about Spain and Portugal, that the latter might no longer be content to ignore Italy in the early years. Gone is the Lepanto, and though Austria might be more confident to consider the Balkan Gambit, it has to be said that F(Rom) offers no real solutions if we are interested in truly rectifying the imbalances for both powers.


Another solution suggested more than once has been to transfer the Venice Supply Centre to Tuscany, often coupled with moving the Naples centre (or even Rome centre) to Apulia. The strongest 'version of this starts Italy with F(Apu), A(Rom) and a fleet or army in Tuscany. A fleet in Tuscany tends to make Italy a western Power, whilst an army often heads-into Venice supported (or supporting) A(Rom), and perpetuates the Italy-Austria conflict, though at a safer distance. We have tried it in several face-to-face games with the Bristol cabal (if some time ago) and found it interesting, but we never gave it enough playtesting to seriously. evaluate it. It does make Italy look more dangerous to France, and creates a two empty provinces gap between Tuscany and Munich, thus distancing Italy and Germany (which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the circumstances; on the whole I think this tends to make the game more stagnant for both). Moreover, it denies(Italy the potential to hit Austria with quite such force, but them this is always going to be a problem with the issue we are dealing with. You can't have your cake and eat it, so they say, but one would prefer a variant, which allowed Italy (and Austria) as many options as possible, as is consistent with giving each better prospects in the game.


A more radical approach than either of the above has been to accept that only by adjusting the board itself, in its division of province's can a fairer balance be achieved. Here the Venice and Trieste problem is named as the Weak Sisters Bane, and accredited scapegoat status. In Heimskringla No.1 (then a sub-zine in the now-folded Acolyte) Paul Norris printed his 'Milan Diplomacy' variant. Milan Diplomacy adjusts the board in the north of Italy by creating an entirely new province and eliminating another. Firstly, Rome is expanded to swallow all of Tuscany (note that this causes Rome to border the GoL). Then, Piedmont is extended west so that it borders Burgundy as well as Marseilles, before it is split in two, the western half of Piedmont is named Savoy, and the eastern half renamed Milan, with Sav and Mil as abbreviations. Savoy borders G0L, Mar, Bur, Impassable Switzerland, Milan and Rome (and not Tyrolia). Milan borders Tyr, Sav, Rom, Ven and Impassable Switzerland, and is made a supply centre, an Italian home centre, in place of Venice, which is now-an ordinary province (and thus renamed Venetia in accordance with the convention that only supply centres are named after cities).

Italy starts the game with A(Rom), A(Mil) and F(Nap), and since, in re-drawing the board in that particular area it is possible to keep an Italian centre bordering Tyrolia whilst separating Venice and Trieste, it would seem that Milan Diplomacy overcomes the Adjacent Centres problem admirably. In his introduction to the variant, John argued that it offers Italy a wider choice, especially in the early years, with A(Mil)-Tyr replacing A(Ven)-Tyr as an opening, the ever-popular Tyrolia attack is still feasible, whilst A(Mil) S A(Rom)-Ven gives Italy a "fortress" opening the equivalent of the French A(Mar) S A(Par)-Bur, which is known as the "Maginot Opening". Looking west, France cannot stop Italy's A(Rom) S A(Mil)-Sav or vice versa, (John calls this a "Milan Attack'", which is certain to gain Italy access to both Burgundy and Marseilles. Thus Italy is likely to consider a French Attack far more seriously than in the standard game; a factor which (it is hoped) will operate to make Austro-Italian conflict less inevitable to the benefit of both.

Milan Diplomacy offers exciting possibilities for Italy, and allows Austria the opportunity to take advantage of the neighbouring Balkan centres with greater assurance. However, I for one feel that this is an over-compensation. France begins to look perilously weak, and there is a danger of France falling back on the Maginot Opening (see above) as the only safety opening against the possibility of both German and Italian hostility. Burgundy is simply too crucial to France for that player to allow it to fall into the hands of another power, and I can't help thinking that allowing Italy easier access to it simply transfers much of Austria's "open house" dilemma to France. If it is more historically accurate to turn the French from an adventurous lot into a maniacally defensive power them Milan scores highly, but as far as the game goes, it seems to rather undermine the whole French diplomatic position. Remember that a Southern Opening from England is always in the offing, and it is simply too ridiculous to give any credence to the argument that a good French player will avert attacks from all three neighbouring powers simply by his diplomacy. It is a plain fact of the game that someone, somewhere, is usually leading you up the garden path, and you rarely know which one it is until he strikes. After all, how many people have received letters of the "hello, I'm going to attack you next move' variety ? Hands up... yes, I thought so.


Milan Diplomacy is not the only alternative to adjust the map board in seeking a solution to the weakness of the Weak Sisters. The January 1983 issue of the US zine Bushwacker carried an article by Fred C. Davis entitled "Between Venice and Trieste - The Lost Variant, Peerijavo" This described a series of face-to-face games played in California which involved a single adjustment to the standard board - the insertion of a 'Province X' between Venice and Trieste. Province X bordered Ven, Tyr, Tri and ADS (but not Vie or Bud), and evidently was a great success as far as those playing it were concerned. Indeed, one of those present, Larry Peery, was so impressed that he tried a postal game of it, but he made one more adjustment - he made Province X a supply centre and named it Peerijavo (a punning on Sarajavo). Peerijavo, unlike Milan, was a neutral centre, and it was obvious what happened next - Italy and Austria spent most of their game fighting over control of this single centre; while Russia went on to win the game.

Yet so long as it is not made a centre, the extra Austrian Province would seem a worthy adjustment to the map board . In several of his variants, Fred C. Davis divides Trieste in half, naming the northern half "Croatia" and the southern half "Zara" or "Split" (both were Austrian Naval ports). Unlike Province X and Peerijavo, Croatia borders Bud, Vie, whilst Zara/Split only borders Cro, ADS, Alb, Ser and Bud. I should think that a compromise between the two with Croatia adjoining Vie but not Bud and Zar/Spl being the province to join both may be best. Of course, it is Zar/Spl which is made the supply centre, not Croatia. Here both Italy and Austria are afforded some security and can deal with the other problems they face on a more even footing to their other neighbours.

In conclusion, it has to be said that the balance of the board is so delicately tuned that any adjustment can upset the whole game. Making Italy and Austria stronger inevitably makes Germany less the 'dominant' central power, and gives France more to worry about (inevitably to the benefit of England) already an- advantaged power). Yet this in itself suggests something more profound - that if only Italy and Austria could overcome the Adjacent Centres problem in the standard game, then they could prove a truly formidable alliance. Yet of course Diplomacy games are played on a one-to-one basis, and one can rarely draw upon and then take advantage of the lessons of one game in another. In the final analysis, one is left to ponder if it is the responsibility of the games designer or games player, that the Weak Sisters remain so weak.