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Book Review: “The Game of Diplomacy” by Richard Sharp – Chapter 4: England

Book cover for Richard Sharp's The Game of Diplomacy showing the title and a portion of the Diplomacy board

“The Game of Diplomacy” by Richard Sharp has been one of the most influential strategy books I have read about the game of Diplomacy. Written in 1978, this book was one of the first of its kind and helped me develop a passion for the more academic/theoretical side of Diplomacy strategy. Much of this book’s content is based on the records and meta from the 1970s postal hobby and does not always translate to the modern game. However, it is still useful as a foundation for Diplomacy strategic theory. 

This is a series of posts designed to encourage conversation regarding the book, similar to a book club. To facilitate conversation, I have created a post per chapter to allow Weasels to read and discuss the chapter’s content. 

England compares favorably with any other power on the board.

England

In Chapter 4, Richard discusses his thoughts on playing the Great Power of England. Richard seems to view England as a power that tends to survive but struggles to win. This is pretty consistent with what we see in Weasel club play, the primary difference being that with the Weasel’s scoring system, England does have some good opportunities to top the board in the mid to late game, particularly in bar games. For more discussion about playing England check out the Wise Old Weasel

The popularity of the Northern Opening as a whole is more difficult to account for. England is starting off in the wrong direction, making a beeline for the St Petersburg cul-de-sac.

Openings

Richard points out that England doesn’t have a ton of legitimate choices for openings. In Weasel club play you typically just see a Northern opening into Scandinavia or a Southern opening against France. Interestingly, Richard tends to favor the move into the English Channel more than is commonly seen in Weasel club play which I suspect is part of his club’s meta. In our club we tend to view the move of London to English Channel as extremely anti-French, but Richard makes the argument that it can be anti-German if France supports the English fleet into Belgium in exchange for England bouncing Germany out of Denmark or Holland.  It’s an interesting argument that I haven’t seen anyone pitch recently. It feels a lot like the argument Weasels make when they say the Sundstrom Turkish opening to Armenia is not inherently anti-Russian. I’m intrigued by the argument and would be interested in hearing from any Weasels who have tried this before. 

Richard doesn’t prefer the Northern opening which is the most common English opening among the Weasels. I suspect Richard’s opinion comes from the fact that he played primarily postal games. These games were long games and tended to play to completion. In my experience with online and postal games, there is definitely a tendency for England to get stuck in St. Petersburg and be unable to solo. Within the Weasel’s club games and even most face-to-face tournaments, this isn’t as much of an issue. Our scoring system heavily rewards board tops so it’s worth keeping in mind that a strong Scandinavian position for England is highly defensible and provides great opportunities to snipe a few dots off Germany or France towards the end of the game. 

England must occupy the Mediterranean to win, he must go through the Mid-Atlantic to get there, and none of this is going to amuse France at all.

Friends and Enemies

Richard is extremely anti-French when compared with the Weasel meta.  In my experience with the Weasels and most face-to-face tournaments, the England / France alliance is considered one of the premier alliances. Again, I suspect this comes down to the difference between face-to-face and postal/online games. Coming from a postal background, Richard is focused on the long game and the solo. It is extremely difficult for England to solo without French centers (or for France to solo without English centers for that matter) so I guess the argument is eliminate your biggest rival first. In face-to-face games where solos are less likely, there are plenty of centers for England and France to share so while dangerous for England, the E/F can be profitable. 

I found the pitch to allow Russia to place an army in Norway to be very unusual in Weasel club play but it does seem to have some merit. I’d be curious to get feedback on this approach from Weasels who have tried this in the past. 

Almost any alliance will favor England rather than his partner, the exception being the equal-terms partnership with France.

Summary

The primary difference between Richard’s approach to playing England and my own experiences within the Weasel meta is around his approach to France. Within the Weasels, the more common approach for playing England was described by club veteran Chris Kelly as “securing an initial peace (or alliance) with France, moving strongly north to secure Scandinavia, & then dropping those units down on Germany. Richard seems to be far more likely to work with Germany against France out of the gate. 

More from this series...

If you liked this post, here are some other posts from this series:

Join the discussion!

Find out more about an upcoming event or article, talk smack before a game, brag about your board top, or most likely, ask what on earth your fellow Weasels were thinking!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Bryan Pravel

    This is the second of a new series of posts discussing Richard Sharp’s classic “The Game of Diplomacy.” My goal is to post a chapter a week until all Great Powers have been discussed.

  2. Chris Kelly

    As you say, the anti-French attitude is entirely a product of the scoring/format of play when Sharp wrote this. Playing by mail, there isn’t nearly the fatigue factor that causes face-to-face games to end before a solo is achieved, and scoring systems to reward non-solo board tops hadn’t been invented.

    Given this basis, Sharp is entirely right that to achieve a solo, England needs to cross the stalemate line in the Mediterranean as soon as possible, which in turn means attacking Scandinavia first is quite literally a waste of time. But even Sharp acknowledges that a northern attack can lead to as many as 13 or 14 centers, which is easily enough to “win” shorter games in the modern era.

    Similarly, the willingness to forgo Norway only makes sense in a solo-or-bust world – if you have no desire to chase anything else in Scandinivia, why tie up units defending that one center? And as Sharp says in passing, having Russia take Norway with an army (which is the only way to take it in 1901) is arguably a defensive benefit to England.

    In today’s Diplomacy, considering how players panic at the prospect of Russia gaining Sweden *and* Rumania in 1901, it’s tempting to wonder how much hysteria would result from inviting the Tsar into Norway as well. It might unify the rest of the board so much against Russia that England could gain diverting everyone’s focus in that direction. Hmmmmm….

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