Playing the Key Lepanto (and living to tell the tale)
Few alliances suggest themselves so readily as the Austro-Italian marriage.
The most obvious reason being their proximity and initial vulnerability to the more tactically secure powers. So too most players with a fair level of experience and ability will readily attest to the fact that when you're faced with competent opposition in the corner and boundary powers (Eng, Fra, Rus, Tur) it's fairly suicidal for the central powers to get involved in an early scrap. The richness of supply centres in the central regions is usually all too tempting a lure for the surrounding powers once they see the exposed rears of the black, red and green countries, whilst they are busy at each others throats.
Not that I'm suggesting that the only course of action open to Austrian and Italian players is to exchange vows, however begrudgingly, and I would certainly expect a nasty stab somewhere around the closing phases of the midgame.
But early on, I'm a big wrap for the Austro-Italian alliance. When playing either power, I actively seek it; when playing neighbouring powers, I readily expect it.
Therein lies the problem. Just about everyone expects the same thing. How hard is it to feign suspicion of your ally to the Turk, Russian or French players when your tactics show glaring examples of co-operation. Also, the conventional opening for the Austro-Italian is fairly reactive not proactive and can easily get bogged down into a stalemate, or slow slog through the wall.
As always, the key to success in this business lies in the cunning use of guile. In no other opening is this more true than the Key Opening. It is truly a ride on the razors edge with all caution thrown to the wind. If you pull it off, you're going to be a big fish in the game pool. If you fail, you're probably dead, and soon. I've played it four times, and made it work twice. The first time I ended on a 16 centre Austria, the second, a 14 centre Italy. The two failures ended in 1 unit survivals. It's boom or bust.
So how does it work, you may ask? It all begins with the talking...
You will play the major role. You must seek out "in depth" discussions with all players. It's not going to be enough to talk to England, France and Germany and put out warm and fuzzies like "well we're not going to have much to do with each other in the beginning, but let's keep the channels open". No sir. You have to influence what they are going to do. Ideally, England should at least distrust Russia and put the balance of her forces facing East. All out war between England and Russia is probably not good either, else Russia collapses too quickly and the Poms get a territory jump on you. Disharmony in the west is the key. War between Germany and France is highly desirable (without large English assistance for either), obviously they can't interfere in the East if they're going hammer and tongs at the Maginon line.
Your dealings with your two targets will be critical. The Russian will feel your stab first in Spring 1901. You have to get the Russian worrying about other powers. Convincing them to move to the Black Sea in S01 is vital. You will probably talk to the Russian more than anyone else in the first period, so be prepared to go back again and again, and watch who they talk to and for how long. Get an agreement to leave Galicia empty, get an alliance agreement (false for you of course). Promise support to secure Romania in the fall move, make them think the Turk is out to get them. Tell them that you're not sure about Italy and you think they're off to fight France. Convincing them to move A Mos - StP is good too. Tell them anything! Just get them on-side.
Turkey is your next set up. They must distrust Russia. If you can get others to back up your story other than Italy, so much the better. Talk to Turkey late in the negotiations. Don't allow them too much time to think and check stories. A bit of panic can go a long way, especially during that nervous period when the moves are being read out and everyone is waiting for the first stab. First moves for Turkey are not that critical. After all, if they don't go to the Black Sea and Russia does, you always have the "I told you so" card to play. Your initial offer of alliance to Turkey will probably be met with nodding enthusiasm, whilst internally they're saying "sure buddy, you big bullshit artist". That's good. Your S01 moves will soon have them singing another tune. Of course, if neither Russia or Turkey move to the Black Sea, then you're probably screwed.
One vital factor in the initial negotiation period is the time you spend talking to Italy. Keep it as short as possible! If you're seen talking to Russia, then Italy, then Turkey, then Italy, then Germany, then Italy -- they're going to catch on and it won't work. Just let the Italian know that the Key Opening is on, what the moves will be, and that they need to back up your story to the Turks and Russians. Ie: No Italy will not stab Austria (too dangerous for me and Russia/Turkey will get the major spoils), yes Italy is afraid of France and will keep an eye out on them, yes Russia is belligerent to the Turk (when talking to Turkey and vice versa for the Russian). Italian diplomacy is a key part in getting the suspicions between all other players just right for the move.
Okay, so you're the junior partner for now. But it doesn't have to stay that way. Go along with Austria, because you have far less to lose. Having said that, if you screw it up you're both probably dead, your poor Italian carcass crushed in the mad rush of French and Turkish forces just dying to meet each other.
Back up Austrian diplomacy, but in a covert way. When asked about Austria, say you don't know what they think. You haven't really spoken that much, and anyway, why should you be all concerned about them, you're playing Italy and it's Italian interests that you're out for (at least you say that). If you can get everyone to not really know what's going on, you'll surprise the hell out of them in S01.
So you've sown the seeds, now you have to water the soil...
Spring 1901 Moves
A Vienna to Galicia A Budapest to Rumania F Trieste to Albania
Russia (most desirable)
F Sevastopol to Black Sea (fails) F StPetersburg? to Gulf of Bothnia A Moscow to St Petersburg A Warsaw to Ukraine
F Naples to Ionian Sea A Venice to Trieste A Rome to Venice
Turkey (most desirable)
F Ankara to Black Sea (fails) A Constantinople to Bulgaria A Smyrna to Armenia
Note. When we say most desirable, of course the most desirable course of action for Turkey and Russia would be to NMR, but let's give them some credit eh? After all it's their funeral. I'd also concede that the set of moves most desired out of Russia might be a bit different [i.e., A Mos-Sev (fails) and A War-Lvn or Sil -- but who in their right mind would move A war-sil in Spring '01? And a convoy from Livonia to Sweden in the fall is highly unlikely].
Right about now a few jaws are hitting the canvas. The biggest ones should be Russia and Austria, albeit the Russian jaw is the only bona fide one. "You sneaky Italian bastard!" you say " I want a word with you!" and make it a fairly long one. After all, the first person you generally want to speak to after a move is the one who stabbed you, it's an important part of the pantomime. Don't spend too little time together, you might raise suspicions of a set up, just enough time to make it look authentic. Next demand to see the Russian - don't worry about the Turk next, your moves are strong enough testimony at this point - the Sultan is going to be thinking, "hey the Austrian was right! Russia did come at me, and yes he's moved against Russia, just maybe I should trust him."
So Russia will be breathing fire. You have two courses. You can say, "well that's Diplomacy ol' chum, and I'm gonna bust your ass now, bye" which saves you time, you won't have to speak to the Russian again this period. Or you can take the "I've made a terrible mistake" routine. You were a victim of misinformation at the last moment and you changed your moves - woe is you - and you didn't see the blindsiding you got from the Italian - that sneaky wretch! - is there any way we can repair this? Probably not. You can count on the Russian counterattacking or defending immediately. You must decide what to do based on what their moves were and how successful the rest of your Diplomacy was - don't forget the West, what happened there is important. If a full blown EFG alliance has cranked up, you're in trouble. You may have to abandon the plan for now. That means you didn't do your homework properly.
Turkey is the key. The Sultan is in for the king stab now. If you won his trust with your bold opening, he won't see it coming, and the huge fall from confidence to despair may be enough to demoralise him and hasten his departure (yeah it's a cruel game, but hey, this is business). You must convince the Turk that co-operation between your countries is now paramount, after all you're the only two who have proven that you can trust each other. The dastardly Russian and the treacherous Italian have gone at you both, and need to be punished. You're so incensed by the Il Duce (yes, I know, WWII anachronism) that you're prepared to sponsor the Turk in a big centre drive across the Med. After all, now that you've lost at least one home centre, you're probably dead meat. You will not abandon the assault on Russia, after all, there's two enemies to deal with here. You need each other and it's time to actively support each others units. If you think you really have conned them all and the Turk can really be trusted, lobby support from the Turkish A Bulgaria to support you standing A Rumania. This will ensure the centre doesn't fall into Russian hands -- which is vital for you both , right? -- and gives the Turkish unit something to do. Also get agreement for A Armenia to hit Sevastapol and promise support from the Rumanian army (not given of course). If there is a Russian army in the Ukraine, you might need the Turkish support, but heaven forbid that the Turks accidentally pick up Sevastapol. Make sure Russia knows exactly what is going to happen with the Turkish units (leak it through Italy or a western power) so that this doesn't happen.
Don't forget the West. Developments there are vital. If one power looks inexperienced and likely to cop a battering from the other two - offer tactical assistance. Coach them. If you see the startings of the Sealion opening, warn England and show them how to thwart it. Try hard, with Italian assistance, to maintain power balance in the West. Remember the power of English presence in Russia's north. You'll have Ivan going beserk with enemies on three borders.
As the Italian you can try something really clever here if you like. Make everyone think you're an idiot. The Westerners will probably ask you things like, "what the hell did you do that for? Do you want to unleash a steamroller (R/T classical alliance) on us all?". You can say things like "oh, would that be bad? Oh, sorry". Say to Russia that you've made a terrible mistake, next move you're going to move A Tri-Tyr, and A Ven-Pie. You're sure that Germany and France are going to move against you. Tell Turkey the same thing. Be prepared to be "persuaded" by the Russians and Turks into other courses of action. Make them think you don't know what you're doing, you cannot be relied upon and you could do anything. Be confused. Give feedback to Austria.
One vital piece of information here. It might occur to an opportunist Turk (let's face it, who isn't opportunistic in this game?!) that Serbia is going to be left unoccupied in the F01 move, and that he has a chance of picking up a certainty. Austria, you must crush this initiative. If he tries it, it's all for nothing, as you will see. Promise the Turk as much as you need to later, in order to get the moves you want. The only thing I can't tell you is how the personality of the Turkish player will affect the outcome.
Now it's time to come out of the closet...
Fall 1901 Moves
F Albania to Greece A Galicia to Ukraine A Rumania supports A Galicia to Ukraine
A Galicia to Warsaw A Rumania support Italian A Tri-Ser (cut)
A Trieste to Serbia A Venice to Apulia F Ionian Sea to Agean Sea
A Venice to Piedmont or Tyrolia
F Gulf Of Bothnia to Sweden A St Pete to Moscow A Ukraine to Rumania (Fails and is dislodged) F Sevastapol supports A Ukraine to Rumania
F Ankara to Black Sea A Armenia to Sevastopol A Bulgaria support Austrian A Rumania
Wham! The looks around the board should all say the same thing "We've been had!" And they have. Turkey is now up for serving on the butcher's block, Russia is severely compromised and the Austro-Italian position is well placed for an early lead.
You may have a more conservative player in Russia than I have suggested by the F01 moves. Some players would definitely cover Warsaw, or Sevastapol (with support). I'm suggesting here that the Russian is really pissed with Austria and is going to do something nasty about it.
So now the stage is set. You've got a distinct advantage and it's time to exploit it. Remember, there aren't many who will trust you for a while, so your moves may become more tactical than diplomatic for a while, but that's okay. Sooner or later the knives will have to come out in this beautiful arrangement in order for one of you to have a crack at winning, but that's the fun bit.
For those of you who see glaring holes in the strategy, you're right. They're everywhere, and its a real fragile tightrope of acting, persuasion, and fibbing that you're walking here, but then again, those kinds of games are the most enjoyable to win.