Basics of Russia
This is my attempt to provide a strategic explanation of the basics of playing the board game Diplomacy as Russia.
Russia starts the game with unique geographical features that no other country shares, like the fact that it has four home centers instead of three and the resulting fact that it can be active in both the eastern and western fronts from an early stage in the game. If left unchecked, Russia can thus grow into a real monster a few years into the game.
The problem then is to make sure that Russia is in fact left unchecked. This is no small issue, because in Russian geography, it has its great weaknesses, too: fleets in St. Petersburg and Sevastopol that Russia is ill-equipped to defend initially, and an army in Warsaw that’s likewise vulnerable to a quick strike early. Russia, in other words, is full of vulnerabilities which to a large extent you must defend with words. You need to get at least one build in 1901, otherwise you’re probably sunk. The other powers will smell weakness and swarm you—swarm you like a hive of killer Africanized honey bees—so do your best to avoid that. Your best bet to ensure a build is to capture either Rumania or Sweden, ideally both.
Some players set their sights on more ambitious goals like capturing some Austrian or German centers, but we’re starting with the basics. Basics means survival, and this is what you need to survive. Capturing Rumania or Sweden means you must befriend one—at least one—of Germany, Austria, or Turkey, at least enough that they will willingly let you in and not attack you. It bears repeating that if these three players agree on it, the Russian demise is all but guaranteed. Italy and the Western powers might be able to help you to some degree, but realistically Italian armies and French fleets are not going to be able to do very much for you at this early stage, so you make nice with Germany, Austria, or Turkey, ideally more than one if possible.
To get yourself that possible second build, you offer the person something that they want, because it’s good to be perceived as giving and not just taking. Germany might just want a DMZ of Prussia, Silesia, and Gulf of Bothnia. If that’s all he wants, you should probably give it to him. At least tell him you’ll give it to him, or at worst negotiate a bounce. Unless you’re planning the immediate downfall of Germany, you really don’t want anyone occupying those phases anyway. Even if you are planning the downfall of Germany, you should still agree to the DMZ if he asks for it. Deception is at the center of all warfare, and anything other than agreement to these conditions will raise a red flag here. Germany may be more difficult to convince than that, though. He might tell you that he wants you to go North and fight England. That would mean moving Moscow to St. Pete.
It’s one unit, but it’s actually quite a big commitment to do that in 1901, because that leaves your homeland undefended. If you’re thinking of doing that, you’d better be fairly sure you have events in the south under control, and you better be sure you have a good read on Germany. The third common possibility is that Germany won’t let you into Sweden no matter what. Maybe he just thinks it’s not in his interest to let Russia grow, maybe someone asked him as a favor or offered him something in exchange for keeping you out. Convince him that it’s not in his interests to do this. If you can’t, try to at least convince England to use the unit that he’s going to move into Norway to support you into Sweden next year. That should mitigate your initial failure to some degree.
The fourth major possibility, of course, is that Germany will want you to do something to benefit someone other than himself, and we all know what that usually is. Usually, Germany is buddy-buddy with Austria, and he wants you to go easy on him. If that’s the case, you have to decide if you want to accept this package deal of singing Kumbaya with Austria and Germany, with the risk that they may try to push you around with their combined weight, or you have to take your chances working with Turkey.
Speaking of Turkey, making a deal with Austria or Turkey is usually a little bit more predictable than with Germany. Usually you need to promise one an alliance against the other. That’s generally the key to Russian relationships with those two neighbors. Sometimes you can get them both to think you’re on their side for a little while, but that usually won’t last very long, and you should weigh whether you really want to lie to them and undermine your credibility with one of your neighbors right off the bat.
If you’re committed to Turkey right off the bat, you might want to try and occupy Galicia and Ukraine. That’s optimal for an attack on Austria, at least an open one. If you’re committed to working with Austria, you should probably try somehow to trick Turkey into not going to the Black Sea and thereby letting you have it. Unless he’s a new player, though, that’s not going to be an easy sell. A secondary option would be simply not taking Galicia and perhaps taking Romania in the Fall with a fleet rather than an army. These moves would sort of indicate to Austria a lack of aggressive intent, and taking Romania with a fleet instead of an army would leave you able to build another fleet and force yourself into the Black Sea next year.
No matter which side you pick, consider getting Italy involved on your behalf. If he gets into the action as your ally, he could be valuable in fighting Austria, Turkey, or even Germany if you’re feeling a bit wild. You might also decide not to commit fully in season one or even year one to either Italy, Turkey, or Austria. If that’s the case, you may want to arrange bounces with turkey in the Black Sea and Austria in Galicia for mutual safety. These are very common moves.
If you do this, though, you also leave open the possibility that your neighbors, unconstrained by any sense of commitment to you, might work together against you. If that happens, they’ll probably prevent you from taking Romania in 1901. I know that’s happened to me before. For these reasons, I favor being decisive early on. You’ll have to gauge how you feel on your board, though.
Once you’re fairly certain you’ll get a build in 1901, it’s important to make contact, if you haven’t already, with the other players to get a feel for what they intend to do and thereby better develop your overall strategy. If you’ve done all of this right, you’ll have survived 1901 and set yourself up reasonably well for 1902.