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Subject: To Stab or not to Stab? rss

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Andrew Ross
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Despite what some may think, there is more to Diplomacy than stabbing. Don't get me wrong: a stab is a powerful tool, for securing supply centers (and power), for opening routes of expansion, and for winning, a tool that should always be in the arsenal of an experienced Diplomacy player. But all too often, I find other players (sometimes myself, although lately I've had to lay off stabbing to preserve reputation) stabbing at the worst time, for the worst reason, and then wondering why they aren't winning yet. In this article, I intend to explain when you should stab and why you should stab.

Whenever you stab, you need to ask yourself: what do I stand to gain? Players often stab to get extra supply centers, but why stab rather than wage war on another country? Wanting more supply centers, in and of itself, is not sufficient reason to stab. There are five principle reasons you should consider stabbing, which I shall deal with in turn:

Your ally has left himself undefended
Your ally is growing too powerful
Your ally is blocking off your expansion routes
Your alliance is a liability
Your ally is going to stab you
The stab is necessary for victory

Your ally has left himself undefended

This is probably the most common reason people stab. Who could resist when, faced with the prospect of a long and grueling war with a third nation (or even a short and quick one), you suddenly find your ally has abandoned his nation to seek his fortunes elsewhere. Bountiful centers! A quick war! If your ally has truely left himself in a position which ensure any stab will be swift and brutal, then you should do it. There are, however, some caveats.

Firstly, if your ally is acting as a buffer to enemies. Consider this: Italy and Austria have attempted a Lepanto in the early game, with the hope of a quick dismemberment of Turkey. However, in preparing for the war, Austria has left herself open to an Italian stab. In this instance, I would not stab. Why? Because when Austria has an early bath, Italy is almost always next in line for execution. Even if the stab is a resounding sucess, and you miraculously manage to take all of Austria-Hungary, you can expect some pretty heavy fighting. Turkey's only expansion routes are through the Mediterranean (ie Italy) and Austria, and Russia, though not limited to a war in the east, will want some holdings in the east, to finance wars in the west, if nothing else. The end result will likely be a Russo-Turkish alliance to take Austria, followed by a Turkish invasion of Italy.

The second caveat is that you should be the primary (preferably sole) benefactor of this stab. It's no good stabbing your ally, only to find that someone else's armies have already found home in your enemy heartland, and all you have to show for your stab is two measly supply centers on the border. Similarly, even if you get the larger share of the conquests, think very carefully before you make a stab which would swing the balance of power in someone else's favour.

Finally, remember that time is of the essence. If another player is growing too powerful, and by the time you stab your ally he would be too strong to stop, or one of your future targets is growing increasingly prepared for your assault (perhaps you are Turkey and the Italians are threatening to seal off the Ioninan), then don't stab. Although, generally speaking, a nation which has fully engulfed his ally is as strong as the former alliance, if not stronger (exceptions apply - most notably, a Turk who destroyed his Russian ally would lose the ability to project power in the north), that strength is no good if it is used too late

Your ally is growing too powerful

In a perfectly managed alliance, this should never be a problem. But in practice, unexpected intervention, enemy moves, or simply geography can often lead to a situation where one player ends up on the short end of the stick. For example, in a Juggernaut (Russo-Turkish alliance), Russia usually fares better. Although a simple, 50:50 split (or the closest possible should there be an odd number of supply centers) seems fair, in the case of the Juggernaut, the resolution of the eastern war frees up so many units (usually three or four) that Russia has benefited much more from the alliance and will be much stronger when facing Germany (or whoever has invaded Germany), particularly when we take into consideration the slow process of breaking the Ionian chokepoint that Turkey must undertake. In this situation, the best option would be for Turkey to attack Russia's holdings in Austria and the Balkans while she is preoccupied in Germany. If necessary, you should try to invite other players to attack if you alone can't face your ally. The obvious caveat is that you should make sure that you can, in fact, win the ensuing war. However, be careful that someone else doesn't become to powerful in the process!

In the endgame, a common occurence is a grand coalition forming against a player who is nearing victory. In this instance, to stab would be to doom both of you. Neither you nor you ally can afford to stab, as doing so would divert important resources from other, more important fronts. Remember - it's no use putting yourself in a position to win if in doing so you let someone else win first.

Your ally is blocking off your expansion routes

Whenever you make an alliance, you should always consider what you can do to stay out of each others' way later. Sometimes, this is impossible. Perhaps your neighbours allied against you and you were desperate to get any aliiance you could. Perhaps you had allied against someone else and your victim had offered a one sided deal you just couldn't pass up. Although this should be an infrequent occurence, if your ally is blocking off your expansion routes, it is imperative that you rectify the situation. This is likely one of the reasons for stabbing which has the fewest caveats - even if the war is going to be harsh, you can ill afford to sit and watch. Although the ally might be a buffer state, the chances are, if they're blocking off expansion, then due to geograph it will likely be difficult to attack you. If in stabbing you would let someone else win, then you shouldn't stab, but that is probably the only caveat.

Your alliance is a liability

We have already dealt with one case of the alliance being a liability (see the above paragraph), here, we shall deal with some others. If you ally is an erratic player, or the border between you requires you station a substantial portion of your army there to defend it, then your alliance is clearly a liability. If the case is the former, then consider merely breaking off the alliance - erratic players will often take backstabs very personally. If your borders are the problem, then consider trying to negotiate swapping some territories (neutral, of course) to try and shorten the border. If your ally's erraticness precludes a mere breaking of the alliance, or they are too poor a player to mount a good defense, or if negotiating swapping territories failed, then it may be time to slip the knife into your ally's back. Be careful when you assess whether or not your alliance is a liability - sometimes you may gain strategically in the long term, and sometimes there are enough advantages to weigh out the disadvantages. Analysing the overall benefits of an alliance requires strategic thinking outside the scope of this article, so I shall leave you to work out whether your alliance is a liabilty for now.

Your ally is planning to backstab you

There are those would say that in this instance, an attack on your ally is not a stab but self-defense, but I shall list it here nonetheless. In this instance, I would be hesitant to rush into war: chances are, if your ally intends to stab you he will be prepared. Instead, I would try to dissuade him from attacking. This depends, obviously, on how far along he is in his plans. If he has made any unequivocally aggressive moves, then you may be too late (if he has played his hand too early, then you stand a better chance of avoiding the stab). If your ally has made potentially aggressive moves (for example, you are Russia and your ally Turkey has built a fleet in Constantinople rather than Smyrna) then ask about it, see if he can change his move if possible, and try to make preperations. If the moves are only possibly aggressive, then the stab is likely still in its early stages, so it will be easier to prevent, either by demanding certain (reasonable) moves as a show of trust, or by making preperations (preferably enough to make the stab less lucrative without intimidating him or using up armies). If you know about the stab due to a tip off from another player, consider what he has to gain by fracturing your alliance, what he stands to gain by telling you in the event there is a stab, what your ally stands to gain or lose in a stab, and what his movements might suggest. If it seems your ally would want to stab, and it seems the informant would gain by tipping you off, then you probably face a stab.

If you managed to avoid getting stabbed, you should look at your alliance, and consider what it is that caused your opponent to stab you. If it is possible, then try to adjust your alliance to ameliorate your ally's grieviances. If that is impossible, then you will have to break off the alliance, and possibly fight your ally.

If you cannot avoid the stab, then you can expect a fierce war. If the stabber was adamant he would attack, then chances are that he stands to gain so much from the stab that he must stab you, and will attack you with all his might. Try to bring other players on board, and try to negotiate peace in other wars where necessary. You will need to put him in a position where he cannot attack you again, if he felt he must stab you.

The stab is necessary for victory

When I say "the stab is necessary for victory", I am talking specifically about the end game, when you just need a few more supply centers to win. Obviously all actions, including any stab, should help you win. In this instance, you really need to think about how you are going to stab your ally. That way, you can build a rough idea of how long it will take to achieve the required number of supply centers (ideally no more than three more), whether or not your ally will be able to counterattack, whether than matters, and what other players might do in the mean time. If it is nearing the end of the game, then you won't need to consolidate your gains; you need only make sure that, at some point, you can get to the magic eighteen. The only caveat is that this will make you win. If you are certain that it will, then go ahead. If not, bide your time, unless you face losing ground and this is your only option.

Final Thoughts

Backstabbing in Diplomacy can be a messy and emotional process. Whenever you backstab someone, you should apologise and explain why you did it (unless that reveals your master plan), so as to avoid ill feelings and a reputation for stabbing without reason. If the player you stabbed is one to hold a grudge, be prepared for an emotional barrage and constant pestering by what remains of his nation. You should still apologise and explain, if nothing else so others hear.

Backstabbing is unique in conflict, because while the extent of most conflicts is defined by its purpose, when backstabbing the goal is usually to dismember your former ally, at the very least ensuring he will be too weak to fight back, and often totally annihilating him. You should always try to work out how you will prepare, how you will keep the stab secret until the last moment, and what your plan of attack will be. That way, you can work out how difficult the stab will be to pull off, and whether it is really worth it. In practice, this usually means working out whether your defenceless ally is as defenceless as you think, or whether you actually have a shot at succeeding.

Finally, you should always take into account how other players will react to the stab. I can't give any specific advice about this without knowing people's playing style, but you need to be sure that you don't invoke the wroth of other players. If your fellow players seen honorable, then avoid stabbing if you can (and try to find a more Machiavellian group to play with). If the stabbed was friends with someone else, you can expect they won't be happy. If you suspect that the stab will mess up someone's master plan, they might support the stabbed, or you might see a change of direction. If your stab made you rather more powerful than the rest, then you should try to exploit existing conflicts to keep your opponents forming a coalition against you (if necessary, you can engineer conflicts in advance). There's nothing worse than pulling ahead only to find your opponents united against you. It's also worth using stabs sparingly: a reputation for becoming a backstabber can be disastrous when trying to form alliances.

So, to summarise:

Backstab when:
Your ally has left himself undefended
Your ally is growing too powerful
Your ally is blocking off your expansion routes
Your alliance is a liability
Your ally is going to stab you
The stab is necessary for victory

Reconsider when:
Your ally is a valuable buffer
Others stand to gain more from the stab than you
The stab would shift the balance of power in someone else's favour
You have other targets you must strike before it's too late
The stab would be difficult, costly, and/or slow
The stab would damage your diplomatic prospects

Any thoughts, comments, or points are welcome. I know Diplomacy strategies vary from person to person, and the enviroment in which I play Diplomacy (a wargaming club which only lasts two and a half hours, where much negotiation occurs round the table and people only talk in private if its very important) is probably not the standard one. Nonetheless, I hope something in here was useful for everyone.

(EDIT: Added section on other people's opinion of the stab)
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True Blue Jon
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I didn't see the most important consideration - what will the others players think of your stab?
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Andrew Ross
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I'm not sure that's the most important consideration, but yes, I shouldn't have missed that. I'll be sure to add that in ASAP.
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Scott M.
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It's always better to ninjaSTABarrrh first then ask forgiveness then to ask for permission!
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Shelby Buttimer
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You make some very good points. The first (and thus far only) game I played, Italy stabbed Austria after encouraging him to go for Turkey (me) and Russia both. The game ended not long after that, but the stab didn't do much for Italy. For one thing, it branded him as That Guy, for another, it left both of their regions a mixed up mess and vulnerable to Turkey and Russia (we were pretty firm allies). Without being able to rely on each other, I feel we would have quickly finished Austria off and gone for Italy.

Basically, never stab for the fun of it.
 
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Randall Bart
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You don't necessarily have to stab. Once it was so obvious that I was about to stab my ally, that I just declared war. Once.
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Seth Owen
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Good advice.

I think stabs are one of the most misplayed parts of Diplomacy. Most players don't do it well. Often it's done for transient gains that are not worth the long-term damage.

I rarely stab, because it doesn't suit my preferred style of play, but when I do, I make it count. As they say, "if you're going to kil the king, kill the king." There are few things worse than a failed stab.
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Mayor Jim
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Very nice summation. In my games I have found that stabbing must be used very judiciously. One can get a bad rep if stabbing is done too often, too early or without any major gain.
 
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Andrew Ross
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In my games, I generally find that if I stab well enough, or for good enough reason, my fellow players usually respect that and say "well played." The problem, for me, arises when I play with novice players - they generally leave themselves more open to a stab, and they tend to take it an awful lot more personally when I do. Of course, by the time I realised this, two players already refused to ally with me (or sometimes, they'd ally with me, only to make a pathetic stab, gaining one supply centre, and then find that the enemy we allied against actually would rather ally with me than them.)
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Andrew Ross
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The problem is, particulary when you're taking advantage of a weak enemy position, or your enemy is stronger than you, the element of surprise is very much necessary. Often when I stab, I have to do it on a Spring turn, taking one or two supply centers, and then do the bulk of the damage in Autumn once I've moved my armies into position. If I declared war on my ally before I strike, he is able to block my advance and defend himself. I personally take moving armies into position as a stab (because there's nothing else you can do with them), but I suppose a declaration of war might be "polite".
 
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Ron A
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Pacman_the_Great wrote:

Your ally has left himself undefended

If your ally has truely left himself in a position which ensure any stab will be swift and brutal, then you should do it.

Umm, no. Not necessarily. You listed some caveats, but left out the most important idea-- that of your strategy and timing. You need to put the end game ahead of any easy gains.

Let's say you're Austria. Before the game even starts, you need to count centers. Basically, you want all of Italy, Russia, Turkey, all the eastern neutrals, and MOST IMPORTANT, something OVER the stalemate line.

So even if Turkey leaves himself wide open and you are guaranteed to kill him, that doesn't mean you stab right away. All that does is put you at 8-10 centers, gets you stuck in a corner and pretty much ensures that a stop the leader alliance will form, usually right on the stalemate line where you will be maxed out at 17 centers.

If Turkey is wide open, I say to myself, "OK, he's gonna go, but not right now. Let's try to blitz Germany, get his home centers, get in control of the stalemate line first." Deal with Turkey later, maybe even last, after you've set up a defensive line vs the West and they will not be able to interfere with your attack vs Turkey.

On the other hand, if I'm France, you're Austria and Turkey is wide open, I will encourage you to stab Turkey. Because I want you stuck in a corner and nowhere near a stalemate line. You're not a threat, even if you get all the Turk centers. You will be the Austrian Bogyman who will help me cement my alliance with England (maybe Russia) and Germany to keep you locked up in your corner. After we have you contained, with France firmly in control of an Italian center or 2, then I will take out my neighbors.
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Andrew Ross
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SBGrad wrote:
Pacman_the_Great wrote:

Your ally has left himself undefended

If your ally has truely left himself in a position which ensure any stab will be swift and brutal, then you should do it.

Umm, no. Not necessarily. You listed some caveats, but left out the most important idea-- that of your strategy and timing. You need to put the end game ahead of any easy gains.

Let's say you're Austria. Before the game even starts, you need to count centers. Basically, you want all of Italy, Russia, Turkey, all the eastern neutrals, and MOST IMPORTANT, something OVER the stalemate line.

So even if Turkey leaves himself wide open and you are guaranteed to kill him, that doesn't mean you stab right away. All that does is put you at 8-10 centers, gets you stuck in a corner and pretty much ensures that a stop the leader alliance will form, usually right on the stalemate line where you will be maxed out at 17 centers.

If Turkey is wide open, I say to myself, "OK, he's gonna go, but not right now. Let's try to blitz Germany, get his home centers, get in control of the stalemate line first." Deal with Turkey later, maybe even last, after you've set up a defensive line vs the West and they will not be able to interfere with your attack vs Turkey.

On the other hand, if I'm France, you're Austria and Turkey is wide open, I will encourage you to stab Turkey. Because I want you stuck in a corner and nowhere near a stalemate line. You're not a threat, even if you get all the Turk centers. You will be the Austrian Bogyman who will help me cement my alliance with England (maybe Russia) and Germany to keep you locked up in your corner. After we have you contained, with France firmly in control of an Italian center or 2, then I will take out my neighbors.

I had hoped my general "time is of the essence" statement would have covered things like that, but I should have been more specific.

I admit, I generally don't need to think that far ahead - the games I play are quite casual, and stop-the-leader alliances almost invariably fail due to one or two "placers". But I suppose I should add an amendment: "consider where your 18 centers need to come from, and the chances of a stalemate line forming. If you think that a stalemate line will close and block access to one of your 18 centers, or you don't think you need your ally's centers, then reconsider the stab."
 
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Don Sandbekkhaug
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That was a terrific post! What do you think about stabbing two players in the same turn?

I think "both victims will not work together" should be a criteria for a double stab. I've only done a double stab once. I was Russia, and I was planning on stabbing my allies, Turkey and Austria, in the same turn. If they had allied against me, they could have defeated me. However, Austria distrusted Turkey so much she refused to work with him.
 
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Mayor Jim
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Andrew had a great post. Sheldon makes an interesting observation...double stab...hmmm...I don't think I've ever encountered one in 29 years of playing Diplomacy! Not that it couldn't/ shouldn't ever happen...just never came upon one
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Andrew Ross
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PurpleGorillaColonel wrote:
That was a terrific post! What do you think about stabbing two players in the same turn?

I think "both victims will not work together" should be a criteria for a double stab. I've only done a double stab once. I was Russia, and I was planning on stabbing my allies, Turkey and Austria, in the same turn. If they had allied against me, they could have defeated me. However, Austria distrusted Turkey so much she refused to work with him.

I've never witnessed a double stab. The closest I've seen to one is Austria attack Italy and Germany (with whom she signed non-agression pacts) on successive turns, then attack Russia (me, her ally). More a triple stab, really. Suffice it to say she didn't last very long afterwards.

A double stab, I suspect, would almost certainly cause the two stabbed parties to unite against you (they should, anyway, in the interests of survival). If you think that your allies hate each other that much, then you also have to take into consideration how much land you will gain. You could very easily scare the other players and make them form a grand coalition against you. I would suspect that a double stab is too risky, but if the players distrust each other enough, then you might be able to pull it off. That said, it would be at great risk to your own credibility.
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Matt Shields
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Pacman_the_Great wrote:
I admit, I generally don't need to think that far ahead - the games I play are quite casual, and stop-the-leader alliances almost invariably fail due to one or two "placers". But I suppose I should add an amendment: "consider where your 18 centers need to come from, and the chances of a stalemate line forming. If you think that a stalemate line will close and block access to one of your 18 centers, or you don't think you need your ally's centers, then reconsider the stab."

This is an important caveat I think.

As others have pointed out, the game is about the other players more than it's about the board position. You could have identical board positions in two different games, but in one the stab would be good and in the other the stab would be bad because you have different players in those games.

Generally speaking, against more skilled opponents you're going to have to have more of a long term plan. But how you think people will react to the stab is tremendously important. Is the person you're stabbing someone who will help a 3rd party take all his centers, or is he a player who will simply bunker and wait to slowly die? Or are they even someone who will accept the stab, and continue to work with you as a junior partner? Will the other players recognize the threat you present and set aside their differences and cooperate against you? Or will they simply carry on with their personal objectives and ignore a fight that doesn't concern them?

The answers to these questions varies tremendously from player to player because different people value different kinds of results. Some players will care about coming in 2nd or 3rd. Some care only for winning. Some are happy just surviving and being in the draw no matter how small they are, and will work with you if it means survival. But others are fine being eliminated if they hurt the guy who stabbed them on the way out.

To me the answers to these questions are more important to whether I should stab than simply how many centers I'll take.

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Paul Johnson
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While this is not expert advice, or expert play, seeing as this was my (and Russia's) second game, but the game I just played today actually finished on a double stab. Well, okay, lets be honest, we had to call it at 14 and not 18 due to one player having a family emergency, but the remainder of the table simulated the next couple turns and we did come to the conclusion that victory was inevitable as a result of the successful double stab.

To wit, Britain had Norway from their standard opening, western Germany from an early and quick war with Germany, all of Spain, and Brest, but was embroiled in a bitter war with the remainder of the French troops in mainland France. Victory was inevitable, but they were holding out to the bitter end and making it take a protracted amount of time, and as a result the British fleets were nowhere near the north sections of the map and their armies were largely in Germany.

Turkey, who had conquered Greece, Trieste, Naples, Roma, and Tunisia, had admittedly made a bit of a newbie mistake and built too many ships and not enough armies; I think he had five ships at the end. His long term grand strategy he said was to conquer the entire Mediterranean and then swing out into the Atlantic to fight Britain, and afterwards we had to point out how just not possible that was. Regardless, Austria remained with a single ship protecting Venice, and Turkey had an army in Rome, one in Ankara, and one in Trieste.

Russia, as a result, with armies in Rumania, Serbia, Vienna, St Petersberg and the eastern half of Germany, and ships in Sevastopol, the Baltic, and Berlin, was actually in the perfect spot to stab both Britain and Turkey at the same time. The stab at Britain took Kiel and Norway without any contest, and was then stanced to immediately stalemate out on the front. We ran the simulation a couple time, and no matter what neither party was going to be gaining or losing anything from that point even in all out war. Britain would have gotten a single gain (from France, after accounting for the two lost in the stab) three turns from there, which could help even things out but in the meantime Russia was scheduled to get like four or five and certainly some of those would've been ships in St Pete's and armies in Warsaw heading in and it looked unlikely to matter.

However, down south, things were much less rosy. Those ships the Turks had would be nearly worthless against the Russian land army. The Russian ship moved into the Black Sea, they took Bulgaria, and most importantly they saved Austria from losing Venice. From there, working in concert with Austria, Russia was going to slide in the east unopposed, while also supporting the single Austrian ship into new territories in the west and then moving in to take the territories it vacates, basically acting as a water capable shock troop moving ahead of the Russian army. And I was more than willing to do this, in fact it was my suggestion, simply because my goal was to survive the game as Austria since winning was clearly out of the question at this point. We simulated a couple turns, and while it would have been a slow and bloody war, there did not appear to be anything Turkey could do from Russia getting a gain roughly every two turns until hitting the 18 mark.

So, ridiculously long story short, if your double stab is against two enemies who cannot support each other and individually could not stand against your might in the fronts you present... well, go for it.
 
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