During the height of the Roman Empire, "a mock sea
battle drew 90,000 to the flooded Coliseum, protected by a
canvas "roof" rigged by sailors of the fleet. In
one such spectacle, 3,000 men were killed or drowned."
--Roger Butterfield, Ancient Rome
Defining the word "wargame" is the
initial step in any discussion of wargames. Depending on one's definition
"wargaming" might extend from the spectacle that took
place in the Coliseum
to the abstract exercises of chess. Even the most narrow
definitions of wargames cover a broad range of
activities which share little in common. The
formal training exercises of national militaries, the hobby board
and miniature games popularized by H.G. Wells, and "first
person shooter" games in the manner of Quake
Six must all fall under the common heading of wargames.
Assuming that all wargames share common properties, what common
properties could exist in such various activities?
Wargames share three properties, which are present
in various levels, depending on the game and genre of games in
question. The first two dimensions are derived from the word
itself. Wargames are games of war.
Therefore, they are not exactly war and they are a subset of the
larger category of games.
The War Aspect
Obviously, not all games are related to war.
Wargames are a subcategory
of games that simulate the activity of war and borrow war's
vocabulary. Chess might be characterized as a borderline
wargame. Chess borrows something from
war, or at least
war as it was practiced at one point in time. A row of pawns form a
slow-moving, ill-outfitted front line. The queen (piece nomenclature has varied over
forms a commanding presence that can exert influence throughout
the battlefield. Knights, represented by their mounts, have special powers of mobility and
seem to attack by out-flanking an enemy. Yet, despite these similarities to
warfare, chess is an incredibly formal and contrived model, perhaps as
closely related to geometry and math as to battle. There is
very little war in the game.
Political-military simulations and board games like Diplomacy are
also somewhat borderline as wargames. Undoubtedly they involve
military activities, but sometimes military issues are not a
predominant focus of the games.
The Game Aspect
Not all war-related activities short of
war can be described as wargames. For example, although military maneuvers
are often described as wargames, there is often very little game
in the activity. Gaming inevitably calls upon participants
to compete against themselves or others in pursuit of some defined
goal. Usually this forces players to think and act in new and
creative ways, anticipating future events and devising strategies
to handle them. Simulations of war which do not provide such
opportunity for strategic thinking are not
The Simulation Aspect
Good wargames often prepare and educate participants for the activity of
war in some sense through exposing them to a simulation of some
aspect of actual war. Though the value (and existence) of this last dimension is
subject to debate, the educational aspect of a
wargame would seem to depend on the validity of the game's model.
Good games attempt to simulate the conditions and realities of
their subject matter. If these attempts are successful, then
playing wargames should (at least to some extent) help one prepare
for and understand warfare, without the cost of actual deaths.
The better the accuracy of the simulation, the better the
education that might be gained. Indeed, the United States
military (and other military bodies throughout history) have
historically supported the value of wargames as a learning and training
tool for this reason.
The exclusive promotion of any of these
three influences will likely operate at cross purposes to the
remaining two. For instance, some computer wargames may
excel as games, yet lack similarity to real war or educational
value. Likewise, if simulation corresponds to reality,
educational value can be lost. For example, the games of the Coliseum mimicked war to such an extent
that at least 3,000 participants lost any chance at education.
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For an excellent online treatment of general game design issues,
Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design.
people take a serious interest in determining the precise origin
of chess. See
Ricardo Calvo, Some Facts to Think About
(discussing the origins of chess generally and elephants in
See Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming 16 ("The stylized,
almost cartoon-like representation of actual warfare that games
like Chaturanga and chess employed were almost certainly
never intended to be anything more than introductions to the basic
principles of military thinking.").