1. What Is a Wargame?

Artist's Rendition of the Roman Naval "Wargame"

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 37 (1964)

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  or Rainbow 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.[1]  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 time [2]) 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.[3]  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 an opportunity for strategic thinking are not wargames.Chart of Three Aspects of Wargames  

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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1(back). For an excellent online treatment of general game design issues, visit Chris Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design.

2(back). Some 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 particular).

3(back). 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.").