1a. A Brief History of Wargaming

"The birth of Risk dates back to the beginnings of time."

 The Origin of Risk and its Evolution to Present Day
by Bepi Entertainment.

 

 

Naval War College Photograph
Wargaming at the Naval War College 
from Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming (1990)

Wargames have existed for a very long time.  If broadly defined, one might say that they preceded warfare itself.  The very first time a "battle plan" was discussed, debated, and refined, a crude form of wargame took place. Still, modern wargaming is a fairly recent invention. In earlier times, warfare was a fairly formalistic exercise that did not seem to reward elaborate battle strategies as much as administrative and political skills. Perhaps for this reasons, the use of wargaming to formulate strategies was not developed during ancient times--or at least if it was developed, it remained unrecorded.

Early Roots

Chaturanga, considered by most historians to be the predecessor of chess, was a sort of wargame playing in India during the 7th century.  Whereas previous games developed in China and elsewhere had involved attempts to control territory by means of game pieces, Chaturanga was the first of such games to explicitly borrow extensively from the vocabulary of war.  (Previous games, such as the popular Roman Latrunculi, certainly had some military overtones). Chaturanga pieces represented foot soldiers, elephants, and chariots, which moved about on a playing board much like the modern chessboard.  The game resembled modern chess in many ways.

Subtle variations on the formula of chess occurred during the next 1000 years, though there were few significant developments.  Koenigspiel, invented in Ulm, Germany by Christopher Weikhmann in 1664 -- Weikhmann's game, which he declared to be "a compendium of the most useful military and political principles," involved thirty pieces and a larger board, but was still essentially chess on a large scale.  Dr. C.L. Helwig of Germany created an even more elaborate variant of the Koenigspiel model in 1780.  Helwig's game had a playing board with 1666 squares and over 200 specialized pieces representing various military units.  Helwig's game eventually spread throughout Europe.

Between 1780 and 1824 wargaming experienced several developments.  Most of these developments appeared in a publication by a Prussian lieutenant von Reisswitz in 1824.  Von Reisswitz developed and modified a game system created by his father, and published his games as Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame.  In German, wargame is translated as "kriegspiel."  The Kriegspiel games became at least somewhat popular among the German military as a training exercise.  Kriegsspiel offered a considerable advance over chess-derived games by abandoning chessboard squares and associated constraints on types of movement.  Kriegsspiel also attempted to introduce realistic resolution of combat based either on the decisions of an impartial umpire or the use of calculations based on military experience.

Professional Simulations and Hobby GamesMidieval Knight Miniatures

 By the 1850's, Kriegspiel had achieved wide popularity among the German military and some interest in the militaries of other countries. With the advent of this "professional" wargame, wargames as a genre immediately began to encounter the problems inherent in their tripartite nature.  War chess, despite the boasts of some of its proponents, was created as, and understood as, a game primarily.  The “game” aspect predominated in issues of design and evaluation.  New units, rules, and terrain features were added in order to make the game more enjoyable.  Professional wargaming, in Kriegspiel, shifted this paradigm.  Since wargaming was seen now as a training tool, the accuracy of the simulation became essential to the value of the game.  Yet increasing the accuracy of the “simulation” factor often decreased enjoyment of the “game” factor, making participants less capable of immersing themselves in the game and therefore less capable of deriving any utility from the exercise.

An example of this nascent conflict between “game” and “simulation” was the creation of two camps of “rigid” and “free” Kriegspiel.  Combat between opposing forces is a central feature in most wargames.  Rigid Kriegspiel created elaborate charts and calculations to resolve the effects of combat.  Free Kriegspiel resolved combat through the judgment of an umpire or referee who determined the outcome of encounters based on military experience.  While it is possible that some players believed free Kriegspiel produced more accurate results, it is clear that many proponents of free Kriegspiel preferred not to be bothered by the elaborate calculations imposed by rigid Kriegspiel.  Later authors (notably H.G. Wells) would argue that even free Kriegspiel was too rule-based. 

After Kriegspiel, wargaming developed in fairly predictable ways. Kriegspiel remained popular in the German military and spread quickly to other countries.  By the early twentieth century, almost every major military power used wargames to some extent as an aid to officer training and strategic planning.  World War II was extensively gamed by all the major powers before and during the conflict.  Professional naval wargaming became especially popular, perhaps due to the fact that naval combat is more suited to abstraction (due to spatially discrete ships and fewer terrain effects).

Hobby gaming and professional gaming were largely inseparable during the early days of wargaming, but by 1913, the year when H.G. Wells (an ardent pacifist) published the rules for his game Little Wars, it was clear that two camps had developed.  Little Wars was (and is) a combat game played with miniature figures.  Wells spent the majority of his book detailing rules for combat, movement, and capture.  After observing that all the military officers who had played his game found its simple rules too confusing to grasp, Wells remarked in his concluding paragraph:
 

Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion.  Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small.  That, I think, is the most pacific realization conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.


Wells’ books demonstrated that extensively detailed wargames of the Kriegspiel modelH.G. Wells Photograph could be played, enjoyed, and popularized as games, rather than as professional instruments.  Wells protested in an appendix that his game was “not a book upon Kriegspiel” and that it was “merely a game.”

Despite this stated “game” focus, even Little Wars could not divorce itself from professional wargaming.  In his appendix, Wells went on to relate that those military officers with which he had corresponded had “pointed out the possibility of developing Little Wars into a vivid and inspiring Kriegspiel” unlike the “dull and unsatisfactory exercise, lacking in realism, in stir and the unexpected” that characterized professional military Kriegspiel.  Thus, Wells implied that Little Wars was in many ways superior to the professional game than Kriegspiel at the time, especially in “waking up the imagination.”

Although Wells, and many of those after him, have suggested that in some ways “hobby” wargames are better wargames than “professional” wargames, it still makes sense to trace their development as two separate genres.  The dividing line between the two genres, though, really has little to do with the structure of the games, and more to do with the identities of the people who play, design, and fund them. 

Military “professional” wargames are played, designed, and funded by the military and/or other government agencies.  Civilian “hobby” wargames are designed for the mass market, which includes civilians, and are generally commercial ventures.  Civilian “hobby” wargames are sometimes criticized for being too “game-like” and not sufficiently based on military information and experience.  Military “professional” games, on the other hand, are often criticized as being somewhat dull and governed by bureaucratic and political influences, which determine their design.




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