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The History of Wargaming


Military Wargaming

Modern miniature wargames (See "What is Miniature Wargaming") are quite similar to military wargames in one respect. Both actually evolved from games played principally for fun. The first of the military games is thought to have been Wei-Hai ("encirclement"), a Chinese game which is usually now called Go. A later, similar game was the Indian Chaturanga, the system from which chess in its various forms came about. Chess itself gave birth to at least one game which more formally depicted armed combat. This was the 1644 design known as The King's Game from one Christopher Weikmann. It included 30 pieces per side of 14 military types, each with a different fixed rate of movement. Like its predecessors, it was played principally for pleasure but differed by its emphasis on the strategic level of war.

The first game to break away from chess, however, was invented by Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick in 1780. This game included 1666 squares, each coded for a different rate of movement depending on the terrain the square represented. Playing pieces now represented groups of men instead of a single soldier, and each unit was rated for different movement (infantry moved 8 spaces, heavy cavalry 12, for example). There were also special rules for such things as pontooneers and the like. In 1795, Georg Vinturinus, a military writer from Schleswig, produced a more complex version of Helwig's game. He modified it in 1798 by using a mapboard that depicted actual terrain on the border between France and Belgium.

Nevertheless, such innovations did not move wargames out of the entertainment world into that of the military until 1811 when a Prussian father-son team began to make their studies known. The father, Baron von Reisswitz, was a civilian war counselor to the Prussian court at Breslau. During the dark days of Prussian domination by the Napoleon, Reisswitz introduced a game that used a specific scale (1:2373) and a sand table instead of a map grid. In 1811 the game was observed by two Prussian princes who then showed it to the King. The game immediately became the rage at both the Prussian and Russian courts, but professional soldiers saw little use for it. All that change in 1824. In that year Reisswitz' son,Leutnant George Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz of the Prussian Guard Artillery, introduced his own version of his father's game. The game was called Anleitung zur Darstelling militarische manuver mit dem apparat des Kriegsspiels (Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame) and included a number of new innovations, the most important of which were the use of actual topographical maps to portray the battlefield and rigid rules which specifically quantified the effects of combat.

The rules were published under the patronage of Prussian Prince Wilhem who became impressed with them after an evening's play. The Prince then recommended the rules to the Chief of the Prussian General Staff, General von Muffling, who finally granted von Reisswitz an audience. One of von Reisswitz' companions, a young officer named Dannhauer, described the meeting which many believe to be the birth of the military wargame:

On our arrival we found the General surrounded by the General Staff officers.

"Gentlemen," the General announced, "Herr von Reisswitz is going to show us something new."

Reisswitz was not abashed by the somewhat lukewarm introduction. He calmly set out his Kriegsspiel map.

With some surprise the General said, "You mean we are to play for an hour on a map! Very well. Show us a division with the troops.

"May I ask your excellency," replied Reisswitz, " to provide us with general and special ideas for manoeuver, and to choose two officers to be the commanders for both sides. Also it is important that we only give each commander in the special idea the information he would have in reality."

The General seemed rather astonished at the whole thing, but began to write out the necessary idea.

We were allocated as troop leaders to both sides, and the game began. One can honestly say that the old gentleman, so cool towards the idea at the beginning, became more and more interested as the game went on, until he exclaimed, "This is not a game! This is training for war! I must recommend it to the whole army."

Von Muffling made good on his promise and shortly thereafter every regiment had their own set, all of the components of which neatly fit into a wooden box 10 inches long and 6 inches wide. Nevertheless, many Prussian officers became jealous of Reisswitz' new fame while many others disputed the accuracy of his system. It is sad to note that because of this the young lieutenant killed himself in 1827.

However, the impact of this first military wargame had been significant. Reisswitz' work particularly impressed one Leutnant Helmuth von Moltke who, in 1828, founded a wargame club called the Kriegspieler Verein which soon began to publish its own periodical. This kept interest in wargames alive and when von Moltke became Chief of Staff in 1837, he officially pushed wargaming from the top. His influence had the desired effect and by 1876 another set of German wargame rules was published, this time by Colonel Julius Adrian Friedrich Wilhelm von Verdy du Vernois. Vernois' system was a "free" Kriegsspiel as opposed to Reisswitz rigid variety. This meant that most calculations and die rolling was eliminated in favor of an umpire who would determine results based on the situation and his own combat experience. Whether "free" or "rigid," however, wargames had become a mainstay of German military training.

Other countries around the world became interested in German wargaming as a result of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. In this conflict, the militia and reserve based armies of Prussia decisively defeated the totally professional army of France, then thought to have had the finest soldiers in the world. Many believed that wargames in part were used to successfully compensate for Prussia's reliance on an army of Reserven und Landwehren.

From that point on all countries began to build imitations of German systems as well as developing their 

own. In the United States, Army Major William R. Livermore introduced his The American Kriegsspiel, A Game for Practicing the Art of War on a Topographical Map in 1882. The game was complex and similar to Reisswitz' system, but did attempt to cut down on the paperwork involved by the introduction of several training aid type devices. At the same time Lieutenant Charles A. L. Totten introduced a game entitled Strategos: A Series of American Games of War. Totten's game was as complex as Livermore's, but he appealed to the amateur through the inclusion of a simplified, basic set of rules.

Neither was wargaming neglected by the US Navy, thanks to the efforts of William McCarty Little. In 1876, after an accident had forced his retirement from the Navy, Little made his home in Newport, Rhode Island and assisted in the establishment of the Naval War College. At the same time he made the acquaintance of Major Livermore who at that time was stationed across the bay at Fort Adams. Under Livermore's influence, and with the help of some very open minded supervisors like President Captain Henry Taylor, Little was able to make wargaming an integral part of the College's curriculum. His efforts practically made the Naval War College into America's unofficial wargaming center. Little produced a ship-on-ship game, a tactical game and a strategic game, all very accurate (they were able to predict that smaller numbers of big guns on battleships were more effective than large numbers of mixed caliber weapons) but also very complex. It was, in fact, complexity that encouraged resistance to wargaming within the American army and elsewhere. Games like Vernois' were introduced to simplify things, but many argued that such umpire driven systems only replaced arbitrary written rules with arbitrary unwritten rules. Thus by the turn of the century there was an increased tendency all over the world to merge the free Kriegsspiel with the rigid to produce a semi-rigid system. Even Livermore accepted this as the best solution and often ignored his own tables as much as he consulted them.

The semi-rigid wargame thus became the standard for most military conflict simulations around the world through the First World War. The games proved quite successful and history abounds with examples of how commanders were defeated as a result of ignoring the result of a wargame. As an example, a Russian wargame in 1914 predicted defeat if General Samsomov's 2d Army did not begin its advance three days ahead of General Rennenkampf's 1st Army, "an action not contained in the plans. This change, so clearly indicated in the war games, was never made in the plans or their execution." The result was the Russian debacle of Tannenburg the same year.

The years between the world wars was notable for the lack of military wargaming activity, particularly in Britain and the US. In general, most wanted to forget the carnage of the Great War while not a few noted that the failure of Germany's vaunted Schlieffen Plan in 1914 showed that the wargame was far from perfect. There were exceptions to this general rule of inactivity, of course. Germany still relied on the wargame as a principal training tool, especially since the Treaty of Versailles denied that country the right to field the necessary army appropriate for large scale training exercises. One must also look to the contribution of F.W. Lanchester who introduced mathematical formula that predicted attrition rates between two equivalent armies in combat.

In modified form, his two equations are still the basis of many wargames today. Finally, one must note that the US, the Naval War College, in seeming defiance of the other branches of service, continued and expanded its wargaming efforts. The College's labors were to bear great fruits during the upcoming war against the Axis Powers.

Indeed history records many wargame successes during World War II, but perhaps none was more impressive than America's naval victory over Japan . Our wartime Pacific commander, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz explained to a Naval War College class in 1960 that, "the war with Japan had been reenacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing happened during the war that was a surprise - absolutely nothing except the kamikazis towards the end of the war."

From that point on military wargames followed advances in technology, resulting in the complex pilot simulators or computerized strategic systems used around the world today wit most advanced countries' armed forces. Indeed, with the introduction of the US Army's Combat Training Centers, such as Ft Polk, LA or the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA, the individual soldier has now become a playing piece. Admittedly,events such as the Vietnam War have shown that wargames are not perfect, for they are only as good as the data humans place into them. Nevertheless, the history of military wargames is such that most failures seem to occur when the results of a wargame are ignored, not when they are taken seriously.  This is a solid record by any measure.

And with that being said, it now time to look at another type of wargaming, one whose original concept was not to train for successful conflict, but to prevent such bloodshed from ever happing at all.

Commercial Hobby Wargaming

Most modern hobby wargamers place the birth of their avocation with the publication of a book entitled Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Games and Books. The book was written in 1913 by noted British science fiction author H.G. Wells, an ardent pacifist, who evidently felt that his game would not only be entertaining, but would offer an alternative outlet for the aggressive passions most professional soldiers possessed. He wrote:

How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster - and no smashed bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence.

The game used miniature soldiers and toy cannon that shot small bullets to knock over the soldiers. The idea was one hit, one kill. Wells simply believed that combat "should be by actual gun and rifle fire and not by computation. Things should happen and not be decided."

While this revulsion of traditional military wargame technique indicates an interest by Wells in soldierly applications for his design, the game remained primarily an entertainment medium. Wells' pacifist personality would allow nothing more while it is hard to imagine stately British officers crawling around on the floor popping off at each other with spring loaded cannon.

Nevertheless, Wells' had an impact on wargaming far greater than his simplistic rules might suggest. His rules, coupled with inexpensive, mass produced toy soldiers, made wargaming available to almost anyone, not just the professional soldier or the rich.

It is for this reason that Wells is usually considered the father of modern hobby wargaming. Little wonder that for many years contributions in that field were honored by "H.G. Wells Awards" while today's miniature wargamers staunchly point to Wells as justification for their belief that they represent the senior and most respected wing of the hobby.

Finely painted miniatures, in fact, represented the totality of hobby wargaming for the next 40 or so years. Although most rules used were local amateur efforts, there were some designs that were quite notable. One of these was a naval wargame developed by Fred T. Jane, the editor of the famous Jane's All the Worlds Fighting Ships. Using toy ship models and the research he had done for his books, Jane produced a system that, though crude by modern standards, gained a great deal of respect all over the world. Wrote one naval officer, "The rules alone, apart from their bearing on the game, contains a mass of information . . . which cannot be found in so compact a form elsewhere, whilst . . . the strategical game will show that a number of things have to be thought of by those who command fleets in time of war."

Another naval miniatures game of note was produced in 1940 by American Fletcher Pratt. His Naval Wargame used highly a complex mathematical formula to obtain results. Though Pratt admitted that much of the research used to obtain his formula was highly arbitrary, he countered with the argument that despite this shortcoming, his system worked. On at least one occasion Pratt was able to prove exactly that. In a demonstration that made his game "part of the lore of both commercial and military wargaming," Pratt was able to reproduce the 1939 destruction of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee with incredibly accurate results.

Minature Wargaming Timeline
Click here to follow the history of this great hobby.

There were also several German miniature games of note. One of the most famous was 
Schlactenspiel, a 1920's design played in a manner similar to Chinese checkers but using terrain boards and model buildings to hinder the movement of the toy soldiers. The game specifically reproduced battles from the 1813 and 1814 campaigns against Napoleon, though later editions added engagements from the "hyphenated wars" (Franco-Prussian War, etc) and World War I.

In 1953, however, a revolution of sorts occurred in the commercial wargaming field. It was in that year that a young man from Baltimore published the first cardboard and paper wargame. Charles Roberts developed a game called Tactics. The game used a paper board with small cardboard pieces called "counters." The counters were printed with military symbols indicating the type unit represented as well as with numbers quantifying such things as movement and combat strength. The game depicted two mythical post World War II powers and became immensely popular after its release by Stackpole Books Roberts' creation boasted a number of advantages over the miniatures community. His board game was cheaper than an equivalent number of miniatures, and needed less time for setup as well as less room to play. Cardboard wargames could also be played solo and could easily simulate echelons of war (operational or strategic) above the tactical battlefield realm of the lead miniature. In fact, Roberts was so encouraged by the game's success that he started his own company dedicated to publishing historical board wargames. From that point on his Avalon Hill Company became the preeminent leader in such games, publishing over 200,000 units in 1962 alone. The company was also innovative and can be credited with establishing the hexagon (admittedly borrowed from Rand Corporation) as the standard mapboard device for regulating movement. Titles included such items as GettysburgD-Day and Stalingrad. The company went bust in 1964 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a growing mistrust of anything military due to the problems in Vietnam. Monarch Printing absorbed Avalon Hill, however, and the firm continued to publish wargames until very recently.

In 1969 another significant event took place in the evolution of commercial hobby wargaming. This was the publication of Strategy & Tactics Magazine (or S&T, as it is often called) by Christopher Wagner and later James Dunnigan. The magazine was unique in that it included a paper and counter wargame as supporting material for its main military history article. In this way the magazine was able to garner more exposure for the commercial wargaming industry by offering a product that appealed to amateur historians as well as true gamers. Like Avalon Hill, S&T had financial problems and ownership changed hands many times. The magazine still exists, however, and has even spawned an imitation in the form of Command Magazine by XTR Corporation.

The success of Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI, the publishers of S&T) was good enough to give birth to a yearly national wargaming convention, Origins, which continues to this day though admittedly with a distinctly fantasy-science fiction spin. Their success also encouraged a number of new game companies to form. While many fell after a few months or years, many more have survived and continue to do a thriving business. Total paper and counter wargame sales thus reached a high of some two million copies in 1980, but by 1991 that number was down to about 450,000 units per year.

There were many reasons for this drop in sales, to include the popularity of fantasy role playing systems such as Dungeons and Dragons. It was the introduction of the personal computer (PC) in 1980, however, that hurt the paper wargame industry the most.

The PC could do a number of things better than board games and in some instances could perform functions the cardboard counter was incapable of doing. In this latter category, PC software could allow a player to become part of the actual combat depicted. Games like Dynamix's A-10 Tank Killer flight simulator allowed the player to actually "pilot" the aircraft and fire its ordinance as opposed to pushing around a small cardboard square and consulting a plethora of charts. Otherwise most computer wargames were simply technological advancements of their paper cousins. Indeed, at first most were like Three Sixty Pacific's Velikiye Luki 1942(a Russian front battle from World War II) in that the software depicted a colorful boardgame type map complete with hexagons while units looked like little video counters. It is interesting to note that the most recent computer games of this genre, however, have turned to a miniatures graphical format as the most attractive method of presentation. Talonsoft, Inc's Battleground Series, such as Prelude to Waterloo or Gettysburg, are typical examples of such products.

Yet there were significant differences, differences generally attributable to the rapid advances in computer technology. The PC provided a capable opponent that did not cheat, a substantial plus as most board gamers were known to play solitaire. The PC also performed most of the tedious mathematics common to wargames for the player, and did it very quickly. There was also the aspect of not having to find space to set up a large board game or the time to take the project down. Finally there was the advantage of the PC being able to simulate some of the more commercially mundane and unpopular aspects of war, such as introductory intelligence collection and analysis (by using completely hidden movement), without unduly burdening the player. It is for reasons like these many board game companies began to venture out into the computer gaming world. Avalon Hill, for example, purchased Three Sixty Pacific's complete line of World War II simulations and expanded upon it with designs of its own.

The result is that today there are about 10,000 active paper and counter wargamers active in North America if a recent article out of Strategy & Tactics No 200 by counter guru Jim Dunnigan is correct. Conversely, there seem to be some 45,000 + miniature gamers, though this number is evidently lower than what exists in Great Britain, interestingly enough. Computer gamers will probably number some one million (plus!) over the next few years, but recent statistics quoted in publications such as PC Gamer imply that historical wargame computer buffs may actually number less than the cardboard variety. Indeed, consider that last year's PC Wargame of the year, Talonsoft's very well received The Operational Art of War, sold far less than 2000 total copies. This stands in stark contrast to fantasy/Sci-Fi games such as Blizzard's Starcraft, boasting sales in the millions. Such a situation does not bid well for PC based military simulations as it would seem few can compete with either Zerglings or Space Orcs.

Thus trends seem to indicate a growing decline in board and microchip historical wargaming, with miniaturists steadfastly holding their own and perhaps expanding a little. Indeed, recent years have seen somewhat of a crash in the cardboard wargaming wing of the hobby. Many stalwart companies such as Games Designers Workshop (GDW) have simply gone out of business while other respected companies, such as GMT games, must actually request customer purchases up front prior to developing and producing a game. Only companies which diversify, such as Pennsylvania's Clash of Arms Games (COA), seem to be surviving and it is interesting to note that part of COA's diversification program is into the realm of miniature rules (such as their Napoleonic set called From Valmy to Waterloo). Decision Games has recently followed suit with its first set of miniature rules, Battle Stations, a game on World War II naval warfare. Regardless, with the purchase of mighty Avalon Hill by the Hasbro Toy Company (along with the immediate firing of Avalon Hill's entire staff and the informal notice that once current stocks of wargames were gone, they would likely not be produced again) in August 1998, many feel the final nails have been driven into the coffin of cardboard counter gaming. It is therefore little wonder that some board wargaming authors are now calling for pure historical wargaming conventions jointly sponsored by the cardboard and miniatures communities.

The reasons for low-tech toy soldiers still retaining their popularity are not hard to determine. The establishment of professional publishing concerns devoted to the hobby (such as the Emperor's Press in Chicago) undoubtedly helped. Another thing that helped was the fact that in many ways the miniature hobby has more of a kinship with model railroading than it does the paper map or the computer. Thus families can participate in the design of battlefields or the painting of troops, while material such as entire armies are passed down from generation to generation. Miniature games tend to be more social, group events than do other forms of commercial wargames which are often played solitaire. This is an important factor because it points out that board and computer games are likely trying to access the same type of customer, a more introverted individual perhaps, and in such a situation the microchip will likely win. Also, many miniature gamers ply their trade for the research involved or for the pure joy of painting the necessary figures. Finally, neither board nor computer can match the spectacle of an accurately depicted miniature battle.

Another reason for the survivability of miniatures was the creation in 1986 of HMGS, Inc., the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, which was formed to officially promote that wing of wargaming as both a legitimate adult hobby and as an alternative method for the study of military history. The Society also services the needs of the miniaturist in general with a database that find opponents, hobby shop discounts, periodic newsletters and an online member community. HMGS further provides lecturers, issues monetary grants to historical or gaming concerns, buys books on miniature gaming for school libraries and on request holds demo games for colleges and other organizations. A number of historical miniature conventions are sponsored each year designed to specifically promote the hobby. Many are deliberately held in inexpensive tourist locations so that families might also attend - and become interested in the hobby as well. An example of such a convention is the celebrated Historicon, held each July and called the "mother of all wargaming conventions" by Amy Gammerman of the Wall Street Journal. HMGS, Inc. itself has expanded to more than 2,000 members worldwide.

Clearly Wells would have been proud.