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An Introduction to Wargame Design: The Gygax Connection

This is meant to be the first article of a series dealing with design concepts imported from board and digital wargames, with subsequent articles detailing specific mechanics or games and comparing them to videogame genre approaches.

In 1971, three years before the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published, Gary Gygax released a wargame about Alexander the Great's battle at Gaugamela.

In the same year Gygax published Chainmail, a rulebook to be used with medieval miniatures and which was used as the primary combat system for the first edition of D&D. Chainmail itself contained rules for fantasy topics, such as fighting orcs and giants - so you can see where Gygax's true interest lies already.

Gygax seems to have moved from a macroscopic interest in battles, then to a microscopic interest in battles, and then finally to microscopic interest in the movements and thoughts of individual combatants.

The view in D&D is from the ground, through the eyes of a person - and so individual actions become the most distinct gameplay elements. Things like marching armies are blobs of colour in the distance, and reality in D&D is inside the heads of those imagining it.

At stark contrast to this type of design are Chainmail and Gaugamela.

Chainmail is a miniatures game, and like D&D is delivered in the form of a rulebook and provides no de facto set of game pieces. Like the miniature games that are popular today, the design perspective is primarily one of the mechanics of small groups operating together as an army controlled by the player.

Groups are modeled as individual units - say a group of pikemen - and although there is no smaller unit to pick out in the game rules, you could easily treat this "group" of pikemen as just one individual, and the fantasy supplement includes singular heroes with spells who are powerful enough to fight an opposing group.

From a design perspective Chainmail has pulled the camera out of the heads of the participants, and settled it just above the battlefield. Yet, this kind of "miniatures" design is still primarily focused on who shot which kind of arrow how far at who. The player is not so much a general as the hive mind of the group, moving units and attacking with few restrictions (there is a morale system, and a terrain effects table - so troops can break and route rather than attack or slow down as they trod through a marsh).

But Alexander the Great is a game in an entirely different genre than Chainmail or D&D. Alexander is a "chit" or hex-and-counter wargame, which represents units, usually groups of different sizes (depending on the scale of the game's theme), and comes with a rulebook and a paper map often with a hexagonal grid overlaid. While miniatures games are sometimes called wargames as well, and there is some overlap (there are some chit wargames that behave as if they were miniatures - they take a long time to play...), chit wargames represent a distinct evolutionary branch of game scope, types of rules, and obviously aesthetics.

As a wargame at the battle scale, Alexander brings the camera up just high enough so that you are only meant to think about the units abstractly. The rules are now less about how a group of guys with swords fares against a group of guys with spears, and calculating that.

Instead there is now more of a focus on trying to simulate the battle of Gaugamela, although it is interesting to note that Gygax betrays his real love of mechanics over history by positioning Alexander as a tournament wargame - historically inaccurate, but balanced. War nerds are condemned to balk at the map, which depicts the clear flat plains of Gaugamela as a random smattering of hills and dips with various different elevations. Despite this cardinal sin, Alexander did not have many contemporaries (Mark Herman's "The Great Battles of Alexander" would be released in 1991, and depict four battles with much uglier but more accurate terrain).

While morale was certainly important in Chainmail, now there are so many units on the board and so few turns to achieve such difficult objectives that the game changes. While the player still assumes a birds-eye view and complete information, there is an element of roleplay as Alexander or Darius. Your army should attempt to focus on some key areas and ignore others, while trying to rout (make flee) rather than killing per se. When units suffer damage they are first reduced (replaced with another identical chit with lower attack/defense values, or in later editions this would be on the reverse side of the chit).

An astute observer will notice that this type of game does not really exist, not in videogame form. The scale and mechanics of Fire Emblem, while sharing qualities, is fundamentally about individual units and how they attack or are damaged. In Alexander, the decisions given to players are about which flank to send troops towards, which units should lead the attack, how can an enemy group be surrounded. In a way Alexander is more of a Go to Chainmail's Chess.

Much more popular in Gygax's day (you could walk into a Toys R Us in the United States and pick up a copy of a game about Patton's Rhine campaign), wargames now represent a different tradition of PC games as well. While Gygax's Chainmail resembles most RTS designs, his D&D style is represented in most RPGs and, maybe ironically considering the existence of chit wargames, many "tactics" games such as XCOM. While Gygax's own company, TSR, published other wargames, wargame development has had little contact with videogame design since the very earliest days.

There were a surprising number of DOS wargames, and the esteemed Great Battles of History is available on GOG - give it a try to see how alien it feels. So think of wargaming like an alternate history, one in which wargames like Alexander evolved into modern games. Of course they have done this, but semi-exiled to the physical realm of cardboard, despite some niche and indie examples which stand out today.

It's my belief that it's not for any fault in game design that wargames have been exiled - lack of an audience is not a lack of ingenuity. Wargame design operates as a counter-weight to a dogmatic adherence to genre standards, and it should be helpful for game designers interested in strategic and tactical games to see how an entirely different brand of designer has chosen to tackle certain problems and topics.


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