8 min read

The Origin Of Serious War-Gaming

When did military individuals start expecting the playing of strategic game systems, specifically war-games, to create narratives which can be used in real life? As a narrative designer and game maker I can't help but wonder.
Hobby War-games
I like simulating war, at least, as a hobby. As a child I marveled at Axis and Allies, and games like Risk.

Having started my computer strategy gaming on a Sega Genesis with Westwood's Dune 2, working on a realistic computer war-game, or a Real-Time Strategy Game (RTS), as it is more commonly called, became for me an item of particular interest.

In graduate school @ USC's Interactive Media Division I had the pleasure of working with the Westwood team at EALA on The Battle for Middle Earth II. Not long there after we even had a course under Professor Chris Swain which focused on RTS game design. It was a blast, and really provided a deeper insight into the process and history associated with the design and production of the genre. By the time I got to writing and doing narrative design with the award winning team working on Company of Heroes it was the fulfillment of a life long dream for me.

Working on the war-game franchise made me ask questions. Deeper questions than I asked in grad school, about where my fascination began, and when this form, RTS, came to be. The roots of RTS, are war-games. Even if the setting has fantasy influences, the core combat systems of all RTS is that of a war-game: Multiple Player Units, Resource Management, Building, and Command level strategy.

In investigating the roots of war-gaming in my family I found, to my surprise, that my family began war-gaming as a result of involvement with the military in WWII and the Korean War.  They played 'war' as students, soldiers, and officers, to study military strategy. Asking my retired Air-Force officer of an uncle, he mentioned it rising into a hobby status in the 1950s. Just about the time Charles Roberts was getting started designing what would prove to be a ground breaking  game system.

Tactics IIHis 1954 game Tactics, and the follow-up Tactics II are generally credited as the first board war-game. Tactics pioneered many game mechanics which became standard in the board wargame industry, including cardboard counters representing individual military units with separate values for movement and combat; the odds-ratio combat results table; and variable movement costs for entering squares (later hexes) containing different types of terrain.[1] Roberts knew the game had tremendous educational value. [2] It was serious, serious war-gaming. But I knew it had to go deeper, even those table-top games had to owe what they are to the ideas of their predecessors. Where did it come from? My uncle was wasn't sure.

TacticsWar-games are most certainly serious in the current age, some of the best strategy game makers alive work for Uncle Sam creating war simulations.  While at first the notion may seem odd, the reality is war-games have become tools for military training and strategists.  Serious war-games are teaching tools, practical for professionals in the field and students of military strategy. With the models created by war-game systems the military argues it saves lives.  Any training we can have in lessening the taxes of war is most certainly a worthy endeavor. Game makers have been driving for realism in war-games for a long time, even the original Tactics box claims "The Original Realistic Land Army Wargame". At some point hobby games became tools of learning for military strategists. Where did this fascination come from, and where is the line where hobby crosses into serious war-gaming? When did military individuals start expecting the playing of strategic game systems, specifically war-games, to create narratives which can be used in real life?  As a narrative designer and game maker I can't help but wonder.
So I set out to do research, and like most things in western culture, one need look east to find their roots.  I started with Chess and then dug a little deeper. It lead me to Chaturaga, a game whose rules are mostly lost, but the pieces remain. This, the first serious war-game, came before Europe was even a dream. The Sanskrit word "Chaturanga", means "four parts", or "Army", which for the ancient Indians was compromised by 4 parts.  It is a game of 6th century BCE Indian origins consisting of two small armies with unique units, on an 8 x 8 board.

Early Chaturanga peicesChaturanga predates Chess, but only in the little evidence had in artifact, not by popular record.  Most likely a Persian invention, Chaturanga beats Chess in record by only a number of years. Chess is an Arab invention first mentioned by the court poet Bana, in a poem he wrote between "625 and 640 CE"[3]. Thanks to the trade routes of the ancient world Chess along with Chaturanga were both brought west to the likes of Africa, Spain, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. The game evolved into chess and hung around for until 2400 years later when things got interesting.
Christopher Weikhmann of Ulm, Germany, developed a warlike game called based on chess which had been growing in popularity in Germany thanks to the publishing of Das Schach- oder Königsspiel a book on chess in 1616. Weikhamann's The King's Game in 1664 expanded chess to create a game which reflected contemporary war-fare.  The King's Game "was not designed merely as a pastime... it would furnish anyone who studied it properly a compendium of the most useful military and political principles." [4]
While innovative in it's own right, for it's array of units, it was a century later The Duke of Brunswick, iterated on Weikhmann's Kings Game design and took war-gaming to a new level.  The game now incorporated artillery and armor class, two simple elements that increase the complexity of the war-game immensely and bring it closer to resembling modern war.
Game of the richWhile these games were growing in realism, they were still little more than the toys of the rich, despite Weikmann's assertion that they were much more. The players in those days were role-playing, imagining themselves to be great commanders making weighty decisions. The war-game consisted then of two parts, (1) the system of war, and (2) the role of commanders as taken on by each player. These parlor pastimes were still just games, a thing of boys and toys. Shortly though, games would be crossing from being as hobby to becoming a serious military training tool.

The first real advancement beyond Chess, documented in western cultures, occurred in the 1800's by the father and son team Reisswitz.  Lt von Reisswitz Jr. altered his fathers invention to be played on topographic table-top maps and in 1824 Chief of the Prussian General Staff, General von Muffling muttered, "This is not a game!  This is training for war!".[5]  *Boom* that moment was a turning point in thought; the beginning of a new strategics training paradigm; the serious war-game. What was most impressive about this new development was not the game itself, but the attitude displayed in the subtext of General von Muffling's words.  "This is not a game!  This is training for war!" His belief in the representation of the warfare through a closed abstracted game system inherently demands that games are capable of representing, or simulating, systems in real life. In playing them the player builds a narrative to represent potential conflicts, and thier resolition, in real life. Muffling continued, "I must recommend it to the whole army."  Here too we see the beginning of the attitude that the abstract systems created by war-game designs could serve as learning tools.  The good General was playing the Reisswitz's invention, Kriegspiel, literally 'war-game'.

Within a matter of decades war-game studies became part of regular curriculum at military academies worldwide. Displayed by this serious play is an unspoken core belief that human beings can create working models of life in games, and through their playing, learn how to properly navigate the very real game of life. As U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Sab said playing a war-game put it just prior to being sent off to Iraq in 2002 "It's never away from our minds that the things we are doing here [in the war-game] are going to happen to us in real life."[6]

[This is a modified repost from The Narrative Design Exploratorium]
2. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institute Studies, 1990
3. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Chess: Iranian or Indian invention , Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 200?
4. Ed Halter, From Sun Tzu to Xbox, Thumder's Mouth Press, 2006
5. Author Unknown, Playing War: the Applicability of Commercial Conflict Simulations to Military Intelligence Training and Education, DIA Joint Military Intelligence College, 1995
Julian Borger, Research for Iraq in Woodland War-game,, 2002

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