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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 6 of 10]

[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 6: Civilian Wargaming in the Cold War

With roots in chess and chaturanga, wargaming had always primarily been a hobby for the nobility and the military leadership class—one and the same in many cultures. Primarily does not mean exclusively, but wargaming did not become popular with civilians as quickly. Once wargaming did begin to popularize, it became a hobby that cross-pollinated with the military establishment. Civilian wargaming often borrowed ideas from military wargames and provided in turn ideas the military games adapted for use. This symbiotic relationship was joined later by the video game industry to create many of the wargame tools currently in use. The narrative of how this occurred, and how the ancestors of modern military simulations fed from and on one another will be described as chronologically as possible with video games receiving their own chapter as a separate but related discipline.

Early civilian wargaming grew from the same roots as military wargaming— that is from board games and chess variants. Kriegspiel itself found some civilian interest with Henry Spencer Wilkinson (1853-1937) who founded a club based on the game at Oxford University in 1873. This is thought to be the first civilian club dedicated to the play of Kriegspiel. History may not have recorded all civilian flirtations with hobby wargames, but it is clear that by the end of the nineteenth century the hobby had a small following including some notable players. Author Robert Louis Stevenson created his own wargame.  H.G. Wells, author of classic science fiction tales like War of The Worlds created his own wargame— Little Wars. Wells even acknowledged in his work the previous place of wargames as a diversion for the privileged. “Little Wars is a game of kings— for players in an inferior social position. It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty— and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple— and by girls of the better sort, and by a few and gifted women.”

Some of these civilian wargames used decidedly unprofessional means to achieve their game play ends. Toy soldiers were used in Stevenson and Wells’ games to represent the soldiers on the field. This practice was encouraged by Britains, the chief UK manufacturer of said toy soldiers. Instead of complex tables and charts for combat results, these civilian wargames used a very simple but entertaining mechanic— knocking the soldiers over. Marbles were commonly used, and Britains also encouraged the use of their spring-powered model of the famous 4.7” QF naval gun. The Britains 1905 catalog outlined a simple war game to be played with Britains figures, assigning point values to different types of soldier and giving simple movement distances per turn. This was followed up by The Great War Game for Young and Old in 1908. These rules, perhaps unsurprisingly, suggest the purchase of rather large numbers of Britains miniatures – over 400 per army for a full corps-sized game. Even in these later rules, the elimination of a figure was based on knocking it over or off balance. The rules did become more diverse— requiring guards to escort prisoners off the field and allowing figures who were merely leaning to be considered wounded and eligible for treatment at a field hospital.

These games, lacking in realism, had the virtue of being affordable to the common individual for the price of a few toy soldiers. A full set of equipment for playing Kriegspiel or Strategos could be prohibitively expensive. No longer was a sand table or actual military map necessary— the battlefield could be built of books, furniture or children’s blocks. In Little Wars H.G. Wells even proposed a campaign system to prevent players from taking unnecessary risks with their forces. The need to preserve enough of a losing force to fight another day added a new element to the games. Still, even with these elements, Little Wars did not appeal to professional soldiers.

The outbreak of The Great War in 1914 damaged the fledgling civilian wargaming hobby in several ways. The returning soldiers were weary of the horrors of war, and wargaming may have reminded them of the training games they were exposed to during the War. The metal itself used for the creation of miniature soldiers had become a war commodity, and Britains found itself manufacturing shrapnel balls. Even after World War I was over, such was the aversion to warfare that Britains did not produce German troop figurines until 1931. Much of the post-war metal figurine production Britains undertook was in the form of a successful line of villagers and farm figures. Thus, hobby wargaming was hampered by its reception by the military and its dependent nature on other industries. It seemed that civilian hobby wargaming was destined to be a separate, if somewhat parallel, discipline to the stricter professional military endeavor where combat on land was concerned. The hobby wargame was dependent on the miniature figure industry and, as played, could not be undertaken without those products. These conditions were not to endure as naval wargaming rapidly bridged the civilian-military gap during the same years between the World Wars.

On the naval side of things, as noted previously Fred T. Jane created his naval wargame as a hobby that developed into a series of military tools much as Clerk’s had a century before. Another naval wargame of historical interest began to develop during the interwar period written and championed by a man named Fletcher Pratt. Pratt was a writer who had worked with such subjects as Napoleon, US Naval History, The American Civil War and the War of 1812. He had been described as “a one-man war college” and was a founder of the American Rocket Society and an author of science fiction.

Pratt’s naval wargames drew large numbers of players, sometimes in excess of forty, and consisted of a fascinating cross-section of Manhattan society. Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Trevor DuPuy and his father Colonel R. Earnest DuPuy both indulged in Pratt’s games. The DuPuys are widely known as authors of classic American military history. Noted science fiction authors L. Sprague de Camp and Theodore Sturgeon were avid players, as was author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Of additional interest is the attraction of female players to Pratt’s games, a development relatively new to the male-dominated wargame, with one attendee noting “one of the female delegation has been praised by a naval officer player as the most competent tactician in the group.”

Pratt’s games not only captured the interest and imagination of civilian and military players alike, but was cited by the DuPuys as being more accurate than other methods of predicting a naval engagement. Both the elder and younger DuPuy worked out some of their own formulae for the Pratt naval wargame. Pratt himself pointed out that the Battle of the River Plate in 1939 between the Graf Spee and her British hunters Exter, Ajax and Achilles was predicted by his game’s logic to end as it did historically— with the destruction of the Graf Spee. Pratt noted that on firepower and armor alone, the Graf Spee “should have been more than a match for the British cruisers; but by the formula here they should have beaten her. And they did.” The attention of Manhattan society was not to last— the societal effects of World War II were much like those of World War I, and hobby wargaming faded for a time due to the public reaction to the Second World War. Despite the failure of hobby gaming to catch on in a larger fashion, this mixture of civilian and military players marks the beginning of a cross-pollination of ideas between the military establishment and civilian players, as opposed to civilian game authors like Clerk, Jane or Pratt.

General war-weariness was one contributor to the failure of wargames to take off as a civilian hobby post WWII, but another was the persistent reliance of the wargames then available to civilians on miniature figurines. Ground games like Little Wars could easily employ dozens or even hundreds of figures, and the naval wargames of Jane and Pratt used waterline models of the actual ships being employed to mark both the location of each ship and the origin point of each vessel’s weapons fire. The Pratt game was known to take the floor of a ballroom to play with enough ships involved, and the space for hundreds of tin soldiers was also cumbersome for any sort of casual play. These issues were dealt with in 1952 by an American National Guard officer named Charles Swann Roberts II (1930-2010) with his innovative approach to making wargaming accessible to the common player.

Roberts had just received his commission and was looking to transfer into the regular army. While waiting for opportunity to present itself, he created a game to “practice war on a board as well as a training field and learn the nuances of the Principles of War in a context that was less noisy.” Roberts called his game Tactics, and created it in such a way as to be playable on a tabletop with minimal equipment. Tactics used a map divided into squares, with each square containing a terrain type much like the elaborate Reisswitz Kriegspiel table, but printed on a flat surface as opposed to moveable blocks. The grid resembled the system in place on the military maps with which Roberts was familiar. Units were likewise represented by cardboard pieces with the standard military symbols for troops types printed on them along with a numerical designation. Each unit had numbers dictating its movement distance and combat strength. The resolution of combat was a simple Combat Resolution Table (CRT) that gave the odds of successful combat and expressed those odds in die rolls. Roberts had created a war game that could be played on the kitchen table, with equipment that could be fit into the box of a game like Monopoly— Roberts had invented the modern hobby wargame.

As the Korean War drew to a close, Roberts found his window for active duty service closing. Returning to civilian employment in marketing, Roberts decided to publish his game. He founded the Avalon Hill Game Company, named for his Avalon, Maryland neighborhood. Partnering with Stackpole Books, known for their publication of military material, he brought Tactics to market in 1954. Tactics had a fast-paced style of play in comparison to the simulations used in military circles. It was closer to a board game than something like Kriegspiel, and was much more accessible to the common player. Roberts said of his game-

“It was revolutionary to say that you could move up to all of your pieces on a turn, that movement up to a certain limits was at the player’s option, and that the resolution of combat was the throw of a die compared to a table of varying results. As simple as this sounds now, the new player had to push aside the chess-and-checkers mindset and learn to walk again.”

With Tactics, the world now had a wargame that could be played in a convenient amount of time, in a convenient amount of space. The rules could be understood by a layman with no military experience. The game was affordable— unlike games requiring miniature figures. Tactics sold for $4.95 by mail order from Stackpole and sold about 2,000 copies between 1954 and 1957. This was not a smashing financial success, by Roberts’ recollection he “either netted or lost thirty dollars.” It was not financial failure, however, and Roberts decided to try again on a larger scale and Avalon Hill was incorporated in 1958. The first follow-up to Tactics was the 1958 publication of Gettysburg, based on the Civil War battle at that Pennsylvania town. The timing of the publication of Gettysburg was fortuitous, as the centennial of the battle was only a few years away and a media awareness of the Civil War accompanied that centennial. Gettysburg was much more successful than Tactics in sheer sales. Priced at the same $4.95, 140,000 copies of Gettysburg were sold between 1958 and 1963— one out of every five games Avalon Hill sold was a copy of Gettysburg. Newsweek even carried a story on the new bobby game, asking if readers wanted to re-write history.

Even though Gettysburg did well, Avalon Hill was not primarily a wargaming company until the departure of Roberts in 1963. The firm had released more games with less martial themes during its first five years than games dealing with war, even though the latter indisputably sold better. The company also struggled with distribution, and when a disruption in the network caused sales to hit a dry spell, Roberts was forced to sell Avalon Hill to Eric Dott, his creditor. Games like Midway and D-Day followed, with the 1963 Midway containing historical notes on the battle by Rear Admiral C. Wade McClusky Jr., who had been commander, air group aboard USS Enterprise at the time of the battle. McClusky wasn’t the only notable WWII officer to advise Avalon Hill— General Anthony McAuliffe and Colonel Donald Dickson, USMC also worked with the company. Avalon Hill had found its military guidance and civilian audience. Though the company never stopped releasing non-war games completely, games of martial conflict were the company’s bread and butter. On 1 May 1964, the first issue of the Avalon Hill General, a magazine dedicated to wargaming and Avalon Hill games in particular, debuted. The hobby wargaming community was finally under way.

Almost as quickly, the wargaming hobby was under fire. The 1960s were a time of social upheaval and societal unrest in the United States, with Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights movement taking a national center stage. Wargaming was seen as a militarist hobby. Students playing wargames were branded warmongers and fascists. In the July 1968 Avalon Hill General, Lee Matthews stated “one educator went as far as saying that it was because of people such as we that the world was in the state it is today; that we were the ‘destroyers of civilization.’” The fist GenCon in 1968, a convention that is still running as of 2015 and currently drew over 56,000 attendees in 2014, was picketed by three peace activists with a similar opinion of wargames.

Into this fray came James F. Dunnigan. Dunnigan had spent three years in the US Army as a missile technician, serving in Korea and being discharged just two weeks before the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. While in the Army, Dunnigan had discovered wargaming and went to work for Avalon Hill in 1966 to design Jutland, a game about the World War I naval battle released the following year. His 1968 follow-up, 1914, was successful enough for Dunnigan to decide to strike out on his own by founding a game company. SPI, Simulations Publications Inc., was founded in 1969 and helmed by Dunnigan for eleven years.

Having been a soldier and having seen firsthand the goings on at Columbia University where he had studied, Dunnigan understood both sides of the societal changes taking place. In addition Dunnigan’s the previously mentioned Up Against The Wall Motherfucker game, Kampus Komedy underscored the student protests as well. The game depicted the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society and university administration battling for campus influence. Taking this understanding and running with it, Dunnigan found success not only as a game designer but as a lecturer and advisor. Dunnigan assisted in re-establishing wargaming at the Army War College in the 1970s, and wrote both The Complete Wargames Handbook and How to Make War, the former dealing with hobby and professional wargames and the latter a layman’s guide to warfare.

Dunnigan personifies the development that went on in the 1960s and 1970s as the professional and hobby disciplines of wargaming influenced one another. These cross-pollinations, however, were not always appreciated. Despite being active on both sides of the wargaming dichotomy, Dunnigan was not respected by everyone. His often irreverent statements about warfare, the US military, and the conduct thereof were sometimes too frank for the military personnel who hired him as a speaker. Dunnigan claims to have been offered the job of becoming the first director of the National Defense University’s War Gaming and Simulation Center. Dunnigan may have been wise to turn down the post, as the civilian who did take the job was quickly replaced by a military member.

Men like Dunnigan and Perla played hobby games while consulting for the military games, and military personnel took hobby gaming on as a way to relax. A small, but growing subculture of die-hard wargamers survived this tumultuous period thanks in no small part to the resurgence of military wargaming the Cold War brought and the accessibility Avalon Hill-style games and later computer games offered. Wargaming would be developing in both civilian and military circles – sometimes, as with RAND Corporation, both. The web of wargaming becomes more tangled as video and computer games were added to the mix. All of these types of gaming converged in the 2000s in a new application of war games that focused not on the generals, but on the individual enlisted member. Before all that could occur, the fertile 1960s and 1970s had to create the foundations upon which those computer and tabletop games would be built.

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