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Shall We Play A Game? [Part 2 of 10]

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[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

Part 2 of 10: Dawn of the War Game

There are many games in antiquity that can be said to be representative of war. Perla, taking a cue from US Navy Captain Abe Greenberg, credits Sun Tzu with the creation of the first wargame, Wei Hai. Wei Hai, or “encirclement” is thought to be over two thousand years old and an early version of the Japanese game Go. The game Go, played in various forms throughout East Asia, concerns itself with capturing territory and opposing pieces. Much like Sun Tzu’s famous treatise on The Art of War, Wei Hai and Go encourage outflanking an opponent rather than directly engaging his pieces. These games lack a true simulation of warfare, but teach elements of military thought.
Western culture was not without its early war games. Senet, a game whose rules are lost to history, is found in the burial goods of Egyptian Pharaohs and may have been a race game or war game. The Romans and Greeks had latrunculi and petteia, classified as games of battle. Petteia is spoken of by Plato and Socrates, and is the forerunner of the Roman ludis latrunculi, or “game of mercenaries.” Senet, petteia and latrunculi all had boards divided into squares which contained the playing pieces. Latrunculi was of such popularity or significance that examples of game sets have been found in Roman graves as far away as the British Isles. Of all the examples of battle games in antiquity, the game that sets the stage for the modern wargaming discipline, chess, got its start over a millennium ago in India.
Chess descends from chaturanga, a game invented in the Gupta Empire (AD 320-550.) The name refers to the four members, or branches, of the Indian military at the time- infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. The differentiated pieces of chaturanga are the main innovation that makes the game a forerunner to the modern ideal of a wargame. Games like Go and checkers represent vying for control of a board and offer opportunities to remove an opponent’s pieces, but aside from a “crowned” checker the pieces themselves are undifferentiated and have identical game abilities. The differentiated pieces in chaturanga each have specific qualities that differed from the other pieces. This leds depth to the game and the strategies necessary to play, but still remains abstract in its representation of warfare. In the July 1970 issue of the Avalon Hill General, a young wargame devotee named Gary Gygax opined in the cover article that chaturanga represented the “Earlierst Known ‘Troop Counters’ in a modern wargaming sense.” This is an important distinction in the development of war games, but it is equally important to note that a game’s abstraction does not discount its use in teaching concepts of strategy. The concepts of warfare can be taught without direct simulation, a theory tested in the early 2000s through the use of commercial video games as military training tools. The differing opinions on precise simulation versus abstraction for the sake of playability remained a theme throughout the development of the wargame and continues to be discussed today.
An example of this phenomenon is explained by Peter Perla concerning a game of chess played at a Connections conference in the 1990s. The game was altered to account for intelligence or the lack thereof on the part of the players regarding the disposition of the opposing pieces. Perla’s team executed what he described as an asymmetrical approach and won the game against an opponent who was a respected and ranked chess player. Perla pointed out that the win was so decisive because the chess pro was playing on the assumption that the game was the chess he was familiar with, but the game had changed. The game was not a simulation of war, but rather a simulation of the “mental states of the decision-makers” given a dearth of intelligence. Perla pointed out that in a world where warfare has changed from conventional conflict to asymmetrical warfare, the ability to adapt to new conditions is far more important than the accurate specification of an AK-47 assault rifle. Rather than focus on the minutiae of simulation, the value of the game was in teaching the concept that the ‘game’ of war itself was changing.
For all that chaturanga could teach about the concepts of warfare, what it was not was a tool for teaching the specifics of warfare. For instance the European version of chess that descended from chaturanga features knights, pawns and rooks whose movements and abilities are abstractions. The outcomes of their battles determined by the player currently taking their turn. Never can the pawn who is attacked by a knight score a lucky blow and save himself, nor can the knight, when attacked by the very same pawn, avoid destruction. The simplicity of supremacy in chess was in the maneuver- a valuable military lesson to be sure, but far from a realistic simulation of combat. The idea that actual warfare could be simulated atop a table did not begin to take hold until the seventeenth century.
Duke August II of Lueneburg (1579-1666) began the evolution of chess into a war game with his Das Shackorder Koenig-Spiel, or “Game of Chess or King’s Game,” which codified the variants of chess that had been played for several centuries. The duke, writing under the pseudonym Gustavus Selenus, maintained that the game was important for teaching war and governance. Selenus’ publication began a long tradition of German interest in the creation and perfection of games as tools for teaching politics and war. The Selenus work was followed by the Neuerfundenes großes König-Spiel or “Newly Invented King’s Game” by Christopher Weikmann of Ulm, Bavaria.
Weikmann sought to produce a game that “was not designed to serve merely as a pastime but that it would furnish anyone who studied it properly a compendium of the most useful military and political principles.” Perla doubts that Koenig-Spiel or any of its “war chess” derivatives reduced the abstraction level enough to be useful as training aids. This began to be corrected in 1780 when Dr. Christian Ludwig Helwig (1743-1831) created his own version of war chess under the name Koenigspiel. Helwig’s King’s Game presented a chess board of 1,666 color-coded squares that represented varying terrain. A frontier divided the game board, across which the objective of the opponent’s fortifications lay. The game made use of an umpire to adjudicate disputes between players, an important innovation that would come in and out of vogue over the course of wargaming’s history. Helwig’s game became quite popular and was played in Germany, France, Austria and Italy. For all its innovation, Helwig had merely created another variant of war chess with a few simulationist improvements. More would be required before wargaming could begin to teach at more than a conceptual level. The first true simulationist war game in recorded history was created by John Clerk of Scotland in 1781. Clerk’s naval wargame, and its effect on Royal Navy doctrine, will be covered in the next chapter. Land-based wargames awaited their innovation breakthrough, which would come in the form of Georg Venturini in 1797.
Georg Venturini (sometimes credited as Vinturinus) hailed from Schleswig, and was a theoretician and student of tactics who sought bring the rules of war chess to something closer to the actual practice of war. His version of Kriegspiel, called Neue Kriegspiel or “New War Game” expanded on Helwig’s game and added additional complexity. The square grid was now 3,600 squares in area, with each square explicitly representing a square mile. The terrain of the game was no longer conjectural: it represented the actual French/Belgian border and included elevation lines as well as underlying terrain. These terrain features changed the speed and efficacy with which the units occupying them moved and fought. Vinturini even added in further rules to simulate reality- logistics and weather. Supply and ammunition was taken into account, as were seasons. Units suffered penalties when moving if winter months were being modeled.
The Venturini version of Kriegspiel caught on in Germany, Austria and Italy and set the stage for the next evolution of the wargame. Georg Leopold the Baron von Reisswitz lent his expertise to the wargame in 1811. Von Reisswitz was not himself a soldier- he was a civilian who advised on warfare. In his creation of his version of Kriegspiel, he broke entirely from the mold of war chess and its variants. This new type of war game did not use the chess-style board of square spaces. A sand table was employed, with a scale of 1:2373 reflecting the marching speed of a Prussian infantry formation. The game employed a referee known as a Vertrauter, or confidant. This allowed the players, up to ten per side, to write their orders without the knowledge of the opponents. The referee and his assistants then interpreted the outcome of the orders the opposing teams issued.
Teams also had intelligence limitations. The referee only gave players the information their units could have been exposed to in actual battle. Now the game began to resemble actual warfare- real terrain of any type could be modeled on the sand table. Real troop formations could be placed into the game, and their combat efficacy would be reflected by the carefully compiled data tables. Fog of war and lack of reconnaissance and intelligence could plague both sides of an engagement, with boxes designed to be placed over areas of the map to hide actual unit positions. No longer was this a simple game- it was now a simulation. The simulation aspect of von Reisswitz’ game extended largely to movement and maneuver- combat was a matter of the players and the referee talking out the result when units attacked one another. This made the inclusion of a referee much more vital to the play of the game, and placed an amount of variability on the attempted realism of the contests designed to mimic the fortunes of war.
The advent of von Reisswitz Kriegspiel is the point at which ground-based wargaming begins to move from a hobby and curiosity to a military discipline that would have resounding effect on battles yet to be fought. An acquaintance of von Reisswitz was von Reiche, the captain of cadets in the Berlin garrison. This officer happened to be an instructor to Princes Friedrich and Wilhelm. The young princes were enamored of the game once they learned of it, and communicated their fascination to their father, King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840) who expressed an interest in the game as well. After demonstrations by von Reisswitz and von Reiche, the King and his sons- one future King of Prussia, the other future Kaiser- had become avid wargamers. The version of Kriegspiel eventually shown to the King was even more involved than the sand table normally used by von Reisswitz. For the King, von Reisswitz spent months designing and creating a wooden table with a system of interchangeable blocks, each with plaster molded terrain so that the “map” could be reconfigured at need while remaining more durable than shaped sand. The pieces representing the forces were made of porcelain, and tools such as measuring devices, dividers and other implements were included in the set. This made for an impressive, but expensive and labor-intensive wargame kit. Fit for a king for certain, but out of reach of potential players of less substantial means.
One might think that von Reisswitz, having added so many realism-enhancing innovations to his Kriegspiel, would be widely considered the father of modern wargaming. According to Matt Caffrey of the Connections conference, von Reisswitz lacked one particular element to earn that title. It was an element his son, Lieutenant Georg von Reisswitz II, would bring to the tabletop- accessibility. Until the younger Reisswitz added innovations to those of his father that reduced the cost of an initial Kriegspiel setup, wargaming had been a pastime for the titled nobility for centuries. War chess and its variants were used to teach the scions of kings and potentates the ways of war and politics. Even the Kriegspiel of von Reisswitz senior was being played avidly by noblemen, but with its cumbersome sand tables was hardly a game accessible to those without means. The young Lieutenant Reisswitz was to correct that flaw, and become the father of modern professional and hobby wargaming.
Lieutenant Reisswitz published in 1824 Anleitung zur Darstellung militaerischer Manoever mit dem Apparat des Kriegs-spiels. These ‘Instructions for Representation of Military Maneuvers under the Guise of a War Game, 1824’ made some adjustments of the Kriegspiel of the elder von Reisswitz to make the game more accessible. Players were limited to four per side, and the game initiated the same red versus blue color scheme used in war games to the present day. The game now used topographical maps in a scale of 1:8000. This innovation allowed the game to be played on any surface, with any map of the appropriate scale. Now the game was practical to play without expensive and heavy sand tables. This innovation is particularly important in light of the reaction of the Prussian Chief of Staff, General Karl von Mueffling (1775-1851) “It’s not a game at all, it’s training for war. I shall recommend it enthusiastically to the whole army.” General von Mueffling’s recommendation took the form of an order, one that was not greeted with the same enthusiasm by von Mueffling’s subordinates.
The adoption of this new Kriegspiel had been mandated, but adopted extremely slowly. The game was written with rules and tables to cover every situation Reisswitz could conceive, and to cover them for units up to and including the divisional level. The tables increased in complexity, and the authority of the referee to interpret their data was constrained, so that results would be arguably more realistic. Combat was determined by a series of complex table references that were cross-referenced for a variety of factors including terrain, weather, unit size and armament. These tables were created using data as grounded in realism as von Reisswitz could access, as well as being variable based on a roll of dice. The dice were included to account for the variances in the fortunes of war that inevitably occurred in real combat situations.
Commanders were required to submit written orders for their army and sub units, including orders for subordinate players, who had to write orders of their own for their units. The complex nature of the rules of the game coupled with the games being scheduled during what had previously been free time caused no small resentment among the officers ordered to play. This resentment was deeply troubling to Lieutenant Reisswitz, who felt it was directed at himself rather than his game or the orders instructing Prussian officers to play. He committed suicide in 1827. Had he stayed his hand, Reisswitz might have lived to see his legacy adopted with a popularity unprecedented in military instruction. One year after Reisswitz’ suicide, a young officer named Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891) joined a club dedicated to wargaming. Just thirty years later, Moltke, now Chief of Staff himself, saw to it that Kriegspiel became one of the chief tools of planning and instruction for the Prussian, and later Imperial German forces.

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