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Wargames

The sand table scene from Band of Brothers (Photo: HBO)
The sand table scene from Band of Brothers (Photo: HBO)

The topic of today's article, the history of military and hobby wargames, was inspired by a 20th anniversary re-watch of HBO's seminal Band of Brothers miniseries. A short scene in the first episode shows members of Easy Company gather around sand tables used to model the target areas of the 101st Airborne's nighttime drops before D-Day. Such sand tables, even much simpler affairs than the ones depicted on the show, have been used, and are still used by modern armies, as a quick and cheap way to help commanders and troops visualize battle plans.

Sand table at a modern military exercise (Photo: paxsim.wordpress.com)
Sand table at a modern military exercise (Photo: paxsim.wordpress.com)

If you watch military-themed historical movies, you've probably seen scenes where the heroes (or the villains) are planning a battle hunched over a map, pushing figurines representing armies left and right. However, as far as historians can tell, such planning was probably not really practiced for most of history. Depicting such wargames in ancient Greek or Roman times, or the Middle Ages, is most likely a Hollywood fabrication with no roots in reality.

This probably never really happened, a scene from Cleopatra (1963) (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
This probably never really happened, a scene from Cleopatra (1963) (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

As far as we can tell from historical accounts, military commanders just didn't think in terms of a bird's-eye view representation of the battlefield. For most of history, the movement of armies was planned in terms of stations: from one city to the next, to a river crossing, to another city, etc., following roads or known routes, with little regard to the exact heading or distance. Similarly, the planning of specific battles was usually done without maps. For one, maps were rare, and rather inaccurate by modern standards. Also, even the best map wouldn't show the location of supplies that could be foraged, or the disposition of enemy forces; therefore, commanders usually relied on up-to-date reports from scouts and local informants, or even reconnoitered an area in person. Additionally, battles before the modern era involved smaller forces in smaller areas, following simpler plans; simply occupying a hilltop at the edge of the battlefield was usually a perfectly sufficient way to oversee a battle – there was just no need for a map.

This never happened, either, but then again, Game of Thrones was never historical (Photo: HBO)
This never happened, either, but then again, Game of Thrones was never historical (Photo: HBO)

Nevertheless, the idea of abstracting a battle into some sort of game – even one pursued for pleasure, rather than practical reasons –, emerged pretty early in history. Several classical boardgames are loosely based on warfare. The earliest known precursor of chess, "Shad Yantra", appeared in southern India about 8,500 years ago and represents a battle. Go was invented at least 2,500 years ago in China, and is supposed to model war strategy. The early medieval Norse game of hnefatafl, still played today, depicts a raid.

The 12th century Lewis Chessmen from Scotland, clearly showing the game's martial theme (Photo: National Museum of Scotland)
The 12th century Lewis Chessmen from Scotland, clearly showing the game's martial theme (Photo: National Museum of Scotland)
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However, none of these are proper wargames in a modern sense. If you ever played chess as a child, you probably raised some questions about its realism: "Why can knights only move in an L-shape? Real knights could ride without turning sideways just fine!" "Why can you only move a single piece at a time? In real life, all soldiers move and fight at the same time!" The answer you'd get from your parents was always "Because it's just a game."
 
And therein lies a big difference between games and wargames. A game's rules are designed to be fun and fair. A wargame's rules, especially in a professional military context, are designed to be an accurate simulation of what would happen in real life, even if that makes the rules more complex. As a side note, another important feature of military wargames, according to one particular definition, is that their "operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces." In other words, if you have real soldiers maneuvering or fighting mock battles in the remote countryside, it's technically an exercise, not a wargame. A wargame is about officers pushing blocks on a map, or having a computer do it for them on a screen.

The Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator of 1958 at the US Naval War College (Photo: US Naval War College)
The Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator of 1958 at the US Naval War College (Photo: US Naval War College)

But back to the development of military wargames. As early as the 17th century, children were not the only ones taking issue with the lack of realism of chess, and a range of chess varieties sprung up with intentions to make the game more realistic. One such experiment was "The Newly Invented Great Game of Kings" published by German merchant Christoph Weickmann in the mid-17th century after the game's rules came to him in a dream. It had 36 different types of pieces, including the Marshall, the Chancellor, the Soldier and others, arranged on a circular grid for more realistic movement.

Some of the pieces from Weickmann's game (Image: peasantmuse.blogspot.com)
Some of the pieces from Weickmann's game (Image: peasantmuse.blogspot.com)

Another notable innovator was Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig, an 18th century teacher of mathematics and natural sciences at the military academy of Brunswick, who developed a Kriegsspiel (literally "wargame") for his officer students in 1780. This game was more realistic than its predecessors. The board consisted of different types of terrain such as mountains, swamps and water, and the units were based on contemporary troop types: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Hellwig's Kriegsspiel was notable for having been sold commercially, though the military establishment had not yet taken a serious interest in it (or its many imitators), as they were still firmly rooted in chess-like sensibilities. For example, attempts to "capture" an enemy unit were still always successful, like in chess; the idea that a defending unit might actually be able to beat back an attacker was not yet present in the game. Similarly, pieces could usually only be moved one by one, through provisions were given for moving entire blocks of troops together.

A reconstruction of Hellwig's game (Photo: Ralf Wegemann)
A reconstruction of Hellwig's game (Photo: Ralf Wegemann)

That step was first taken by Georg Leopold von Reisswitz. Von Reisswitz was a true armchair general: he learned military history from his father, a veteran in the Prussian army. He wanted to join the army but was disqualified due to an arm injury. He got into the war-styled boardgames of his time, and developed a bootleg version of Hellwig's game with a friend (since they couldn't afford the original) in the first decade of the 19th century with further improvements. Von Reisswitz's game completely did away with the chess-style grid board in favor of a three-dimensional sand table on which lead blocks represented troops, and could move around freely and predetermined speeds. The sons of Prussian King Frederick William III took an interest in von Reisswitz's game and invited him to the court for a demonstration before their father.
 
Von Reisswitz was reticent to present the king with a glorified pile of sand, and he took a year to develop a more regal version of his game. Kriegsspiel, as he simply called it, was presented as a gift: an exquisite table with cabinets holding all the components. The battlefield could be assembled from individual ceramic tiles to create an unlimited variety of landscapes, and ceramic blocks represented units. The game enjoyed great popularity at the royal court, but it was far too expensive to produce in large numbers, and did not become widespread.

Photograph of what might be the original, 1824 Kriegsspiel table created by von Reisswitz (Photo: kriegsspielorg.wordpress.com)
Photograph of what might be the original, 1824 Kriegsspiel table created by von Reisswitz (Photo: kriegsspielorg.wordpress.com)

The next step was taken by Von Reisswitz's son, Georg Heinrich Rudolf Joann von Reisswitz. Unlike his father, von Reisswitz Jr. was an actual veteran who served with the artillery during the Napoleonic Wars, and his father convinced him to further develop the game. His new edition, published in 1824, was in many ways the first truly modern wargame. Reflecting the importance of modern military cartography, the game did away with tiles and sand tables, and used real maps as a board. Similarly, the rules of the game were informed by empirical observation based on the wars against Napoleon.

A reconstruction of Reisswitz Jr.'s 1824 Kriegsspiel game (Photo: Matthew Kirschenbaum)
A reconstruction of Reisswitz Jr.'s 1824 Kriegsspiel game (Photo: Matthew Kirschenbaum)

The rules also accounted for one of the fundamental features of warfare: unpredictability. Whenever two military units engaged each other, the players had to look up their relative strengths on a chart, roll the appropriate dice, and the result would determine what happened. This forced players to think in terms of possibilities, rather than assume certain outcomes. The game also modeled fog of war, the incompleteness of information available to commanders. The two players had copies of the same map, but each only had the blocks representing his own forces, along with whatever enemy units had been already discovered. An impartial umpire was the only one with a full knowledge of the battlefield. Players gave orders to their units in writing, which were handed to the umpire, who then consulted the rules and determined what happened.

Reenactment of a 19th century Prussian game of Kriegsspiel (Photo: ingenieurgeograph.de)
Reenactment of a 19th century Prussian game of Kriegsspiel (Photo: ingenieurgeograph.de)

Von Reisswitz Jr. prepared a demonstration of his game to Prussian officers on its release. According to an eyewitness account, the distinguished officers were originally lukewarm to the game. As the demonstration progressed, however, General von Muffling, Chief of the Prussian General Staff, became more and more excited, and he eventually exclaimed: "This is not a game! This is training for war! I must and will recommend it to the whole army."

Georg von Reisswitz Jr. (Image: Wikipedia)
Georg von Reisswitz Jr. (Image: Wikipedia)

Von Muffling was true to his word, and a separate set of Kriegsspiel was soon bought for every regiment of the Prussian army. One of its many fans was Helmuth von Moltke ("Moltke the Elder"), who himself later became Chief of the Prussian General Staff, and later of the Great General Staff of the German Empire.
 
It was during von Moltke's time that Prussia delivered a humiliating defeat to France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the war that concluded with the formation of the German Empire. The ease with which Prussia won made other countries around the world sit up and take notice. Many commentators believed that Prussia's superior leadership played a significant role, and Prussian officer training methods, including the use of wargames, became a hot international commodity.

French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War (Photo: Brown University Providence)
French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War (Photo: Brown University Providence)

In 1894, for example, the US Naval War College made wargaming a cornerstone for its studies, a tradition it still maintains today. Until the end of the 19th century, students at the College could play out a hypothetical battle, then have that battle reenacted as an exercise by actual ships from the North Atlantic Squadron in Narragansett Bay, right outside the College.
 
Meanwhile, the popularity of military wargaming also saw a rise in recreational use. In 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, used toy soldiers instead of abstract blocks for a wargame of his own creation, which is now lost. In 1913, H. G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, published Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books in 1913. The casual sexism in the title aside, the ruleset was notable not only for being the first modern wargame specifically intended for commercial publication and hobby use, but also for the author's noble intentions: an avowed pacifist, Wells hoped that widespread engagement with wargames might allow people to get rid of their aggressive impulses and thus avert future real wars. The outbreak of World War I the following year proved him wrong.

Illustration of H.G. Wells playing his own Little Wars game (Image: http://www.nirya.be)
Illustration of H.G. Wells playing his own Little Wars game (Image: http://www.nirya.be)

Civilian hobby games were not necessarily simplistic. In fact, one particular naval wargame ruleset, written by Fred T. Jane, the author of All the World's Fighting Ships, was a civilian endeavor, but was noted to be significantly more complex and realistic (but also more unwieldy) than the rules used by the Naval War College at the time.
 
Hobby wargaming by civilians suffered a decline after the Great War, partially due to the widespread disillusionment with war, but also because of the economic depression and the shortage of materials to produce toy soldiers. Military use, however, got a new boost with the realization that another major war might occur within decades. Wargaming at the US Naval War College and the Army War College, for example, was the driving force and the know-how behind the country's color-coded war plans, and also behind what eventually became America's World War II strategic plan for the Pacific theater. Early plans followed the Through Ticket strategy, which called for the U.S. fleet to sail across the Pacific, force a single decisive battle with the Japanese somewhere maybe near the Philippines, and cripple them there. It was strategic-level wargames that revealed a fundamental problem with the plan: it required a large naval force to be supplied with fuel, ammunition and crew very, very far away from the nearest naval base, by a large supply fleet that was extremely vulnerable to enemy attacks. This realization led to the adoption of the Island-Hopping strategy, which was slower, but gave America a chain of secure logistical bases.

A wargame at Pringle Hall at the Naval War College in the 1950s. A game in the 30s would have looked very similar. (Photo: Naval War College Museum)
A wargame at Pringle Hall at the Naval War College in the 1950s. A game in the 30s would have looked very similar. (Photo: Naval War College Museum)

On a tactical level, wargames organized by one Commander Roscoe McFaul were responsible for the U.S. Navy's move away from traditional lines of battle toward circular formations, where carriers are placed in the center of the fleet, and are surrounded by a protective ring of other ships.
 
U.S. Naval wargaming was so thorough that Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz mentioned it in a 1960 speech delivered at the Naval War College: "During the war, the war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise—absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics
towards the end of the war; we had not visualized those."

 
To be fair, there was also one other thing that was a surprise. The idea of a Japanese surprise attack against Pearl Harbor came up in several wargames during the 1930s, but was always dismissed as extremely unlikely. Meanwhile, the Japanese took the same idea very seriously and wargamed the scenario several times.

A mock-up of Pearl Harbor used by the Japanese to plan the attack (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
A mock-up of Pearl Harbor used by the Japanese to plan the attack (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

In the Atlantic, one notable use of wargaming techniques is attached to the British Western Approaches Tactical Unit, an institution that used its own wargaming rules to understand and predict the tactics and capabilities of German U-boats hunting Atlantic convoys.

Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service during a wargame at the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (Photo: National Museums Liverpool)
Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service during a wargame at the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (Photo: National Museums Liverpool)

Wargames might have even influenced the outcome of the D-Day landings. On the day of the Allied attack, several German commanders were ordered by General Friedrich Dollmann, commander of the Seventh Army to go to Rennes for wargames simulating the potential Allied landing. Many of them were on the road to Rennes when they received word of the landings and had to rush back to their command posts. This was even depicted in a scene of the 1962 war movie, The Longest Day where General Erich Marcks, commanding general of the LXXXIV Corps talks about the wargames in Rennes. He celebrated his 53rd birthday on D-Day and was supposed to play Eisenhower’s role in the wargames. He died in an Allied air attack on June 12, 1944.

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A short scene with General Marcks about wargames from the Longest Day movie (Video: YouTube)

Wargames are still alive both as an important tool for training military officers and developing tactical, operational and strategic doctrine, and as a recreational hobby game. In fact, maybe you already know someone who would enjoy an introduction into the hobby. With Christmas coming, this is a great time to surprise a family member, or perhaps yourself, with an entry-level hobby wargame!

A Band of Brothers-themed board game (Photo: hexasim.com)
A Band of Brothers-themed board game (Photo: hexasim.com)
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