Training for War: on the origins of serious war-gaming – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Training for War: on the origins of serious war-gaming

Hobby War-gamesI like simulating war, at least, as a hobby. As a child I marveled at Axis and Allies, and games like Risk. Writing and designing the war-game Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream for me, working on a realistic computer war-game, or a Real-Time Strategy Game (RTS) as it is more commonly called. In talking about any RTS, we are talking about 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. No origin story would be complete without the mention of breakthrough game maker and publisher Avalon Hill, and their 1960 game Tactics. Even those table-top games owe what they are to the ideas of their predecessors in antiquity.

Tactics IIGame makers have been driving for realism in war-games for thousands of
years, and 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?  War-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 strategics.  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.

a game lover and game maker I can’t help but wonder, when did this
fascination begin? 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? Like most things in western
culture, one need look east to find their roots.  The first serious
war-game, or military game, came before Europe was even a dream.  The
Sanskrit word “Chaturanga”, means “four parts”, or “Army”, which for
the ancient Indian’s was compromised by 4 parts.  It is a game of 6th
century BCE Indian origins consisting of two small armies, on an 8 x 8

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”[1].  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. About 2400 years later things got interesting. 
Christopher Weikhmann of Ulm, Germany, developed a warlike game called The King’s Game in 1664.  While innovative in it’s own right, it was a century later The Duke of Brunswick, iterated on the Kings Game
design which 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 immensly 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. 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!”.[2] 
*Boom* that moment is a turning point in thought the beginning of a new
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.  His belief in the representation of the reality of
warfare through an abstracted game system inherently demands that games
are capable of mechanics representing 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’.

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.” [3]

1. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Chess: Iranian or Indian invention , Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 200?
2. 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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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on September 4, 2008 8:16 PM.

Military War-games and World War III was the previous entry in this blog.

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