The History of Wargaming – Part 1

Wargaming as a pastime has been around for almost 250 years. In this two part series I will highlight the major rulesets written since the beginning and my take on where wargaming may go next.

Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig

The first wargame was invented in 1780 by the Prussian Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig. This was the first true wargame as it attempted to simulate the wars of the time and so give future military officers lessons in strategy (it’s worth noting that during this period, Prussia was THE power in Europe and her armies and officers were admired the world over).

Hellwig wanted to sell his wargame commercially and so chose to base the game on Chess. He hoped by doing this, it would make it appeal to chess players.

The grid layout for Hellwig’s game

Like Chess, Hellwig’s game was based on a grid of squares, albeit much larger. These squares were colour coded to represent different terrain such as swamps, mountains, hills, rivers etc. The layout of this terrain was not set and so players could change the layout and have a unique experience each time they played. Playing pieces represented Artillery, Cavalry and Infantry, as well as other support units. Like in Chess only a single piece could occupy any square and all the pieces moved square by square either laterally or diagonally. Over normal terrain infantry could move eight squares, Dragoons twelve squares and light cavalry sixteen squares. Rivers could only be crossed with pontoons or bridges and a player could only move one piece per turn. Pieces could capture other pieces by moving onto an opposing pieces square, much like Chess. Unlike Chess however, the artillery and infantry pieces could shoot.

Johann Georg Julius Venturini

Hellwig’s game was a commercial success and this success inspired other inventors to create their own chess-like wargames. In 1796 another Prussian named Johann Georg Julius Venturini create a game very similar to Hellwig’s, only with larger squares and rules for logistics such as convoys and mobile bakeries. He also incorporated seasons and weather, which made his game perhaps the first operational level wargame.

Johann Ferdinand Opiz

In 1806 another Johann, this time one from Austria named Johann Ferdinand Opiz developed a game which was aimed both for civilian and military markets. Like Hellwig’s it also used a modular square game board, but unlike Hellwig’s, Opiz’s game introduced dice rolls to add an element of randomness to the game to attempt to simulate the unpredictability of real warfare. Hellwig himself felt that the addition of randomness spoiled the fun for players.

The major criticisms of the three Johann’s games were that pieces were restricted in movement across a grid like battlefield and that only one piece could occupy any square at a given point regardless of how large that square was. The grid like fashion also meant that terrain took on unusual forms with rivers flowing in straight lines and bending in right angles. This lack of realism meant that no army took the games seriously.

Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz – Kriegsspiel

In 1824 yet another Prussian, and yet another man who was named Johann (this time as a middle name) took the opportunity to use his position as a Prussian army officer to present to the Prussian General Staff a highly realistic wargame that he and his father had developed over the last few years. This game would become one of the most famous wargames of all time and is still played today – Kriegsspiel.

A rendition of an 1824 game of Kreigspiel

Kreigsspiel was played an scale paper maps with pieces that were accurately sized to the units they were meant to represent. All of this allowed the game to model battles in real locations with pieces being moved across the battle in a free-form and subject to terrain. The pieces were coloured with blue playing pieces representing those of the Prussian army and red pieces representing the enemy. This idea of red versus blue persists through into wargaming and computer gaming today and can be attributed to Kreigsspiel. Kreigsspiel also used dice to add an element of randomness to the simulation like Opiz’s game.

The game modelled the capabilities of units realistically using data gathered during the Napoleonic Wars. A manual provided tables and lists as to how far each unit in the game was able to move according to the terrain it was attempting to cross. An umpire used a ruler to move these pieces across the map with the players advising the umpire what moves they would like to make. By doing this, this created a fog of war with each player only able to see what enemy units had been discovered on their own map. Combat was determined by dice rolls and units would have casualties inflicted upon them rather than being removed from play immediately. Firearms and artillery fire’s effectiveness decreased over distance and units strength was tracked using hit points with additional rules for both morale and exhaustion.

Earlier wargames had fixed victory conditions, such as occupying the enemy’s fortress. By contrast, Reisswitz’s wargame was open-ended. The umpire decided what the victory conditions were, if there were to be any, and they typically resembled the goals an actual army in battle might aim for. The emphasis was on the experience of decision-making and strategic thinking, not on competition. As Reisswitz himself wrote: “The winning or losing, in the sense of a card or board game, does not come into it.”

The Prussian king and the General Staff officially endorsed Reisswitz’s wargame, and by the end of the decade every German regiment had bought materials for it. This was thus the first wargame to be widely adopted by a military as a serious tool for training and research. Over the years, the Prussians developed new variations of Reisswitz’s system to incorporate new technologies and doctrine.


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