The term, “war-game” is simply a translation of the German term, “kriegspiel.” Because many are simply uncomfortable with the term “war-game,” feeling perhaps that war is too serious for “games,” you will often see every term but war-game used to describe war-games. These include Map Maneuver, Chart Maneuver, Field Maneuver, Exercise, or increasingly, “modeling and simulation.”
The origins of war-gaming can be traced back some 5,000 years to the Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu and the game Wei-Hai (“encirclement”), a Chinese game that is usually now called “Go.” A later, similar game was the Indian Chaturanga, the system from which chess in its various forms came about. Chess itself gave birth to at least one game, which more formally depicted armed combat. This was the 1644 design known as The King’s Game from one Christopher Weikmann. It included 30 pieces per side of 14 military types, each with a different fixed rate of movement. Like its predecessors, it was played principally for pleasure but differed by its emphasis on the strategic level of war.
The first game to break away from chess, however, was invented by Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick in 1780. This game included 1666 squares, each coded for a different rate of movement depending on the terrain the square represented. Playing pieces now represented groups of men instead of a single soldier, and each unit was rated for different movement (infantry moved 8 spaces, heavy cavalry 12, for example). In 1795, Georg Vinturinus, a military writer from Schleswig, produced a more complex version of Helwig’s game. He modified it in 1798 by using a map board that depicted actual terrain on the border between France and Belgium. Britain came close to inventing modern war-gaming. In late 1781 a Mr. Clerk of Great Britain developed a method of using model ships to simulate historical engagements. By carefully placing his “ships” in their historical locations at the beginning of an engagement, stepping through the battles, and analyzing the influence the geometry of the combatants had on their combat power, Mr. Clark was able to acquire many useful insights.
Nevertheless, such innovations did not move war-games out of the entertainment world into that of the military until 1811 when a Prussian father-son team began to make their studies known. The father, Baron von Reisswitz, was a civilian war counselor to the Prussian court. During the dark days of Prussian domination by the Napoleon, Reisswitz introduced a game that used a specific scale and a sand table instead of a map grid. In 1811 the game was observed by two Prussian princes who then showed it to the King. The game immediately became the rage at both the Prussian and Russian courts, but professional soldiers saw little use for it. All that change in 1824. In that year Reisswitz’ son, Leutnant George Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz of the Prussian Guard Artillery, introduced his own version of his father’s game. The game was called Anleitung zur Darstelling militarische manuver mit dem apparat des Kriegsspiels (Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a War-game) and included a number of new innovations, the most important of which were the use of actual topographical maps to portray the battlefield and rigid rules which specifically quantified the effects of combat.
In the years leading up to World War II, the German General Staff invented the tactics of Blitzkrieg (which today we would probably call “combined arms maneuver warfare”), and explored its implications with war-gaming. Both Japan and the United States used war-gaming extensively during the interwar period, as did both the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. The First Gulf War had been war-gamed in considerable detail many times, including an iteration that concluded only weeks before Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into Kuwait (the results of which were fundamental to development of General Schwarzkopf’s war plans).
From those earlier days war-games evolved to its present form that includes support from the advanced technologies found in computer models, simulations, and networks. In the twentieth and twenty first century, most war-games have been played in the nation’s war colleges and at the headquarters of war fighting staffs.
In our next series on war-gaming, we will discuss insights from previous military war-games and then the evolution of war-gaming from the war room to the corporate boardroom.