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Australian Defence Force

Background for the Basic and Advanced Analytic Wargaming Courses from the Naval Postgraduate School in Canberra, 17 February to 6 March 2020


Background and History of War Games

Distant History (including First Generation war games)

Chess and similar games are often claimed to hold the origins of war gaming. Apart from having two opponents with elements moved on a two-dimensional surface, there is little resemblance to war games of the recent two centuries as practiced by military professionals.

The Development of Kriegsspiel

Modern wargaming developed largely in what is now Germany. In 1780, Dr. Helwig, a subject of the Duke of Brunswick, invented the "King's Game" or Koenigspiel. This game was played on a modified chessboard. There were nearly 2000 squares that were color-coded to represent terrain feature, e.g., open ground, rough ground, marshes, rivers, lakes, or built-up areas. While terrain was represented more realistically than on a conventional two-colour chess board, Helwig's game still represented an extreme abstraction of warfare.

Various advances came over the next few decades. Then, in 1811 Georg Leopold von Reiswitz transferred the gaming venue to a sand table. This was the genesis of Kriegsspiel. It was subsequently improved further by the elder von Reisswitz and his son, Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz. Kriegsspiel emerged as an excellent means of studying military issues for officers in the Prussian Army of the era (1830s-1870s). However the game became progressively more competitive, and the procedures were developed to deal with the minutiae of movement and interaction. Many players began to use (and abuse) the rules to win, rather than to study military issues. The adverse effect was that tactical reality gave way to the rule book.

Freie Kriegsspiel or Free Kriegsspiel.

Some time after Kriegsspiel had become established, Free Kriegsspiel was developed (originally by Jakob von Meckel and Julius von Verdy du Vernois in the 1870s) to simplify what had become a rather meticulous, even tedious, set of rules. In particular, the adjudication procedures of Kriegsspiel had become cumbersome and time consuming and, in many ways, a distraction from key elements of the games that were meant for studying military strategy and tactics. Rigid rules were replaced by umpires who would use their own experience and judgement to adjudicate outcomes. By then war games had become somewhat unpopular due to the distracting rules of adjudication. But with combat-experienced officers providing their military judgment as a replacement for the cumbersome rules, war gaming became much less tedious. The new procedures resulted in games that were faster and thus more popular, hence played more often.

Free Kriegsspiel worked well when the umpires had considerable experience and well-honed judgement to contribute. Their adjudications were plausible to players (who generally had considerably less experience). And the umpires, because of their credibility gained from recent combat, were rarely challenged. However, Germany’s officers who were veterans of the campaigns of the 1860s and 1870s gradually retired from military service and the new generation of umpires could not adjudicate with the same credibility. A second problem is what today may be called "opinion of the senior officer present". When one of the players outranked the umpire, an umpire might feel obliged to give way to his senior's opinion for some adjudication. These two factors created problems for Free Kriegsspiel.

The Twentieth Century (Second and Third Generation)

US Naval War College in the Early Days

Captain William McCarty Little and his Naval Game had a dramatic effect on the Naval War College, where McCarty Little Hall (opened in 1999) is the state-of-the-art home of the College's war gaming activities.

US Naval War College in 1919-1942

An article by Michael Vlahos (pp. 7-22) provides an extensive review of this period.

British and Canadian War Games of 1950s and Later

The British Army developed manual war games at the division level after World War II. In the 1950s the Canadian Army Operational Research Establishment reviewed gaming activities in allied armies and developed a gaming capacity based largely on the British model. One feature of the Canadian Army gaming was to gather players at regular intervals to collect what were called "Judgements and Insights". This practice has continued to the present. It amounts to conducting a seminar with the participants to gain their insights on the operations just conducted in the war game.

Commercial Board Gaming

Avalon Hill is the name of a now-defunct game publisher that was the centre of the hobby gaming industry in the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Many of the old Avalon Hill games remain available.

Simulations Publications, Inc or SPI and Strategy and Tactics magazine succeeded Avalon Hill as the leader in the hobby war game market. James F Dunnigan started SPI partly to take over a failing magazine called Strategy and Tactics.

SPI and S&T were dominant forces in hobby gaming through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Dunnigan has widely published on military topics. His Wargames Handbook, now in its third edition provides a good description of hobby gaming during the period of SPI's dominance. Dunnigan has gone on from his start in hobby gaming to become a widely known commentator on military issues and on the professional use of war game methods.

  • "Hypotheticals", "Crisis Games" and "Role-playing Games"
    • PBS Television. Public television has been airing seminar war games for more than two decades. PBS has used this technique in an educational mode to draw out the issues in many contentious topics. Many of the PBS broadcasts might better be called "Crisis Games" as there is no war and very little military involvement.
    • National Defense University. NDU's Center for Applied Strategic Learning applies seminar war games in a variety of contexts. Those with little or no military context might better be labelled crisis games, as war in the conventional sense is rarely a dominant feature. An example would be Wargaming the Flu. Indeed CASL often uses the term "strategic simulation exercises" for many of their activities.
    • Dungeons and Dragons D&D), and other fantasy role-playing games have elements of seminar war games. Although D&D is set in a purely fictional world, and the intent is exclusively to entertain those involved, the commitment of the participants shows how appealing seminar games can be.

    Military Applications of Seminar War Gaming from the Recent Past

    NATO Land Ops 2020 and NATO Urban Ops 2020 studies 1999-2000 included some of the larger seminar war activities within the Alliance as it looked to the future of land operations. The gaming aspects exploited the familiarity of the British operational research participants in running Technology Seminar War Games for their own Army.

    DoD Title X Wargames

    These are seminar war games conducted at the highest level the US military services.

  • The Spectrum of Professional Games

    War games originated within the military community over two centuries ago. The techniques have since been adapted to a wide range of endeavors.

    War Games for the Military

    For over a century the military services of the United States have used war games for professional development. The Naval War College has a legacy dating to the late 19th century of professional gaming. In 1912 Captain Macarty Little provided a summary of how the Strategic Naval War Game was incorporated into the College's and the Navy's training and analytical program.

    Educational Material for Understanding Critical Aspects of American Culture

    What Is a Fred Friendly Seminar

    PBS in conjunction with Fred Friendly Seminars provides many examples of using a seminar within a role-playing game structure to provide compelling cases for critical aspects of American life. While lacking some elements of a traditional war game, e.g., an aggressive adversary, this series provides excellent examples of facilitation, of a well-crafted scenario, of opportunities for participants to affect the outcome of the game.

    Role-playing Games within Exercises for Emergency Management

    FEMA Cover for Course on Exercise Design

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides training on exercises to test and to develop good management plans. FEMA provides exercise planning advice in several areas. In many respects the manuals are derived from experience in the military services with war gaming although this has been "translated" to be relevant for domestic security.

    Games As Part of Contingency Planning

    NIST Guide to Test, Training, and Exercises

    The National Institute of Standards and Technology provides a handbook that covers the use of games for exercising plans for specific contingencies. This manual addresses planning to maintain an information-technology infrastructure when faced with man-made and natural catastrophes.