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The History of Wargaming

Wargames are nearly as old as organized warfare itself. Evidence has been uncovered that indicates the use of games to simulate war in ancient Egypt. Some of these games underwent an abstraction process that resulted in their transformation into board games such as chess and go.

In 1780, Helwig, Master of the Pages for the Duke of Brunswick, invented a game strikingly similar to the modern commercial wargame. It was played on a board of 1666 squares, color coded by terrain type. Players used pieces representing units of various types with different movement rates expressed in terms of squares-per-turn. In 1795, Georg Vinturinus, a military writer in Schleswig, developed a more complex version of the same type of game that used a map based on an actual piece of terrain (between France and Belgium).

In 1824 Prussian Army Lieutenant von Reisswitz published an elaborate wargame system designed to be used in actual military training and planning. The game, a development of an earlier design by the lieutenant's father, made use of military maps, an umpire, probability tables, and detailed rules. Although it received a mixed reception in the Army (in fact jealous officers harassed von Reisswitz to the point of suicide) the game inspired the formation of a wargaming club and the publication of the first wargaming magazine, the Kriegspieier Verein. Eventually, the wargaming concept became a generally accepted tool in the German Army, and when later in the 19th Century the Germans won their stunning victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War, many other nations (rightly or wrongly) attributed much of the success to the German's use of Kriegspiel in preparatory training and operational planning. American Army officers, W.R. Livermore and C.A.L. Totten, each designed their own versions of the German Kriegspiel, which met with the same sort of resistance from the military establishment. Totten's game had the unique feature of appealing to civilian garners as well as military professionals.

Wargames were used by many of the major powers shortly before and during World War I. For the most part, the games suffered from the preconceptions of their users as to what was possible and not possible. So, for example, the use of such biased strategic gaming to test the Schlieffen Plan failed to indicate the likelihood of a stalemated Western Front very early in the war. During World War II, the Germans made very good use of operational level games to plan precisely major attacks. In particular, the swift march through the Ardennes, out-flanking the Maginot Line, was thoroughly wargamed in advance. The invasion of the Soviet Union was intensely wargamed, and this contributed greatly to the speed and magnitude of the opening German victories.

One of the best known anecdotes about World War II wargaming concerns the Japanese simulation of the Battle of Midway. In this very elaborate game, the Japanese Naval officers playing the role of the Americans launched an attack on the Japanese carrier force and inflicted devastating losses on it. When a number of the Japanese carriers were sunk, the umpires were told to cancel the result (in effect, the Japanese cheated at their own game) and 're-float' the ships. The game then went on to indicate the victory at Midway that the Japanese felt was inevitable. In the real event, the Japanese carrier force was struck almost precisely as indicated by the game and with even more disastrous results. This is but one of the more remarkable instances of an all-too-typical behavior pattern evident in the military use of wargames as stochastic devices: when the result isn't what the planners expect, the temptation to cheat can be overwhelming.

In the post-WWII era, the military use of wargames became increasingly sophisticated and widespread. Much of the advance in sophistication was connected with the advent of computer technology. The computer allowed large amounts of data to be stored and manipulated, freeing the human players from the tedium associated with highly detailed manual simulations. The ultimate in computerized gaming came about with the development of mathematical models of conflict situations that are entirely played by computer without human intervention. There is some debate concerning the usefulness of such computer simulations. The amount of data generated is so great that it can overwhelm the user, thereby undermining the very reason for the simulation. As part of an attempt to deal with this problem, the military (in the US) has been examining the various wargaming techniques used in commercial games. In 1976, the US Army contracted SPI to produce a tactical level game as a training device - the identical game is also sold to the civilian market as FireFight.

Civilian/Commercial Wargaming

For as long as model soldiers have existed, wargames have been played. However, it was only shortly before World War I that such informal gaming began to take on structure and substance with the publication of H.G. Welles' Little Wars, the first widely used rulebook for the use of miniatures in war-gaming. Since then, many such rules systems have been published, but all have been in essence derivatives of Welles' original work.

In 1953, Charles S. Roberts produced and distributed the archetype for a new type of commercial wargame. It was called Tactics. Its modest success encouraged Roberts (in 1958) to form the Avalon Hill Company to produce adult games (including wargames). The first titles were Tactics II and Gettysburg (the first commercial wargame on a truly historical subject). The company grew rapidly up until 1963 when it. ran into an economic brick wall and almost ceased to exist. Basically it had overextended itself plus it was caught in the grip of a dislocating shift of buying from retail to discount stores. The company was taken over by its major creditor, Monarch Services. For a time it was internally dormant (so far as producing anything new) while it was reorganized. Essentially, it divested itself of its design staff and began a conservative program of producing one or two wargame titles a year, all of which were designed by freelancers.

In 1966 while the hobby was slowly growing, Christopher Wagner, then USAF Staff Sergeant in Japan, began publishing Strategy & Tactics Magazine as an alternative to Avalon Hill's house organ, The General. Many of the people who are now 'names' in the hobby first became associated with each other via S&T. Wagner endeavored to produce a quality magazine to give shape and substance to the hobby. After struggling valiantly for two years, Wagner felt that he had to give up in his virtually single-handed effort to give the hobby a voice. Casting about for someone to assume the liability of the remaining subscriptions, Chris contacted Jim Dunnigan (who had written for S&T). Reluctantly, Dunnigan agreed - primarily to have a vehicle through which to test a series of experimental games he and some friends were developing. As S&T shifted its base to New York, Redmond Simonsen agreed (also reluctantly) to involve himself once again in S&T. [In the previous year Simonsen had been working with Wagner to professionalize the magazine.] After struggling through its first New York produced issues, S&T underwent a transformation into the format it more or less maintains to this day: a military history magazine with a simulation game in it. At first, both Dunnigan and Simonsen thought of S&T as a temporary venture. But the admittedly 'rough' games that Dunnigan had designed brought a freshness to the hobby that it sorely needed. Plus in one stroke, they doubled the number of game titles available to hobbyists. As Simonsen began to professionalize the 'look' of S&T and SPI games, and as the two men took a team approach to game design, the pace of the hobby began to quicken.

In late 1970, Simonsen and Dunnigan incorporated as Simulation Publications. Via a program of advertising, S&Ts circulation began to build and sales of SPI games to its readers began to take on serious proportions. By 1972, SPI was growing exponentially and became a substantial competitor to Avalon Hill, which until SPI's advent had been the only ship in a very calm sea.

The innovations that SPI brought to the hobby are in large part responsible for its present vitality. The production of a serious history magazine containing a full-fledged game; the constant surveying of garners to discover the titles they wished to see produced; the quantum jump in the rate of game production; the multiplicity of new game systems; the multi-talented in-house design staff - all these elements and others have made SPI a major force in the rapidly growing field of civilian wargaming.

SPI's success has encouraged the formation and entry of other companies into the field, and the resultant competition and diversity has benefited the hobby greatly. SPI, Avalon Hill, and the other publishers are basically friendly rivals with a common interest. All the major and most of the minor companies now participate in an annual convention and show attended by thousands of garners.

The number of wargamers in the country has been variously estimated at from 100 to 250 thousand although the potential exists for a much greater audience. The typical American wargamer is a college-educated male in his middle twenties. No more than one percent of garners are women, but this is changing as women in general diversify their interests and activities. Hobbyists offer a wide spectrum of reasons for playing such complex, time-consuming games, but most say that wargames afford them a unique approach to historical information as well as a highly challenging, involving source of entertainment and competition.

From its origins as a court curiosity to the highly developed sophisticated manual simulations of the seventies, wargaming has undergone a remarkable evolution. There are now hundreds of wargames in print and the list is growing by several dozen each year. The level of innovation and production is several orders of magnitude greater than it was only a decade ago. Just ahead lies the era of electronic wargaming as the personal computer explosion impacts in the US. It's a safe prediction that the next ten years will be at least as fascinating as the last ten.

Redmond A Sirnonsen

From: Napoleon of Waterloo, 2nd Edition, December 1979.

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