19th & 20th Century Wargaming

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

And now, Part 2 of our series on Wargaming History!

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Kriegsspiel - 19th Century

Kriegsspiel, 1824 edition.
Kriegsspiel, 1824 edition.

Developed in the early 19th century by a junior officer in the Prussian army Georg von Reisswitz and based on his father's prototype, Kriegsspiel is arguably the first wargame to offer a realistic experience of armies engaging in the field.

Kriegsspiel uses many elements of wargames that we would recognise today. There is a board set out with realistic terrain that shows height as well as terrain. Such as whether an area is forested, or has a road, or has a river flowing across it. There are dice to represent random factors and determine the success of troop actions representing the chaotic nature of warfare. Units within the game, represented by abstract rectangular pieces, portray real units within the army to a highly specific degree. These units have ‘hit points’ and can get weaker as they are attacked rather than simply being removed as is the case in Chess when a piece is lost.

They also represent specific units that would have been within the Prussian military force and armies of the day. For example a red block can represent a group of skirmishing ‘zug’ infantry whilst a red and green block can represent a group of ‘Hussar’ cavalry.

When battles in Kriegsspiel were fought they played out like real battles, not like the abstract movements of the Chess board. You were really ordering your infantry Jagers across the river to engage your opponents entrenched 7 lb artillery batteries, and the game was intended to simulate this in order to teach Prussian commanders battlefield strategy.

Kriegsspiel 1824 Pieces
Kriegsspiel 1824 Pieces

Prussia has a proud military tradition, with one of the most famous military theorists as well as general in history Carl von Clausewitz hailing from Prussia. His book ‘On War’ provides a comprehensive and systematic look at the philosophy of war itself. He theorized that rather than war being a chaotic emotional affair, instead it can be viewed through a rational lens as ‘politics by other means.’ War is the sum total of decisions, actions and responses to an uncertain and dangerous situation made by rational actors.

From this view of war we can see how the wargame is birthed which pits two opponents against one another. Each player has control over their own armies and can make decisions, but random elements and information is hidden from them in respects to both opposing troop movements and plans as well as the wider terrain and game situation.

For this simulation of war to work Kriegsspiel needs to add a third player to the wargames formula. This player known as an ‘Umpire’ or ‘Referee’ would be the key to making the simulation of war work.

The Umpire would take the troop orders from the other players in the game and resolve them based on their own interpretation and the aid of the dice. They would also be responsible for designing the scenario for the players and presenting the game situation to them. The Umpire would ideally be a person with military experience and would translate this experience into the game, for example by judging how successful a certain placement of artillery would be. They would also have to be impartial for this to be successful judging the situation neutrally and fairly and not given any advantage to either player beyond what the scenario demands.

This would allow for a wide range of different scenarios and situations to unfold in the battle that would be much more difficult for two players competing to fairly negotiate between themselves.

The ‘Referee’, also known as the ‘Games Master’, will be familiar to players of modern roleplaying games as the person responsible in much the same way of crafting the situation the players in the game are in and fairly judging situations. Though they have fallen out of favour in most modern wargames they still live on within roleplaying.

Kriegsspiel was introduced to the Prussian King who was so impressed that he ordered it to be mass produced as a means to teach military tactics and strategy to the Prussian army, making it one of the first mass produced wargames that spread across the country being played in numerous gaming clubs throughout the century.

One amusing quirk of the game spreading in popularity was a couple of problems people started to have that would be familiar to us today. People couldn’t find enough referees to run the game. This was in part due to the complex nature of the rules making the barrier of entry high as well as most people wanting to play rather than referee the game.

This gave birth to the variant ‘Free Kriegsspiel’ which significantly stripped down the rules to their bare basics allowing far more creativity and freeform play and learning. This is similar to the ‘OSR’ movement now in a sense as players found extensive rules bogging down their ability to run and play the game freely.

This also hints towards a growing market that wanted greater accessibility towards wargaming.

Little Wars by H.G Wells - 1913

First Edition of Little Wars - 1913
First Edition of Little Wars - 1913

Developed by author HG Wells, Little Wars was heavily influenced by Kriegsspiel but was designed to be played in a far more casual setting as a means to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon. The key way it innovated was by being designed to be used with painted toy soldiers that would represent the players armies. This is instantly recognisable to wargamers today with the vast majority of wargames using painted figures rather than abstract blocks or tokens like Kriegsspiel or Chess do.

There’s a child-like joy in simply setting up toy soldiers facing one another across detailed terrain. Having rules to arbitrate which person's army wins is just icing on the cake. The real fun of it is in the spectacle of the battle itself. Much like Kriegsspiel these painted figures would be real units within the army, whether an 18lb artillery piece or a Enfield rifle-wielding infantry man. Instead of representing an entire battalion however they’d each represent individual soldiers which would create a far more personal connection when one of your little painted figures was shot down.

We see the hobby expand here as well, with painting and collecting becoming as important a factor as playing. In respect to Little Wars, the game seems to have been born out of H.G Wells wanting to play with painted miniatures the players already owned. The rules were created to scratch this particular itch.

There are some wonderfully child-like aspects to the rules of Little Wars, to shoot artillery you literally pointed your toy artillery towards the enemy and fired a projectile from the toy gun itself. In an effort to simplify the rules further dice were eschewed for simply flat calculations on how much damage units did to other units based on their size. There were however still crunchy rules as well, for example unit supply was an important factor within the game, so the deeper tactical elements of Kriegsspiel were present in places but overall the game was a far simpler affair for a more casual audience.

H.G Wells playing a game of Little Wars with an opponent and Umpire present.
H.G Wells playing a game of Little Wars with an opponent and Umpire present.

The real draw to Little Wars was the spectacle of laying your painted figures out against your opponent. The game was intended to be played on a considerably large area such as within a garden or floor with terrain pieces and beautifully painted soldiers. Whilst this was still a hobby that required time and money it was aimed towards a growing middle class within the Edwardian era following the industrial revolution who had the time and means to collect and play. Whilst we often think of tabletop games as a childhood activity, Little Wars is unique within our history of the game for being the first that is explicitly aimed towards children as well as adults.

The full title of the game is

Little Wars; a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books.”

Not only is the game aimed towards children but girls. The hobby throughout its history up until this point was incredibly male dominated, seen as mostly the tactical sport of men. Though no doubt women must have encountered and played some of these games they were not aimed towards them - but Little Wars is.

Granted this quote by modern standards comes off as patronising at best and regressively sexist at worst the fact it acknowledges that the game is one for girls is progressive for its period. This comes at a time where women still were fighting for the vote and H.G Wells was a writer who openly supported the feminist cause and women’s suffrage,

Though Little Wars was successful within its niche the world would soon dramatically change, being plunged into two world wars. The massive economic and cultural impact that these wars would have meant that it wasn’t until the post war period in the 1950s that wargaming truly started to thrive again as a hobby. This was in part thanks to the work of Jack Scruby who would be instrumental in the huge wargaming boom within the 20th century.

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Panny is a writer, GM and games designer with an interest in tabletop roleplaying and classical history.

Panny writes about tabletop games at www.hexjunkie.com and streams at www.twitch.tv/hexpertise. You can also follow him on Twitter @lines_panny


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