Ancient & Medieval Wargaming

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

And now, for a series on Wargaming History.

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Wargaming, which we can loosely define as a strategic game intended to simulate warfare, has been with humanity since the dawn of civilization. Arguably the first wargame was known as The Royal Game of Ur and dates back to 2600-2400 BCE.


The Royal Game of Ur - 2600-2400 BCE


The Royal Game of Ur is a 2 player tactical game that simulates chariot racing. It’s similar to Backgammon, a competitive game played with 2 sets of Checkers-like pieces and a set of 4 sided dice to randomise how far your ‘chariot’ piece can move.

Royal Game of Ur board  found in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1926-1927 and dated to approximately 2500 BCE
Royal Game of Ur board found in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1926-1927 and dated to approximately 2500 BCE

The chariot revolutionised bronze age warfare. It was invented through the culmination of various different technologies including the spoked wheel, the domestication of horses and the single arched wooden bow. It allowed armies to move at a frightening place, using speed and hit and run tactics with bows and spears to tear apart infantry formations like sheep to the steppe nomads who rode the chariots into battle.


The chariot caused the rise and fall of civilisations. With this in mind it’s no coincidence that the earliest boards of the Royal Game of Ur date to the early dynastic period in Mesopotamia. Within this period we see the rise of the chariot kings such as Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, who established one of the first verifiable empires in history, subduing multiple ancient cities in modern day Iran, including Elam and Susa and extending his domain to Sumer and Akkad.

Eannatum, King of Lagash, riding a war chariot
Eannatum, King of Lagash, riding a war chariot

The Royal Game of Ur initially seems to have been a game played between the upper classes of society, the quality of the board is excellent and would have been an expensive thing to purchase and most of our early findings are in wealthy tombs or palaces. However the game grew widely in popularity and we’ve found boards as far as the island of Crete in Greece and Sri Lanka in South Asia. We also have evidence of crude versions of the board being drawn on the floor, providing evidence that it was eventually played by all strata of society, even those that could not afford a fancy board.


From this early stage in humanities history we desired to simulate warfare. But for what purpose did we want to create a simulacra of such a violent aspect of our history, lives and nature?


The ‘first historian’, Herodotus, can shed some light on one purpose the playing of games served to ancient civilisations. Within his work ‘The Histories’ he tells the story of Atys of Lydia, an early king from the 2nd Millennium BCE who had an innovative means of counteracting a severe famine. He decreed that on one day his people would work and eat and on the other they would play games to distract their mind. They purportedly lived like this for 18 years through the famine. (Herodotus 1:93,94)


Herodotus wrote his history in the 5th century BCE and gathered it through mostly oral records taken from his extensive travels. Stories about game playing being a crucial part of maintaining an empire existing in both written and oral records demonstrates the importance of games to ancient people as much as they are to us today.


This strikes to one purpose and utility of games which is of course distraction. We don’t know exactly what games the Lydians played but the empire was in the same region as we have found the Royal Game of Ur boards.


Mere distraction may not seem much of a purpose in our productivity-fueled society, however in the case of Lydia it allowed them to survive through a famine. Even in circumstances less extreme, being able to take time to rest in-between the hard toil of agricultural life within ancient society would have been vital for people to rest and recharge. Why have the fruits of civilisation if you can’t sit down to enjoy them from time to time after all?


Though what if playing games also did have some utility to them? Perhaps they could teach us about how to live. Or how to kill?


Ludus Latrunculorum - 2nd Century BCE


Ludus Latrunculorum was a game played widely within the Roman Empire that derived from a similar earlier classical Greek game known as Petteia. It resembles chess or draughts in that it’s a competitive game between 2 players played on a grid-like board with different coloured pieces being controlled by the opposing sides. There’s also no randomisation element making it a game of pure skill and strategy. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of the exact rules of the game but from our records one thing is clear, Ludus Latrunculorum is a game about military tactics and strategy.


A wargame.

A reconstruction of a Ludus Latruncolorum board.
A reconstruction of a Ludus Latruncolorum board.

An account of a game of latrunculi is given in the 1st-century CE Laus Pisonis:


"When you are weary with the weight of your studies, if perhaps you are pleased not to be inactive but to start games of skill, in a more clever way you vary the moves of your counters on the open board, and wars are fought out by a soldiery of glass, so that at one time a white counter traps blacks, and at another a black traps whites. Yet what counter has not fled from you? What counter gave way when you were its leader? What counter [of yours] though doomed to die has not destroyed its foe? Your battle line joins combat in a thousand ways: that counter, flying from a pursuer, itself makes a capture; another, which stood at a vantage point, comes from a position far retired; this one dares to trust itself to the struggle, and deceives an enemy advancing on its prey; that one risks dangerous traps, and, apparently entrapped itself, counter traps two opponents; this one is advanced to greater things, so that when the formation is broken, it may quickly burst into the columns, and so that, when the rampart is overthrown, it may devastate the closed walls. Meanwhile, however keenly the battle rages with cut-up soldiers, you conquer with a formation that is full, or bereft of only a few soldiers, and each of your hands rattles with its band of captives. [3]"


This account demonstrates the explicit nature of Ludus Latrunculorum as one to teach the art of warfare itself. Military prestige and glory was vitally important within the Roman Empire and especially if you wanted to rise up within the volatile political landscape. It was only those of senatorial rank who could become officers within the Roman army and would have sway over wider strategic decisions within an army.


As such this quoted passage would have been intended for upper class nobles who had political and militaristic aspirations. This account further emphasises the importance of formations and maneuvering within a battle, the Roman army were in part formidable because of their ability to stay in disciplined, solid, armoured ranks that would not break. The Roman Cohort, despite being a solidly armoured block of soldiers, was highly maneuverable thanks to the Romans relatively lightweight banded Segmentata armour and their use of the short Gladius as their main weapon. Hence being able to out-maneuver an enemy was vital to victory. This passage suggests Ludus Latrunculorum was viewed as a means to teach these skills of battle to a young aspiring officer.


Despite the emphasis within our accounts of this game being played between wealthy men to engage in militaristic competition with one another we have evidence of the game being played widely across the empire. There have been boards found in Colchester, England as well as Poprad in Egypt and in varying quality from finely carved stone boards to more simple wooden ones suggesting this was a game played across social class and in a wide variety of settings. Rome was a patriarchal empire where military strength and competition was encouraged across all strata of society and it seems this game was one means to do so, less deadly than a gladiator fight perhaps but no less mentally taxing.


Maneuvering draught-like pieces certainly simulates battle maneuvers in a simple way, but one feature of warfare is combining multiple different types of units into a single unified force. For that to appear in game form we would have to wait around 500 years for the invention of a game we now know as Chess.


Chess - 6th Century CE


Chess, originally known as Chaturanga, came from the Gupta Empire in India in the 6th century CE. It was named after the four different pieces on the board themselves which represented the four divisions of the army. The infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots which are all represented by different sculpted pieces which we’d now know as the pawn, knight, bishop and rook respectively.


The game spread from India to Persia and was introduced to the Persian nobility as a means to teach the art of warfare itself much in the same way Ludus Latrunculorum was. The terms ‘check’ and ‘checkmate’ have Persian origins in the term ‘Shāh!’ meaning ‘King’ and ‘Shāh Māt!’ meaning ‘the King is helpless’. These would be exclaimed as the King on the board was attacked.


With Chess we start to see many different wargaming elements come together. Chess is a competitive game played between 2 players on a grid board with open information and no randomisation. This makes it a game of skill and strategy. The different pieces within the game now represent different areas of the army and act differently based upon their role. With the ‘cavalry’ piece being considerably more maneuverable than the infantry piece but the infantry pieces far more numerous. The goal of chess is to capture the enemy king using the entirety of your army to do so whilst avoiding your opponent doing the same to you.


In ancient warfare kings would often directly lead their troops into battle and be responsible for giving orders in the midst of the fray, and whilst they’d be well protected they were vulnerable. The death of the King could mean the entire army might rout and flee from the battle and it would at least mean the chain of orders and commands would break down. Capturing a King as a hostage would also be a huge blow to the opposing side. The goal of Chess then emerges to take out this vital piece of the opposing army by capturing the enemy king.


The game spread rapidly across the world being played everywhere from the Middle East, to North Africa, Russia, East Asia and Europe.


One interesting social response to the growth of Chess as a pastime is a criticism that we hear about modern tabletop gaming now, that it’s a waste of time that will keep your mind clouded and distracted making you unable to pursue the important things in life, whatever they may be.


The philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazali from modern day Iran mentions chess in The Alchemy of Happiness (c. 1100). He writes:


"Indeed, a person who has become habituated to gaming with pigeons, playing chess, or gambling, so that it becomes second-nature to him, will give all the comforts of the world and all that he has for those (pursuits) and cannot keep away from them."


This seems to be one of the first pieces of written evidence we have of such criticism that gaming leads to idleness that still pervades tabletop gaming to this day. This provides an interesting contrast to the more utilitarian purposes of gaming we’ve had up to this point of its use to teach military strategy or the positive aspects of gaming's means to distract. This does however demonstrate how far reaching gaming was for it to receive criticism from a respected theologian within the strata of society.


After travelling most of the world by the 15th century Chess has taken the shape that we would recognise it today. It however remains a fixed game, with a set of pieces with specific moves on a board that remains static. All the information about the game is open to both players. War is never so simple. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that a realistic wargame began to take shape in the form of Kriegsspiel.

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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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