Modern wargaming is a growing genre that expands many demographics. While most people think of wargaming as exclusively for warfighters, big businesses are adopting the practice to test strategies and play out hypothesise in a ‘safe’ environment... so where did it all begin and why is it still relevant today?
Wargaming can trace its roots back to the training of Prussian and German soldiers at the beginning of the 19th century. Referred to as Kriegsspiel, meaning ‘war play’, the chief of the Prussian General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, thought highly enough of the concept to insist it be made available to all of his men. The result was a notable improvement in his officers' ability to think and act independently. Before long, wargaming was adopted by other militaries around the world who also saw it as an important training method.
While Kriegsspiel gained popularity within military circles, it was the famous sci-fi writer H.G Wells who ushered in a new era of mainstream wargaming with his game ‘Little Wars’, which included playing pieces such as cavalry, infantry, artillery and simple rules for movement and fire. Eventually he added an appendix for logistics, engineering, cavalry charges and railway transport for troops over large distances.
More then one hundred years later and there are a myriad of wargames ranging in complexity from Grand Strategy games involving entire nation states and their resources, such as the Washington Institute – Iran nuclear program to tactical games focused on single battles at company/platoon level such as Squad Leader and Tobruk.
Modern wargames can come in many different forms ranging from simple paper based ‘what if’ scenarios, board games, table-top games (played at the tactical or strategic level with adjudication and discussion), computer games and simulation.
So what are the benefits?
Any game that involves strategy is going to assist with critical thinking. More specifically, wargaming can improve the way we look at a problem and the steps we go through to find a solution.
Linear Thinking: This is often referred to as step-by step processing. If your opponent makes a move, then you will make your next move accordingly. There is a level of predictive thinking where players must anticipate future consequences, sometimes a number of moves in advance.
Synergy: The interaction of single elements combine to create an overall effect. Understanding how each element works independently and in relation to each other is a complex skill requiring focus and attention.
Synchronous movement: As games are often played over a period of time, players must be able to focus on different elements working together at various times. Learning to control each element at the right time requires prioritisation, good planning, memory and concentration.
Contingencies: How the game is played is somewhat dependent on chance and uncertainty. Dealing with unexpected outcomes can often mean the difference between winning and losing. This is more about the ‘art’ of war and requires good judgement and creative thinking.
Psychology. Wargaming helps you get inside the mind of the enemy, developing an adversarial edge that will help you out-think, and out manoeuvre, an enemy. This is key when it comes to real war, where your plan will change and the enemy has a vote.
Where to start....
Wargaming can be somewhat daunting to the novice. While most people are familiar with computer based strategy games such as World of Warcraft, Command and Conquer etc, traditional wargaming (Kriegsspiel) requires a little more know-how and a commitment from all players. There are many off-the-shelf wargames that can be found on-line that are a good place to start.
Professor Phil Sabin, Kings College London, is a leading authority in the design and application of tabletop wargames. He has worked closely with the UK Ministry of Defence, lectures internationally and has written fifteen books on the subject. He was recently contracted to the the British Army's Centre for Historial Analysis and Conflict Reaserch to design a Kriegsspiel for officers to practice their battlefield tactics. His webpage contains a large collection of games created by past MA students and has links to a number of game producers
The US site PAXsims is also a great resource offering up-to-date games and discussion of recent world events. The website highlights that wargaming is not solely confined to fighting battles. The game 'Aftershock' is a good example of a wargame based on a large scale humanitarian crisis from initial emergency to reconstruction efforts. The game covers many issues including interagency cooperation, internal displacement, social unrest, political instability and media cooperation.
While traditional table-top wargaming may not be as 'flashy' as hi-tech simulated games or as convenient as mainstream commercial computer games, the investment in time and effort has proven to yield positive results. Kriegsspiel games are cost effective, encourage meaningful discussion and analysis and can be played almost anywhere.