The Origins of Wargaming

The world's first wargame, and the world's first wargaming geek? Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia was not unlike any teenager who grew up with Avalon Hill products: he got his hands on a high quality game, was sold by slick looking components and a good rule book, and was apparently instantly hooked. He devoted long hours to learning how to play, sucked unwitting friends into the hobby, and indulged in "monster" gaming sessions. (Lee Daniel Crocker Photo at left)


Wargaming, taken here to mean the use of maps and representational units to re-enact the major decision making of military engagements, dates back several centuries.1 The army of Prussia, noted by historians for its professionalism (it was they who invented the modern military staff system, for example) not surprisingly invented the Kriegspiel or the “war game.” Dating back to 1811, the importance of wargaming was highlighted by success of the Prussian army in their war with France in 1870-71. These early wargames were played with randomizers - dice - to represent “friction”, with an umpire present to offset bizarre turns of fortune as needed.

Baron von Reisswitz, a civil administrator, noted that war games in existence at the time were based on the ancient game of chess (itself dating in the modern sense the Middle Ages and further back in more primitive forms) or else on some type of card game. Despite multiple variations of the standard game of chess, games of the period were non-representational and didn't require the player to make decisions using the same types of logic that a real life military commander would.

The Baron decided to start from basics; instead of a map segmented into squares, as in chess, he would use realistic terrain. After some thought he settled on a scale of 1:2373 - a seemingly odd number, which worked out to 3 cm equalling about 100 paces. Armies of the 19th Century measured cadence, frontage, and distances in paces. Commonwealth sergeants-major today still carry pace sticks as a traditional badge of office; they still use them to form up ceremonial parades, but at one time, an army lived and died by how fast it could march or how well it formed into line of battle.

Establishing a common scale helped to solve many of the problems that are common to any wargame designer - most importantly, how to regulate movement and combat. With a common scale, one only needed to regulate time - segmenting movement into units of time - and the distance that troops could move would be known instantly, given that men and horses both moved at commonly known rates of speed. (In the British Army, for example, regular infantry travel at 120 paces to the minute). Regulating combat could also be done from real world data; for example a 6-pounder cannon had an effective range when firing canister shot of 400 paces (a pace being averaged out to 2 feet 6 inches). The Baron segmented his game into turns, each of two minutes in length.

The problem of command and control in wargames has always been hotly debated; the Baron addressed these questions through the use of what we today call a “double-blind” system:

Now that he had a framework that tied in space and time other problems could be addressed. For instance, do troops receive their instructions via some kind of mental telepathy or do they have to receive instructions from the commander? Does one side wait patiently under fire until it is their turn to move or can they be allowed to move at the same time as the enemy? Does the commander have a godlike all-seeing view of the action or can his view of events be restricted to what he might actually be able to see from his position?

The answer to all these problems was to have a third party involved in the game, who would be a confidant to both sides, a person who was trusted by both sides to act fairly. This eventually became translated by the British as an "umpire". With an umpire at the centre of the game so much became possible. Both sides could write their orders down at the start of the game and pass them over to him. He could implement them at the correct time, and since the orders had been already given he could advance the game move by move for both sides, so that they were in effect moving simultaneously. He could give reports back to the players, and receive fresh instructions in the light of these reports, which the other side would not be privy to.2

Unlike modern wargames, combat was not resolved by chance, but solely by the umpire. The Kriegspiel was not a recreational tool, but an undertaking by professional military officers as part of their individual training, or collective preparation for war. The rules only covered the movement of soldiers.

Having produced a workable model, the Baron's fame was sealed when Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III took notice. The Captain of Cadets at the Berlin Military Academy in 1811 mentioned in a lecture that Baron von Reisswitz had invented a war game; the Kaiser's two sons happened to be in attendance and asked their governor to invite the Baron to give a private demonstration. Impressed, the princes wrote their father, who also requested a demonstration. The Baron presented the game almost a year later at the SansSouci Palace. Fearing his small sandbox display would not weather a trip to Potsdam, the better part of a year had been spent designing a table with a six foot squre top, filled with four-inch square plaster terrain tiles, carefully painted, with porcelain unit markers, complemented by such playing aids as dividers, rulers, small boxes (for concealing hidden units, much like a concealment counter in Squad Leader) and a written set of rules.

The game became a permanent fixture of the Kaiser's residence and became a favourite family pastime. Wargaming had made the jump from a military tool to a recreational one. Commercial viability would have to wait for The Avalon Hill Game Company; dedicated six foot square tables and hand painted porcelain units would keep wargaming out of the hands of the masses.

In the meantime, the Kaiser also embarked on wargaming sessions that any high-school or college age devotee of the modern hobby can probably appreciate. He showed off his game to Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia in 1816 and 1817. Like anyone who set up Avalon Hill's The Longest Day on a pool table in their parent's basement, the Kaiser travelled to Moscow in October 1817 to take part in an improvised game with the Grand Duke in which terrain was sketched out in chalk on card tables butted together - perhaps the first geomorphic mapboards in wargaming history.

By 1824, Baron von Reisswitz's son was now also in the military, and Reisswitz the Younger continued to develop the modern war game. Georg Heinrich Leopold Freiherrn von Reisswitz served at Glogau under General von Blumentstein as a teenaged volunteer. Commissioned as a Leutnant, and awarded the Iron Cross II Class, he became adjutant of an artillery unit in his 20th year, at Erfuhrt, and then was posted to Artillery Brigade II at Stettin. Promotion to Oberleutnant in 1819 and posting to the Guard Artillery Brigade in Berlin apparently gave him free time to start a small Kriegspiel group with other officers.

Three other officers from the artillery, and one of Foot Guards, were occasionally joined by other officers, meeting once or twice a week “testing and improving the developments Reisswitz was making to the game.”3 In other words, perhaps history's first playtest and design group.

Reisswitz the Younger made many significant changes to his father's design. The scale was changed to 1:8000, about 8 inches equaling one mile. A larger playing surface could thus be fitted into the same space as before, and more units, allowing larger actions to be fought with more room for manoeuvre. This too foretold the future design conundrums faced by commercial wargame designers - what is the best scale to portray the subject matter?

The playing surface was also changed from terrain tiles to an actual map. The advantage, aside from portability, was that in a double-blind system having two opposing teams, separate maps were necessary. Few modern wargames recognized this (some notable exceptions such as the redo of the Sniper! series come to mind), but modern commercial wargame rules developed other ways of introducing “fog of war” and command and control issues, making the cumbersome system of double-blind or umpired play (and hence, duplicate maps) unnecessary.

The duplicate maps (marked individually for each team, with a master in possession of the umpire) in this case also eliminated the need for the wooden concealment boxes.

Pains were taken to improve the rules - a modern wargamer would recognize this as an “Advanced” set of rules; Reisswitz the Younger codified procedures for surprise attacks, supporting lines, point defence, and also the use of tables to not only calculate firepower of units, but also determine losses from close combat. Apparently tables with odds of success were used, something that would become a staple of modern wargaming also.

In early 1824, the Kriegspiel group was asked to demonstrate the new game for Prince Wilhelm, by now commanding a corps. The demonstration prompted Wilhelm to recommend the game to the Kaiser and the General Staff, and Reisswitz the Younger was personally summoned in front of the Chief of the Prussian General Staff with his group and his game. Initially cold to the idea, the Chief of Staff quickly warmed up to the game, and pronounced it more than a recreation, but a training tool worthy or recommendation to the entire army. His recommendation, published in the next issue of a military magazine, highlighted, as we would say today, the playability aspect.4

Mass production became the order of the day when the Kaiser ordered a game for every regiment in the Army. Tinsmiths, painters and carpenters were assembled by Reisswitz the Younger, to create the blocks used as unit counters. Maps and rules were edited and prepared for mass production.

Grand Duke Nicholas, in Russia, had heard about the new version of the game from Prince Wilhelm - anyone who felt the need to tell old friends about the arrival of Advanced Squad Leader in 1985 can probably relate - and was anxious to learn about it. The Russian military attaché in Berlin accompanied Reisswitz the Younger to St. Petersburg and in the event spent an entire summer as a guest of the Grand Duke. Upon his return a “monster game,” as modern wargamers would call it, was planned for Berlin that autumn to take place at Wilhelm's quarters, with the Chief of Staff devising a scenario involving a full scale campaign fought between the Oder River and the Elbe River, with a final battle at Bautzen.

Extra players were found, and the game was played once a week. Apparently, there were no housecats in residence, as the game stayed set up from week to week. On occasion, the Kaiser, his princes, and foreign dignitaries all looked in on the game. (The closest modern wargaming has come to the interest of nobility has been Curt Schilling.) Other units eventually formed their own Kriegspiel clubs. While the game's popularity spread throughout the Army, apparently Reisswitz the Younger himself felt unfulfilled. Promoted to Hauptmann, he was passed over for a vacancy in his own Guard Artillery unit as a company commander and transferred to Torgau with another artillery brigade. He is rumoured to have committed suicide in 1827, feeling that he had been banished. His game had been adopted Army-wide, he had summered with Russian royalty, and had been decorated by the Kaiser with the Order of St. John for his work with Kriegspiel.

When rumours of the death of Reisswitz first reached Berlin some of his friends and followers simply could not believe it. Von Troschke was one of those who had recently become interested in the game. He was convinced at first that Reisswitz had been seconded to the service of Nicholas (now Tsar of Russia) to give advice on the conduct of Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish war which had just broken out. But the rumours were soon confirmed. His friends and followers wondered where this left the Kriegspiel, and where it left them. They were aware that an anti-Kriegspiel feeling arisen in some quarters. Some of the older generals were of the opinion that the game would give young officers an inflated idea of their abilities to manage Brigades and Divisions and leave them dissatisfied with ordinary regimental service. There may have been something in that, and it may have been why Reisswitz had been shunted off to Torgau instead of getting his promotion in Berlin.5

Like many junior officers, Reisswitz the Younger may have made enemies for himself inadvertently. Bill Leeson, whose research provides the inspiration for most of this chapter, certainly thinks so. (Incidentally, in 1983, Leeson translated the 1824 Kriegspiel into English and sold it as a modern commercial wargame).

In 1970, The Avalon Hill Game Company released their own Kriegspiel, as part of their line of bookcase games. Handsomely packaged in a nested cardboard box, this version did not require the personal attention of monarchy, nor a team of tinsmiths and carpenters to produce it. The game was unique in having no randomizers - dice - or luck factors. Combat was simulated by computing odds and cross referencing those odds using one of four defensive strategies and one of three offensive strategies. Otherwise, the game was what even by 1970 could be considered a “traditional” modern wargame, with movement regulated by hexagons and units represented by cardboard counters. The rulebook declared the game to be “best suited (of all of Avalon Hill's games) for introducing novices to the growing science of game strategy."

Leeson's opinion was that “Reisswitz may not have been aware of it his sudden rise to prominence had put him in a delicate position. Some people were bound to resent what they would see as a young upstart pronouncing with authority on the tactical decisions of his superiors. We are told that he was the kind of person who, without being presumptuous, maintained an air of self-confidence to those above him as well as to those below.” A fellow officer and wargamer of Reisswitz the Younger's is quoted by Leeson as saying that "Unfortunately he did manage to provide these opponents of his invention with a certain amount of ammunition through many witty remarks, which harmless as they were in intention could have been misinterpreted if they came to the ears of those they should not have reached".6

New methods of doing things, particularly in the realm of tactics, are often a bone of contention in modern militaries. When Battle Drill - a method of training meant to inculcate initiative among the most junior ranks of the infantry - was introduced into the British Army during the Second World War, it was suggested that the new training made “every man a general.” At least one unimpressed formation commander suggested with some degree of frankness that he would prefer it if he were the only general in his division.7 There were rings of truth to opposition to the new training; General Montgomery felt it focused attention away from collective training, for example.8

It should not surprise us, necessarily, then, that Reisswitz the Younger was eventually put in his place. What is more surprising was the legacy left behind; any mention of his name in the amended rules published in 1828 was deleted in favour of simple mention of “existing rules.” Leeson tells us that the game never gained widespread popularity though many high placed officers such as Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the elder (Chief of the Prussian General Staff from 1857 to 1888) and Julius von Verdy du Vernois (a general and staff officer under von Moltke) became fans. By 1873, a magazine article explaining the game to a civilian audience also had no mention of Reisswitz the Younger, and actually claimed that the game had been invented and disseminated verbally until formalization in 1846. An old colleague of Reisswitz's wrote a clarifying article for Militair Wochenblatt to mark the occasion of the game's fiftieth anniversary. An anonymous article several weeks later told of how the game had come to the attention of the Kaiser and the royal household; Leeson surmises the author most certainly was Kaiser Wilhelm, who at the time the events took place had been Prince Wilhelm and present at all the events described in the article, along with his brother Prince Friedrich.

In 1870, rules-based Kriegspiel once again fell into disfavour with a “free Kriegspiel” system relying on the military experience of umpires gaining new popularity. Military experience was not in short supply in the Prussian Army at this time, with recent wars against Austria and France in 1866 and 1870-71 providing experienced umpires who could assess factors such as morale, weather, intelligence and other battlefield intangibles not easily codified.

In the meantime, John Thomas Frederick Jane, famous for founding Jane's reference books, also created a naval war game in the late 19th Century. Jane's Fighting Ships contains a set of rules for The Naval War Game in the 1905-06 edition of this annual guide book to the world's naval vessels.


The first reference we have to miniatures gaming - the use of “toy soldiers” as game pieces - dates back to the 1890s. Given the existence of toy soldiers dating back many centuries, their use as the object of military maneuvers probably predates even that (any 20th Century boy who ever owned a combination of toy soldiers, magnifying glass, pellet gun, or other engines of destruction can probably attest). The first tin soldiers became popular in the 1700s, but the earliest published account of using them for play comes from Scribner's Magazine in December 1898. Simple physical combat - hurling marbles at toy soldiers - gave way to rules for logistics, combat and movement to make the game an intellectual challenge.9

A package set - soldiers and rules in the same box - appears circa 1910 as The Great War Game, with the rule book titled separately as War Games for Boy Scouts. H.G. Wells also produced wargaming rules based on miniatures , first in Floor Games in 1911 and later Little Wars in 1913. He provided mainly a juvenile rule set for physical combat involving spring loaded miniature cannon, but also an appendix that captures the spirit of the earlier Prussian Kriegspiel. He was, however, devoted to the idea of physical combat resolution rather than dice or tables. In 1929, the first rules published in the United States appeared, called Sham Battle: How To Play With Toy Soldiers, written by by Harry G. Dowdall and Joseph H. Glason.

In 1940 a Naval War Game was published by naval historian Fletcher Pratt. His Navy Game was a development of Jane's, using wooden ships on a scale of 1:600 (or one inch equaling 50 feet). Mathematical formulas were used to calculate combat results, and though many rules were arbitrary, the results that the game provided were considered more realistic than Jane's.

Picture from Making & Collecting Military Miniatures by Bob Bard (1957), with a drawing originally appearing in Illustrated London News) .

In addition to providing fodder for later generations of wargaming fanatics with his Jane's series of books (an excerpt of the 1906-07 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships is shown here), and laying the foundation for a multi-media and information technology industry in its own class, Fred T. Jane was a pioneer in naval wargaming in the late 1800's. Most wargame designers - certainly those concentrating at the tactical level - are information junkies or trivia masters to begin with.

The disadvantage of miniatures-based game systems was expense; increases in leisure time and disposable income among average citizens in industrialized nations made the games more accessible. The first widely published rules and mass produced miniatures began to appear in the 1950s, when Jack Scruby started Scruby Miniatures in 1957 and his own magazine, War Game Digest.

Thus began what is known in the miniatures hobby as the Second Age. Different systems and scales emerged over the years. One system, Tractics, first published in 1971, was the first game ever to be published with a 20-sided die.

At least one fusion of miniatures and board wargaming was attempted by the introduction of Deluxe Advanced Squad Leader and the use of GHQ's line of 1:285 scale “micro-armour” miniatures with the expanded board game maps. While miniatures have never really disappeared, they have made a resurgence in the 21st Century with various published game systems including Flames of War and the Axis and Allies line, both featuring pre-assembled and painted miniatures.

Military War Games

Modern militaries would also continue to use war games, though the terminology would change. In addition to field exercises, in which full scale rehearsals of maneuvers were conducted, simulations, or games, allowed commanders to manipulate models without the costs involved in deploying actual troops and other resources. These came to be known as sand table or cloth model exercises, or in the Commonwealth armies as TEWTs (Tactical Exercise Without Troops). was selling these exquisitely detailed 1:285 scale miniatures on ebay in June 2007.
Building the miniatures can be, and is, a hobby unto itself.

United States President Lyndon Johnson views a model of Khe Sanh, a United States Marine Corps base besieged during the Vietnam War. Ultimately, wargames, cloth models or any kind of simulation is only as good as the kind of data that the creator of the simulation feeds into it, and the number of factors the creator has taken into account when working out the mechanics of resolution. United States Federal Goverrnment Photograph.


  1. Leeson, Bill. “Origins of the Kriegspiel” accessed online at
  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.
  4. Militair Wochenblatt (no.402, 1824) Leeson quotes the Chief of Staff as saying "Anyone who understands those things which have a bearing on leadership in battle can take part immediately in the game as a commander, even if he has no previous knowledge of the game or has never even seen it before".
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Farran, Roy. History of the Calgary Highlanders p.98
  8. Copp, Terry. The Brigade (Fortress Publications Inc., Stoney Creek, On, 1992) ISBN 0-919195-16-4 pp. 26-30
  9. Osbourne, Lloyd Scribner's Magazine, accessed online at



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