Archive for Wargame History

Roman d20

From Christies, a recently auctioned authentic Roman twenty-sided die, c. 2 A.D.:


“Several polyhedra in various materials with similar symbols are known from the Roman period. Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.” Apparently it was from the collection of a Maryland Fine Arts professor. Hmm.

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On Debord’s Kriegsspiel and Board Wargames

From watercoolergames, Wolves Evolve, and VirtualPolitik comes the astonishing news that the estate of Guy Debord has issued a cease and desist to Alex Galloway for his Radical Software Group’s recent implementation of Debord’s Game of War (Kriegsspiel).

As woeful and bizarre as I find that news, the ensuing discussion in the blogs and comments has manifested some terminological confusion over the use of the word Kriegsspiel (the title Galloway employs for Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre, A Game of War).

Kriegsspiel, of course, is German for (literally) “war game.” In 1824, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced the game (versions of which had been kicking around in his family for years) to his fellow officers. (“This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed.) It was quickly adopted, and became the foundation for the German use of wargaming which persisted through World War II (these are the “sand table exercises” of which Friedrich Kittler writes in his cryptic preface to Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter). Some, however, have interpreted the tradition of the German Kriegsspiel and Debord’s apparent use of the same title as evidence that Debord’s game is itself a derivative work, and that Galloway’s implementation of it is simply another instance of the game’s progression since the early 19th century.

Unfortunately, this is factually incorrect. The von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel was played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions. By the middle of the 19th century, it had evolved two major variants, so-called “rigid” and “free” Kriegsspiel. The latter attempted to replace the elaborate rules and calculations of the game with a human umpire who makes decisions about combat, intelligence, and other aspects of the battlefield. Kriegsspiel is thus the title of a loose family of military map exercise games, which emerged and evolved throughout the 19th century. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel as I have been recounting them here is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming [Naval Institute Press, 1990].)

Debord’s game bears only the vaguest generic resemblance to the tradition of Prussian Kriegsspiel. The Kriegsspiel was played on actual military topographical maps, often of terrain that was anticipated as the scene of future conflict (for example, the Schlieffen plan was subject to extensive rehearsal as a Kriegsspiel, using contemporary maps of the Ardennes). Debord’s game, by contrast, is played on a gridded board that depicts two abstract nations or territories, more or less symmetrical in terms of geographic features.

metzsegment.jpg eclectics5_lrg.jpg

Above is a small section of the so-called “Meckel map,” the 1:7500 map set that became canonical for play of early Kriegsspiel, alongside of the 2007 Atlas Press print edition of Debord’s game.

Debord’s game actually bears a much closer resemblance to the tradition of commercial board wargaming I write about here on ZOI. I have no idea (or way of knowing) whether Debord was familiar with these games himself, but there are family resemblances worth pointing out. In 1958, Charles S. Roberts founded the Avalon Hill Game Company to publish his military game products, the first of which was called Tactics II. It is a generic conflict game between two abstract combatants, red and blue. Alongside of games on specific historical battles and campaigns (like Gettysburg, which came out the same year) Roberts and others in the emerging hobby published occasional abstract conflict games which sought to model the essence of warfare. Here, for example, is portion of the board for Tactics II, which shows a “mountain pass” (also a key terrain feature in Debord’s game):


There are some important differences, however, between Roberts’ designs and Debord’s. Roberts introduced the use of the Combat Results Table, basically a Monte Carlo table with a distributed set of outcomes based on odds ratios of the combatants. To resolve an engagement, players tote up the odds of the forces involved, add modifiers or column shifts for terrain and the like, then roll a die and consult the table to determine the outcome. In Debord’s game, by contrast, combat is deterministic. One calculates the total number of offensive and defensive points that can be brought to bear on a contested grid square, and based on those numbers the defending unit either retreats, is eliminated, or holds its ground. Nothing is left to chance.

Debord’s game also no doubt owes something to the tradition of chess variants that were popular throughout the 20th century, including the “Kriegsspiel” variant that John von Neumann famously enjoyed, in which play proceeds in a double blind manner (neither player is aware of the location and position of his opponent’s forces). Or else consider a 1933 Soviet military variant by A.S. Yurgelevich: “The game is played on a board of 128 squares, obtained by adding to all four sides of a regular eight by eight board a strip of two by eight (or eight by two) squares. Players have each twenty-four pieces: a headquarter, a bomber, a tank, two guns, two cavalry, two machine-guns, and fifteen soldiers.”


(Thanks to Peter Bogdasarian for this reference.)

A final note. Alex Galloway, in his writing about Debord’s Game of War, makes much of the “rhizomatic” nature of the all-important lines of communication that govern each side’s ability to move and fight their pieces:

[A] sympathetic reading of Debord would be to say that the lines of communication in the game are Debord’s antidote to the specter of the nostalgic algorithm. They are the symptomatic key into Debord’s own algorithmic figuration of the new information society growing up all around him. In short, Kriegspiel is something like “Chess with networks.”

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting, that while absent from games like Chess and Go, such lines of communication had been a standard feature of commercial board wargames in Roberts’ tradition since at least the 1968 (fateful year) publication of James Dunnigan’s 1914, a strategic level game on the First World War. As typically expressed, the mechanic requires units to be “in supply” or else suffer grievous consequences. Being in supply means being able to trace a line of contiguous hexes, free from enemy units or their “zones of control” to a friendly map edge or supply depot. In practice, this sometimes required excessively “gamey” tactics, as players would trace elaborate looping lines of supply, skirting enemy units to eventually corkscrew around back to their own rear areas. Debord’s lines of communication are much less forgiving, their hard geometries undeniably evoking something of the grid or the matrix that feels very contemporary (Gibson’s “lines of light” in the non-space of cyberspace).

It would be fascinating to know what, if any, contact Debord has with board wargames from companies like Avalon Hill and SPI. We know, says Galloway, that he played political strategy games like Djambi. Board wargames enjoyed similar public popularity during the time when Debord was developing his Game of War, and it is not inconceivable that he would have encountered them.

Others can comment with more authority than I on the ultimate legal merit or lack thereof of the cease and desist. I can say that Debord’s game, while not much in the tradition of classic Prussian Kriegsspiel, does bear some resemblance to other commercial wargame designs then popular in the marketplace. All games, it seems to me, emerge from a thick tissue of tradition and ideas, and it would be a shame indeed if Debord’s work was denied this revival of interest over tired matters of originality and “infringement.”

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Hobby Games: The 100 Best

Hobby Games The 100 Best

Arrived yesterday. Edited by James Lowder (Green Ronin, 2007), it’s surprising no one’s done this before: ask prominent game designers to write about their favorite games. So you get Richard Garfield on Dungeons and Dragons and Gary Gygax (RIP) on Metamorphosis Alpha, Steve Jackson on Paranoia and Erick Wujcik on OGRE. Collectible Card Games, RPGs, Euros, and wargames are all represented, even some miniatures. Wargame titles include Thomas M. Reid on Axis and Allies, Tracy Hickman on Battle Cry, Skip Williams on Dawn Patrol, Alessio Cavatore on Empires in Arms, William Jones on Flames of War, Lou Zocchi on Gettysburg, Gav Thorpe on Hammer of the Scots, Uli Blennemann on Here I Stand, Craig Taylor on A House Divided, Dana Lombardy on Johnny Reb, Ted Raicer on London’s Burning, Chris Klug on Napoleon’s Last Battles, John Scott Tynes on Naval War, Mike Bennighoff on PanzerBlitz, Joseph Miranda on Renaissance of Infantry, Ray Winninger on Squad Leader, Lewis Pulsipher on Stalingrad, Douglas Niles on Terrible Swift Sword, Zev Shlasingle on Twilight Struggle, Sandy Peterson on Up Front, and R. A. Salvatore on War and Peace. Each entry is about three pages long, and, in a nice touch, they’re presented alphabetically by game, making it easy to look up titles.

Other writes include Richard Berg (on Plague!) and Ed Greenwood (on Thurn and Taxis); but no Richard Borg, Mark Herman, John Hill, or Charles Roberts. There’s also an afterword from Jim Dunnigan (it says little if anything new). It’s nice to see some very contemporary games like Here I Stand and Flames of War in there along with the old chestnuts. I frankly was expected a lot of puff pieces, but overall the quality of the writing is high. Here’s Winninger on Squad Leader for example:

Avalon Hill built its reputation in the 1960s with elegant wargames that asked players to route Ney off the Quatre Bras heights, to encircle Tobruk with Montgomery’s 8th Army, or to stave off Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow. When it exploded onto the scene in 1977, John Hill’s Squad Leader presented armchair generals with a new and unusual challenge—crossing a street. (288)

And a few lines later, “Thanks to John Wayne and Lee Marvin, it was relatively easy for gamers to translate the action of the game board into ‘real’ battles in their imaginations, lending the whole experience a lively, escapist quality. (By contrast, try to imagine exactly what a ‘2-to-1 attack’ on Leningrad looks like)” (288-9).

Exactly right. And here’s Jeff Tidball on Car Wars:

From the first release of the first edition, players were empowered to create and arm their vehicles from the ground up, and they had lots of options. They were free to obsess over such minutiae as the weight and cost of the individual rounds with which their recoilless rifles were loaded. And not for nothing: trading a bit of ammo for a point or three of armor could spell the difference between life or death in the arena! By the time the various—and definitive—boxed Deluxe Editions were released in the mid-’80s to early ’90s, the game burst with options, from flaming oil slicks to tank guns, to laser-reactive webs to fake passengers.

Such deep but structured creative opportunities—long before collectible card games made “customizable” a design buzzword—gave Car Wars the effectively solo game play mode of vehicle creation, and also a mode of “extroverted” metaplay—the sharing of car designs, fan to fan, via Autoduel Quarterly, club news letters, and, later, the Web. (50)

Really excellent, that. Recommended.

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Guy Debord’s Kriegspiel

Turns out Situationist extraordinaire Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle and other works) was also a grognard:

In January 1977, the French Situationist Guy Debord founded the Society for Strategic and Historical Games. The Society had an immediate goal: to produce the “Kriegspiel,” a “game of war” that Debord had already designed in his head years before. Inspired by the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz and the European campaigns of Napoleon, Debord’s game is a chess-variant played by two opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of 20 by 25 squares.

Debord’s Kriegspiel has now been reimplemented online by new media arts collective RSG. There’s also a printed edition available from Atlas Books. Here’s an excellent background article.

Debord and his wife, Alice Becker-Ho playing the game

Debord's Kriegspiel, as implemented by RSG

(Via GrandTextAuto.)

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Kriegsspiel Rules Back in Print

A small British hobbyist outfit is publishing a reprint of Bill Leeson’s translation of the original 1824 von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel rules:


Pricey at £22 shipped to the States, but I’ll probably cave and pick up a copy.

More info here.

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The Good Old Days

Picked up an old issue of The Avalon Hill Game Company’s house organ The General on eBay (May-June 1977) and was amused to read this response from the editor in the letters column:

Although S&T [Strategy and Tactics, SPI’s rival mag] delights in passing along news of our impending games before we do, you’ve got to keep in mind that their “Gossip” column is aptly named. Much of the information they pass on in reference to our operations is inaccurate, if not pure fabrication. It’s sort of a friendly game we play. They try to “jerk our chain” by printing our “news” first and we get our jollies by feeding false reports to their “spies.”

Ah, the good old days, when there were only two companies and three numbers on the counters.

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Robert Louis Stevenson at Play

A surprising number of literary figures played “wagames” of one sort or another. H. G. Wells, of course, but also the Bronte sisters (who made up elaborate games with their brother’s toy soldiers). Fletcher Pratt, the fantasyist who was also an amateur naval historian. Hans Christian Anderson. And, as we see here, Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a nice facsimile reproduction of an 1898 Scribner’s article that describes Stevenson’s campaigns with a set of Napoleonic wargame rules.

Stevenson at Play

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