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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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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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Napoleon’s Triumph on Pre-Order

Napoleon’s Triumph, Bowen Simmons’ follow-up to his unique Bonaparte at Marengo, is now available for pre-order. As previously discussed on ZOI, Simmons’ designs are distinguished by their graphical fidelity to “the look,” the distinctive visual aesthetic characteristic of battle maps and military cartography.

Napoleon's Triumph (photograph by Bowen Simmons)
Photograph by Bowen Simmons. 

The Austerlitz game (pictured above), which is about twice the size with twice as many pieces as its predecessor, promises to remain faithful to the core elements of the previous design, while also introducing hidden units, leaders (note the battle flags above), and corps-level formations.

Bonaparte at Marengo has come into criticism in some quarters for typically bearing scant resemblance to the actual battle, either at the tactical or the operational level. In the case of Austerlitz, the game will need to convey some sense of the shambles that was the Austrian/Russian command hierarchy, without straitjacketing the Allied player (the tension between the desire to preserve some evidence of historical fidelity without making the game run on rails is ubiquitous in wargame design). The game will also need to account for the literal fog of war that covered the battlefield at the beginning of the day and screened the initial troop movements on both sides, dispositions that sealed the fate of the respective armies.

Napoleon’s Triumph is due to ship on August 15; I am looking forward to playing it.

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War on Terror: The Boardgame

War on Terror

The goal of War on Terror, the boardgame is to liberate the world, ridding it of fear and terrorism forever. Naturally, only the biggest and strongest Empires are up to this task and so a certain amount of dominance needs to be shown. Alternatively, you can play as the terrorists, fighting for a world without empires.

Read all about it here.

This is actually the second game I know of to bear this title. Lightning War on Terror (Decision Games) offers a rather more earnest take on the subject (the “lightning” refers to the speed of game play, not the blitzkrieg).

Via Boing Boing.

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Tai Hai Feng Yun (Mainland Chinese Wargame)

Photographs of what is apparently a hobbyist/entertainment wargame published in mainland China entitled Tai Hai Feng Yun, The Changes of the Taiwan Strait, depicting a near-future conflict between the Republic of Taiwan and the PRC.

The rules are dated October 2006.

It may be an unauthorized copy of the 2001 When Dragons Fight, published by Ty Bomba’s XTR.

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Tai Hai Feng Yun

Thanks to joserizal on CSW for posting these.

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Learning (Not Much) from Board Games

Steve Meretzky, who once upon a time wrote interactive fiction for a little company called Infocom, weighs in on “What We Can Learn From Board Games.”

The “we” here are electronic game designers, and while the sentiment—that board games are relevant—is much appreciated here at ZOI, the article mostly irks me.

Meretzky seems content to wallow in a kind of ludic pastoral. Board games offer “innocent delights,” in contrast to the loud, bellicose, heavy metal pixel monsters that stomp across the virtual landscape. Reading a little further, we learn that the “innocent delights” include stepping into the shoes of “a modern art dealer, a Mesopotamian king, a colonial-era governor, a 19th-century railroad magnate, a bean farmer, a Vegas casino mogul, and an Egyptian deity.”

Meretzky, in other words, is a Euro gamer. He has no stomach for hex and counter wargames—which is fine, each to their own—but he’s apparently willing to forgive the Euro market its ongoing obsession with Orientalism, capitalist fantasy, and colonialism. He wants to insist that Euro games are “wildly original” despite the fact that most hew to a handful of well worn genres and conventions, with similar underlying mechanics lurking just beneath the near-infinite variety of themes skinned on top. He also thinks that board games transcend market forces and material economies—a good board game “can still be created by one or two people at a cost of next to nothing.”

I appreciate that neither Euros nor wargames enjoy the kind of budgets that are the coin of the realm in commercial computer game development, but in fact board games rely on volunteerism and gift economies where hobby enthusiasts donate their time as play-testers, developers, proofers, even artists, for no compensation other than a gratis copy of the game.

It’s pleasing and ironic to find that it’s the virtual economies that are now seen as laden with the baggage of materialism, but by romanticizing board games (we are in their “golden age”) Meretzky risks reinforcing a schism that is already being actively exploited in other quarters, perhaps by those with baser intentions (see below).

[Thanks to Dennis Jerz for this.]

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ZOI Meets Zotero

ZOI is now Zotero-enabled, via a cool plug-in that adds COinS metadata to each entry. (If you don’t know what Zotero is, go find out.)

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Achtung Schweinehund! (Just Published)

A correspondent sends word of the following, apparently just published:

Achtung Schweinehund!

ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is about men and war. Not real war but war as it has filtered down to us through toys, comics, games and movies. It is about blokes who spend their leisure time dressing as Vikings, applying transfers to 1/32nd scale plastic models of armoured personnel carriers or re-fighting El Alamein with stacks of cardboard counters. Take a journey into a darkened backroom where HG Wells, a secret service assassin and the Bronte sisters rub shoulders with men called Dave who can identify 376 different WW2 camouflage patterns; a world where the apparent polar extremes of masculinity – brutal violence and the obsessive desire to memorise code numbers and create acronyms – co- exist peacefully in an atmosphere rich with the hallucinogenic fumes of polystyrene cement, cellulose thinners and bright orange corn-based snack foods. ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is a book for any man who can’t smell enamel paint without thinking of the Airfix 8th Army set, who remembers watching Rat Patrol, reading Battler Briton and playing Escape From Colditz. Or for any woman who has ever asked herself why the first thing most boys make from Lego is a sub-machine gun. 

I don’t see it on Amazon yet, but a UK outfit seems to have it in stock.

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Board Wargames Published in 2006

Comprehensive list of board wargames published in 2006, compiled on behalf of the International Gamers Award Historical Simulations Committee. Over 100 items on the list.

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