Chapter5.gif History of Wargames

Which came first, warfare or wargames? Given the lethal nature of actual warfare and man's penchant for self-preservation, it is quite possible that some form of wargame occurred before the first organized war. Whatever the case, wargames have been around for a long time. Warfare may have gotten more attention, but wargames are a lot safer.

Chess is one of the oldest surviving ancient wargames. Games similar to chess go back thousands of years. Chess is also one of the more accurate wargames for the period it covers (the pregunpowder period). Chess is a highly stylized game. It is always set up the same way, the playing pieces and the playing board are always the same. The board is quite simple. Each of the pieces has clearly defined capabilities and starting positions, much like soldiers in ancient warfare. Given that ancient armies were so unwieldy and communication so poor, it is easy to see why each player in chess is allowed to move only one piece per turn. Because the armies were so hard to control, the battles were generally fought on relatively flat, featureless ground. Then, as now, the organization of the army represented the contemporary social classes. Thus the simularity between chess pieces and the composition of ancient armies.

As a minor point on the history of chess, the "queen" was, until quite recently, called not the "queen" but the "general," "prime minister," or other similar titles to represent the piece's true function, namely, the actual head of the army who had under his personal command the most powerful troops. This is why the "queen" piece is so powerful. Not only does it represent the single best body of troops, but also the very leadership of the army. The king, on the other hand, is indeed the king of the kingdom, without whose presence the army is lost. Thus, the king is not necessarily a soldier of any particular talent. During the battle his main function is to survive and to serve as a symbol, a rallying point for his army.

For thousands of years, chess and variants of chess were used by civilian and military personnel alike for entertainment, education, for "simulation." As more education, leisure time and technical sophistication became available, the games themselves expanded in a similar fashion. In the 17th century, the first modern wargames appeared and within 200 years, wargames surpassing the complexity of most (but not all) of the games covered by this book came into existence. These earliest wargames were simply elaborate variations on chess that replaced the traditional components of chess with playing boards that represented real terrain and playing pieces that accurately (to one degree or another) simulated contemporary troops and their capabilities. Many of these early efforts were prepared by civilians, as professional soldiers in that period were chosen more for their courage and loyalty than for any desire to invent new things. These civilian wargames were often lacking in crucial elements of reality, as their authors often had minimal military experience.

By the early 19th century Prussians, civilians as well as members of the Prussian Army, developed the first detailed and realistic wargames. These were used for training, planning and testing military operations. The mechanics of the games were developed after careful study of actual military maneuvers and battles. After the wars of German unification concluded in 1871, the Germans made no secret of their new technique, and most European armies quickly followed their lead. However, no one took it as seriously as the Germans, and no one got as much out of it as the Germans.

About the turn of the century, the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells wrote a book called Little Wars. This book described a somewhat simpler form of the wargames than those used by the professionals. Wells' game used toy metal soldiers to represent the military units, and is another of the direct antecedents of contemporary wargames.

Up until World War II, the majority of the wargames available involved battles. The planning for larger operations was not so much a game as it was a paper-shuffling exercise directed toward solving the puzzle of getting all the pieces moving at the right place and time, much like planning a railroad schedule. But during World War II, things began to change.

Much of the gaming used in World War II was of the conventional sort. But equally, if not more important, was the introduction of more scientific techniques. Much of the "gaming" that took place at the behest of the military after World War II was more operations research (OR) and systems analysis than the study of history. The study of past military operations, and history in general, which had formed the basis of the earlier wargames, was very much neglected. This situation has only been rectified to any degree in the last ten years. Meanwhile, the primacy of OR in the military allowed civilian wargames to pull ahead of, and in many cases replace, functions previously performed by OR based wargames. The military only began to play catch-up and develop effective games for their own requirements during the late 1970s and through the 1980s.

Civilian wargaming in the US began, in 1953, when a young gentleman from Baltimore named Charles S. Roberts, developed a game called "Tactics." It posited two hypothetical countries, with typical post-World War II armies, going to war with each other. The game was professionally produced and distributed through the Stackpole Company (which already had a reputation as a publisher of books on military affairs). This was the first of the modern commercial wargames (as we know them).

Charles Roberts was then working in the advertising business and was indulging in the commercialization of his hobby as a sideline. But by 1958, he realized that there were a lot of people who were interested in his type of game, and he founded the Avalon Hill Company. For the next five years, Avalon Hill experienced tremendous growth. But up until 1961, only six games were published. However, during 1961, an additional six games were published, and from 1962 to 1963 six more games were published. Of these 18, only nine were wargames. They included Gettysburg, Tactics II, U-Boat, Chancellorsville, D-Day, Civil War, Waterloo, Bismarck and Stalingrad. It was the wargames, however, that accounted for most of the sales, and by 1962, Avalon Hill was selling more than 200,000 games a year.

But then it all collapsed. There was a combination of problems. First of all, the distribution system for games was changing in the early 1960s. Many distributors were having a hard time and a number of them, who represented 25 percent of Avalon Hill's volume, went bankrupt. Avalon Hill had borrowed heavily to finance its expansion, and this really left it on the ropes. Charles Roberts turned the company over to his two largest creditors and went on to a career in the printing industry. Tom Shaw, who had joined Charlie a few years earlier (they had been long-time friends), was the only member of the old Avalon Hill to stay on. Business was pretty bad through the end of `63 into early `64, but then Avalon Hill began publishing one or two games per year and also decided to publish a long-planned wargaming periodical called The General. This was a critical move, as it provided a forum for gamers to discuss subjects of common interest, and more importantly, to be aware that they were all part of a large group.

Eric Dott, the president of Monarch Printing, the largest creditor of the old Avalon Hill, was now making most of the decisions. He made the key decisions to keep the company going and showed how to keep it going. Dott eventually bought out the other creditor/owner and became the sole owner of Avalon Hill. In later years, Dott would step in as needed to keep things going and this enabled Avalon Hill to continue as a presence in the wargaming market. Tom Shaw has also stayed with it, being the day to day manager of the company, and was largely responsible for dragging me into the business.

  Chapter 4 - Designing Manual Games

  Hey, Let's Start a Wargame Company in the Basement!

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