Early American Wargaming

The other day while messing around on Google Books I ran across a couple of interesting items.  First I found Strategos (1879) written by Lieutenant Charles A. L. Totten.  It has one of those delightful 19th century subtitles: “A Series of American Games of War Based Upon Military Principles and Designed for the Assistance Both of Beginners and Advanced Students in Prosecuting the Whole study of Tactics, Grand Tactics, Strategy, Military History, and the Various Operations of War.”  That led me to Captain W. R. Livermore’s American Kriegsspiel (1882).  This had a rather less grandiose title: “A Game for Practicing the Art of War Upon a Topographical Map.”        

Strategos  is some 180 pages while The American Kriegsspiel is some 130 pages.  And I remember thinking that the rules to Squad Leader were complicated.  Silly me.         

Excerpt from the rules of Strategos. This was NOT a beer and pretzels game.

As a frustrated wargamer, these books struck me as interesting, so I did a little poking around       

Both of these games were similar in that they entailed moving blocks or pieces of slate around on tables and both were also designed to be serious tools for military professionals.  The War Department actually endorsed Strategos, but it appears to have been The American Kriegspiel that had more of a lasting impact in the U.S. military.  In fact, both games were in conscious imitation of the original Prussian Kriegsspiel that had been in use in that country for about fifty years at this point.  It was a well-known fact that the Prussians could do no wrong when it came to things military and they had three recent impressive victories to prove it.  Indeed, such was the influence of all things German at this time that Arthur L. Wagner, one of the great military intellectuals of U.S. military history, spoke of “Prusso-Mania.”  Moreover, the British had a version, Aldershot, based directly on the German Kriegsspiel.  Clearly the U.S. Army, which was just entering a period of reform and modernization, needed its own game.      

Totten’s book has a fine introduction which discussed the history of the wargame and which referred to two even earlier such American games.  One was entitled War Chess (1866) which weighed in at a mere 22 pages.   The other was Militaire, published in 1876 by J. B. Lippincott.  (I can’t find either one of these online, though they are both in the public domain.)  Totten notes that he wrote the initial version of Strategos without reference to any of the foreign games for the simple reason that he could not at the time find copies of their rules though later he modified his work after finding some of them.  By contrast, Livermore quite freely admits that The American Kriegsspiel is a modification of the Prussian game.  Interestingly, both games made the New York Times at various points.  See here for Totten’s appearance  and here for Livermore’s.  According to the Times, Totten even got some ten general officers to attend a lengthy talk he gave at the Military Service Institution.       

These games, or at least their ilk, have had long-term effects.  First, of course, anybody who has had even glancing exposure to the Pentagon will know that gaming, in a thousand varieties, is ubiquitous there.  Indeed, gaming is not merely military now, but also has come to include diplomacy and other endeavors.      

Avalon Hill's Kriegspiel

These games also reverberate in the civilian world.  Indeed, some people still play games much like the original Prussian Kriegsspiel.   One of the earliest Avalon Hill wargames was even called Kriegspiel  though it used hexes.  And we all remember that childhood game Stratego.  However, what I did not realize until recently was that these sorts of games led to the development of role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons.  The gaming lore (see also here) is that the first RPG took place in 1967.  It was a version of a table-top wargame–whether involving blocks or miniatures is not clear to me– involving a Napoleonic-era assault on a small Prussian town.  The referee, one David Wesely, called this game/scenario Braunstein.  Wesely had the inspiration of assigning not just military roles (commanders) to the players, but also civilian roles.  (Purportedly Wesely was inspired by the game Diplomacy, Totten’s Strategos, Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense: A General Theory and J.D. Williams’ The Compleat Strategyst.)  Wesely, who didn’t quite realize the implications of what he had done, tried to keep these civilian players shackled with the same sorts of rigid rules that governed traditional wargames.  Over the next two or three sessions, however, it became clear that the civilian players were going to have none of it, that the lack of rules was precisely what made things interesting for them.   One of the civilian players in this game was a man named David Arneson.  Arneson later took over as a referee for a version of Braunstein set in Latin America.  With this experience under his belt, he developed a version of Braunstein set in a fantasy world.  This he called “Blackmoor” and it became a precursor to “Dungeons and Dragons” which Arneson co-developed with the rather more famous Gary Gygax.    

And the rest is history.

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:29 PM  Comments (3)  
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  1. I attended Major Weseley’s seminar at Gen Con in 2008 talking about the original Braunstein game, but wasn’t able to play in it. I got the feeling, though, that like later RPGs the play was conducted in a mostly imaginary space, relying as much on pencil and paper as on miniatures or blocks. Weseley said that the Napoleonic miniatures campaign they’d been playing previously had been moving in that direction, guided Totten’s idea of a neutral referee and also game theory texts about scenarios with multiple, non-exclusive objectives. An example he gave is that one of the players would come to the game and start unpacking his miniatures, and Wesely would say: “Wait, don’t set up your army just yet. Your situation is that coordination has gone awry; the force you were supposed to link up with wasn’t at the rendezvous point.” He’d take the player into another room and draw him a sketch of the area: here’s the river, here’s a road, here’s where you think the sound of cannons is coming from…

    although the players were used to tabletop miniatures games

  2. That’s fascinating. It makes me wonder if any of these gaming pioneers have ever written any of their experiences down. I hope so, but I suspect not.

  3. Interesting that Strategos doesn’t have the tables that came with it! ARGH!

    Just got off the phone with Weseley–they were playing a Civil War battle.

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