I might as well confess from the beginning that I did not grow up playing tabletop (pen and paper) role-playing games. I was a war-gamer from an early age. I played behind grand armies, rolling dice to decide the fate of entrenched enemies, and even my own soldiers, for that matter. I came to role-playing games at a critical juncture in my own life—a time when I was clearly bored with war games and needed some form of mental stimulation that went beyond what television and video games could offer me at the time. Role-playing games, to me, signify a significant step in a process of self-exploration through games and gaming—a sort of natural progression from one gaming genre, such as war games, to the next, role-playing games.
I roll the dice—they’re high numbers—what exactly, I can’t recall after nearly fifteen years. Probably a six and a five on the six-sided dice. All kill shot, I remember. I also remember the ugly orange carpet of the room and the dozen or so people crammed into the tiny spare room in my junior high school. My opponent’s face, a fuzzy, easily forgotten face, scowls as the loss of her Mage Knight miniature, her prized soldier on the battlefield. She remove the plastic warrior from the table, which is decorated with sand table terrain—i.e., stone masonry structures, such as fortified walls, square towers,m and sagging buildings with thatched rooves all of which are fashioned from painted soda box cardboard. I’m winning at a game that is, at its heart, very much like chess, although it’s different. In other words, it’s hard to say it tastes like chicken, when, in fact, it isn’t chicken, doesn’t even come close, in many respects. The endgame is the same as chess: Kill off your opponent’s pieces off until s/he capitulates. It’s a game my pubescent self prefers over chess because of the options available to one playing the game. No more strict movements on an undecorated board. The pawns of war move in ways that chess pieces only dream of, duking it out over neatly modelled sand table terrain. Dice rols act as the great equalizer, as much as good strategy. (And good strategy doesn’t hurt either.) Chess, after playing Mage Knight, feels anachronistic, tastes bland.
There’s a catch to playing Mage Knight: I have to keep it secret because it is one of those things forbidden in my household. It’s far too similar to a game called Dungeons & Dragons in my father’s eyes. When he finds out that I want to play this game with my friends, and on a Sunday of all days, he flips out. My old man decides the best punishment is to force me to read aloud Bible passages. He thinks, hopes, that this activity will purge, scrub away with an intellectual version of a wire brush, any interests I have in such games. My father hands me an old Bible and says, “Here, read this. Make sure I can hear you reading this from in the living room.” I ask him why. He says, “Because I told you to. Now read!” My father truly believes the rumors and theories surrounding the connections between devil worship and suicide among those who play games like Dungeons & Dragons. This is strange to me. My father doesn’t treat my younger brother in the same way. He can play with his friends on a Sunday, and so can my sister. Instead of playing with my friends, instead of playing a harmless game of Mage Knight, I read from Judges, and the fantastical stories from this part of the Bible only serve to kindle my interests in playing out such stories in game form. I can almost imagine reenacting the battles with my own miniatures, bought with earned and stolen quarters, all in the name of G-d.
Military modelling and simulation is the technical term for what hobbyists call war-gaming. M&S, as it is more commonly known, has been around for millennia. Human beings, from ancient Egyptian pharaohs to Mesopotamian kings to Prussian military officers have all tried to simulate combat without the risk associated with actual warfare. The answer to this dilemma of simulating a part of the real world was not what what we would call LARP-ing—live action role-playing—, complete with mock swords and shields and cheesy acting to boot. Instead, ancient and modern civilizations alike developed board games using intricate and not-so-intricate playing pieces, along with wooden, clay, or stone boards. What started out as a training tool for the ruling and military elite soon became a pastime of those who had little interest or knowledge in the affairs of war and peace.
War games are a permanent staple of modern-day gaming hobbies. Popular war games fill the shelves of big box stores and hobby and specialist shops alike. Entire conventions are dedicated to the war-gaming hobby in the civilian world. Names like Avalon Hill, Games Workshop, and Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), conjure up images of miniature warriors duking out over sand table real estate. Players rely on dice and pre-established statistics to determine the odds of combat and movement on the board. In some cases, war games are quite elaborate, with miniatures, realistic, war-torn landscapes, and complex formulas as part of the overall gaming experience. However, other war games are quite simple, with said games being fashioned from inexpensive cardboard or cardstock or plastic tokens. Nevertheless, whether it is elaborate war games or cheap cardboard ones, many civilians know war-gaming simply as a hobby they love and spend countless hours on. Few know about the origins of war-gaming, the grandfather of role-playing games, especially when it comes to its political and military origins.
War games have been around for as long as human beings have fought wars against one another. Such games offer players a chance to experience combat against an opponent without the risks associated with real war. War games, like chess and Go, have become permanent fixtures of the civilian world, as ultimate games of strategy, patience, and mental endurance. Entire libraries have been written on games like chess. However, the war game as we know it is a relatively modern invention. The war-gaming hobby is in debt to the likes of Prussian military strategists, who first developed and used the game Kriegsspiel (i.e., literally “war game”) to train military officers in strategy and tactics. This pedagogical method is pregnant with possibilities and problems. Officers, and even the political elite, are better able to get a grasp of combat, which is fraught with unknowns, unknowns that must be anticipated by the commander in question. These same games, however, can create a sort of myopia within those who play them, allowing the officers in question to believe they have best prepared for the situation at hand, when, in fact, they haven’t.
Jackson Kicked My Ass
I’m at my friend’s, Jackson’s, house, an old riverfront Victorian. Jackson is this tall, lanky character, with combed hair, goofy smile, and the mouth of a sailor on shore leave. We’ve brought together a collection of Warhammer 40K miniatures my grandmother, on my father’s side, bought for me, along with some old hardbound books, clean coffee mugs, and a handful of six-sided dice. The books and cups serve as ad hoc terrain, the best we can come up with, considering the circumstances. Cups serve as towering mountains, and the books are grand mesas, tableland on some alien desert world. The books and cups are organized in such a way that the middle of the table is the narrowest point, with the top and bottom ends widening out enough to allow for our troops to be placed in their start positions. I play a small squad of Space Marines. Jackson plays a squad of Tyranids, an alien insectoid-like race. We’re using our own riles this time, because I’ve forgotten the rulebook at home, which is hidden from my father’s prying eyes. I position my Space Marines in a firing line, just before the narrowest point o the table, getting ready for Jackson’s insectoid swarm. Once it’s his turn, he unleashes his horde, charging toward my Space Marines. Both sides are equally matched, considering. It’s my turn again. I roll to fire on the Tyranids, killing three off the bat. Jackson curses under his breath. It’s his turn again. His alien horde attacks my Space Marine line, full force. He rolls and kill two of my Space Marines. It’s my turn again. I find that my Space Marines are in an optimal position. Jackson’s troops are being bottlenecked by the terrain and my soldiers are ready to take them on. I decide to roll an attack against Jackson’s troops. I roll low, really low. So low, it is laughable now that I think about it, some fifteen years later. Jackson laughs. It’s one of those laughs that sounds like monkeys fighting one another over forage. He knows his troops are safe, for now. It’s his turn. He rolls for attack, and he managed to kill four of my courageous Space Marines. I wince as this takes place. Jackson feels victory coming.
“You ready to surrender, bitch?”
“Fuck you, man,” I retort.
“You kno’ I’m gonna fuckin’ win, bro. Just admit it.”
“Fuck off, Jackson.”
It’s my turn. I roll. Again, the numbers aren’t in my favor. I don’t manage to kill or wound any of Jackson’s horde, which appears to be more ferocious than it did a few minutes ago.
I move my Space Marines back some, giving myself breathing room. Jackson moves closer. I roll for attack, and I only manage to kill one of his horde. I feel the sweat dripping off my brow, my hands are shaky, and my heart rate is through the roof. I can’t let this cocky fucker win, I think to myself. Jackson moves in for the kill. He manages to finish off the remainder of my Space Marine squad. In my mind, I can hear the shrill screams of grown men being torn apart by an alien horde. They cry out for their God-like emperor to save them, but their cries fall on deaf ears.
Jackson’s smiling at the end, all of his front teeth, pearly whites even in the dim light, are showing. He reaches over to shake my hand. I take it.
“No hard feelin’s, bro?”
“Sure, no hard feelings.”
“Another round, dude?” Jackson asks.
I nod, and we begin setting up our soldiers on opposite ends of the table for another battle.
A War Games (Pre-)History
Two of the world’s oldest games, war games of a sort, are chess and Go (i.e., Weiqi), which have long, rich histories that stretch back centuries. Weiqi is thought o have originated some four thousand years ago, making it one of the oldest war games still played.1 War games like chess and Weiqi have become permanent fixtures of the civilian world, as ultimate games of strategy, patience, and mental endurance. Entire libraries have been written on games like chess. However, the war game, as we know it, and the precursors to role-playing games, is relatively modern in invention—modern meaning within the last two hundred or so years, give or take a few decades.
The war-gaming, as well as the role-playing game, hobby is in debt to the likes of Prussian military strategists, who first developed and used a game called Kriegsspiel2 (i.e., literary “war game”) to train military officers in tactics and strategy. Such a pedagogical tool is full of possibilities. Soldiers are trained in tried and true tactics and strategies.
Following the Prussian victory over the French in 1870/71, the Prussian use of war games as a training tool was introduced to and adopted by many of the world’s industrial nations, include France, England, and the United States. The use of war games to simulate combat without risk, to simulate an unknown in the larger world, is still an important staple of military culture today. However, war games have branched out into something more complicated, as to include actual military exercises and computer simulations, among other things. Simulating combat and the events that surround combat, like the fog of war, uncertainty, bad intelligence, strengthened enemy positions, etc., provide a valuable tool for military officers. For civilian hobbyists, the simulation-like environment of war games has led to a rich hobby, where player can reenact famous battles, finding ways for the losing side to win.
Outside of military circles, Kriegsspiel was played in clubs and was quite popular as a pastime. It was H. G. Wells who introduced the concept of war-gaming to the wider English-speaking public, despite some bleed over from military circles playing Kriegsspiel, in his (little) book called Little Wars (1913).3 Little Wars gave grown men the rules needed to play war with their collections of lead toy soldiers. The first commercially available (and first successful) war games, however, came out in the 1950s, produced by what would be one of the largest game companies, Avalon Hill, now owned by Hasbro, also the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons franchise.Moving back to Little Wars, the rise of civilian (and military war-gaming), at least in England, appears to have coincided with the mass production and sale of toy soldiers. Brown writes that England alone was producing some 200,000 toy soldiers by 1910.5 One might assume that little British boys were infatuated with these toy soldiers, based on the numbers. In part, this may be true. However, Brown suggests the toy soldier market also appealed to those “older men” who preferred toy soldiers for their war games activities. According to Brown, the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jerome K. Jerome, G. K. Chesterton, and H. G. Wells (i.e., author of Little Wars), all played war games with their toy soldier collections. In fact, Brown retells a story concerning Wells’s fascination with toy soldiers:
- [Charles] Masterman later recalled, for example, how one day before the war he had visited Wells and found him playing soldiers with another cabinet minister, Sidney Buxton, the President of the Board of Trade, he wrote, was ‘sprawled full length on the floor and with unerring accuracy picking off the flower of Wells’ Imperial Guard, which he thought had been concealed and protected in a thick pine forest.8
The fascination with toy soldiers in England did not end there, as Brown dutifully notes. Wealthier patrons of the British toy-making industry often purchased the most expensive (larger) toy displays, which sold for an astounding five pounds.9 Brown argues that it is possible wealthy patrons came from military backgrounds as well, where military war games were all the rage during the late-nineteenth and early-twenty century. In fact, Brown found evidence that the Prince advised the British military in 1872 to adopt Kriegsspiel, which was seen as a key tool in helping the Prussians defeat the French, and it appears that regular and volunteer officers took the Prince’s advice to heart.
War games begin our fascination with simulating the world, whether a small or large aspect of our rather complicated world. Moreover, war games were the by product of elite and military training tools, which crossed over into the world of leisure. By the end of the Second World War, the war games industry would see an explosive growth in the civilian world.
1 This is according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 Okay, technically speaking, von Reisswitz's Kriegsspiel wasn't the first modern war game. Sebastian Deterding (see Bibliography for details) argues that the first modern war games were a variation on an already existing game: chess. Thus, the first war games were chess variants. The honor of developing the first modern war game should probably be given to Christian Ludwig Hellwig.
3 You can still find a copy of Little Wars on the Gutenberg Project.
4 N.B. Ironically, Hasbro also owns much (if not all) of the former TSR Inc.'s portfolio developed during the 1970s and 1980s.
5 Kenneth D. Brown, “Modelling for War?” Toy Soldiers in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (Winter 1990): 239.
6 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 241.
7 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 241.
8 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 241.
9 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 241.
10 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 242.
11 Brown, “Modelling for War,” 242.