Battles in Miniature — A Brief History of War Gaming

A post-Gulf War copy of the game Gulf Strike. The Pentagon actually used an earlier edition of this same civilian game to plan Desert Storm.


BY THE END of the Cold War, American military planners had contingencies and plans for just about every conceivable crisis – Latin American counterinsurgencies, confrontations on the Korean Peninsula, a full out Warsaw Pact onslaught against NATO. But on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi tanks surprised the world and rolled into the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait, decision makers in the Pentagon had virtually no plans on the shelf for the defeating the world’s fourth largest army. Out of desperation, someone in the American military nerve-centre reached for a copy of a hobby store military board game entitled Gulf Strike. Designed in the late 1980s by a subsidiary of the commercial war game company Avalon Hill, Gulf Strike allowed civilian hobbyists to battle through a series of hypothetical wars involving the U.S., Soviet Union, Iraq and Iran on a hexagonal-grid map of the Gulf region. According to a 1994 Military History article on war games by Peter Perla, before lunch on the day of the invasion, the Pentagon had the game’s designer, Mark Herman, on the phone. By mid afternoon, he was on the military’s payroll. And by day’s end, Herman and a group of senior officers had already successfully played out a shorthand version of what in five months would go down in history as Operation Desert Storm.

While planning out one of the largest military operations in a generation using a tabletop board game conjures up all sorts of unlikely images of generals rolling dice and marching toy soldiers around a map, professional strategists have been doing just that very thing for nearly 200 years.

The First War Games
Some of the earliest war games were the original Indian version of chess, known as Chaturanga as well as the ancient Chinese strategy game Go. [1]

For centuries, these games, which saw players do battle with armies of ornate carved polished miniatures, were played by the privileged largely for amusement. When chess was introduced to Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the game took the public by storm.

Then in 1824, a young Prussian artillery officer by the name of Georg von Reisswitz upgraded a war game designed by his father in the 1780s to entertain the Duke of Brunswick. The original allowed players to battle each other on a tabletop board that depicted a natural landscape using infantry, cavalry and artillery. The revised game, which was named Kriegsspiel (or War Game, in English) added more layers of complexity to the game, the rules of which would be familiar to anyone who has ever played a tabletop war game. Units and regiments, which were represented by long, thin wooden or metal blocks, were coloured red for one side and blue for the other. These counters were printed with unit designations and information denoting combat strength and mobility. Combat was resolved using dice, which coupled with each unit’s respective combat strength, would insert a random element of chance into the simulation. Players would move and fight using a turn-based system – each turn represented two minutes of time. The board itself included terrain features like forests, rivers and mountains that were painted on large square wooden tiles. These tiles could be re-arranged by players at the start of a game to simulate different landscapes. Other variants of Kriegsspiel could be played on a paper map. The game could even be modified to recreate historic battles offering players a much more vivid understanding of tactics than those who simply studied maps and written accounts.[2]

Reisswitz showed the game to the Prussian prince Wilhelm (the future German Kaiser). He was so excited by it he had the designer demonstrate Kriegsspiel for the Prussian military leadership. [3] “This is not a game,” declared an enthusiastic chief of staff. “This is training for war!” Soon, the up-and-coming generation of officers throughout the Prussian army were playing Kriegsspiel in both lecture halls and mess halls and an as a result, continually honing their battle-winning skills. In fact, many would credit the fascination with Kriegsspiel among Prussian officers as a contributing factor to that country’s stunning and lighting-fast victory over France the 1870 war. [4]

Navy Games
It wasn’t just 19th century armies that were experimenting with war games. In the 1880s, the American Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island began using tabletop miniatures to game out historic and hypothetical sea battles in classrooms. [5] In the post war period, officers would game out huge engagements using miniature fleets on the floor of a facility at the college known as Pringle Hall. The large grid tile pattern on the floor lent itself to gaming, with the floor pattern creating an ideal grid on which to play. Players and referees would use yardsticks and compasses to plot the fleets’ movements and also determine ranges for combat. Spectators could gather to watch the battles unfold. Other navies followed suit with elaborate war games of their own. Decades later, the Japanese planned a strike on Pearl Harbor as early as 1927, by gaming through the raid in an enormous wading pool with model vessels representing the U.S. fleet at Battleship Row.

A game of Little Wars, as envisioned by H.G. Wells.

War Games For Fun
It wasn’t long after Prussia’s fascination with Kriegsspiel that civilian military enthusiasts began trying their hand at war gaming. In the late 19th Century a civilian club for war games was established in Oxford in the U.K.

In 1905, Fred Jane, the author of Jane’s Fighting Ships, drafted his own set of rules for something called The Naval War Game. Even noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells published two books for armchair generals: Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913). The games, which Wells intended to be a build-on to Kriegsspiel, allowed players to deploy formations of toy soldiers around the floor of a living room or den and then move them predetermined distances using a yard stick or tape measure. Interestingly, Wells rejected the use of dice to resolve combat. Instead players would use a small peashooter or a spring-loaded toy cannon to knock down opponents’ troops. The author imagined this would make the game more ‘realistic’.[5]

During the Post War era, a burgeoning middleclass in North America and the U.K. with both free time and money to spend on hobbies drove a mounting interest in recreational war gaming. [6] In 1952, a railroad historian and gaming enthusiast by the name of Charles Roberts designed a tabletop board game entitled Tactics. The game let players fight out a mock war on a topographical map between two hypothetical countries using punch-out cardboard counters that represented infantry, armour and airborne units, among others. Based on the popularity of the game, Roberts founded the military war game publishing company Avalon Hill. Over the next 30 years, the operation, and others like it, would crank out an array of tabletop war games that recreated the legendary battles from history. Famous titles like Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, PanzerBlitz and Squad Leader attracted a cult following. One title in particular, Chainmail (1971) by TSR Hobbies and Games, paved the way for other genres, like the landmark role-playing series Dungeons and Dragons. [7]

With the rise of the affordable home PC in the 1980s and 90s, war gaming moved from the tabletop to the desktop computer. Companies like Avalon Hill soon found their market evaporate and many publishers vanished. In just a few years, the concept of tabletop board has almost entirely vanished. Today’s war games are played out by both professionals and civilians alike on computer screens, while a smaller market still clings to tabletop war gaming.


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1.Perla, Peter. “Wargaming’s Widening World”, Military History. Dec. 1994.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.



6. Ibid.

7. Ibid

3 comments for “Battles in Miniature — A Brief History of War Gaming

  1. TrT
    24 August, 2012 at 7:46 am

    It may not be traditional / realistic wargaming, but games workshop is still going very strong.

  2. 24 August, 2012 at 9:48 am

    My copy of Axis and Allies is sitting in my closet just waiting to be played again. One of my favourite board games…too bad there are so few people out there that actually play it!

    • 24 August, 2012 at 11:19 am

      I haven’t had a really good game of RISK for about 10 years. Damn!

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