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War Gaming

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A friendly game of Chess this is not.

A genre of tabletop games centering around the simulation of warfare, based on either real conflicts or fantasy scenarios. There are two basic genres.

In 'miniature' games players use highly detailed miniatures, which fight over modelled terrain which could be compared to "low-res dioramas" of railway modellers. Because they are not static (often needing to be packed away at the end of the game) they lack the finer detail. However effort is made to accurately represent the terrain effects. Miniature games do not have a CRT like many board war games do (see below); dice rolls represent the "hits" taken by the target, either actual casualties, or something like morale loss. Movement is regulated by tape measures, with modifiers for terrain :- "Cavalry 20 cm, movement in woods counts x2"

Other games of this genre consist of one or more maps of the theatre of conflict, a variable number of unit counters (small square pieces of heavy cardstock with printed numbers and symbols representing military units, as well as markers of various sorts), and rules with accompanying tables and charts. The most important such table is a "Combat Results Table", giving a set of battle results calculated according to the numerical odds of attacker versus defender; the players roll dice and compare the resulting numbers to the table to see how the battle came out. Table wargames can focus on any level of battle from literally man-to-man combat (e.g., the Squad Leader series) to whole army groups or fleets. Expansion Packs with different scenarios are also common.

Board games confine players to the map terrain and supplied units, where as miniatures allow for fictional battles as you can rearrange terrain and units to your wish.

Pure internet publications would say board gaming was more popular in the US, where as Europeans were more likely to play miniatures. However the US has a healthy miniature scene, and the hex map business suffered contraction, but now appears to be growing again.

The Ur Examples are Chess (invented in ancient India) and Go (invented in ancient China), which laid the foundations for wargaming. The Trope Maker is possibly Kriegsspiel (1812), literally, "War Game," which was created by two Prussian officers, Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz and his son Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz. The game, intended to be a more modern realistic adaptation of Chess, was widely played by the Prussian officers of the 19th Century, and after some stunning Prussian victories, military officers around Europe. It was Serious Business from the very beginning; Kriegsspiel was endorsed by the General Staff of Prussia as an invaluable teaching aid. Kriegsspiel was the Trope Codifier for a lot of conventions used by current military thinkers, military historians, war gamers, and table top role players. It codified the use of the colors red and blue for enemy and friendly forces (Blue was chosen for friendly because that was the color of the Prussian Army uniform, red was chosen for enemy because it's easy to distinguish from blue), respectively, the use of maps and miniaturised scale terrain, detailed movement rules and turns, referees and game masters, specialized dice, the block symbols for units, table quarters, Loads and Loads of Rules, the Random Number God, the core rulebook, Rule Zero, and so on. It was so influential that it is still available today. A great many of the concepts used to create training simulations for modern officers and table top wargames today would seem completely familiar to the Reiswitzes, even despite technology they could never have imagined. The eminent author H. G. Wells was also responsible for several more light-hearted and simplified sets of rule conventions for wargame simulations —Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913)— which were popular in Great Britain before World War I, and which had a strong influence on the later development of the wargaming hobby in the UK.

After World War II, the game evolved again. The original Kriegsspiel used only symbolic blocks to represent units. Little Wars advocated use of what were then standard 54mm or 3.5" toy soldiers. In the 1950s, with the rise of firms such as Hinchcliffe or Spencer-Smith who sold 25mm or 1:72 scale metal figures, new thinkers such as the hugely influential Donald Featherstone (who had commanded tanks in North Africa and Italy) advocated far larger battles over the same size table using figures 3/4 of the size. Featherstone's new rule-sets and advocacy of using smaller scales also coincided with the rise in cheap, small, plastic figures, and construction kits of tanks and artillery; like those made with injection moulding by the Airfix brand.

In the 1950's, Charles S. Roberts founded Avalon Hill and published Tactics II, which is generally agreed to be the first modern board wargame. Until the late 1960's, Avalon Hill pretty much had a monopoly in this niche, and its games introduced most of the mechanics and concepts still used today in board wargaming. The great majority of wargames use a map with a hexagonal grid overlay, for instance; Roberts got the concept from a high-level professional wargame simulating nuclear warfare. In the late 1960's, the magazine Strategy and Tactics (S&T for short), was founded by several former Avalon Hill staffers, notably James F. Dunnigan, pioneering the concept of a magazine with a game in it, and the company Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was founded to publish it and also put out standalone games.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, several companies (chief among them Avalon Hill, SPI, and Game Designers' Workshop) produced literally hundreds of games covering every era of warfare from the ancient period to science fiction and Alternate History. In many ways a return to classical Kreigsspiel format, these games ranged in size from tiny "folio" games with perhaps 100 counters and maps no larger than a standard sheet of paper, to gigantic "monster" games with 9 or more 22" x 34" maps and thousands of counters. By the end of the 1970s, the biggest "monster" wargames (for instance, SPI's "Campaign for North Africa") were so complex and unwieldy that they were pretty much unplayable as actual games in the traditional table format. Also of note: Role-playing games, in their pencil-and-paper-and-rulebook format, first became popular in the late 1970s. There used to be some amount of tension between devotees of board wargaming and RPG players (and the Killer GM mindset is believed to have its origins in the antagonistic nature of wargames).

In 1982, SPI, which had run into serious financial issues, was bought out by TSR, who later in the decade sold the name and rights to Strategy and Tactics to a British company, World Wide Wargamers (3W) (which itself published a magazine-with-game called The Wargamer), before finally being sold once again to Decision Games. Many of SPI's alumni went to Avalon Hill, where they founded a subsidiary called Victory Games, which published many of the best and most popular games of the decade. Late in the 1980's, Ty Bomba, who had published several games under 3W's aegis, co-founded (with Chris Perello) XTR, whose flagship product was another magazine-with-game, Command magazine, along with a line of "ziplock" (that is, stored in plastic ziplock bags instead of boxes) games, becoming one of the most popular publishers of the early 1990's. However, both Victory Games and XTR ceased operations in the late 1990's.

Since the early 1980s (and to a degree, before) the advent of home computers resulted in wargames mostly transitioning to the realm of electronics, since it was much easier to program the often-complex math required to accurately simulate many military events than to try to create tables and charts for table wargames. These games evolved into the genres we now call Turn-Based Strategy and, later still, Real-Time Strategy. The increasing popularity of RPG's and collectible-card games such as Magic: The Gathering, in addition to the advancing age of the hobby's base, the increasing lack of time to play large and complex games, and the disappearance of many important publishers all combined to send the board wargaming hobby into a period of decline through the 1990's. Even so, from the late 1980's through the 1990's, there still remained a hard core of dedicated map-and-counter-and-dice wargamers and companies to serve them, as well as numerous conventions large and small at which gamers could meet to play games and buy and sell them.

Since circa 2000, the board wargaming hobby has enjoyed something of a renaissance due, in part, to the revived popularity of tabletop games. Just as in the 1970's, games range in physical size from "folio" games (Decision Games and Victory Point Games have published several games that can use as few as 40 counters to represent all the units present at a given battle) to "monsters" with thousands of counters and numerous maps (e.g., Compass Games' Absolute Victory, a grand-strategic-level treatment of World War II intended as a revamping and expansion of the Australian Design Group's classic World in Flames, which covers not only the entire Western Hemisphere but even includes a map for Antarctica!). As of the late 2010's, Decision Games (which owns the SPI trademark and the copyrights to most of the classic SPI line), GMT Games, and Compass Games are the leading publishers in the hobby, augmented by smaller publishers such as Avalanche Press, MMP (Multi-Man Productions, co-founded by baseball Hall of Famer Curt Schilling in order to keep Advanced Squad Leader in print), OSG (Operational Studies Group, which specializes almost exclusively in Napoleonic-era games), Thin Red Line Games, an Europe-based specialist in the Alternate History sub-genre of NATO-vs.-Warsaw Pact games, and One Small Step Games.

These companies both publish new designs and re-print classic 1970's and 1980's games; for instance, Avalanche Press has republished the 1974 Avalon Hill classic Third Reich and paired it with an original design, The Great Pacific War, covering the war in East Asia and the Pacific, which uses the same system as Third Reich and can be mated with the European game to present the entirety of World War II. GMT's own version of Third Reich, A World At War, is so popular that it has its own website.

Decision Games, which now owns the rights to publish SPI's legendary Strategy and Tactics magazine-with-game, publishes the magazine on a bimonthly basis, along with two other similar magazines with a more specific focus; World at War, specializing in World War II, and Modern War, focusing on contemporary and near-future conflict (the last-named magazine ceased publication in 2021 due to economic issues caused by the COVID pandemic). Both of these magazines, like S&T, are available in magazine-only versions as well as versions with game supplements. GMT is known for the high quality of its games' physical components, and is the publisher of one of the most popular of all board games, Twilight Struggle, a two-player recreation of the Cold War; the designer has followed up this success with a new game, Imperial Struggle, recounting the century-long conflict between Britain and France from the late 17th century until the French Revolution. They're also the publishers of the highly popular COIN (Counterinsurgency) series, which covers insurgencies and rebellions throughout history from the Gallic Wars (Falling Sky) to Afghanistan (A Distant Plain). GMT has also enjoyed success with other types of tabletop games; most recently, their game Mr. President, a sandbox-type simulation of the American Presidency during the first 2 decades of the 21st century, has earned widespread praise from reviewers and players. Compass Games has, in recent years, won praise for its reissues of classic games, which often are reworked by the original games' designers; one of their most acclaimed such re-releases has been 2021's NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot, a complete re-work (by the designer himself) of 1983's NATO: The Next War in Europe, which itself was the best-selling title (75,000 copies, huge for a niche hobby like board wargaming) in Victory Games' existence.

Like Decision, both GMT ("C3i") and Compass ("Paper Wars") publish magazines with included games. The advent of inexpensive desktop publishing has also engendered a multitude of small publishers such as Hollandspiele, Revolution Games, Flying Pig/Tiny Battle Games, Conflict Simulations Limited and High Flying Dice Games, which publish a wide range of games, often on subjects that might not be profitable for the major publishers to put out.

Proving that older ideas recycle, the Nottingham-based company Games Workshop began operations in the early 1980s selling fantasy and sci-fi wargaming from its dedicated shop outlets around the country. Despite computer games and map-and-counter-based games still having a foothold, and despite the dominant trend in the tabletop wargaming-with-figures hobby being historical gaming (Napoleonics and WW2 still dominate), GW carved out its own little empire, securing the allegiance and pocket-money of adolescent boys, who are the next generation of the hobby. In a time where traditional model and figure makers such as Airfix repeatedly went bust, GW have gone from strength to strength. And GW's other innovation stuck. "Traditional" wargaming with figures revolves around two scales: 20-25mm (1:76 to 1:72) or the older 1:35 (54mm), GW chose the intermediate 28mm (1:57 scale). This has proven very popular and has been taken up by many other figure manufacturers. The figures do not take up anything like as much table space as the comparatively huge 54mm's. They are also large enough to carry a lot of fine detail which a skilled artist can bring out. While 20 and 15 mm figures can provide an impressive spectacle en masse, the observer has often got to squint to make out individual detail. This is not an issue in 28mm.

See also After-Action Report, Common Tactical Gameplay Elements, Random Number God, Turn-Based Combat, and Turn-Based Tactics.

Examples of war games:

  • Afrika Korps
  • Anima Tactics
  • Axis & Allies
  • Advanced Squad Leader (derived from the original Squad Leader series of games)
  • Battle Machines
  • BattleTech
  • Beyond the Gates of Antares
  • BlitzKrieg Commander (and its Cold War version Cold War Commander)
  • Breakout: Normandy
  • Brik Wars
  • Campaign for North Africa (featured on an episode of The Big Bang Theory), the game was infamous for its anal-retentive complexity; notably, it was estimated that if played without computer assistance for the calculations, a complete game would take longer than the actual real life African Campaign.
  • Chainmail
  • The Creature That Ate Sheboygan
  • D-Day
  • Dark Future
  • Dust Warfare
  • Dystopian Wars
  • The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms
  • Europa
  • Firestorm Armada
  • Flames of War
  • Forbidden Psalm and Forbidden Psalm: The Last War (Dark Fantasy and Weird Historical War skirmish using the Mork Borg ruleset).
  • Friedrich and Maria (European games covering the Seven Years' War and its predecessor the War of the Austrian Succession'')
  • Gettysburg (published in multiple versions by Avalon Hill), as well as many, many other games on this most famous of American Civil War battles, including the legendary Terrible Swift Sword)
  • Great Battles of the American Civil War (originally published by SPI, as of 2021 by GMT)
  • Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (operational/strategic treatments of major Civil War campaigns, published originally by Avalon Hill and as of 2021 by MMP)
  • Here I Stand
  • Hero Scape
  • The Hyborian Campaign
  • Infinity
  • Hordes & Warmachine
  • Kings of War
  • The Library of Napoleonic Battles (an ongoing series of games covering Napoleonic-era battles and campaigns)
  • Malifaux
  • A Most Dangerous Time (originally published in Japan and brought to the US by MMP, covering the Sengoku Jidai of 1570-1584)
  • Memoir 44
  • Nuclear Renaissance
  • OGRE
  • Panzerblitz - possibly the best-selling historically-based war game ever, depending on the details of the definition - (and other games in the same family):
    • Panzer Leader
    • Arab-Israeli Wars
  • Paths of Glory (a World War I grand-strategic game, named after the film which was itself named after a line from a poem)
  • Rangers of Shadow Deep
  • Ravaged Star
  • Recon (borders with RPG, individual characters controlled, but general Wargame mechanics)
  • Risk
  • The Russian Campaign
  • Secrets of the Third Reich
  • Star Fleet Battles
  • Star Grunt II
  • Star Wars Armada
  • Star Wars: Legion
  • Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures
  • Starfire
  • Tactics, and its successor, Tactics II
  • The Third World War (a four-game series done in the 1980's by GDW covering the then-real possibility of full-scale conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact; in early 2022, Compass Games released a thoroughly updated new "designer's edition" taking advantage of new information that has been declassified or otherwise come to light since the end of the Cold War). Notably, the game maps include not only Cold War borders and national names, but also modern-day/post-Soviet-era geography, and Compass Games staff have remarked on various occasions that they would like to publish expansions covering post-Cold War conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, as well as add-on games focusing on regions such as Northeast Asia and Central America.
  • Turnip 28
  • The U.S. Civil War (published by GMT, a Spiritual Sequel to The Civil War 1861-1865, one of Victory Games' best-known and best-loved games, and covering the same topic, the American Civil War at the strategic level).
  • Victory in the Pacific (a sequel of sorts to War at Sea).
  • VOR The Maelstrom
  • War at Sea
  • War Between the States
  • War in Europe and its companion War in the Pacific
  • Warhammer
  • Warhammer 40,000
  • War and Peace, a grand-strategic treatment of the Napoleonic Wars first published by Avalon Hill in 1980 and completely overhauled and updated by the designer in 2021, the new edition being released by One Small Step Games.
  • Waterloo (like Gettysburg, originally published by Avalon Hill, and now sporting treatments in many versions from "monster" size (SPI's Wellington's Victory) to sub-folio size (GMT's Waterloo 20, part of its collection of late-Napoleonic games Fading Glory).
  • Wings of Glory, an aerial combat simulator dealing with World War One planes
  • World in Flames, possibly the most popular of all World War II grand-strategic games, published by the Australian Design Group; if the huge basic game isn't enough, there are numerous Expansion Packs adding literally thousands of new unit counters as well as rules and markers to cover various additional military, political and economic aspects of the era, all with titles including the phrase " Flames".

Works and Tropes about Wargaming

Alternative Title(s): Tabletop Strategy, Tabletop Strategy Game, War Game