A wargame is a game that simulates or represents a military operation. Wargaming is the hobby dedicated to the play of such games, which can also be called conflict simulations, or consims for short. The somewhat similar, professional study of war is generally known as a military exercise or "war game," (note that wargamers have traditionally run the two words together, but the military has generally kept them separate; it is not a hard and fast rule, however). Although there may be disagreements as to whether a particular game qualifies as a wargame or not, a general consensus exists that all such games must explore and illuminate or simulate some feature or aspect of human behaviour directly bearing on the conduct of war, even if the game subject itself does not concern organized violent conflict or warfare.
Wargames are generally categorized as "historical", "hypothetical", "fantasy", or "science fiction". Historical games by far form the largest group. These games are based upon real events and attempt to represent a reasonable approximation of the actual forces, terrain, and other material factors faced by the actual participants. Hypothetical games are games grounded in historical fact but concern battles or conflicts that did not actually happen. Fantasy and science fiction wargames either draw their inspiration from works of fiction or provide their own imaginary setting. Highly stylized conflict games such as chess are not generally considered wargames. Games involving conflict in other arenas than the battlefield, such as business, sports or natural environment are similarly usually excluded.
The wargaming hobby has its origins at the beginning of the 20th century, with the invention of miniatures games in which two or more players simulated a battle as a pastime. During the 1950s the first large scale, mass produced board games depicting military conflicts were published. These games were at the height of their popularity during the 1970s, and become quite complex and technical in that time. Wargaming has changed dramatically over the years, from its roots in miniatures and board wargaming, to contemporary computer and computer assisted wargames. Light wargames with accessible rules and high quality plastic components, such as Memoir '44, have also become popular in recent years.
Wargames are generally a representational art form. Usually, this is of a fairly concrete historical subject (such as the Battle of Gettysburg, one of several popular topics in the genre), but it can also be extended to non-historical ones as well. The Cold War provided fuel for many games that attempted to show what a non-nuclear (or, in a very few cases, nuclear) World War III would be like, moving from a re-creation to a predictive model in the process. Fantasy and science fiction subjects are sometimes not considered wargames because there is nothing in the real world to model, however, conflict in a self-consistent fictional world lends itself to exactly the same types of games and game designs as does military history.
Because of these attitudes, there are many games and types of games that may appear to be a wargame at first glance, but are not accepted as such by members of the hobby, and many that would be considered debatable. Risk could be considered a wargame; it uses an area map of the Earth and is unabashedly about sending out armies to conquer the world. However, it has no readily-discernible timeframe, and combat is extremely abstract, leading many to not consider it as an actual wargame, or only tangentially as one.
The highest percentage of war-themed games that are not wargames come from the video game industry. Most markedly real-time strategy games (such as Starcraft) deal with combat nearly exclusively, but the gameplay enhancing conventions of the genre also destroy realism. For example, in actual combat, vehicle armor is generally a binary proposition. Either the round penetrates and the vehicle is knocked out, or it does not and the vehicle is unaffected. RTS games make a habit of giving a vehicle a "health bar" that generally allows it to survive even powerful single shots, but each hit reduces its health by some amount, allowing a high volume of rifle fire to knock out a well armored tank. Other notable genre conventions include the construction of buildings and vehicles within the timeframe of a battle (i.e., hours, if not less) and a lack of any command and control, supply, or morale systems.
A major determinant of the complexity and size of a wargame is how realistic it is intended to be. Some games constitute a serious study of the subject at hand, whereas others are intended to be light entertainment. In general, a more serious study will have longer, more detailed rules, more complexity, and more record keeping. More casual games may only bear a passing resemblance to the subject, although many still try to encourage the same types of decision making as the player's historical counterparts, and thereby bring forth the "feel" of the conflict.
Wargames tend to have a few fundamental problems. Notably, both player knowledge, and player action are much less limited than what would be available to the player's real-life counterparts. Some games have rules for command and control and fog of war, using various methods. While results vary, many of these mechanisms can be cumbersome and onerous in traditional games. The "edge of world problem" raises the issue of what to do at the artificial boundary of the physical edge of a board game, in contrast to real life where there is no "edge" and units off-board can have a tangible effect on a scenario. Computer wargames can more easily incorporate these features because the computer can conceal information from players and act as an impartial judge (even while playing one side). However, due to interface issues, these can still be found to be as frustrating to the player as traditional methods.
Modern wargaming originated with the military need to study warfare and to 'reenact' old battles for instructional purposes. The stunning Prussian victory over the Second French Empire in the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 is sometimes partly credited to the training of Prussian officers with the game Kriegspiel, which was invented around 1811 and gained popularity with many officers in the Prussian army. These first wargames were played with dice which represented "friction", or the intrusion of less than ideal circumstances during a real war (including morale, weather, the fog of war, etc.), though this was usually replaced by an umpire who used his own combat experience to determine the results.
The first specific non-military wargame club was started in Oxford, England, in the 19th century. Naval enthusiast and analyst Fred T. Jane came up with a set of rules for depicting naval actions with the use of model ships, or miniatures around 1898. The 1905/6 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships includes a revised edition for "The Naval War Game".
H.G. Wells' books Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913) were attempts to codify rules for fighting battles with toy soldiers (miniatures), and make them available to the general public. They were very simple games, and in some ways just provide a context for shooting spring-loaded toy cannons at toy soldiers, but "in his Appendix to Little Wars, Wells speaks of the changes required to convert his admittedly simplistic rules into a more rigorous Kriegspiel. However, Wells also states in his rules that combat "should be by actual gun and rifle fire and not by computation. Things should happen and not be decided," in opposition to the general nature of Kriegspiel play.
In 1940 Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game was published. This was a more arbitrary system than Jane's (but generally gave more realistic results), and was played by many clubs at that time. Jack Coggins was invited by Pratt to participate, and recalled that Pratt's game involved dozens of tiny wooden ships - built to a scale of about one inch to 50 feet - spread over the living room floor of his apartment. Their maneuvers and the results of their battles were calculated via a complex mathematical formula, with scale distances marked off with tape measures. Although many of the rules were arbitrary, they were based on such deep knowledge of the history of naval strategy that Pratt was able to reproduce the 1939 destruction of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee with incredibly accurate results.
All of these games were meant to be accessible to the general public, but actual play was made difficult owing to the expense of purchasing an army or navy's worth of miniatures. As leisure time and disposable income generally rose through the 20th Century, miniatures games slowly gained a following. Most gaming groups informally wrote and/or revised their own rules, which were never published. In 1955 Jack Scruby started producing miniatures using RTV rubber molds, which greatly reduced their expense, and he turned this into a business (Scruby Miniatures) in 1957 and started publishing War Game Digest. It, and its successors, put fellow miniatures enthusiasts in touch with each other, and provided a forum for ideas and locally-produced rules to be shared with the rest of the hobby.
Meanwhile, the first modern mass-market wargame, based on cardboard counters and maps, was designed and published by Charles S. Roberts in 1952. After nearly breaking even on Tactics, he decided to found the Avalon Hill Game Company as a publisher of intelligent games for adults, and is called "The father of board wargaming". The modern commercial board wargaming industry is considered to have begun with the publication of Tactics II in 1958, and the founding of The General Magazine by Avalon Hill in 1964. In 1961, AH published Roberts' Gettysburg, which is considered to be the first board wargame based entirely on a historical battle. D-Day and Chancellorsville, the first commercial games to use a hexagonal mapboard, were also published that year.
Avalon Hill had a very conservative publishing schedule, typically about two titles a year, and wargames were only about half their line. By the end of the 1960s, a number of small magazines dedicated to the hobby were springing up, along with new game companies. The most important of these were undoubtedly Strategy & Tactics, and the company founded to save it from failing: Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI). Under SPI, S&T started including a new game in every issue of the magazine, which along with the regular games SPI was publishing vastly increased the number of wargames available.
Coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign, this caused a tremendous rise in the popularity of wargaming in the early 1970s, with a large number of new companies starting up. Two of these would last for some years: Game Designers' Workshop (GDW), and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). TSR's fantasy miniatures game, Chainmail (1971) led to a new phenomenon that would become much bigger than its parent hobby, role-playing games. (For a better look at these developments see the history of role-playing games.)
The seventies can be considered the 'Golden Age of Wargaming', with a large number of new companies publishing an even larger number of games throughout the decade, powered by an explosive rise in the number of people playing wargames. Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz (1970), Panzer Leader (1974), and Squad Leader (1977) were particularly popular during this time, with their innovative geomorphic mapboard system. Wargames also diversified in subject, with the first science-fiction wargame appearing in 1974; and in size with both microgames such as Steve Jackson's Ogre, and "monster games" appearing during the decade.
The boom came to an end, and was followed by the usual bust in the early 1980s, most markedly with the acquisition of SPI by TSR in 1982. The hobby never truly recovered from this, and is today much smaller than it was during the seventies. Numerous factors have been implicated in the decline, including the rise of gaming alternatives (such as RPGs), the ever increasing complexity of wargames, and changing demographics and lifestyles.
During the 1980s, much of the market for wargames was dominated by roleplaying games. Then, when personal computers became available, gamers could simply "sit down and play" without learning masses of rules, clearing physical space, and finding and coordinating schedules with opponents. However, in 1983 Games Workshop published Warhammer Fantasy Battle, initially as a "Mass-combat Role Playing Game", which quickly moved to dominate the fantasy wargaming market. When collectible card games arrived in the 1990s, the gaming market became even more competitive. By this time, many wargame publishers were already long gone.
Despite the decline, wargaming continues to survive in different forms. Advanced Squad Leader (1985) became a niche hobby in and of itself, and Axis and Allies (1984) was very popular with the mass market audience and Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983) spawned a long-lasting line popular miniatures games including the successive editions of Warhammer and the science-fantasy Warhammer 40,000 game. In 1994 the first card-driven wargame, We the People, was published. Battle Cry (2000) and Memoir '44 (2004) proved that light wargames can still be commercially successful, as long as the rules are clear and accessible, and the components are high in quality. Block wargames, such as those published by Columbia Games remain quite popular. Companies like GMT Games and Multi-Man Publishing continue to survive and publish highly detailed, hex and counter wargames.
Miniature wargamers generally prefer rule sets that can be used for any battle in a particular era or war, instead of a specific event, as is common in board wargames. Because armies and terrain can be combined in all possible ways, miniatures wargaming is generally more varied and flexible than other forms of wargaming. The preparation also tends to be more time consuming and expensive. Miniature wargamers typically enjoy painting miniatures and constructing terrain, and this is an important part of the hobby for them.
Because information cannot be displayed on a miniature figure as conveniently as on a cardboard counter, miniature wargames often lack the complexity and detail of some of the heavier board wargames.
The popularity of miniatures wargaming stayed relatively stable during the boom and bust of board wargames. Today, games such as Warhammer Fantasy Battle and the newer collectible miniatures games continue to recruit new interest into the oldest form of the wargaming hobby.
The early history of board wargaming was dominated by Avalon Hill, even though other companies, such as SPI, left their own permanent marks on the industry. With the purchase of Avalon Hill by Hasbro, many wargamers long for 'the old Avalon Hill', and no one company is identified with the hobby as a whole. GMT and Decision Games are two of the more influential board wargame companies in existence today.
An early card wargame would be Nuclear War, a 'tongue-in-cheek game of the end of the world', first published in 1966 and still published today by Flying Buffalo. It does not simulate how any actual nuclear exchange would happen, but it is still structured unlike most card games because of the way it deals with its subject.
In the late 1970s Battleline Publications (a board wargame company) produced two card games, Naval War and Armor Supremacy. The first was fairly popular in wargaming circles, and is a light system of naval combat, though again not depicting any 'real' situation (players may operate ships from opposing navies side-by-side). Armor Supremacy was not as successful, but is a look at the constant design and development of new types of tanks during World War II.
The most successful card wargame (as a card game and as a wargame) would almost certainly be Up Front, a card game about tactical combat in World War II published by Avalon Hill in 1983. The abstractness is harnessed in the game by having the deck produce random terrain, and chances to fire, and the like, simulating uncertainty as to the local conditions (nature of the terrain, etc).
Also, card driven games (CDGs), first introduced in 1993, use a deck of (custom) cards to drive most elements of the game, such as unit movement (activation) and random events. These are, however, distinctly board games, the deck is merely one of the most important elements of the game.
In the video game industry, "wargames" are considered a subgenre of strategy game that emphasizes strategic or tactical warfare on a map. These wargames generally take one of four archetypal forms, depending on whether the game is turn-based or real-time and whether the game's focus is upon military strategy or tactics.
Many contemporary computer strategy games can be considered wargames, in the sense that they are a simulation of warfare on some level. The mechanics and language have little in common with board and miniature games, but the general subject matter is popular. That said, most war-themed computer and video games are generally not considered wargames by the wargaming hobby. Considering that computer games regularly include much more detail than the most complex board or miniature games could ever have, this may seem counter-intuitive, but most computer 'wargames' are not nearly as realistic as their boardgame counterparts.
This generally occurs because mass-market video (most notably here, real-time strategy) games are meant to be easier to get into, and quick to play. This makes certain genre conventions popular, and there is a perception that slavish attention 'realism' will cause a game to be rejected as 'uninteresting' or boring.
On the other hand, many 'unrealistic' video games do include fog of war, meaning that what is visible on the map is limited to what is within a certain range of the player's units. This is a feature often talked about in traditional wargames, but traditionally impractical to implement outside of a computer. And not all games are equally 'unrealistic'. For example, the Total War games are a currently successful RTS series that is historically based.
The first of these was Nuclear Destruction, by the Flying Buffalo company in 1970. The most popular game of this type would be their later game, Starweb from 1976. This type of game enjoyed a burst of popularity for a few years, with several competing companies and games springing up. One of the games arrising in this period is the Origins Award Hall-of-Fame member Middle-earth PBM which is still active today.
At this time, turn-based strategy computer games still had a decent amount of popularity, and many started explicitly supporting the sending of saved-game files through email (instead of needing to find the file to send to the opponent by hand). As with all types of video games, the rise in home networking solutions and Internet access has also meant that networked games are now common and easy to set up.
Local computer assisted wargames are mostly not designed toward recreating the battlefield inside computer memory, but simply employing the computer to track unit status and to resolve combat. Flow of play is simple: each turn, the units come up in a random order. When a unit comes up, the commander specifies an order and if offensive action is being taken, a target, along with details about distance. The results of the order, base move distance and effect to target, are reported, and the unit is moved on the tabletop. All distance relationships are tracked on the tabletop. All record-keeping is tracked by the computer. Examples of these systems are 'Active Armor WWII' and more recently 'Panzer Combat II', which is a voice-enabled computer-assisted miniature wargame of World War II ground combat.
Remote computer assisted wargames can be considered as extensions to the concept of PBEM gaming, however the presentation and actual capabilities are completely different. They have been designed to replicate the look and feel of existing board or miniatures wargames on the computer. The map and counters are presented to the user who can then manipulate these, more-or-less as if he were playing the physical game, and send a saved file off to his opponent, who can review what has been done without having to duplicate everything on his physical set-up of the game, and respond. Some allow for both players to get on-line and see each other's moves in real-time.
These systems are generally set up so that while one can play the game, the program has no knowledge of the rules, and cannot enforce them. The human players must have a knowledge of the rules themselves. The idea is to promote the playing of the games (by making play against a remote opponent easier), while supporting the industry (and reducing copyright issues) by ensuring that the players have access to the actual physical game.
The three main programs that can be used to play a number of games each are Aide de Camp, Cyberboard, and Vassal. All of these date from the mid- to late-'90s and have their own followings. Aide de Camp is available for purchase, while the other two are offered free. Vassal is in turn an outgrowth of the VASL (Virtual ASL) project, and uses Java, making it accessible to any computer that can run a modern JVM, while the other two are Microsoft Windows programs.
Beyond this, there are a few other characteristics that are used to define wargames. Another element that tends to be assumed is the environment, or type of warfare (land, naval, air) depicted, at least if the subject matter is land warfare (a game on naval or air warfare will specify such if not immediately obvious). The most common genres that categories are explicitly based on is the period or era of the game, and then the scale of the game. Naturally, games concerned with a particular combination of period, scale and environment tend to emphasize similar features.
In the early days, wargames were either historical, or somewhat abstract. Tactics II, the first general commercial board wargame, featured a fictional landscape with two made up countries but whose armies had capabilities based on contemporary conventional forces. Analogous to those, are the 'contemporary' games, ones that simulate current forces and postulate what an actual war involving them would be like. These were popular during the Cold War, but have faded with the fall of Communism. During the 1970s, fantasy and science fiction made themselves felt as genres that could work inside of wargames. These tend to be more varied, as different assumptions can lead to vastly different types of warfare, but there has been no real concern with subdividing the genres more closely.
Finally, wargames do not necessarily have to involve traditional concepts of warfare and battles and games can enact typical film genres such as gang battles, crime and law enforcement. Similarly martial arts or even non-combat situations and adventures can be gamed where there are other objectives that require strategy combined with the elements of chance (dice/cards etc) to be achieved.
See also List of miniature wargames.
Jim Dunnigan, The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design, and Find Them, Quill 1992. ISBN 0-688-10368-5 This is available online at http://www.hyw.com/Books/WargamesHandbook/Contents.htm (verified August 2007).
Jon Freeman, The Complete Book of Wargames, Simon and Schuster 1980. ISBN 0-671-25374-3
Nicholas Palmer, The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming, Arthur Baker Limited London 1977. ISBN 0-213-16646-1
Nicholas Palmer, The Best of Board Wargaming, Hippocrene Books, Inc. New York, NY 1980. ISBN 0-882-54525-6
Phil Dunn, Sea Battle Games, MAP 1980, ISBN 0-853-44042-5
Donald Featherstone War Games, Lulu 2008, ISBN 978-1-4092-1676-6