April 20, 2024

What’s a Wargame? A Historical Review

RockyMountainNavy, 19 May 2023

Apparently, the perennial question of “What’s a wargame?” is not limited to just Grognard wargamers. The latest “controversy” is actually taking place in the hobby boardgame segment of gaming with some gamers not happy that Tory Brown’s Votes for Women (Fort Circle Games, 2022) was even considered for, much less finishing as a Runner Up, in the 17th Annual BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Awards for 2022 in…the Wargame category.

Screenshot 2023 05 10 at 3.39.46 PM
Courtesy BoardGameGeek

click images to enlarge

In response to the controversy, publisher Kevin Bertram of Fort Circle Games wrote his self-proclaimed eye-rolling defense of why Votes for Women is a wargame. Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire likewise gave us a case study. While I am sure I can’t give a definitive answer, I can offer a look at how wargame practitioners have wrestled with the definition of a wargame over time. Who knows; maybe this historical romp can help collectively advance the discussion and assist gamers—grognard or otherwise—to better understand one another.


Wargame Player vs. Wargame Practitioner

One issue that I freely admit confuses my personal definition of “what is a wargame” is that I have a wargame split-personality. On one hand I am a hobby wargame player, but on the other hand I try to explore the world of a wargame practitioner. While the wargame hobby industry, as embodied by BoardGameGeek (BGG), struggles with the definition of a wargame, wargame practitioners have likewise worked for many years to define “wargame.” The problem is that, just like BGG, practitioners cannot settle on a single definition either.


BoardGameGeek Sub-Domains

For the sake of some consistency (and for better or worse) I use BoardGameGeek to manage my wargame collection. This drives me to try and use the categories defined by BGG as to the Domain/Subdomain (Accessory, Boardgame, RPG, or Wargame) of a given gaming item. I do this in part because it allows me to take some advantage of sorting the data.


Per the BGG categorization, Wargames is a subset of Boardgames on par with Abstracts, Children’s, Customizable, Family, Strategy, Sports, and Thematic games. I personally have trouble with this arrangement because in many ways I view wargames as a form of strategy games.
Further, by one of several confusing BGG definitions, Wargames are “highly thematic”—like Thematic Games? Adding to the confusion is that games on BGG are not assigned a domain; the category is voted upon with no criteria beyond the whims of a voter. For example, the very game in question—Votes for Women—is categorized as (at the time of writing) a Thematic game by ~67% of the respondents to the poll on the BGG page for the game.
It is called a Wargame by a minority of ~22%. The game was nominated in the 2022 Golden Geek Awards in both the Thematic and Wargame categories.

It is also painfully obvious to me that the BGG wiki is near-useless in aiding a gamer to define a wargame because, by BGG’s own admission, their “fairly liberal interpretation” has at least three definitions.


I draw your attention to the fact that in each BGG definition of a wargame a military or conflict aspect is present—often in the form of open combat—a point made by many of those who oppose the inclusion of Votes for Women as a wargame. It is obvious to me that BGG can’t really help define a wargame and I need to search elsewhere. For that I turn back to my roots…


1922 Chart Maneuver Rules

The U.S. Naval War College (USNWC) has been playing wargames for a long time, and we can read the 1922 version of the “Chart Maneuver Rules” that include (a long-winded) definition of a wargame.1


Parsing through the words, I smile at the distinction between “professional” and “exercise or diversion” games. I also point out the call that wargames are for education and not for winning (ha!). While the definition is too long-winded to be practical, I do like that a wargame is portrayed as a contest of “mind against mind” fought in a simulated model of warfare.


1954 RAND Corporation

One of the earliest definitions of a wargame I can find is from a set of notes left behind by an unnamed RAND Corporation researcher from 1954 in A Brief History of War Gaming.


This is the definition I favored when I appeared on the Armchair Dragoons podcast Mentioned in Dispatches where we discussed definitions. As much as I like this definition I also see it has problems, not the least of which is that it limits a wargame to an “imaginary military operation” and then defines how it is played. I have now come to view this definition as too narrow and limiting, in particular because it focuses on the presentation of the wargame (i.e. the components of the game) rather than what the game tries to model/simulate/recreate/project.


1966 Naval War College

Sometime between 1922 and 1966 the USNWC changed from “wargaming” to “war games.” In 1966 the USNWC wrote a handbook that the U.S. Government Printing Office still sells copies of.2 What sets this USNWC definition apart from others is that it clearly places a war game as a subset of simulations. It also recognizes that some war games are not strictly limited to kinetic conflict.


The part of the 1966 USNWC definition I like best is a recognition that war games are related to a “conflict situation” that doesn’t have to automatically be military. While that is good, I detest the use of the term “Operational Gaming” for non-military conflict situations because, as time has passed since 1966, “operational” has taken on a very particular meaning in the military which makes the USNWC usage of the term confusing. Although the name may be problematic, we will eventually see that the idea that non-military war games exist will eventually come to be accepted by wargame practitioners though some hobby wargamers seem to insist it cannot be.


1974 Wargame Spy Story

As time has passed, I have become more and more convinced that author Len Deighton was a hobby wargame player and likely had connection with wargame practitioners in the United Kingdom’s defence establishment. No better evidence exists to me than his 1974 novel Spy Story which takes place mostly around a wargame table at think tank-like “Studies Centre, London.”3 Each chapter in the book has an excerpt from the wargame “rules” used at the Studies Centre, and while wargame is never defined in the book, there is at least one pertinent nugget in the chapter headers that helps me explore a possible definition.


This will not be the last time that “chess” and “wargame” are mentioned together. In this case take note that wargames are NOT chess. What I think Deighton was getting at with this pejorative usage is that chess is too abstract, a thought that we will see again nearly 35 years later. More importantly, I also keep Deighton’s definition in mind because it is one of the earliest places I find where the relationship between wargames and decisions is drawn.


1980 Pithy Dunnigan

I don’t think it would be any stretch of the imagination to say that Jim Dunnigan is second-only to Charles S. Roberts in the pantheon of wargame design and business gods. While Roberts had Avalon Hill, Dunnigan ran Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI). His Wargame Handbook is still a standard reference for wargame practitioners. So one might think Mr. Dunnigan would be the place to find THE definition of a wargame.4 Well, guess again. Dunnigan has a definition for wargame, but it is two parts and rather pithy.


While emotionally evocative on some level (“paper time machine”) Dunnigan’s comments don’t actually define much. Unlike the UK defence establishment of the 1970’s, which strongly tried to separate chess from wargames, Dunnigan relates the two…but fails to define “glorified” which leaves us wondering. He also leaves much up for the reader to judge for themselves what is “playable” and what is a “conflict.” His seeming denigration of games (“unsavory”) is somewhat understandable from a professional wargame practitioner’s perspective as they often want to be seen as “serious.”


1987 Prados Pentagon Games

John Prados was the designer of one of the most famous Avalon Hill wargames, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich (1974). He was also a wargame practitioner designing wargames for the Pentagon. Indeed, in 1987 he published a small booklet, not altogether unlike a wargame magazine, called Pentagon Games: Wargames and the American Military that included, “three exciting board games based on actual methods used by Pentagon strategists to plan military action…These games reveal how the Pentagon reaches its decisions to commit arms and personnel, and how it choses weapons, and how it wages battles in the field.”5  In Pentagon Games, Mr. Prados attempts to explain to the public what a wargame is.

The Prados defintion of a wargame—once again—alludes to simulation. Unfortunately, the lack of clarity regarding “uses methods other than fighting” is vague but at least his definition avoids defining a wargame by its physical representation. I also like the last part in “generate plausible outcomes” but I think he then incorrectly limits it by saying “from combat.”


1990 Early Perla

Dr. Peter Perla is perhaps next in line after Jim Dunnigan when it comes to wargame practitioners who have tried to define the term “wargame.” His book, the Art of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 1990) should be right next to Dunnigan’s book in every wargame practitioners library.6 To our great relief, Dr. Perla is also far less pithy than Dunnigan. As we will see, Perla also revisits his definitions. In the 1990’s he defined it this way:


Perla’s defintion is a pretty good one, even by today’s thinking. It is not without issue; for example, “model or simulation” places the two as co-equals unlike the earlier USNWC tiering. I appreciate that Perla emphasizes the decision-making aspects of wargames.


2002 Simulations Sabin

Philip Sabin, representing an alternative European view, made his great contribution to the discussion in 2002.7 Sabin goes “Full Dunnigan” and drops the “games” portion of the word to instead focus on “conflict simulations” which, as defined by him, are games! Like many others before him, Sabin focuses on the military, armed conflict, accuracy or “realism,” and decisions.


As acknowledge by Dunnigan himself, the classic defintion has two problems; it combines “war” and “game.” This led to Phillip Sabin and others to advocate a new term, “Conflict Simulation.” My major problem with that term is “simulation” which, thanks to the wargame practitioner side of my wargame personality, I closely associate with Modeling & Simulation (M&S) community which I see as more the realm of data-driven Operations Research. I do not see M&S as a “game.” Further, much like many who oppose the use of the term “war” to describe any sort of conflict, martial or other, I see the term “conflict” as not sufficiently encompassing.


2004 Diagnosis

Come 2004 and Dr. Perla was working at the Center for Naval Analyses. Along with Chris Weuve and four others from the Naval War College, they wrote a report titled Wargame Pathologies. Unlike many previous works, this one was aimed squarely at wargame practitioners.


Wargame Pathologies goes “back to the well” and synthesizes Perla’s earlier definition with game theory. The authors here seem to be going out of their way to ensure that everyone understands that games can be simulations.


2008 Middle Perla

By 2008 Dr. Perla had again modified his definition.8


Personally I don’t like this one as it uses “model or simulation” in a manner that sounds too much like “modeling & simulation.” On the positive side, it focuses on decisions by players.


2016 Later Perla

Dr. Perla again modified his definition in 2016.9


Here Dr. Perla drops “model or simulation” in favor of “dynamic representation of conflict or competition.” In many ways he is channeling the 1966 USNWC college model of “military” and “operational” gaming. Perla’s definition from 2016 is also a clear acknowledgement that wargames don’t have to just be about military combat.


2019 Caffrey Generations

For many, many years Matt Caffrey ran the CONNECTIONS wargame conference. In 2019 On Wargaming—his personal magnum opus—was printed.10


Caffrey’s generations have many good concepts incorporated, though I inwardly cringe at the use of “generations.” I see the use of that word unfortunate as all too often succeeding generations are viewed as replacements. In wargames, there are many who still play Chess, a first-generation wargame. I also wouldn’t necessarily say fourth-generation games are emerging given titles like Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, 2005-2019) have been around for nearly two decades now.

Caffrey’s third- and fourth-generation definitions are once again acknowledgment that wargames are more than just force-on-force battling. I like the distinction given to fourth-generation “peace games” as I think that in many wargames “peace” has long been a path to victory, its just many games focus on imposing the peace on others in a kinetic or violent fashion.


2022 International Relations Research

By far the most interesting work to me concerning the definition of a wargame is coming from outside the defense wargaming community. “Wargaming for International Relations Research” by Erik Lin-Greeberg, Reid B.C. Pauly, and Jacquelyn G. Schneider is a must-read for every wargame practitioner.


I really like this definition. “Interactive scenarios which immerse,” “players who make decisions,” and “react to the consequences.” The “balance abstraction” comment is directly relevant to wargame practitioners who use wargames for analysis. Balancing abstraction is also a very important design element in hobby wargames used for entertainment.

In a demonstration of the wider acceptance of this definition of a wargame, in late-April 2023 the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report to the House Armed Services Committee titled “Defense Analysis: Additional Actions Could Enhance DOD’s Wargaming Efforts” (GAO-23-105351). The report uses a close variation of the International Relations Research definition of a wargame which they interpreted as “representations of conflict in which the game’s players make decisions and respond to the consequences of those decisions.”

It is very clear that “conflict” to the International Relations Researchers and GAO report does not have to include military combat. To the authors, wargames clearly are focused on creating a game to bring out decisions. I am confident more than a few hobby wargamers will dismiss this expansive definition out-of-hand by claiming the objective of these wargames is analysis or experimentation and not simple entertainment like “real” wargames. I personally don’t understand their obsession with the narrow definition and what proponents hope to gain from such a position. They seem to want to ignore there are other paths to victory beyond using a weapon (where have we heard that before).


Alternative Views That Just Don’t Work

“Thank the Maker!” For awhile there, and still all too often today, a game is categorized as a wargame simply based on who publishes the title. To me, the poster child title for this treatment is Twilight Struggle that, being published by GMT Games, is “obviously” a wargame for no other reason than GMT Games publishes wargames and nothing but wargames. While this definition may have been convenient (useful?) in the 2000-oughts when BoardGameGeek was starting, it fails to be a useful distinction today given the diversity of titles in almost any given company’s catalog of games.

Waros. For a time in the late 20-teens, I was all-in on defining certain games as “waros.” The term is a combination of “wargame” and “Eurogame.” The idea was to describe a genre of boardgames that were “wargames” designed with game mechanisms more commonly associated with Eurogames. My personal poster-child example is Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater (Hollandspiele, 2016) with its cubes representing supplies necessary for movement or combat. As time has passed, and more “wargames” are designed using a wide variety of game mechanisms (i.e beyond the “classic” hex & counter plus CRT) I find this yet another distinction without meaning. While it may be useful to some as a marketing tool to draw Eurogamers to wargaming, I find it less-than-useful as a way to define a wargame.


My Personal Definition

If I was put on the spot today I think my personal definition of a wargame is a (clunky) synthesis of several of the above.

Wargames are interactive scenarios, presented in the form of a game, representing conflict or competition in which people make decisions and respond to the consequences of those decisions. As they can depict competition between groups, non-kinetic actions are a possible pathway to victory.

I’ll be honest here, I am struggling to NOT put some military or battle or combat qualifier in the definition. As much as the wargame practitioner side of me is comfortable saying wargames can be used for any “conflict,” the wargame player side of me says that without those qualifiers hobby gamers will never be able to find a difference between a thematic historical strategy game and many wargames. But then I ask myself if doing so is playing into the hands of those who—regardless of their outward expressions of support for inclusion and accessibility—actually seek to exclude wargames (and wargamers) from the greater hobby gaming industry or otherwise narrow the definition of a wargame to fit their political views.

So there you have it; some definitions for your consideration. Now that you have read all that, is Votes for Women a wargame? Does it really matter? Personally, I am with Jim Dawson (@JimDaws93102644 on Twitter) who’s response to Liz Davidson’s tweet on her case study I am 1000% in agreement with:

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Courtesy Twitter

Oops! Forgot to Check with the Boss…

As this article was in “editorial review” by Regimental Commander Brant he “reminded” me that he had written an article back in 2018 for Armchair Dragoons titled “Battle Lab: Games & Sims for Training & Learning – A Concept Explication” (April 4, 2018). In the article Brant focuses on using wargames for training and learning purposes and discusses the spectrum of wargames from games to simulations and abstract to greater realism. It is a good discussion but be warned that the one thing he does not offer is a definition of wargame.11


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  1. Curry, John and Chris Carlson (ed), The United States Naval War College 1936 Wargame Rules: USN Wargaming Before WWII, Volume 1, The History of Wargaming Project http://www.wargaming.co, 2019.
  2. McHugh, Francis J., The United States Naval War College Fundamentals of War Gaming, 3rd Edition, March 1966 (Reprint), Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  3. Deighton, Len, Spy Story, St. Albans: Panther Books Ltd., 1974.
  4. Dunnigan, James F., Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames, San Jose: Writers Club Press, 2000.
  5. Prados, John, Pentagon Games: Wargames and the American Military (Includes three playable wargames), New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.
  6. Perla, Peter P., The Art of Wargaming, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990.
  7. Sabin, Philip, Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games,London: Bloomsbury 2012, 2014.
  8. As cited in Appleget, Col. Jeff, USA (Ret.), Col. Robert Burks, USA (Ret.), and Fred Cameron, The Craft of Wargaming: A Detailed Planning Guide for Defense Planners and Analysts, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020, p. 3
  9. As cited in Appleget, et al., p. 4
  10. Caffrey Jr., Matthew B., On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future, Newport: Naval War College Press (Naval War College Newport Papers 43), 2019.
  11. Ed note: in my defense, it’s not like I haven’t been a part of these discussions for 20-odd years!

4 thoughts on “What’s a Wargame? A Historical Review

  1. If everything and anything can be called a wargame, then nothing is. It might as well be “War Monopoly.” To apply Henry Kissinger’s probably apocryphal statement on what constitutes good intelligence to what constitutes a wargame, “I know it when I see it.”

  2. The problem is the fear of leaving things out (defining war). But without solid definitions, terms are meaningless. Every game is a conflict, if it wasn’t there’d be no game there. The point of categorizing games is so when someone finds a game they like, they can use how it’s categorized to find other games they’d be likely to enjoy. The march to open up wargames to include anything historical dilutes the label to be almost meaningless. A game about purely political battles is not the same as one about military battles. “War is the continuation of politics by other means” does not mean war is politics or politics is war (“by *other* means”). It just means they can sometimes be used to accomplish the same goals. Wargames in the hobby space meaning a game where the resolution is decided by who loses modeled/simulated military conflict has been useful to help find like games for those who enjoy them. Throwing the definition open to anything historical so muddles things that the category might as well be eliminated, because it usefulness has been lost.

    And not that anyone asked (or particularly cares), but my definition:
    A wargame is a game involving military conflict in which the game is lost when one of the players engaged will lose the game if they lose the military portion of the game.

    1. You hit upon two points that many use; it must be military combat and it must be historical. I strongly disagree with the later and am torn on the former—but tend to lean away from it.

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