February 28, 2024

History of Wargaming – Unit Counters, The Pawns of Wargame Designers

Research article by Robert Mosher,  2 September 2021

18th Century designers of games about war were moving beyond the classic strategy games of Chess and the Tafl family of Norse games, but they still usually featured a grid-ironed playing surface and playing pieces that resembled the classic pawns and playing pieces of chess. Avalon Hill’s games in the 1950s and 1960s introduced what since 1986 is called NATO Joint Military Symbology, drawing on a lexicon of symbols used by U.S. and Allied Forces going back through two world wars.

Our continuing look at the early history of modern wargaming. Links to all articles at the end.

Wargames today present a wide range of artwork on their unit counters, game maps, and components. Hobby wargamers will debate at length which designs are their favorites and which they detest. A popular feature on several FaceBook pages devoted to board wargaming might be called, “Name That Game Counter” in which people share pictures of stray counters seeking input from the hivemind as to what game box they belong in.

Most commentaries on the subject state that map and unit symbols trace their history to the period after the Napoleonic Wars. However, there are indications that they were actually used by one or more armies during the Napoleonic Wars – though I have insufficient information to single out which army or armies might have done so much less which might have been the first. Given the period custom of officers serving in different national armies across their career, it is probable that the practice was carried from army to army. Fellow historians have referred to French staff accounts of Napoleon’s battles for one reference. I have identified such symbols on a map in “Historical Maps of the Napoleonic Wars”, Simon Forty and Michael Swift (2003), identified as “A Plan of the City of Copenhagen, with Adjacent Ground” published in 1807, which features the order of battle using iconography to identify infantry, cavalry, and artillery that would seem familiar to us still today.



This was the backdrop for the Prussian father and son team that pulled wargame design, especially the playing pieces or unit counters, into the modern era. Baron George Leopold von Reisswitz in 1812 and his son First Lieutenant Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz in 1824 – together gave us the modern wargame played on scaled terrain or maps with the first modern wargame counter portraying in a more literal way the size, numerical strength, and battlefield tactical formation used by a modern army. We don’t know where his father derived the unit counter designs for his 1812 game, but his son wrote in the 1824 game that (from Bill Leeson’s translation):

“The troops are represented by small metal blocks, and the opposing forces are differentiated by colour [red and blue]. The metal blocks are marked in the same way as they are on military maps [my bold], so that different types of troops, and different regiments, are easily identifiable…..The basis infantry unit is the half-battalion block. It represents 450 men in three ranks.”

Von Reisswitz went on to indicate how the blocks for artillery, infantry skirmishers, patrols, piquets, munitions wagons, etc., all similarly reflect the real-world equivalents. Later, he would elaborate as to the information written on the counters:

“The arabic numerals on the blocks denote the regiment, and the roman numerals denote the number of the battalion within the regiment. To help in the identification of jaeger regiments, only one number appears on the jaeger blocks, this being the battalion number……. In this way each battalion in the brigade can be distinguished from the others, and they should not be allowed to become indiscriminately mixed up.” [The first rules reference to ‘unit cohesion’?]

The illustrations provided for the various troop symbols and unit blocks show that the young von Reisswitz added other information to the counters. Cavalry units are marked to distinguish between cuirassiers, hussars, dragoons, and uhlans [with a lance pictured on the block]. The artillery counters bear the appropriate number to identify 12-pound guns, 6-pound guns, and 7-pound howitzers.


In 1862, W. von Tschischwitz elaborated on Kriegsspiel’s unit counters in his Introduction to an updated version of Kriegsspiel (translated by Bill Leeson).

“The light infantry (Jager) is distinguished by the sides of the blocks being green while the tops are red or blue [base colors for the two armies]. Pioneers are marked with a “P”. The blocks for skirmishers, individual troops and pontoon units are of plain red or blue. The Light Infantry skirmishers are half green and half red or blue. The howitzer batteries are distinguished from the 12pdr batteries by their guns and wagons being shown in red. Unlimbered batteries have their guns point towards the enemy and limbered batteries have their guns facing to the rear. The plain side indicates the front.
Arabic numerals are used to show infantry battalions, pioneers and batteries, roman numerals show regiments.”


C.G. Lewin’s “War Games and Their History” (2012) shared an image of a wargame map published at the Hague in 1819 by Lieutenant-Colonel J. A Messmer of the Dutch Army Engineers. I have reproduced a portion of the image shared by Lewin to focus upon the illustration of that wargame’s playing pieces, a number of which feature the standard markings for infantry, cavalry, and artillery . Unfortunately, Lewin did not share any text from the rules with us so we can only suppose which colored blocks represent infantry, which cavalry (image, right).


William Livermore’s American Kriegsspiel followed the example of the Prussian game and used blocks scaled to match the map scale for which they were designed. However, he went one better in one regard as his infantry block could be placed with one side up to show that it was in column of companies or turned to show another side indicating that the unit was in line formation. This was demonstrated by a series of closely spaced lines across the two different faces of the unit block as you can see in the accompanying illustration from American Kriegsspiel.


Replacement or exchange blocks or counters would be used to indicate skirmish formations or the presence of horse holders for dismounted cavalry. Other information regarding the units represented on the map was provided by the use of additional blocks or counters that could be used to track unit fatigue or the amount of time committed to digging defense works among other activities.

Charles Totten’s Strategos – Advanced Game introduced a rather novel approach. His unit counters or blocks were finished with a surface upon which the umpires or players could mark in pencil the relevant information regarding unit identity, its current strength, fatigue points, etc. The size and shape of the blocks again represented a scaled representation of infantry, artillery, cavalry, etc., in line or column formations, with replacement blocks also available for skirmish lines or to show reduced strengths due to casualties suffered over the course of a game.


Professional kriegspiels as well as hobby games tended to shy away from unit counter style playing pieces for the remainder of the 19th Century and sometimes even eliminated them altogether in favor of a purely map exercise. One British Army officer active in the field, Captain Shaw, RA, even produced a single map sheet kriegspiel with rules printed down one side with advice on how use map pins and other found materials to represent troops on the map. In the US Army, Major Farrand Sayre, in his Map Maneuvers and Tactical Rides (appearing in multiple editions beginning in 1908), noted that in the U.S. Army’s training schools,

“Representations of troops cut from cardboard have been improvised at trifling expense by the Department of Military Art, Army Service Schools, which meet all the necessary requirements of map maneuvers. Blue paper is used to represent infantry – red, artillery – yellow, cavalry – black, engineers – green, hospitals-orange, signal corps – buff, wagon trains, etc.; platoon are represented by squares, larger units by rectangular pieces cut to scale, and squads by small circular discs. The pieces are held in place or moved by means of pins with colored heads – blue for the Blue Army and red for the Red Army. Cardboard blocks lend themselves readily to changes in organization; and can be conveniently used on a map in a vertical position – a great advantage in one side maneuvers and discussions.”

These cardboard counters functioned otherwise the same as the porcelain, metal, or wooden blocks in other kriegspiel game systems. This may be the first noted use of cardboard as a game counter component.

By the first decade of the 1900s, professional military kriegspiels were well established and offered a range of options regarding components, drawing on each army’s vocabulary of map symbols. Games for the hobby market mostly reverted to chess figure or miniature depictions of men, cannons, tanks, ships, airplanes, etc. through both world wars. Charles S. Roberts (The Avalon and later Avalon Hill Company) created Tactics (1954), later reworked as Tactics II (1958), in which he used standard the US Army-cum-NATO unit symbology that is still used (with variations) for many subsequent wargame designs. These rectangular cardboard unit counters were not given designated front facings or a rear or flank but fought in all directions reflecting what were usually larger formations dispersed over a hex space or grid square. However, in his 1958 Gettysburg game, Roberts recalled the roots of kriegspiel with a game map marked off by a square grid, terrain graphics reflecting those of original period maps, and the use of elongated rectangular cardboard unit counters with front facing (indicated by an arrow) and thus more vulnerable flanks and rear.


During the 1960s, Charles Roberts was joined by Tom Shaw and their Avalon Hill company found itself part of a larger war game publishing community. Designers expanded the available library of symbols appearing on unit counters and the US Army/NATO lexicon was accompanied by silhouettes, vehicle pictures, portraits, etc. reflecting the designers’ perceptions of the battle, campaign, conflict, etc. being represented in that game. As games expanded beyond land battles to include naval and air forces or entire games focused on naval and air forces, decisions about counter shape, size, symbol lexicons, etc., became important design decisions.

In 1978, Game Designers’ Workshop (Greg Novak and Rodger MacGowan) released its System 7 Napoleonics drawing on both the old kriegspiel systems and subsequent war games for military miniatures. System 7 provided printed cardboard counters depicting individual units of the major combatants of the Napoleonic Wars, which the player could then use on a map or terrain surface that they provided. The size and shape of the counters varied for infantry, cavalry, artillery, limbers, wagons, etc. – just as in the original 19th Century kriegspiels, while the basic background plus contrasting colors reflected the coat and lapel or trim colors of the original uniforms. Artillery counters were identified by a NATO style symbol for a cannon (as were the limber counters). These were designed for a ground scale of 1-inch equals 40 yards. Numbers printed on most counters show an initial strength point value (on a scale of 1 sp to 20 men), followed by unit identification, or for artillery counters the gun calibre or weight of the howitzer. Many of the counters provided for brigade, division, corps, and army commanders also identified an historical individual. As with a number of the 19th Century kriegspiel sets (and some more modern hobby miniatures rules) some pen and paper bookkeeping is required as units take losses during play.

Unit counters are a critical part of what makes a war game a war game. Without the representation of military might moving across the map in accordance with their numbers and combat capabilities – and the will of the player controlling them – the game board could just as well be chutes and ladders. The iconography and supporting information displayed on the counters is what makes a war game a contest between say, The Big Red One and Panzer Lehr – or Napoleon’s Old Guard against Wellington’s thin red line near a village called Waterloo. How the counters are shaped and marked also define the game as tactical, operational, or strategic. But as much as we all appreciate the design philosophy and creativity that goes into the unit counters (as well as the rest of the game) – it’s also good to see gamers around the world exercising their creativity and tailoring counters for their favorite games as well as showing us that true wargamers can also take whatever materials are at hand and create a wargame out of them.

May the dice always be in your favor (except when you’re playing against me!).



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