Wilbur Gray provides a concise history of war gaming. He briefly covers the von Reisswitz era (father and son) of Kriegsspiel in Germany, Vernois and Free Kriegsspiel, Major Livermore and the US Army of the nineteenth century, McCarty Little at the US Naval War College before World War I, and hobby gaming from HG Wells to the commercial game companies of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Chess and similar games are often claimed to hold the origins of war gaming. Apart from having two opponents with elements moved on a two-dimensional surface, there is little resemblance to war games of the last two centuries as practiced by military professionals.
Kriegsspiel. Kriegsspiel, which originated with the elder von Reisswitz, but was much improved by his son, emerged as an excellent means for officers in the Prussian Army of the era (1830s-1870s) to study military issues. However the game became progressively more competitive, and the procedures were developed to deal with the minutiae of movement and interaction. Many players began to use (and abuse) the rules to win, rather than to study military issues. The adverse effect was that tactical reality gave way to the rule book.
Free Kriegsspiel. Some time after Kriegsspiel had become established, Free Kriegsspiel was developed (originally by Verdy du Vernois in the 1870s) to simplify what had become a rather meticulous, even tedious, set of rules. In particular, the adjudication procedures of Kriegsspiel had become cumbersome and time consuming and, in many ways, a distraction from key elements of Kriegsspiel as a means of studying military strategy and tactics. Rigid rules were replaced by an umpire who would use his own experience and judgement to adjudicate outcomes. By then war games had become somewhat unpopular due to the cumbersome, time-consuming rules of adjudication. But with combat-experienced officers providing their military judgment as a replacement for the cumbersome rules, war gaming became much less tedious. The new procedures resulted in games that were faster and thus more popular, hence played more often.
Free Kriegsspiel worked well when the umpires had considerable experience and well-honed judgement to contribute. Their adjudications were plausible to players (who generally had considerably less experience). And the umpires, because of their credibility gained from recent combat, were rarely challenged. However, Germany’s officers who were veterans of the campaigns of the 1860s and 1870s gradually retired from military service and the new generation of umpires could not adjudicate with the same credibility. A second problem is what today may be called "opinion of the senior officer present". When one of the players outranked the umpire, an umpire might feel obliged to give way to his senior's opinion for some adjudication. These two factors created problems for Free Kriegsspiel.
German war game methods continued to develop and have been widely credited with contributing to many of the German military successes of the twentieth century.
Captain William McCarty Little and his Naval Game had a dramatic effect on the Naval War College. In recognition of this McCarty Little Hall (opened in 1999 at NWC) was named in his honor and is the state-of-the-art home of the College's war gaming activities.
In the pamplet called "The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver" McCarty provides: "The object of the naval war game is to afford a practice field for the acquirement of skill and experience in the conduct or direction of war, and an experimental and trial ground for the testing of strategic and tactical plans." The object of professional games other than naval war games is exactly as stated by McCarty Little with an appropriate change of context from that of naval warfare.
The British Army developed manual war games at the division level after World War II. In the 1950s the Canadian Army Operational Research Establishment reviewed gaming activities in allied armies and developed a gaming capacity based largely on the British model. One feature of the Canadian Army gaming was to gather players at regular intervals to collect what were called "Judgements and Insights". This practice has continued to the present. It amounts to conducting a seminar with the participants to gain their insights on the operations just conducted.
Simulations Publications, Inc or SPI and Strategy and Tactics magazine succeeded Avalon Hill as the leader in the hobby war game market. James F Dunnigan started SPI partly to take over a failing magazine called Strategy and Tactics. SPI and S&T were dominant forces in hobby gaming through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Dunnigan has widely published on military topics. His Wargames Handbook, now in its third edition with the second edition available on the web, provides a good description of hobby gaming during the period of SPI's dominance. Dunnigan has gone on from this start in hobby gaming to become a widely known commentator on military issues and on the professional use of war game methods. At his web site, Dunnigan has something to say about operations research.
Avalon Hill and SPI had several competitor's during this period. However, the commercial games of this era usually followed certain formats. One item that was commonly found in such games was a map of the area of operations with a hex grid superimposed. Accompanying the map would be a table indicating movement penalties associated with codes drawn on the map, e.g., for roads, bridges, or rivers.
Another element that was frequently found within a game box was a table that could be used to interpret codes that gave the characteristics of units (e.g., combat effectiveness or movement rates). Such inserts were memory tools for players to help with the flow of the game.
Also in the box would be unit counters. These were small chips that could be torn from a perforated cardboard sheet. These unit counters would over-printed with various codes that players could use to determine the units identity and capabilities. Depending on the nature of the game, additional cardboard chips might be overprinted so they could specify, e.g., that facilities had been damaged or destroyed, that units had had their morale shaken, or that access routes had been blocked during the course of playing the game. To provide players with the necessary context to put all this together there would be a booklet of rules.
The linked images shown here are from a game produced by the Game Designers' Workshop called Third World War Series: Arctic Front produced in 1985.
PBS Television. Public television has been airing professional games for nearly three decades. PBS has used this technique in an educational mode to draw out the issues in many contentious topics. Many of the PBS broadcasts might better be called "Crisis Games" rather than "War Games" as there is often no war and very little military involvement.
The Fred Friendly Seminars are a series of professional games that are conducted largely to inform the students and the public of pressing issues in current American culture. Many of these have been broadcast as part of public affairs programming on PBS. These professional games are not conducted as analysis activities but to educate viewers on pressing issues in American society. Some topics are close to national defense and security, but many deal with issues related to justice, health, or business.
National Defense University. NDU's Center for Applied Strategic Learning applies professional gaming in a variety of contexts. Those with little or no military context might better be labelled crisis games rather than war games, as war in the conventional sense is rarely a dominant feature. An example would be Wargaming the Flu. Indeed CASL often uses the term "strategic simulation exercises" for many of their activities.
Various civilian activities require contingency plans. In information technology, contingency planning must cover measures to return services quickly to some minimum level. The National Institute of Standards and Technology provides a Contingency Planning Guide for Federal Information Systems. Part of this covers the use of professional games to evaluate contingency plans. NIST also provides a Guide to Test, Training, and Exercise Programs for IT Plans and Capabilities. This handbook describes a contingency exercise in terms that would be familiar in the context of professional gaming if the focus were expanded beyond "IT": "An exercise is a simulation of an emergency designed to validate the viability of one or more aspects of an IT plan. In an exercise, personnel with roles and responsibilities in a particular IT plan meet to validate the content of a plan through discussion of their roles and their responses to emergency situations, execution of responses in a simulated operational environment, or other means of validating responses that does not involve using the actual operational environment. Exercises are scenario-driven, such as a power failure in one of the organization's data centers or a fire causing certain systems to be damaged, with additional situations often being presented during the course of an exercise."
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and other fantasy role-playing games have elements of professional gaming. Although D&D is set in a purely fictional world, and the intent is exclusively to entertain those involved, the commitment of the participants shows how appealing such games can be.
NATO Land Ops 2020 and NATO Urban Ops 2020 studies 1999-2000 included some of the larger seminar war game activities within the Alliance as it looked to the future of land operations. The gaming aspects exploited the familiarity of the British operational research participants in running Technology Seminar War Games for their own Army.
In 2001 and 2002 the Canadian Army conducted seminar war gaming to address the army structure of c.2025. Army staff worked closely with scientific staffs to assess the impact of new technology on land operations more than two decades on.
These are seminar war games conducted at the highest level the US military services.