In the early 1820s a Prussian army lieutenant by the name of Georg Heinrich von Reisswitz invented a new type of wargame. In 1824, during a presentational game run by Reisswitz and some of his comrades for several high-ranking Prussian generals, the then chief of the general staff Karl von Müffling exclaimed: “This is not a game, it is a school for war!”; it took Müffling only a few weeks to effect a royal edict ordering a set of rules and wargaming materials to be bought for every single Prussian army regiment, and the game to be played regularly during the winter months.
Müffling’s enthusiasm for Reisswitz’ invention was due to its revolutionary character which set it apart from earlier attempts at designing wargames. Abandoning traditional chess-like game boards it was played on state-of-the-art topographic maps, which at the time were in use by the Prussian military for barely a decade; that Karl von Müffling had been the principal proponent of topography in Prussia and responsible for the Prussian state’s first topographical survey likely was one of the reasons for Müffling’s enthusiasm. Moreover, the game introduced umpires (called Vertraute - “trusted [persons]”) as well as mechanics that made it possible to simulate both a general fog-of-war experience and specific communicative friction.
During the decades that followed its introduction in 1824, the new Prussian wargame (soon simply called the Kriegsspiel) became a common peace-time occupation of Prussian officers. As during the following decades technological progress had significant effects on the nature of combat, with both range and firepower of infantry rifles and artillery pieces rapidly increasing, Kriegsspiel rules were regularly updated; by 1866, the original set of rules had been followed by four new versions, the latest published in 1862. While the Kriegsspiel faced some opposition within the army during the 1820s and 1830s, it found an influental supporter in Helmuth von Moltke, who was as enthusiastic about its use as Müffling had been about its introduction.
Thus, in 1866 many if not most of the Prussian army’s officers had some experience with the Kriegsspiel. The successes of Prussian forces in the wars of 1866 and 1870, which surprised many contemporary observers, led to the adoption of several elements of Prussian military organisation by other European armies; as a result, wargaming was rapidly adopted by many armies during the following two decades. By the end of the century nearly all industrialized armies had introduced wargaming into staff education an military planning.
The Conflict Simulation Group at the University of Würzburg has collected most of the Kriegsspiel rule sets published between 1824 and 1914. We conduct research on the Kriegsspiel and its role in 19th century military thinking and education, and we organise Kriegsspiel games with reconstructed gaming materials, including for the first time in a long time large-scale scenarios on historical maps. Published results of our work can be found in the publications section.
Playing the Kriegsspiel
The Kriegsspiel is played on a topographic map. Units are represented with tokens, originally made from lead, that depict contemporary tactical symbols. It simulates land operations from brigade level upwards. The teams playing the Kriegsspiel are placed in separate rooms, each with its own map and set of tokens. The players do not need to know the rules of the game at all, they simply write orders orders to imagined subordinates and receive written messages in reply imitating the actions at a real command post in the field. They rely on the map and tokens to depict the tactical situation how they perceive it.
A team of umpires (Vertraute) based in another room is tasked with processing orders and writing messages players would receive from subordinate commanders. It is the umpires who solve conflicts according to the mechanisms outlined in the rules. Their map is the only one that depicts the reality of the simulation, whereas the player maps only show the teams’ assessments of the situation according to the information available to them. The quality and amount of information the players get is controlled by the umpiring team, depending on the situation, by simulating the decisions and communications of the command levels subordinate to that of the players. For a detailed presentation on the procedere of the Kriegsspiel, see below.
Thanks to these features, the Kriegsspiel provided a relatively realistic exercise in staff work during ongoing operations, information processing, efficient communication and decision making with incomplete or unreliable information about the overall situation.
Recreating the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz
The largest games organised by the Conflict Simulation Group recreate confrontations at army corps level in the context of the Battle at Königgrätz (nowadays Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic) in 1866, where multiple army corps of Austria and her allies clashed with three Prussian armies in what some historians consider the last decisive one-day battle in the history of Europe. These games, based on a set of rules published by Wilhelm von Tschischwitz in 1867, involve about 40 participants. The setting allows for the depiction of different levels of command: each team is split into one army corps HQ and three to five division level commands, each with a separate map and set of tokens. Army corps commanders have to assess the situation, decide, and formulate orders according to the written messages they receive from division level commanders; this allows the depiction of several aspects of staff work in army corps level operations.
The Königgrätz map
The map used for the Königgrätz games is a contemporary topographic map of the battle field specifically made to recreate the events in the Kriegsspiel. The original version that has been preserved by the British Library possibly is the only map of its kind that survived to our day. A short presentation introducing the contemporary map and how it depicts topographic features can be seen here.
Tokens, units and formations in 1867
Military symbols in mid-19th century Prussia were quite different from modern NATO standard. Furthermore the rules take great care to distinguish and depict different tactical formations, often by representing single tactical units by multiple tokens and defining how these have to be arranged to indicate a specific formation. Confusingly, a single tactical unit, like an infantry battalion or a gun battery are therefore represented by more than one token, even though they can not be split into independent sub units. (Moving companies of infantry independently was in fact already an experimental feature of infantry tactics by 1866, but battalion lines were still standard practice.) A quick overview of the unit types, symbols, and the ways tokens are used to represent different formations on the map can be seen at the picture below. A detailed presentation on how to use the contemporary unit tokens can be found here.