risk board

A few weeks ago I wrote an article describing some of the most ancient games of all time, known as race games (if you haven’t read it, you can check it out here). Today, I am going to continue this series by examining another very ancient category of board games – war strategy games.

One of the reasons that race games have been around for so long is their simple, relatable premise. The concept of a race is very ancient – documented races date back to 3800 years ago, and people have certainly been racing eachother much longer than that. In the same way, games based around war have been around nearly as long as war itself. In this article, I want to take a look at these games, from the very earliest ancient war games to modern, massive combat simulations. Along the way I hope to see how this genre evolved over time, and see what lessons can be learned along the way.

War, huh, What is it?

Before I begin, I want to clear up exactly what I mean when I refer to wargames. This term actually has a number of different meanings. It can be used to refer to everything from military training exercises, to first person shooter games such as Call of Duty, to a category of strategy board games, to certain types of paintball. In this article, I will be referring primarily to strategy board games that are used to simulate military conflict.

I will also not be restricting myself specifically to the modern definition of wargames – large, complicated games full of miniatures and figures that try to simulate battles as accurately as possible. Instead, I will be including any board game that deliberately tries to thematically or mechanically emulate a battle.

Dawn of War

Much like race games, war games go back thousands of years. The earliest known war games were not board games, but instead mock-battles and sparring fights used to practice and test a warrior’s skills. These early war games are some of the earliest competitions known to man, and evolved significantly over time. These games ranged from early combat sports teaching armed and unarmed combat, to massive spectacles involving hundreds of participants. Some of the most impressive of these early war games were the naval battles held in the Colosseum, in which two mock navies fought for control of the waters.

colosseum sea battle
Yeah, this actually happened

While early war games tested martial prowess, the earliest known military strategy game dates to the first century B.C., and was known as Ludus Latrunculorum. This game was played in ancient Rome, and although very little is known about it it is believed to be a game of military strategy. It may also be based upon an even older game known as Petteia, although even less is known about that game. Many archaeologists have tried recreating the rule-sets, often with quite differing results. What we do know about this game is that it was played on a gridded board (somewhere between (7 x 8) to (9 x 10)), and it is likely that it did not differentiate between different pieces like later strategy games would.

It probably looked something like this. Maybe? *shrugs*

Another ancient military strategy game comes from Scandinavia in the 4th century AD, known as Tafl. Tafl is a particularly interesting example because it is not only one of the earliest wargames, but also one of the earliest asymmetric games. In Tafl, the two players have distinctly different goals, and different resources. Both armies had different numbers of pieces (one army had twice the number of pieces as the other), and were arranged differently around the board.

One player had a king piece, and their pieces were arranged towards the center. The other player had the larger force, and their pieces were arranged around the board, surrounding the king and his forces. The goal of the king was to escape (by making it either to the edges or corners of the board), while the goal of the opponent was to capture the king.  While this game may have been an early pioneer of asymmetric play, it is also considered to be quite unbalanced. This may have been on purpose, however – it is theorized that the unbalanced arrangement of the board is meant to represent the asymmetry of a Viking raid, as the Vikings were the main people who played and spread this game.


Another ancient military strategy game is known as Chaturanga. This game comes from ancient India, and is the ancestor of many modern war strategy games. The board is separated into an 8 by 8 grid of squares, and each player controls two rows of pieces that represent their “army”. The player controls 8 warriors (similar to pawns), and a number of special pieces including the Raja (king), chariots, elephants, and horses.

While this games is remarkably similar to chess, there are a few key differences. Firstly, the board was not checkered. Instead, most of the squares are blank, while some of them occasionally had special markings. The meanings of these markings are unknown, and it even known if they had any particular meaning in Chaturanga (some historians theorize that the same board may have been used for many different games). In addition, the rules are not entirely known. While many of the pieces are believed to move similarly to modern chess pieces, some – especially the elephant – are not entirely understood. Finally, Chaturanga was designed so that it could be played by either 2 or 4 players.


Chaturanga formed the foundation for a number of different strategy war games played around the world to this day. From Chess in Europe, to Shogi in Japan. These games all have a number of similar features – they all take place on a grid-like board, with symmetrical pieces. Each piece has different attributes, usually determining how it can move and sometimes governing what other pieces it is able to defeat. Generally the goal of these games is either to capture a specific piece on the board (such as a king), or simply to remove all pieces controlled by the opponent.  These games have proven remarkably popular, and many of them are still widely played today.

(Relatively) Modern War

While these chess-like games were hugely popular throughout much of the middle ages and Renaissance, it wasn’t until the 20th century that war games got their next huge innovation. A french game known as L’attaque was developed in France, which combined traditional chess-like gameplay with the additional element of incomplete information. This game was first officially released in 1910, but may have actually been invented as far back as the 1880s.

This game, which is basically the same as modern Stratego, was set up similarly to a traditional chess-like game. It was played on a gridded board, with symmetrical armies, and involved players placing their pieces on either end of the board across from eachother with the goal of capturing a particular piece that your opponent controls (in this case, a flag). The primary difference between L’attaque and earlier games, however, is two-fold. First, players are allowed to arrange their pieces on their side of the board in any configuration that they want. Secondly, opponents could not see what your pieces were, until they attacked. stratego.jpg

This use of hidden information is possibly the first implementation of a mechanic that is almost ubiquitous in modern war-games, known as the fog of war. The fog of war refers to the uncertainty experienced during military conflict. In most ancient board games, players had perfect information – they were able to see the types and positions of all of their opponent’s pieces. In real military conflict, this is not usually the case. Because of this, a number of different games have come to develop “fog of war” mechanics. These mechanics can come in many different forms, but the solution used by Stratego is still a popular one. In fact, there is an entire category of strategy war games known as “Block wargames”, which hide information in this way.

The next major war game to arrive on the scene is also one of my personal favorites – Risk. Risk originally came onto the scene in 1957, and was unique in the fact that, instead of using a regularly gridded board it used a political map of the world. While the use of maps as boards is quite common now, it was quite original at the time.

Risk also differed from previous war games in several other ways. Firstly, it had a much higher amount of randomness. Most war games before Risk were pure strategy games, but Risk contains a high degree of randomness in addition to it’s strategy. Like Stratego, Risk does not have a well-defined starting position. Unlike that game, however, Risk’s starting position is randomly determined – players draw cards to determine their starting territories. In addition, combat in Risk has elements of randomness as well. Players roll a certain amount of dice based on the number of attacking and defending pieces, and rolling higher numbers wins the attack. This gives players with better numbers an advantage, but doesn’t guarantee that they will prevail in combat.

Finally, Risk is one of the very earliest games with a strong political component.  Because Risk is played by multiple players who are not on teams, it encourages players to form and break alliances in order to defeat their common enemies.

risk board

Climbing Avalon Hill

In 1953, designer Charles S. Roberts published his very first game, known simply as “Tactics”. This game is considered by many to be the first truly modern war boardgame, and helped launch Robert’s company, Avalon Hill, to be one of the most successful and influential companies in this space.

While Tactics was originally created in 1953, it wasn’t until it was re-released as “Tactics II” in 1958 that they game really took off. This game introduced a number of mechanics that became quite common in future Avalon Hill games, and war games in general. Firstly, similar to the variable dice rolling introduced in Risk, Tactics introduced the “Combat Results Table”. This table, along with dice, is used to determine the outcome of battles based on the ratio between the number of attacking and defending soldiers. A higher ratio would provide better combat odds, and after rolling the dice the players could check the table to see who won the battle.

Tactics also expanded on the concept of terrain. While some previous war games had “impassable” terrain such as rivers, Tactics was the first to assign values to different types of terrain that make them more or less difficult to travel through. This concept of variable terrain would get greatly expanded upon in future games.

After Tactics, Avalon Hill released the game Gettysburg. This game has the distinction of being the first war game to be based on a specific historical battle – in this case, the Battle of Gettysburg from the American Civil War. Gettysburg was similar to Tactics, but added additional depth to the combat. Attackers could improve their odds by attacking their enemies from the sides or back instead of the front, while defenders could use the terrain to improve their defenses. A later version of Gettysburg, released in 1961, pioneered the use of a hexagonal grid instead of a square grid, which has become standard in most modern war games.

gettysburg game.jpg

Over the next several decades, war games continued to trend towards more complicated and realistic mechanics. Today, war games are some of the most complicated and detailed games on the market, with incredibly large boards, and massive play-times. One extreme example is the game The Campaign for North Africa. According to it’s BoardGameGeek listing, it has a playing time of 60,000 minutes (or 1,000) hours.  That’s over 41 straight days of playing! Or take Eurasia Universalis, which has two game boards that are each 80 * 60cm. That’s over 10 square feet of board! For reference, a monopoly board is less than 3 square feet.  Finally, Advanced Squad Leader has rules so complicated, it uses a 3 ring binder to store them!

asl rulebook

Because of this tendency towards complication, it would be quite impossible for me to fully examine these modern games. They continued to expand for the next few decades, eventually reaching a peak in the 1980s. After this, their popularity declined, but new games continue to be produced in this genre even to this day.

Until Next Week!

That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be talking all about gamification!

Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

2 replies on “History of Game Design: This Means War!

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