65 views 13 mins 0 comments

The German board game that changed the face of war

In Europe
June 09, 2024

On January 10 1940, Major Helmuth Reinberger of Hitler’s 7th Airborne Division was hiding behind a hedge, frantically trying to burn some documents, when Belgian soldiers noticed the rising smoke and arrested him. Fog had put Reinberger’s plane off course and forced his pilot to land in Belgium, still then a neutral country; he had, against regulations, been carrying the plans for Hitler’s invasion later that month. The Nazis planned to move through Belgium to neutralise France and Britain so that Hitler could move east without provoking an Allied attack – but Reinberger had only destroyed parts of the plans when the Belgians seized them. The invasion had to be postponed, and the Nazis had to plan an entirely new strategy. In the meantime, when he learned of Reinberger’s flight, Hitler had the major tried in absentia and sentenced to death.

Hitler was especially furious because he’d always preferred gut instinct to his advisors’ strategies. This aborted invasion, like many of their plans, had been workshopped using Kriegsspiel (“war game”), a battle simulator. The game was played on scaled maps of actual territories. Planning officers were divided into two teams, controlling painted lead-block troops representing German and enemy forces. Each turn represented two minutes of warfare, and the teams could do anything real forces could do in that time – move their troops, send scouts, initiate an attack. To simulate the fog of war, teams couldn’t see their opponents’ full positions, and so sent commands through a seasoned umpire who estimated outcomes for each action.

Hitler, who had no formal military training, described this sort of game as “childish force calculations”. His officers had previously used it to try to dissuade him from inciting conflict: in 1938, when the Führer was contemplating the invasion of Czechoslovakia, General Ludwig Beck used Kriegsspiel to argue this would escalate into a second world war. Hitler had wanted to plunder their neighbour to strengthen the weak German economy. But this weak economy, Beck argued, was precisely why war was a bad idea. Germany was in no position to fight France, and Britain would then be drawn into the fray. Hitler retorted that his officers were to execute his orders, not to question them using a plaything.

Yet his troops were stretched even thinner by 1940. After Reinberger’s disastrous flight, the Führer was forced to find a new approach to block the Allies. Captain Erich von Manstein showed, via Kriegsspiel, that a bold strategy of making a “sickle cut” directly through France, driving towards the English Channel to cut off Allied forces, would be better. Hitler liked the plan for its audacity, which accorded with his intuition. Most German officers thought it too radical to work, and those who supported it did so largely out of desperation – the Nazis were out of moves.  To virtually everyone’s surprise, Manstein’s plan was a success, and the Nazis took France in June 1940.

A Kriegsspiel ("war game") session in progress

A Kriegsspiel (“war game”) session in progress

Kriegsspiel had been used by German strategists for nearly a century, but it was far older than that. German military strategists adapted it from chess, which had itself evolved from an Indian game dating at least to the sixth century AD known as chaturanga, or “four-limbed”.  Its pieces represented the four divisions of the ancient Indian army. As the game travelled west, elephants transformed into bishops, chariots into rooks, and the vizier piece became the queen. In the late 18th century, the German mathematician Johann Hellwig attempted to restore realism to chess and make it a practical military-training tool. And so, updated with 1,617 squares and modern artillery, Kriegsspiel was born.

Hellwig’s game was a commercial success, but too rigid to be useful to military officers. After the German military strategist Georg Leopold von Reisswitz spent years improving it, his son, Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann, completed the job. Taking advantage of modern map-making techniques, Reisswitz Jr redesigned the game to be played on scaled maps of actual battlefields. Red and blue-painted block troops advanced a realistic distance per turn.

Dice rolls introduced randomness into the outcomes of attacks. The game became mathematically rigorous: players consulted tables of data from real battles to determine the casualties of a given artillery exchange. In 1824, the Prussian royal family invited the younger Reisswitz to present Kriegsspiel to the court. General Karl von Mueffling exclaimed: “It’s not a game at all! It’s training for war.” Friedrich Wilhelm III and his court were impressed.

Wilhelm I of Prussia had played Kriegsspiel as a boy. He later used it to forge a whole empire

Wilhelm I of Prussia had played Kriegsspiel as a boy. He later used it to forge a whole empire – Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Kriegsspiel proved a remarkably accurate simulation engine. Officers used it to predict when and where their troops would need to be resupplied or reinforced. As war machinery improved, the game incorporated new weapons, tanks and aeroplanes. Bright young officers could ascend the hierarchy not by nepotism, but on the strength of their ideas. Wilhelm I, who had, as a boy, played Kriegsspiel at home in the royal palace, became king in 1861. He used the game to plan a range of astonishing victories that united the first German Empire. Kriegsspiel became internationally famous.

Today, most major militaries still use war simulation games. While Kriegsspiel proper is primarily the remit of hobbyists and historians, its principles have remained a vital part of military education. From 1977 to 1997, the US Army used the game Dunn Kempf, named after its two creators, to teach tactics to officers. Playing on scale models of Eastern European terrain, students learned pragmatic techniques such as the use of smoke as a defensive screen. Intelligence and defence officials still play commercial games such as Persian Incursion to foster creative thinking about foreign conflicts, while the US Marines play Transition and Tumult, designed to simulate conflict in Sudan, to practise quelling local unrest. Last year, the British Army conducted Army Wargame 23, its largest ever, to rethink its operations on land.

H. G. Wells playing a wargame according to the rules of Little Wars

H. G. Wells playing a wargame according to the rules of Little Wars – Samuel Begg

Simplified variants of Kriegsspiel have also found their way into the homes of civilians. In 1913, the avowed pacifist HG Wells published a book of rules for a Kriegsspiel variant called Little Wars. He hoped it would inoculate its players against militarism, concluding: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.” Little Wars didn’t stop the real thing, but it inspired a new family of commercial war games. While European audiences, subject to firsthand experience of bloodshed, were less receptive to the genre, American audiences happily played games such as PanzerBlitz, albeit with the death camps and famine sanitised. War games soon expanded from historical reenactment into fantasy: Kriegsspiel’s umpire was an early version of Dungeons and Dragons’s Dungeon Master, while its block troops transformed into the epoxy miniatures of Warhammer, which features a galaxy-spanning human empire at war with aliens, androids and gods.

These games, in turn, evolved into modern combat-based video-games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Though politicians from David Cameron to Donald Trump still fret that these games glorify violence, psychologists have never found a significant link between gaming and aggression. Nonetheless, many militaries intensively recruit from the gaming community, because the skills required for modern warfare – for instance, remote drone strikes mediated by computer screens – increasingly overlap with the skills that video-games hone.

Adolf Hitler studies plans for the invasion of the USSR in 1942

Adolf Hitler studies plans for the invasion of the USSR in 1942 – Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

Though often dismissed as trivial, games have reshaped – even saved – the world. In 1983, as Cold War tensions were rising, the political theorist Thomas Schelling arranged a top-secret nuclear-war simulation game for 200 US politicians and military officials. The result of the gamed scenarios horrified everyone: in some cases, nuclear war escalated to the total destruction of life on Earth. In one of the more optimistic outcomes, casualties numbered half a billion, with another half billion expected to die from radiation poisoning. As a result of these exercises, Ronald Reagan’s administration pivoted to de-escalatory nuclear rhetoric and opened sweeping arms-control negotiations with the Soviets.

This wasn’t the first time the fate of the world had hinged on a game. Having contributed to the Nazis’ early success, Kriegsspiel would also play a role in their downfall. In late 1940, Hitler’s officers used it to plan their invasion of the Soviet Union. According to their simulations, the Nazi troops would destroy 240 Soviet divisions, leaving only 60 remaining. The Germans projected such a thorough victory that they didn’t bother gaming beyond November. Almost exactly as anticipated, by November 1941, 248 Soviet divisions lay destroyed – but Stalin had war-gamed the invasion with Kriegsspiel beforehand, too, and Gen Zhukov had role-played brilliantly as the Germans. He had left Stalin so distraught by the simulated rout that the Soviet leader had ordered a massive mobilisation of troops in the real world. When November actually came, after those 248 divisions were lost, Stalin had 220 left – not 60 – and as winter set in, the Nazis became bogged down in a war of attrition. It marked the beginning of Hitler’s end.


Playing with Reality by Kelly Clancy is published by Allen Lane on June 18

EMEA Tribune is not involved in this news article, it is taken from our partners and or from the News Agencies. Copyright and Credit go to the News Agencies, email news@emeatribune.com Follow our WhatsApp verified Channel210520-twitter-verified-cs-70cdee.jpg (1500×750)

Support Independent Journalism with a donation (Paypal, BTC, USDT, ETH)
whatsapp channel
Avatar
/ Published posts: 33003

The latest news from the News Agencies