Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Towards a history of professional wargaming – Kriegsspiel-related research at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

Dr. Jorit Wintjes kindly provided this summary for PAXsims of research that they are undertaking at at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg on the history of early Kriegsspiel and related topics.

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When a few years ago the Digital Humanities (DH) program was established at Würzburg University, the decision was made to push the boundaries of what was then mainly (though of course not exclusively) a text-orientated subject in order to include a wider variety of humanities-related topics. As a result, students of the DH BA and MA programs at Würzburg come into contact with topics as diverse as digital cartography, GIS referencing of archaeological data, advanced image procession technology used by papyrologists – and conflict simulation.

In the history department, we ancient historians had already before the establishment of the DH program experimented with the employment of political and conflict simulation in class. Results were promising, so when it was our turn to contribute to the fledgling DH program, we decided to concentrate on simulations. As a consequence, we offer at the moment two courses on simulations are now an integral part of the Würzburg DH programs and are also open to interested History students.

More on the Würzburg DH program can be found here. For a very brief overview over the ancient history contribution see here.

Currently, we offer a general introduction to conflict simulation, usually ending in an actual war game, as well as an advanced course concentrating on specific issues like wargames-related statistics, issues of computer modelling, KI etc.

While we initially concentrated on the establishment of the teaching program, contributing also to the research profile of the program seemed rather logical as the next step. For that – and for the foreseeable future – we decided to establish a research group on the history of professional wargaming. This is currently still very much in its infancy, and we are still a long way from our initial goal, that is providing a definite history of professional wargaming for the 1812/24 to 1914 period, yet there has already been some progress.

So far, we have focussed on three different issues – first, the “prehistory” of the Kriegsspiel. This is usually understood to include pre-Reiswitz wargames only for completeness’ sake, yet a closer look at Reiswitz not only shows that the connection between Reiswitz and his predecessors is much deeper than usually acknowledged (after all, he calls his game “a Helwig-type game”!) but also that far from being the lone genius who was suddenly struck by inspiration, designing wargames was in fact something of a fashion in the late 18th and very early 19th century – evidently, the Kriegsspiel is not the result of the “new spirit” of the post-1806 reforms in Prussia. Also, research in the very early history of the Kriegsspiel as turned up evidence for the use of the term Kriegsspiel for a simulative military game already in the latter half of the 16th century – which may mean that there is some need for rethinking about what happened before the two Silesian Barons.

The first output – planned output, I should say – of this research is an annotated edition of Reiswitz’ 1812 Kriegsspiel. As its introduction is highly valuable for anyone researching the history of professional wargaming in general and the Kriegsspiel in particular, we felt there is enough justification to produce such an edition – and the way things happen, it was supposed to appear in September, but will probably only see the light early next year.

The second issue currently occupying much of our mind – partly because it has direct relevance to how we use rulesets in class – is the issue of the “Free Kriegsspiel” in Germany. The orthodoxy here is that “traditional” Kriegsspiel all but came to an end in the early 1870s, with everybody “seeing the light” after Meckel’s and Verdy du Vernois’ publications. While this may well have been the case, one should be aware of the fact that this interpretation rests to some extent on an enormously influential publication by Konstantin von Altrock – who was about as ardent a supporter of the “Free Kriegsspiel” as they come, so one might take his testimony with a small amount of the proverbial salt. In fact, our ongoing attempt at locating and collecting all surviving pre-1914 rulesets has shown that even after 1880 rulesets appeared that heavily depended on the use of dice – and were apparently pretty successful.

Finally, we have started to take a somewhat “digital” approach to the rules, inspired originally by the statement of Georg Heinrich von Reisswitz to have based his data on the weapons testing data published by Scharnhorst in 1813. The general idea here is to analyse the statistics behind the rulesets, comparing them both to each other and to “real life” data. It is interesting to note, for example, that in the 1824 rules, artillery firing canister is pretty deadly, going beyond the data published by Scharnhorst (well, Reisswitz was an artillery officer after all…). This was noted and corrected in the 1828 supplement, and during the following decades Prussian and German rulesets often make mention of corrections in the tables accompanying the rulesets. Given the technological progress during the 19th century it would be interesting to see how they incorporated both technological and tactical advances into the rules.

As I said, it is all still very much in its infancy. Given however that the general circumstances for doing wargames research are currently very favourable here at Würzburg, we hope to produce at least some interesting results in the future.

PD Dr. Jorit Wintjes 

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