War has fascinated humankind for centuries, despite its horrifying and destructive nature. From Chess to Go, games have tried communicating the primal nature of humans fighting for their territories. As the earliest example of tabletop wargames, Kriegspiel brings out a nuance in that representation by simulating the tense albeit a detached experience of strategizing in a war-room. Beyond setting conventions that would be highly influential in the genre, Kriegspiel also contains crucial lessons that many games, even today overlook.
Kriegspiel attempts to simulate a war-room like experience through a number of different ways, each introducing a vital mechanic that would go on to be influential in the genre. It simulates the Fog of War through a temporary uncertainty of troop placement before the war is declared. The ritual mechanic of placing a screen in the middle at the start, allows each player to place their units on their side of the board, while not knowing their enemies’ position. This uncertainty is removed once the game begins and the opponents’ army setup is revealed. It simulates the feeling an army general would have of being overwhelmed by too much information and too many variables to handle, when the war is declared. It is Kriegspiel’s ability to go beyond mere aesthetics and embrace and revel in the complexities of war-time strategy which make it so compelling.
In fact, this complexity of Kriegspiel is a recurring theme whether it is in the mechanics or its systems. In fact, it is the complexity which makes Kriegspiel as strong a game as it is. Every moment the player is swamped with choices to make, each choice factoring in more variables that the player has to keep track of. This is further punctuated in the “Advanced Mode” of Kriegspiel which has its own booklet manual and introduces more complex mechanics which simulate weather, supplies and logistics in war-time scenarios on the board.
But the ambition of Kriegspiel doesn’t just stop there. It goes even beyond the physical space of the board itself to implement a “Diplomacy Mode” which results in actual negotiations between the players, often boiling down to house rules in form of restrictions and agreements that are extraneous to the game’s rules. This is the closest the game gets to fully embracing the diplomacy and backstabbing involved in war-room negotiations and acknowledging that war isn’t merely just fought on the battlefield (or the board, in the game’s case) alone.
By embracing the complexity, Kriegspiel is able to achieve something which many of today’s abstracted strategy games miss out. It puts player in a constant state of being overwhelmed by information and the sheer number of systems that each player has to grapple with, almost makes you feel like the game’s asking you to be a computer. But it is this overwhelming feeling which also makes it hard for the player to keep track of everything on the map and as a result the game forces mistakes to happen on the board. There are so many things to keep track of that the player is bound to overlook something and suffer losses. That is the damage, mistakes from commanders and leaders cause on the battlefield. You lose units as a result of those mistakes caused by the complexity, but you continue fighting. The horrifying beauty that Kriegspiel brings about war strategy is that even though our mistakes cause loss of life, we continue fighting only hoping to save those who stand.
It’s never a war for the dead, we fight for those who still live.