An Introduction to Wargaming

caveatThe term “wargame” means different things to different people. To a member of the armed forces, it probably means a training exercise, simulating armed combat. To a movie fan who is old enough to remember the 1980s, it probably means a dodgy Matthew Broderick film where he saves the world using unrealistic computer skills. To a Doctor Who fan old enough to remember the good old days when it was in black and white, it probably means something else entirely.

However, I am going to focus on the meaning of the term in the context of tabletop gaming.  Even within that context though, opinion is divided. If ever you want to start an online argument that runs for months, or even years, with passionate arguments, anger, and withering sarcasm on both sides, I recommend you go onto a wargaming forum and say something like I am writing a beginners’ guide to wargaming – please can someone give me a definition of exactly what it is?

Some gamers use the word “wargaming” as shorthand for “miniature wargaming”; others, however, would say that a wargame is any board game that has the theme (or perhaps a simulation) of battle, or warfare.

Let’s take a look at both of these definitions, shall we?

Miniature Wargaming
The term “miniature wargaming”, if you have not already guessed, refers to a battle simulation played out using “miniatures” – tiny models of soldiers, tanks, ships, or whatever else is participating in the combat. More often than not, these miniatures have been bought and hand-painted by their owners. Also, the terrain and scenery which enhance the playing area is usually home-made, or at least home-painted. Miniature wargaming is not just about the game itself, there is a whole other arts and crafts hobby behind it. I once heard it described as a cross between chess and model railway building. I would add to that, though, that it can also be like preparing for a history test, because a lot of players who re-enact famous real battles, do take the historical accuracy quite seriously, and they do a lot of research before playing.

The roots of miniature wargaming can be traced back to the Kriegsspiel rules, which was a wargame system created by the Prussian military, in early 19th century, to help train their officers. It was in the early 20th century, though, that wargaming started to develop as a hobby. In 1913, the novelist H.G.Wells, who was one of the very first players, brought it to the public’s attention, when he wrote a book detailing the rules that he had made up. It was called Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.

(I know, I know. It was a different time)

Whe I first heard that H.G.Wells was responsible for the wargaming hobby, I thought it was a hoax. It sounds a bit like that famous myth that Marlon Brando invented* boxer shorts. But, no, apparently this one is true. Wells’ version of the game was played on the floor, and combat involved firing projectiles from toy cannons, at an opponent’s troops. You can see something resembling it being played in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Miniature wargaming really got going, though, in the 1950s, especially in Britain. This was when manufacturers and retailers started making and selling miniatures specially for the hobby. Wargaming clubs were established – many of them creating (and often publishing) their own rulesets, resulting in hundreds of different systems. Some features that were common to many of them, though, included:

  • Two players (or teams), alternating turns
  • One miniature could represent a single soldier, or it could represent a squad
  • Sometimes the play area was divided into squares, or hexes. More often though (largely for aesthetic reasons), the landscape was unmarked, and unit movement was regulated using a tape measure (or similar).
  • Units could only attack other units that were in their line of sight.
  • The result of combat was determined by rolling dice.
  • Terrain, troop type, and unit numbers affected the outcome of combat.


Miniature wargaming is still going strong today. If you want to jump straight into the full historical wargame experience, you could check out Lion Rampant (with a medieval theme) Flames of War, or Bolt Action (both World War II). With these games, and most games in the genre, the rule books are sold separately, and players use their own miniatures, acquired from any one of number of retailers (such as “The Plastic Soldier Company” for example).

If, rather than jumping straight in, you just want to paddle in the shallows for now, some popular “skirmish” games (i.e. shorter games that just include a small number of miniatures, rather than whole armies) include Saga (set in the dark ages) and Wings of Glory (WWI and WWII ariel combat). Or, moving away from historical wargaming, there is Infinity (with a Manga theme), Malifaux (with a horror-steampunk wild west theme) and Star Wars: X-Wing (with a theme of … well, you can probably guess). There are also some skirmish games that come with pre-painted miniatures, such as Heroclix (superhero theme) and Monsterpocalypse (robots, aliens, monsters, etc).

If even paddling in shallows seems like a bit much for you, and all you want to do is dip your toe in the water, why not check out Memoir ’44? This simple game uses cards and dice to recreate the combat of the Normandy landings, with little plastic soldiers, tanks, and artillery units, on a large board marked with terrain and hexes.

The market leader for miniature wargaming, both in terms of rulesets and for selling miniatures, is, by far, Warhammer. There are currently two variants of this game on the market – Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (which is fantasy themed) and Warhammer 40,000 (science fiction). Both of these systems have reasonably priced skirmish starter sets and manuals available, along with many, many expansion sets, to tempt you, once you are hooked. All Warhammer games are sold through Games Workshop, whose stores you have probably seen on your local high street.

In the interests of full disclosure – I should tell you that I do have a slightly awkward relationship with Games Workshop. The only time I ever went inside one of their stores, I had wandered in out of curiosity, while passing, thinking I might find some interesting new board games in there (which I don’t think was unreasonable given the name of the store). A young assistant who came over to speak to me.

“Are you looking for anything in particular, sir?”

“Oh…not really … just looking for some games.”

“Do you play Warhammer, sir?”

“Er … no.”

“Then I am afraid we don’t have anything for you here, sir.”

And then he just stood and looked at me and waited for me to leave.

I can only assume he modeled his sales technique on the shop assistants that Julia Roberts encounters in Pretty Woman, the first time she goes shopping in Rodeo Drive. Like Julia, I left the store meekly. My big regret is that I did not go back there the next day, carrying bags full of miniatures from a rival company under my arms, and say “You guys work on commission, right?” I didn’t though, mainly because it seemed like a lot of trouble to go to, for such a small pay-off. Also, on further reflection, he probably did not work on commission.


War Themed Games

For people who enjoy wargaming, but lack the time, money, and/or inclination to buy and paint miniatures and/or construct landscapes, there have long been many alternatives available. Many of us grew up playing mainstream war themed games, like Risk, or Stratego, but there have plenty of other games over the years, which were lesser-known, but did go further in attempting to simulate battles in a board game format.

The classic wargames were played on boards covered with hexes. They had small cardboard chits representing soldiers or squads, usually with information printed on them (strength, range, movement, etc). Having extra information written on the units, which is not something that can easily be done with miniature wargaming, brought an additional level of complexity to the game, which many players liked.

The 1970s was the golden age of this style of wargaming.  It was during this period that companies like Avalon Hill, Simulations Publications Inc (SPI), and Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) began to appeal to the mass market, releasing well-designed games at low prices. Some of the popular games from this era include PanzerBlitz, Squad Leader, OGRE, and the epic (and ominously titled) The Longest Day.

Before long, the games started to evolve, and new styles and mechanics started to appear. The hugely popular Axis and Allies came along in the early 1980s. The first solo games started to appear then too, such as Ambush! and Raid on St Nazair.

The hobby did experience a bit of a dip in the 1980s, with the popularity of role playing games, and later, video games, having a major impact, as potential players found different ways available to satisfy their blood-lust. The hobby never disappeared completely though, and, alongside the board game hobby as a whole, has seen something of a resurgence in recent years.

If you have a yearning to play a real old-school hex-and-chits wargame, then many of the old games are still in print today. Modern series in the same style include Combat Commander, and also GMT’s series of games France ’40, Ukraine ’43, Ardennes ’44, etc.

There are also games that take the classic wargame set-up, and throw in some other mechanics, often influenced by Eurogames. The excellent Paths of Glory, and Washington’s War, for example, look and feel like traditional wargames, but are actually card-driven. 878: Vikings – Invasions of England uses cards too, but also throws in an element of area control, and is a team game.

There are some successful series, too, with modern takes on the genre. These include COIN (whose games include Cuba Libra, Liberty or Death, and Pendragon – The Fall of Roman Britain), Combat Commander (Europe, Pacific)  and Commands & Colors (Ancients, Medieval, and Napoleonic). The idea of a series of games – games from the same publishers, set in different eras, but using similar rules and mechanics – has proved enduring.


Liberty or Death (COIN series)


Another currently popular mechanic is the “fog of war”; this is where you and your opponent do not know the identities, or strengths, of each other’s units. Usually, this is because the numbers are printed onto blocks in such a way that an opponent cannot see them from his/her vantage point on the other side of the board. You might recognise this mechanic from the family game Stratego, but other, more advanced games (usually referred to as “block wargames”) have been successful, including Hammer of the Scots and Europe Engulfed.

One of the most popular recent games of all time, Twilight Struggle, is a card-driven simulation of a war – the cold war. This game does not include combat simulation; it is all about exerting political influence on other countries, as the real events of the cold war take place. Some people get quite cross when you try to suggest it might be a wargame (so I won’t be doing that) but it does share some DNA with the classics. The game Labyrinth: The War on Terror has a similar system, but has a more up-to-date theme (please note this is a different game to Labyrinth, the cute dungeon-maze family game with sliding tiles – do not get these two games mixed up, or you will have either a very frustrated wargamer, or a very confused eight year old).

A Few Acres of Snow, from 2011, combines traditional wargaming with Dominion-style deckbuilding. This game, set in the 18th century North America, during the conflict between Britain and France, is out of print now, and difficult to find. I have heard though, that the rights to the game have been sold, and a reprint might be possibly be on its way some time soon. (It is also not out of the question that there could also be a fantasy or sci-fi retheme – A Few Acres of Jon Snow anyone?)

Churchill is also very good, and it won a top award in the wargame category the year it came out. However, the designer has stated quite firmly “Churchill is NOT a wargame” …so I had better not mention that one.

Well, that’s about all I have to say about this topic for now. I hope my ramblings have been helpful to you. I have enjoyed writing this chapter. It has, though, strangely, given me an urge to invade Normandy.


* – okay, I made this hoax up myself. I think my point is still valid though.