Yesterday I had the opportunity to act as the umpire in a round of the original, 1824 Kriegsspiel. It was an eye-opening experience. Without a doubt, the Kriegsspiel–originally built as a training exercise for Prussian military officers, and later adopted as a hobby pastime–is the most disturbing wargame I’ve ever played.
Many wargames are, and feel like, a chess variant. Pieces move in abstract units: hexes, inches, or centimeters. Health, too, is handled abstractly, often through hit points. One feels oneself engaged with a harmless intellectual exercise.
By contrast, the Kriegsspiel measures everything in human terms. Movement and firing ranges are expressed in paces. Losses are tallied using an abstract system which immediately relates to the actual number of soldiers harmed. Everything about the game emphasizes that it is a simulation, not of fantastical battles, but of human conflict.
This careful effort to translate game functions to human scales lends the kreigsspiel a grim air. Chess variants were its immediate ancestors, but the kriegsspiel lacks their sense of remove. After totaling up the precise number of cavalrymen undone by an infantry volley, one feels an urge to shudder and walk away from the table.
The kriegsspiel has a number of design lessons to teach. Perhaps the greatest of them, though, is the power of choosing the terms in which one expresses the scales used to measure game effects. Abstract scales create an abstract feel. Scales based firmly on lived experience produce a very different sense.