Kriegsspiel: the Glory and the Pain of Teamwork

Kriegsspiel is a war game with a pedigree. Developed by the Prussian military in the 19th century to train officers, it offers a gameplay experience unlike anything I’ve had so far.

William and I played kriegsspiel at LA’s Strategicon over the long weekend. The game lasted about eight hours — and they flew by.

kriegsspiel game civil war
Battle lines being drawn as the Confederates prepare to take Tappahannock

Obviously, a game that long isn’t classroom-ready, no matter how fast the time goes. Furthermore, kriegsspiel requires a lot of material and space. That said, the experience was so rich that I’m determined to find a way to put it in a smaller package.

Here’s how it works:

Two teams, out of sight from each other, each have their own map of the battlefield. Battle scenarios vary, but ideally you have a team member for each of your side’s command positions. The game is overseen by a referee who knows the rules in detail and, on a third map, tracks the players’ pieces and makes necessary die rolls.

What are your opponents planning? You don’t know — you can only see on your map those enemy units that your own units would be able to see from their positions on the field. At the beginning of the game, that’s probably zero. You’ll just have to guess, based on what you think they’re most likely to do given the particular situation and terrain. And you’ll have to prepare for as many possibilities as you can.

Good — you’re on a team, so it’s time to strategize together.

Ha! Not so fast. If you’re not within earshot of your fellow officers, you’ll have to communicate by messenger. Messages must be timestamped (time is tracked in 5- 10-minute intervals), and the further away officers are from each other, the longer it takes messages to arrive, at the referee’s discretion. There’s also the risk of interception, or the messenger getting lost, if he has too much distance to cover. This means that any decision not to follow one’s initial orders, even under compelling circumstances, can have disastrous consequences for the rest of the team.

kriegsspiel game civil war
The battle for Tappahannock in full swing.

Obviously, kriegsspiel has a lot to offer students of history. It also gives players a sense of what it was like to coordinate something as momentous and volatile as a military assault at a time when communication was slow and unreliable — something no longer intuitive for many of us, especially students growing up with mobile phones and 24/7 internet connections. Most military games, be they board or digital, give players a God’s-eye view, allowing them to make decisions with much more information than actual commanders ever could have had, so even experienced gamers are likely to find kriegsspiel an unfamiliar challenge.

But beyond the (very interesting) historical aspect, kriegsspiel’s teamwork mechanism is also uniquely rich. Each player must strike a balance between trust, intuition, and initiative. The highest-ranking officer may not be the best strategist; his subordinates must follow orders nonetheless or risk sinking the entire mission, but they must also seek to minimize the damage cause by poorly-planned attacks and maximize their troops’ effectiveness through whatever means available.

It seems to me that there are (at least) two possible approaches to adapting kriegsspiel for classroom use.

One is to simply offer it as an extra-curricular activity, where students can play for several hours at a time. The play experience is absorbing and, if properly orchestrated, fast-paced.

The other is to play the game one round at a time, with students issuing their orders at the beginning of class, the teacher resolving orders after class has ended, and students issuing the next round of orders the following day, each round taking about five minutes of classtime each day.

It would be interesting to adapt the teamwork mechanism to other thematic content — what kinds of subjects would you want to see it applied to?

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