Home Forums General Game Design What is a narrative wargame? Reply To: What is a narrative wargame?


Since I believe I started this discussion by the use of the term “Narrative” Let me state what I mean by the term.

I see two different threads of rule development over the years. One is the process directed design family, and the other is the narrative design family.   They roughly correspond to two terms from wargaming history, Rigid Kriegspiel and Free Kriegspiel.

One, rigid kriegspiel, emphasizes fixed turns, fixed movement, voluminous tables, algorithms that are known and only the inputs vary, many legalistic pages of rules and highly constrained results-often attritional. It is very procedural and “rigid” in its construct.

The other emphasizes open ended, with varying turns, variable movement, general mechanisms that avoid or minimize tables, fewer algorithms, a higher degree of surprise and unpredictability, and a far greater emphasis on the story of a battle as it unfolds-especially its human rather than mathematical factors.

Wargaming, other than the very earliest example of Chess, really came into its own in the 19th century.   Most people credit Von Reisswitz with the invention of the true wargame, “Kriegspiel”, with the initial first steps. This was intended as a tool for professional officers in the art of tactical command.   It was, in every way, the progenitor of the “traditional” boardgame design and was predominate in the 19th century. It was a rigid kriegspiel.

In the late 19th century and earl 20th century it was challenged by a new form of wargame design called Free Kriegspiel, by such people as Verdy du Vernois. This design concept was that rigid kriegspiel was not an accurate portrayal of the way battle occurred, and a new approach was needed. Free Kriegspiel used a knowledgeable officer to guide younger officers through a tactical problem. Turns were open ended and often of varying length, rather than algorithms the outcome of tactical decisions were simply stated by the game master/officer in charge based on his experience. Surprise and unpredictability were emphasized with problem solving being emphasized. Thinking on your feet, quick wits, and dealing with the inherent irrationality of many events in war were the goals. It was more like playing Poker than Chess. These games were used by professionals and were not recreational.

At about this same time, several well known literary people, most prominently Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells, created plainly recreational wargames for their amusement. These games were much closer to Free than Rigid Kriegspiel. They created a complete narrative around each unit and each officer in the two opposing forces, adjudication of combat was by the means of a thrown cuff link, or a wooden dowel fired from a spring-loaded cannon-no tables or algorithms were used. The rules were very loose, always open to amendment, and the idea was to create a narrative that was fun to experience and exciting to read.

What they shared was an emphasis on the human aspects, the need for surprise and unpredictability, and that the game had to tell a self-generating story.

Free Kriegspiel dominated until the WWII era, when computers in their early analog forms , and, later, digital, allowed great amounts of data to be processed in short amounts of time. The military is always interested in the quantifiable “hard” data, and firm conclusions, as well as portraying war as a scientific endeavor, and rigid kriegspiel returned with the “rules” and algorithms being digested by computers and results being crisply delivered.

This was reflected in recreational wargames as they moved into the 80s and 90 s with a whole slew of rigid kriegspiel miniature games such as Tractics, Empire, Legacy of Glory, and any number of geometrically inspired ancient games. Tables, charts, fixed turns, volumes of rules and a whole roomful of new pedants, rules lawyers, and quasi-historians worrying each quote to death from some scholarly work about how many voltigeurs could balance on the point of a bayonet.

Board wargames became very challenged by computer based rigid wargames that sucked up many of their customers.

The narrative, free kriegspiel, game was almost forgotten in this period until new concepts appeared from several quarters. This was a reaction to the rigid, process oriented, dictionary sized rules, and glacial play of many games of the 80s.

First Fantasy gamers began doing RPGs, which are a direct decendant of Free Kriegspiel-gamemaster and all! Fantasy miniature gamers also began using a lot of new mechanisms in their games. These mechanisms, because fantasy almost always has some novel or story at its base, were often very much directed at the narrative game style. Because it was fantasy, the new mechanisms were often more quickly accepted than historical miniature wargamers were to change from the rigid, process oriented, model.

Boardgames introduced a number of new design concepts. Most important among them were the Columbia Block Games with their point to point movement, hidden values, and elimination of tables and complexity. Brilliant games. The card driven game also first appeared about that time (1994) with We the People by Mark Herman.

Miniature games had their first example of a CDG with Piquet in 1995, and several games after that date adopted this design concept, most famously Richard Borg’s Command and Colors in all its manifestations.

What all these concepts did in varying degrees was give a rebirth to the core characteristics of the narrative wargame- variable turns, variable sequence, surprise and increased unpredictability. It opened up a whole slew of design possibilities that had been dormant for many, many years.

Cards are an excellent way to portray a narrative. Each card is a part of the story and the story builds as they fall. Turn sequencing becomes variable and eliminates many core inconsistencies of the fixed sequence design.

Though other games had long used an “events” deck, and Larry Brom had set up individual unit activation with The Sword and the Flame design, these new applications of cards as found in Piquet, Command and Colors, Field of Battle, and more recently, Maurice and Longstreet , and Die Fighting II ,are quite different and really are allowing for rules that are simpler, faster moving, more representative of the human factors, more implicit in their challenges than explicit.

There is nothing “wrong” with rigid process oriented designs. I prefer narrative “free” designs, but it is just that, a preference. I believe that free designs offer more fun and some very easy ways to simplify rules and minimize tables ( they can carry the information required right on the card!).





For More See:  http://www.repiquerules.com/page2/files/cc0f7389ea006ed3f78d572c92df158e-110.html

As for McLaddie’s rather selective reading of my original article, I encourage anyone so interested to also read my previously posted article. Link provided below.






  • This reply was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by repiqueone.
  • This reply was modified 6 years, 9 months ago by repiqueone.