Antoine Bourguilleau: “By playing wargames, the historian may end up asking questions they have never asked themselves. “(June 2020)

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Gaming has come of age in recent years. In France and across the rest of Europe, there has been an increase in symposia and seminars on the subject of role-playing games and the “gamification” of society. Games themselves are objects of curiosity and have become the topic of university research in the areas of history, sociology and literature.

Antoine Bourguilleau’s book, Jouer la Guerre [Playing at War], contributes to this research and focusses on a type of game at the frontier between the civil and military worlds. Bourguilleau studied under military historian Hervé Drevillon, and he retraces the history of war simulation games from their Germanic origin in the 18th century to the modern era. He provides us with an in-depth and scholarly study of these Kriegsspiele, German word for “wargames”, a sort of “serious playing” used in the 19th century for training Prussian officers, and the war games later used for projecting the potentially fatal outcome of the Cold War.

Antoine Bourguilleau explores these games in all their manifestations, from staff war games to commercial board games, as well as the scenario created by science fiction author H.G. Wells in his book War of the Worlds. He explores the (sometimes complex) rules of these games, which strive to reflect the reality of a warlike confrontation. This book is rich with insight and allows the reader to approach military history from an underappreciated and still relatively little-studied angle. The author has kindly answered a few questions for


Interview by François Houdecek, June 2020

Antoine Bourguilleau: “By playing wargames, the historian may end up asking questions they have never asked themselves. “(June 2020)
Jouer la guerre. Histoire du wargame, Antoine BOURGUILLEAU © Passés/Composés 2020 How and why did war gamescome about?

Antoine Bourguilleau: A number of factors led to the development of the first wargames. Firstly, war games emerged as a result of the need, recognised both explicitly and implicitly, for certain tools that could enable soldiers to ‘fight’ certain battles, but also via the convergence of several other developing trends. One of these trends was the interest of a number of scientists in the ordering and classification of living things. The second was the development of mathematical games and those based on probabilities. The third was the professionalisation of armies, which created a paradox: on the one hand, infantrymen, artillerymen and cavalrymen were familiar with the – sometimes complex – handling of their weapons, and changes in formations and manoeuvring, but the generals themselves could not actually practice or train in the art of military campaigning and of leading battles. That Kriegsspiele (war games) emerged in Prussia at the end of the 18th century, around the same time that the staff schools appeared, was obviously not a coincidence. How were these games developed?

Antoine Bourguilleau: Initially, they took their inspiration from chess.  The classic pieces (bishops, pawns or rooks) were replaced by dragoons, hussars, artillery, riflemen and grenadiers. The board was no longer made up of 64 squares but several hundred representing villages, roads, hills and forests. The terrain had an effect upon the lines of sight, the cover available, and the movement of the troops. But these transformations weren’t enough. They began to add the element of chance, often through throws of the dice, in order to simulate military mishaps (referred to as ‘friction’ by Clausewitz) which could be such things as misunderstood orders, the discovery of terrain not anticipated on maps, the loss of regimental morale, or the outbreak of deadly fire.

It wasn’t long before the checkerboard was dispensed with, and units began to be moved about on staff maps complete with contour lines, and firearms effectiveness statistics (that were starting to be available) were also considered. In 1824, a very successful game was presented to the Prussian staff and immediately adopted for the training of senior officers. Did these simulations have an influence on the conflicts of the 20th century?

Decidedly. And they’ve constantly improved over time and have been used as a tool for validating plans by the staffs of armies and navies of many warfaring countries. For example, in the US Navy where wargaming has been used since the end of the 19th century, nearly 300 war games were organised between 1918 and 1941, the vast majority of which involved a possible war with Japan. These games convinced the Americans that in the event of a Japanese offensive, they would have to be prepared to take a hit and then pursue a slow snail’s-pace reconquest. And for that they would need a large fleet of tankers and transporters to give their fleets the autonomy required to fight such a war. In 1960, Admiral Nimitz, who had played a major role in WWII, declared, “The war with Japan had been reenacted in the game room here by so many people in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise—absolutely nothing except the Kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war; we had not visualized those.” What can military historians learn from the practice of these war games?

Antoine Bourguilleau: For several decades now we have been used to reading history in a “counterfactual” way, inspired by English-language ‘what-if’ history: what would have happened if Napoleon had won Waterloo? Or if he had died at the siege of Toulon? This is not just an exercise in style but allows the historian to take a step aside and reflect on what might have happened. But it substitutes one story for another. Wargaming creates not so much of a narrative as a narrative material. By playing wargames, the historian may be led to ask questions that they have never asked themselves before, at least not in the same way. It also brings the historian out of their usual stance of neutrality: studying Bonaparte’s 1796 Italian campaigns is not the same thing as playing Bonaparte himself and trying to make aims work with the means at hand, attempting to deal with the blows dealt by fate, and perhaps trying to understand certain choices made at the time. And by developing games on the subject of their own area of study, historians can approach their subject in a different light, exploring the dynamics of what happened rather than just the narrative. In wargames, it is obviously possible that these dynamics will produce the historical result, but it is also possible that they will produce a different outcome, thereby underlining that history is a story of ‘what actually happened’ and not a history ‘what could have happened’. You are writing a thesis on the history of wargames, and universities are becoming increasingly interested by the gaming world. This interest has developed only very recently in France. How do you explain the emergence of this interest?

Antoine Bourguilleau: Historians, sociologists, and educational scientists have long been interested in games and their use in training and education. There has been particularly excellent academic work carried out on the subject in France, which has done a lot to help remove the stigma often attached to gaming by the media. Games are no more mind-numbing than television; on the contrary, by allowing players to engage with a machine or with other players, games give them the opportunity to question their strategy, their thinking, and to integrate their opponent into the equation. In this way, gaming is an excellent research and prospection tool. One last question. You are a wargamer yourself: with summer approaching, can you recommend any ‘Napoleonic’ games?

Antoine Bourguilleau: For video game lovers, the Total War series is very well-designed, within the limits of a game where no doubt the general you play has a level of mastery and omniscience that the real generals of the Empire would only have dreamed of. For those who prefer board games, I think GMT’s Command & Colors series is good. It is simple, and it allows you to replay battles in an hour.

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