Is Wargaming Like Chess?

Just a quick note on this, to answer a question for our newest member to the small club that is wargamers.

Chess is to me a highly abstracted wargame. We have in Chess, 2 sides ‘at war’, units or pieces with unique abilities, and the ultimate goal of forcing the surrender of the enemy King.

You must plan, think ahead, know your objectives, understand the rules of engagement and how each piece works alone and in concert.


So the thought of chess versus Chess is one of experience and understanding or wisdom..perhaps?


As a chess player we can all move bits on a board and secure some level of competency  But a Grand Master Chess player develops stratagems, openings, coup de grace moves, feints etc etc. Few achieve that state of ‘awareness’, few would likely want to?

Ultimately all the games we play are abstracted at various levels. We cannot simulate the horror of actual war. Thank goodness. So wargames are like chess at the macro level. But wargames in their thousands are expressions of a designer who desires to capture a moment in history and share it through their understanding of what happened. Some love to tinker, with ‘mechanics’ – how can I write a rule to make what happened on DD/MM/YYYY come to life? The reasons are varied, the results effectiveness are varied too.

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What system best reflects the experience of commanding a platoon of soldiers or a squadron of Dragoons or an Apache Helicopter? Depending upon the period we have different tactics, different technology in weapons and different management styles (command). Those factors influence a games design, and how it plays also.

The mechanics of a game are one thing. Playing it well like a Grand Master another. Given there are so many games. We cannot master all of them. Let alone one! We have the blessing of many points in history to explore and many people sharing their view of what happened in an (hopefully) entertaining manner. So we can move through history or fantasy or the Star Trek series, relive, replay and review what happened, why and how it may have turned our differently.

Over time, many ‘mechanics’ or game ‘system’s or ‘procedures’ will become 2nd nature. Movement, CRT’s, ZOC’s, Reinforcements, and Supply. They will all have a connotation and inherent meaning. HOW they are implemented in a game is what people look for in new systems. Is there a better way than the tried and true Strike Force One ruleset ? Or Jena 20 series? Lots of failures, a few alluring success and the occasional masterpiece bubble to the surface to be discussed, played and feted upon by the Grognards ( defined & here traditional ) .

For now tho in order to be a player who progresses to the state of not only ‘knowing the rule’ for movement but knows WHEN to move and WHERE to move and WHY to move to A versus B; requires playing, exploring and if in a historical situation using or trying to use, some of the strategy and tactics of the time in question.

There are lots of knowledgeable players and writers and books and youtube videos on strategy and tactics. is a place. Some of the articles here are an interesting spot to start for ‘ fundamentals’ of why and how soldiers, armies and forces in general do what they do. (I like this one too: decisive point ) I’m not saying you want to read all of these, but some of the high level ones will give you some flavour for some of the games you might play in the future.

Another place to lose hours of your day is There are even lists for new players to read about ‘how to get started’ Lots of reviews and articles there, lots of welcoming folks, but stick to your guns and make your own mind up as opinions are like….well we all know that saying.

The gaming world will take you where ever you want to go in time and space and as simple or complex as you desire.  All you need to do is explore!  If it is not fun, or engaging you then move on, trade it away or sell it.

Is wargaming like chess?

Yes, and No.

14 thoughts on “Is Wargaming Like Chess?

  1. Thought-provoking… It’s interesting to think of “mastery” as spanning across many games, many systems, many eras. I look forward to exploring history through play and will def check out these links. Been looking for some articles on basic hex-and-counter tactics ever since the SFO playthru post. Gracias, Taco Kev.

  2. Great reply…I try and avoid wargames that are like Chess..Immersion and as you say trying to capture that moment in history aswell as much realism as possible is what I look for. Playing a wargame like a Chess game for me would be to dry…I play to get into the erahistorybattle rather than just to test my ability at moving pieces on a board in the correct order at the correct time.

    Reading about the battle your game is based on is a massive thing aswell to get immersed not just the operational level but also first hand narratives. This elevates the game from cardboard game pieces and a feeling of detachment to one of immersion..if a wargame can’t get me immersed and just becomes a test of skill within the rule set like Chess is..a battle of wits with no actual context it’s purely about the game I wouldn’t bother playing again.

    Rock paper Scissors is another mechanic I try and avoid where possible. I like trying to formulate a plan from the chaos of battle where all sorts of things can scupper my plans..rather than a game where if you have every rule down and mechanics down you can formulate a plan and stick to it to the end.

    Hope you can understand my ramble..

    • LOL. I got it. Good point and more succinct than I. Exactly. While there are similarities at macro level, nothing compares to a thoughtful designer creating his image of the situation at a point in time!

    • Yes, something as respectable as chess is still far from what I’d consider realistic and therefore quite cold/dry…. Probably why I never got into it and, so, never got any good at it unfortunately. I’m curious to learn how/why good plans prevail amidst the chaos of battle and how we can judge (not just retrospectively) the quality of command.

  3. Also as said in the article..if you can use a strategy or tactic from the time the game is supposed to represent then thats what it’s all about..if the game rules could just aswell be sci fi when dealing with with WW2 game it’s no for me..

    You will also find what type of wargame you prefer..tactical, operational or Strategic…I prefer tactical or anything upto Coy scale for a unit…battalion at a push. Others prefer Divisions and will find out what you like and then take it from there.

    • This will be interesting to find out. I want to find out to what extent (if any) the three categories (tactical, operational, strategic) overlap and how the level of “zoom” (company, division, etc.) affect decisions and feel.

  4. One last thing..I’m also a sucker for maps and counters..a good bit of artwork does get me excited..DAK2 map and counters look does LnL games.

    • Yes…I won’t admit that..wellI do. I wil put up with some shoddy rules (Assuming fixable if the topic and the presentation layer are superb. Red Winter/LNL/OCS titles, TCS, and the Kevin Zucker titles are stunning. Although the shine is coming off OSG for me. I’m perturbed by the rules, and history nexus…Not seeing it.

  5. Chess has the distinction that (e.g.) Diplomacy does of not having an overt element of chance, though one could argue chance impacts the game by impacting the players (i.e., from the outside — didn’t sleep well, upset stomach). One could further argue that’s either more or less realistic since genuine warfare has what is referred to as chance but probably more accurately termed levels of abstraction — thresholds below which chaos aggregates with reasonable predictability, when players pay attention.

    On one level, that difference distinguishes wargames from chess because chance becomes a differential between the players’ desires and accomplishments, and something they must control for as much as their opponents’ actions. On another level, however, it’s no different since the unpredictability we see with dice rolls may be considered to unfold over time on the chess board — “chance”, in that sense, is simply an opponent’s possible vs taken actions.

    Chess and backgammon are worth comparing on this level. Chess has (a) two geographic axes (b) constrained by unit movement patterns, with (c) capture as the fundamental player intersection. Backgammon has (a) one geographic axis and a second imposed by dice rolls (b) constrained by the players’ direction of travel with (c) blocking, bumps, and (arguably) the doubling cube as intersections. Almost two sides of the same coin, in my mind, even though the latter relies on die rolls.

    I prefer to see the value of modern wargames elsewhere, however.

    Wargames typically offer more dimensionality (e.g., unit variation, 3D terrain, supply/control lines) with which a player may shine. On the one hand, one may consider this a crutch since strategies may be hidden if the rules are not equally understood or if players have particular, unrelated handicaps (e.g., less time to spend, difficulty reading counter typefaces). On the other, the key to managing chance in warfare directly applies — if a player is able to compile opponents’ actions into suitable levels of abstraction, they may create actionable order from chaos and succeed.

    These considerations may translate to immersion or frustration, take your pick, but I tend to think they have a different value. Because of how chess and backgammon are constrained, they emphasize thinking few people are good at out of the box, favoring “mastery”, as the OP suggests. I think these are almost completely about the metagame — the game about the game, rather than specific pieces in places.

    The dimensionality of most wargames, in contrast, begets curiosity and pattern matching in my everyday brain, making me more likely to do useful thinking and play better or, at least, play more. Maybe that makes good wargames entertainment rather than something intellectually meaningful, I can’t say. The good is the same as the bad, however — while I don’t have to be an encyclopedia to maintain the few rules of chess or backgammon, I do have to be something of one with even the more basic wargames I play. That’s an easier bridge to cross than crawling around in my chess opponent’s brain, ten moves ahead, and I’d bet most of my wargame opponents are similar.

    And that means I play more, and have more fun. Which would sorta be the point 🙂 .

  6. BTW, I have no reason to want DAK2 — I have GBII, for example, but don’t even have the table space for it — but it’s so beautiful I want it just to have it. Bad wargamer, no biscuit.,

    • what… no reason. OMG man. Wake up. All of North Afrika spread beneath your all seeing hand. The interplay of forces, teh upgrading of armies over time, the impact of Greece, Malta and ….sheesh. I’ll stop. I’ll say this. YOu can play it with 4 maps, possibly 3 if you cheat a little. GET IT. Better still Obtain DAK1 for $70.

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