Some friends and I gathered to play a friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons the other week, and it’s made me think of the debt that nerds such as myself owe to the man who helped create our sport.
I’m thinking, of course, of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French and scourge of Europe.
Settle in, it’s a bit of a walk from the Corsican general to people rolling polyhedral dice to slay ogres.
Beginning in the Renaissance, warfare became more systematized. Books were written and math became important, as artillery and the ability to control large formations of musketeers and pikemen required more thought than the old medieval style (which can be described as “send several thousand trained murderers in armour crashing into one another”).
More reliable gunpowder weapons and the invention of the bayonet eventually led to armies that worked like a complicated version of rock-paper-scissors. Infantry (lots of guys with muskets and bayonets) could fend off cavalry (guys with swords on horsies) with ease. Cavalry could overrun artillery (guys with cannons). Artillery could smash apart infantry. If morale was bad or things went wrong (and things always went wrong), those rules could be bent or broken.
Commanders had to learn how to manoeuvre and position all three elements, all of which moved at different rates of speed, over uneven ground, in uncertain weather, against foes of unknown morale, strength, and skill.
Starting in the late 1700s in Prussia (later to become part of Germany) some folks realized that you could lay out maps and little bits of wood and metal to represent these forces, and play a game to train officers.
This game had a full set of rules by 1812, and was known simply as Kriegspiel, or Wargame.
The creation and development of this game was spurred by three decades of war beginning with the French Revolution and ending at Waterloo.
Unlike chess, the previous preferred game to teach strategy, it was far more realistic. Rigid rules such as those of chess didn’t take into account all those uncertainties of actual combat. As commanders knew, there were unknowns and chance at play in any encounter. So they used dice to add that element.
After the Prussians helped send Napoleon packing back to exile, the game spread. Its use as a training tool declined as warfare became more complicated, but in the early 20th century authors like H.G. Wells wrote rules for using toy soldiers for similar games, simply for fun. Others created rules for model ships. By the 1950s, there were dozens of hobbyists cheerfully reproducing historic battles of every era on their dining room tables.
In the 1970s, a medieval game called Chainmail was given a bit of an update by some fantasy fans. They added wizards, dragons, and other non-historical elements.
Then these hobbyists, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, stripped the game down further, reducing it from units of many impersonal soldiers to single characters, including elves and dwarves.
The hobby bubbled along during the 1970s and 1980s, and strongly influenced video game creators, who used the same style and ideas to create their computer, console, or online multiplayer games.
In other words, if it hadn’t been for a need to beat Napoleon, we would never have seen the development of World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and much of the multi-billion dollar gaming industry.