The origins of Kriegsspiel

Origins of the Kriegsspiel

by Bill Leeson

The Kriegsspiel, or war-game was invented in the first years of the 19th century by Baron von Reisswitz, a civil administrator of some kind with an interest in military history.

Von Reisswitz’s the elders game

There were a lot of attempts to produce a war-game at this time but they were all based on either chess or cards. In fact chess had a mesmerising effect on war-game design which it is difficult for us to appreciate today, so that there was chess with more squares, chess with more pieces, chess with squares of many colours and chess with more players, pieces, squares and colours. Then Reisswitz came along and decided that what was needed was a return to first principles.

Every aspect of the game was to be looked at anew, starting with the playing area. He decided that this should be an actual model of realistic looking terrain. No flat squares and triangles. Hills should look like hills, rivers should twist and turn like rivers, forests should be allowed to spread out in irregular shapes. Similarly the pieces that represent troops should fit into the landscape somehow, and most importantly, they should only take up the amount of space on the model that they would do in reality. This probably caused Reisswitz a few headaches, but he finally decided on flat blocks that would have the correct frontage, which of course implies a definite scale for troops and terrain. The scale used in the first version was 1:2373, which works out as about 3cm = 100 paces.

    • the pace being a military measurement approximately equal to 2ft 6 inches.

Having landscape and troops to fit to a common ground scale meant that a whole lot of things could now be neatly fitted in to the game without any problem. Time could be fitted in as well because it takes troops a certain amount of time to travel a certain distance. The time taken for troops to advance under fire, for instance, can be calculated from the distance they have to travel and the speed they are going. The ranges for artillery can be measured out according to normal artillery reckoning – small canister shot for 6pdr cannon = 400 paces, for instance. Also, although a nominal move in the game was to represent two minutes there was no reason why an action that was begun in one move should not be continued into the next, or for however many moves it would take.

Now that he had a framework that tied in space and time other problems could be addressed. For instance, do troops receive their instructions via some kind of mental telepathy or do they have to receive instructions from the commander? Does one side wait patiently under fire until it is their turn to move or can they be allowed to move at the same time as the enemy? Does the commander have a godlike all-seeing view of the action or can his view of events be restricted to what he might actually be able to see from his position?

The answer to all these problems was to have a third party involved in the game, who would be a confidant to both sides, a person who was trusted by both sides to act fairly. This eventually became translated by the British as an “umpire”. With an umpire at the centre of the game so much became possible. Both sides could write their orders down at the start of the game and pass them over to him. He could implement them at the correct time, and since the orders had been already given he could advance the game move by move for both sides, so that they were in effect moving simultaneously. He could give reports back to the players, and receive fresh instructions in the light of these reports, which the other side would not be privy to.

There were still a few problems due to the use of modelled terrain, but it was a very impressive achievement nevertheless. The rules only covered troop movements at this stage and did not give results of conflicts or approximations of losses. These had to be worked out by the umpire during the game – an idea that was later revived by Verdy du Vernois incidentally.

I have gone on at some length about the design of the game because it is one of those things which seem so right and so obvious when someone else has done it, but which before hand had seemed quite impossible. Reisswitz had managed to produce a very good working model of a battle situation. He got some friends to take part in it and develop it, and no doubt his young son took an interest in it as well. We might never have heard anymore about it however, but – and here it starts to sound like a fairy story – the King got to hear about it!

The King was Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. His young sons, Friedrich and Wilhelm were cadets at the Berlin Military Academy. In 1811 von Reiche, who was Captain of Cadets happened to mention during a lecture on the art of fortification that a civilian, a certain Herr von Reisswitz, had invented a war game. The princes were interested and wanted to see it and they asked their governor, Oberst von Pirch II, to invite von Reisswitz to the White Salon at the Berlin Castle to give a demonstration.

Reisswitz duly appeared on the appointed day. Those present, apart from the two princes, were von Reiche, von Pirch and 2nd Lt. Von Wussow who had been chosen to assist. The princes were fascinated by the game and wanted to play again. They also asked their governor for permission to write to their father and tell him about it. The King was interested, and after getting some details from von Pirch he said he would like to see it for himself.

Reisswitz, of course, was honoured and delighted by the invitation to present the game to the King himself, but he doubted whether his sand box would make the journey to Potsdam in one piece and he probably felt that a royal command performance required something rather special, so he informed the palace that he would start work on something more permanent which he would present to the King as soon as possible.

About a year passed, and meanwhile the King had forgotten about the whole thing, until one day in 1812 von Reisswitz arrived at the SansSouci Palace with quite a substantial piece of furniture.

The game was now in the shape of a six feet square table open at the top and filled with 4 inch square terrain pieces made in plaster and carefully painted to show roads, rivers, villages etc, and interchangeable to give a variety of terrain. The troop pieces were made in porcelain. There were dividers for measuring distances, rulers, small boxes for placing over hidden troops (they were allowed to make surprise attacks) and a set of written rules.

The King was spending quite a lot of time at Potsdam in those days, due to the international situation, and he could see that the autumn and winter evenings would give him plenty of opportunity to learn how the game was played. He gave orders for the game to be set up in the Queen Louise Salon, next to the Great Assembly & TeaRoom. It became a favourite pastime of the King’s in the next few years keeping the family up till after midnight sometimes.

After a short General Idea had been given the King would usually command one side and Prince von Mecklenburg would command the other. Oberst von Gaudy and Oberst von Pirch would act as subordinate commanders. Prince Wilhelm would be adjutant to the King and Prince Friedrich would assist the other side. Wilhelm also took on the running of the game – moving troops, measuring distances, calculating times and distances, and deciding on surprise attacks and envelopements. There would naturally be plenty of discussion at the end of a game, and the King would usually give a critique of the dispositions of both sides. In later life the King claimed that the games played at Potsdam often gave him ideas for the army manoeuvres which took place there.

The King’s interest in the game became well known, and it was as a direct result that the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia made visits in 1816 and 1817 and became a devotee himself. This lead to a visit to Moscow by Wilhelm in October 1817 during which time they improvised a game on a large scale by chalking out terrain on a number of green topped card tables which were put together.

Between 1818 and 1822 the King would now and again make up a party for a game at Potsdam, but as he only stayed there for two or three days at a time in this period there was not the opportunity to organise long running games. Interest was revived however in 1824 when Wilhelm discovered that von Reisswitz’ son, who was now a young officer in the artillery, had continued to develop his father’s ideas and had formed a small Kriegsspiel group among officers of the Berlin Garrison.

Reisswitz the Younger

The son, Georg Heinrich Leopold Freiherrn von Reisswitz, was born at Thorn in 1795. He enlisted as a volunteer in the artillery when he was about 15, which would have been around the time when his father demonstrated the game to the two princes. In 1813 he took part in the investing of Glogau under General von Blumenstein. He was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and awarded the iron cross 2nd class at this time. In 1815 he was posted to Erfuhrt as unit adjutant. After the reformation of the artillery in 1816 he was sent to the II Artillery Brigade at Stettin. In 1819 he was called to take part in the Artillery Commission and promoted to 1st Lieutenant in the Guard Artillery Brigade at Berlin.

It was while at Berlin that he seems to have taken up his father’s Kriegsspiel ideas seriously enough to form a small group. We know who were in that first group from Dannhauer’s account. 2nd Lt. Dannhauer, 2nd Lt von Herwarth, Lt von Vinke, all from the Guard Artillery, and Lt von Griesham 2nd Foot Guards. Others joined in from time to time, but this was the core of the group, which usually met once, sometimes twice, a week testing and improving the developments Reisswitz was making to the game.

The scale was changed to 1:8000, which is roughly 8 inches to a mile. This was a better scale for actions up to Brigade level, giving more room for manoeuvre. Also the game took place on a map. Apart from making it more portable this also meant that you could make copies of it fairly easily so that both sides could have their own version. They had to invent their own method of showing relief. Contour lines, as far as I know, had not been invented yet, and their method was to draw radiating lines from the high points of the terrain, which gave a rough idea of the lie of the land. Each side having their own map meant that the umpire could show only the enemy troops their side knew of on their own map, while displaying the full information on the umpire’s map. The small wooden boxes were no longer necessary for hidden movement.

The other areas of improvement were in codifying rules for surprise attacks, the influence of a second line, attacks on strong holds etc. and devising tables for calculating the effects of fire power, losses from hand-to-hand fighting and a table of odds for and against success.

By the time Prince Wilhelm got to hear about it the group had managed to work out all the basic problems, and the game had reached the fully formed stage we find it in Reisswitz’ book. The prince was commander of the 3rd Army Corps, and the 2nd Guards Division at the time. Remembering the war games played at the SansSouci Palace a few years earlier he was naturally interested and asked Reisswitz for a demonstration of his version. Reisswitz asked for permission to bring his regular group along with him, as they were familiar with how it worked, and so one winter’s evening in January or February of 1824 the group set out for the prince’s quarters in the Berlin castle.

The prince took one side and Dannhauer commanded the other. We have no record of the actual game, but the prince was so impressed that he said he would recommend it to the King and the General Staff.

Within a few days Reisswitz found himself summoned to present himself, with game, to von Muffling, Chief of the Prussian General Staff. The group found themselves in the presence of the entire General Staff, and von Muffling introduced them with the words, “Gentlemen, Herr Lieutenant von Reisswitz is going to show us something new”. Dannhauer felt that there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of von Muffling but Reisswitz did not let it put him off. He laid out his map and asked the general if he would provide them with a general idea for a manoeuvre and appoint two officers to be commanders for both sides. Two of Reisswitz’ group acted as subordinate commanders. One group had to leave the room while the other was briefed, and Reisswitz was careful to point out that each side was only to be given the information about the enemy that they might have in reality.

As the game began to unfold Von Muffling became more and more interested until finally he exclaimed, “This is not a game, this is a war exercise! I must recommend it to the whole army!”

Von Muffling was as good as his word and the next issue of the Militair Wochenblatt (no.402, 1824) contained a recommendation in which he says, “Anyone who understands those things which have a bearing on leadership in battle can take part immediately in the game as a commander, even if he has no previous knowledge of the game or has never even seen it before”.

Meanwhile the King gave instructions that a copy of the game should be supplied to every regiment in the army.

Things began to move fast for Reisswitz now. He was put in charge of setting up a small workshop with tin-founders, painters and carpenters to produce the troop blocks. The rules had to be gone through again and prepared for publication and a new set of maps were prepared for printing. While he was still in the process of doing all this there was a sudden interruption.

Prince Wilhelm had written to the Grand Duke Nicholas about the new version of the game, and Nicholas was anxious to know more. He sent instructions to Oberst von Essen, who was the Russian Military Attaché in Berlin at the time, to get hold of one of the Kriegsspiel sets somehow and forward it to St. Petersburg. He was also to familiarise himself with it so that he could give a full explanation of it on his next visit.

Von Essen had, as it happens, taken part in the game on several occasions, but he felt that the best plan would be to take Reisswitz with him to Russia. So it came about that one evening Reisswitz had a visit from von Essen who proposed that they set out together for St Petersburg the next day. Reisswitz was ready as long as the necessary permission could be obtained in time. Von Essen applied to Prince Wilhelm and the permission was given. Reisswitz hurriedly briefed his group on what was still to be done, and within a few hours he was seated in the coach with von Essen, bound for St Petersburg.

Reisswitz stayed at the palace of the Grand Duke as an honoured guest. He stayed there the whole summer, returning to Berlin with Nicholas in the autumn. During that autumn a large-scale game was planned at Wilhelm’s quarters. Von Muffling gave the general idea, which was to be a full-scale campaign to take place between the Oder and the Elbe, culminating around Bautzen.

An advantage of being a prince or a duke was that you had no trouble finding extra players as they became needed. Major Witzleben of the Kaiser Franz Grenadiers and Oberst Lt. Von Barber of the Guards Dragoon Regiment were two of the high ranking officers who took part in the game, and Reisswitz’ group were delighted to find themselves brought in to help as well.

The game took place once a week, with everything left in place for the next session. Sometimes the King himself looked in, as did the Princes Albrecht and Adalbert and many other foreign princes.

Naturally enough all this royal interest was very good for the game. Kriegsspiel clubs were formed within the Guard Artillery and the 2nd Foot Guards Regiment (von Griesham’s regiment). Officers from other regiments took part in them, and so the interest spread.

Dannhauer tells us that one of the new enthusiasts was Ferdinand von Witzleben who later became a member of the General Staff. In 1828 von Moltke became a keen player, and later as Chief of Staff of the IV Army Corps at Magdeburg used the game as a training exercise for young officers. I would add here that it is evident from the book “Moltke’s Tactical Problems”, edited by the Prussian General Staff in 1894, that he used the Kriegsspiel format when setting out the problems.

Reisswitz received the Order of St. John from the King in recognition of his invention.

Unfortunately for Reisswitz, after all the excitement and hob-nobbing with royalty and high ranking officers the story ended in tragedy.

For reasons which we can only guess at, Reisswitz became disappointed over his career prospects in the army. He was promoted to captain, it is true, but not within the Guard Artillery where the Company Chief position was vacant, but to the III Artillery Brigade at Torgau. This transfer upset him.

He saw it as banishment. Dannhauer says he only saw him once more, during a short leave in Berlin, and he found him transformed. His former good humour and cheerfulness had gone and he seemed dissatisfied with himself and the world.

In the summer of 1827 his friends heard a rumour that he had shot himself whilst home on leave at Breslau.


When rumours of the death of Reisswitz first reached Berlin some of his friends and followers simply could not believe it. Von Troschke was one of those who had recently become interested in the game. He was convinced at first that Reisswitz had been seconded to the service of Nicholas (now Tsar of Russia) to give advice on the conduct of Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish war which had just broken out. But the rumours were soon confirmed. His friends and followers wondered where this left the Kriegsspiel, and where it left them. They were aware that an anti-Kriegsspiel feeling arisen in some quarters. Some of the older generals were of the opinion that the game would give young officers an inflated idea of their abilities to manage Brigades and Divisions and leave them dissatisfied with ordinary regimental service. There may have been something in that, and it may have been why Reisswitz had been shunted off to Torgau instead of getting his promotion in Berlin.

Personally I believe, from some things Dannhauer tells, that Reisswitz could easily have trodden on some important toes without even being aware of it. In fact although Reisswitz may not have been aware of it his sudden rise to prominence had put him in a delicate position. Some people were bound to resent what they would see as a young upstart pronouncing with authority on the tactical decisions of his superiors. We are told that he was the kind of person who, without being presumptuous, maintained an air of self-confidence to those above him as well as to those below. More damagingly Dannhauer also says that, “Unfortunately he did manage to provide these opponents of his invention with a certain amount of ammunition through many witty remarks, which harmless as they were in intention could have been misinterpreted if they came to the ears of those they should not have reached”.

But whatever the reasons for his suicide the Berlin wargamers found themselves in a dilemma. To whom would they look now for leadership? How serious was the opposition, and was it directed at the game in general or Reisswitz in particular?

Writing many years later von Troschke says, very circumspectly, “Looking back over the years we can point out with satisfaction the extraordinary tact shown by all officers concerned, and the spirit which ran through all the army, which guarded us against any excess of behaviour which might have given offence”.

We can see some of this tact in the 1828 amendments to the rules, which manage somehow not to mention Reisswitz’ name once. Referring instead to “the existing rules” throughout.

The strategy paid off as far as the Kriegsspiel was concerned. It never became universally popular in the army, but it gained in strength and reputation, and could count such people as von Moltke and Verdy du Vernois among its friends.

As far as Reisswitz’ contribution is concerned, however, it reached a point where fifty years after the first publication nobody seemed to have ever heard of him. Dannhauer was looking through a magazine one day in 1873, when he came across an article by Hauptmann Schmidt, which explained how the game worked. It was intended for a civilian audience, and chose to illustrate a game by giving a move by move account of it. What struck Dannhauer was the author’s assurance that the Kriegsspiel’s origins had been lost in the mists of time. That it had arisen amongst the officer corps of the artillery and had been handed down verbally, without appearing in print until 1846.

Dannhauer decide that it was high time someone put the record straight and he wrote his article for the Militair Wochenblatt for the fiftieth anniversary of the game’s publication. It was followed a few weeks later by another article – this time anonymously written – which explained how the earlier version of the game had come to the attention of the King and the royal household. The second one was almost certainly written, I would say, by Wilhelm himself, who was now Kaiser Wilhelm, as he was the only person, apart from his brother Friedrich, who was present at all the events described.


  • Von Muffling’s recommendation, and a note from Reisswitz. Militair Wochenblatt.1824 no. 402.
  • Dannhauer’s article, Mil Woch 1874 no. 56
  • Reisswitz the Elder, Mil. Woch. 1874 no. 73
  • Von Troschke’s article, Mil. Woch. 1869 no.35
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