Games don’t exist in a vacuum; they spread, change, and influence one another. League of Legends is no exception, so lets take a look at just what tabletop and video games had to exist before the world’s biggest video game could be created.
When making this list, I focused on games that introduced, innovated, or popularized game mechanisms and style of play, and, later, directly inspired other games. I tried not to make any single example too big of a stretch; I’m not going to start with chess just because it features dudes on a map fighting each other.
…but I am going to start just over two hundred years ago. In a nation that no longer exists.
Literally meaning “War Game” in German, Kriegsspiel was created by father and son Georg Leopold and Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz as a training tool for the Prussian Army.
So, I just said chess was cheating. Why isn’t this? To put it broadly, unlike chess, Kriegsspiel was a simulation. Unlike heavily abstracted board games, Kriegsspiel was designed to represent hypothetical battles in a somewhat realistic way. The units represented units of soldiers, and the board was a map with terrain.
As an added bonus, apparently 1812 is also the year we got rules for replicating the fog of war. It’s easy enough to understand in a computer game—you can’t see your opponent’s character unless your character can. How do you do that in a physical game?
Easy. You just need three identical tables… and another person. Known as the “confidant,” he acted as a rudimentary game master. Each player would play at their own table, separately. The player boards would contain all of one side’s pieces, and the opponent’s pieces that could be seen. A neutral table represented the state of the battle in full. The confidant would go between the tables, updating the game state and informing the players when they made contact with the enemy.
Imagine if your bandwidth was one dude running back and forth between you and your opponent.
1913: Little Wars
…by H. G. Wells.
Yep. Author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds; pacifist; and die-hard gamer.
The importance of this game is two-fold. First, it popularized war gaming for general audiences. Second, it increased the scale of the game so you interacted with individual people.
War gaming continued to be popular as a military exercise and among some very small but passionate civilian audiences, but it was an incredibly small niche. Due in part to being written by a popular author, and in part to the fact that it was designed to be played with common toy soldiers, it drastically broadened the scope of the hobby. All you needed was some makeshift terrain, if you wanted to be fancy. (And if you’ve seen some of the tables modern war games use, we do indeed like to be fancy.)
Speaking of those toy soldiers, that meant bumping up the scale of the game by about 20,000%. Kriegsspiel was played at a 1:8,000 scale; the soldiers in Little Wars were approximately two inches in height, or around 1:40. You didn’t just move blocks of troops, you moved individual soldiers. Aside from being much, much closer to the scale of modern war games, the ability to interact with individual characters is in important step moving forward.
Fun fact: the full title of the game is Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books. To give credit where it’s due, that title was probably downright feminist for 1913.
War games continued to attract a dedicated fan base in the wake of Little Wars, and, naturally, inspired many other rule sets. One particularly notable example is Chainmail, by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren.
A medieval war game, it took advantage of the fact that, with so many manufacturers now making models specifically to cater to war-gamers, you could just release a ruleset and rely on the players to find models that work. The clever part was taking it one step further. In the 60s and 70s, there was a spike in the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. There was even merchandise, including little pewter figures of wizards, elves, orcs… just for folks who wanted to have them, or maybe paint them up. Chainmail took this as an opportunity, and featured rules for those models alongside the mundane historical ones.
Opening up that genre was a savvy move. Just take a look at best-selling games, whether tabletop games or video game. Historical war games and video games continue to have dedicated audiences, but a cursory glance at the shelves of your local game shop or wherever you get your video games will make it abundantly clear that they get absolutely dwarfed by science fiction and fantasy games.
Though, perhaps, it deserves much more credit for the game that directly followed after it…
1974: Dungeons & Dragons
Ah, the first game on this list that isn’t obscure. Dungeons & Dragons, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, is the first role-playing game.
Now on its fifth edition, technically seventh, it’s more popular now than ever, more than forty years after it first came out. Like war games, it inspired countless other designers to create their own RPGs, whether on the tabletop or in video games—and still more who incorporate RPG-like elements into other games, or gamification of real-world tasks.
D&D began as a variant of Chainmail. The key change was that, rather than facing your army against an opponent’s army, each player took on the role of a single, fleshed-out character. The rules bear a lot of similarity to Chainmail, but that shift in focus onto a single individual rather than the group of soldiers completely changed the nature of the game. Your character became an avatar in a fictional world, with a name. You could immerse yourself in a fictional world and affect it by your choices.
Suffice it to say, for now, that the specialization of characters, with detailed statistics, unique abilities, and identity would have huge reverberations, including spawning an entire genre unto itself.
Moreover, D&D is a standalone game based on a modification to a war game, where instead of controlling an entire army, you control a single character, usually teaming up with a party to go into combat. Keep that in mind, because history is going to repeat itself in a little over thirty years.
…and history is going to repeat itself in about a week, with Part Two of Two. Thanks for reading!