I have read that Napoleon actively used to play strategy games with his generals in order to understand how they act in a range of situations. The generals also learned the same thing about each other. This meant that in a battle situation without communication between the generals, they were able to assume how the other generals would react in the situations on the battlefield.

I would like to know which games this was. I know that Napoleon had a "deep love for chess", but I do not believe that this gives much such knowledge because the situation is so domain specific.

  • 2
    Dammit, I've seen discussion of this before and can't remember where. This information is out there. I'd try looking through some of the history of roleplaying and wargames articles that are around.
    – Canageek
    Dec 18 '11 at 19:23
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    I believe it was Warhammer 40k
    – o0'.
    Dec 20 '11 at 14:21
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    The rise of the wargame as training aid was sometime after Napoleon, I believe as a result of the reform of the Prussian Army. Jan 21 '12 at 4:44
  • this is a really cool question
    – ihtkwot
    May 8 '12 at 20:01
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    You have somehow confused Napoleon's training methods with the developments of Clausewitz et al in regards development of a professional officer corps and General Staff by the Prussians following their defeat in 1806, and for several decades thereafter. The only time when such activities could actually have taken place amongst Napoleon's generals en masse was in the Boulogne Camp, 1804-1805, but I have never seen any references to joint training above the Corps level at that time. Apr 22 '15 at 21:51

In "The Prince," Machiavelli opined that a good ruler should conduct "mock" battles with his generals. That is, in rides through open country, he should ask his generals, suppose we were here and the enemy were there. Who would have the advantage and why? What is our best line of attack, what is their best line of retreat? (and vice versa).

If your general staff does this on enough mock battlefields, they will be able to anticipate each other's reactions on a real one.

  • I have accepted this an answer, because I just think it is a much better way to align the strategy than using board games with unrealistic rules and goals. It would also be easy to turn what you describe into a game, by giving points with the general that sees the world in the same way as Napoleon.
    – David
    Jul 21 '16 at 11:06
  • @David: I appreciate the feedback.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 21 '16 at 15:26

As far as I know, David's correct - the wargame as we know it today was invented shortly after Napoleon's time by a Prussian man named Reiswitz.

Without knowing your source on this, I see three possibilities for Napoleon's wargames:

1) It was something like chess (variations were popular at the time), which could provide the psychological insight you describe even if it wasn't an accurate depiction of battle.

2) He discussed hypothetical military campaigns with his generals as if they were real, ie moving pointers around on a map, but without the elabourate rules that we associate with wargames today. Such meetings could have been described as games because they weren't preparations for an actual battle.

3) He did actually develop something like Reiswitz's game, and his version didn't catch on (either it wasn't as good, or because he lost the war).

(Option number 4 would be that I'm wrong, but that theory is always a last resort ;)).


According to Napoleon: His Army and His Generals: Their Unexamples Military Career (Jean Charles Dominique de Lacretelle, Page 382), Napoleon played vingtun "21" (aka Blackjack) and chess when he was being taken into exhile. As a somewhat complex strategy game, it would be a telling example of a general's behavior, though I don't have proof that he played it with his generals.

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    Interesting. To be able to judge one's play, you have to be a better player. It's possible that a general was good chess player while poor commander. I also wonder if they played what we know as fast chess - on a battlefield one must make decisions quickly
    – Voitcus
    Apr 24 '15 at 5:53
  • Napoleon was also a rather poor Chess player and frequently cheated at cards. (only his Mother would stand up to him on that score).
    – pugsville
    Jan 15 '18 at 3:21

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