HUTSPIEL [1955]

It’s important to remark that though I’m starting here, HUTSPIEL [1955] (one of those video games that only survives as documentation) is not even the first computerized wargame. Earlier attempts more closely resembled the classic “umpire” model of wargaming, ala Reisswitz’s Kriegspiel [1824], where you give your instructions and communications to the umpire who is the person who actually mans the board, keeps track of in-game reality, and makes judgement calls. Computerized, this is something like a programming game: you feed the computer your entire battle strategy, which is basically a series of if-then statements, and then the computer simulates the battle and tells you how you did.

Unknown artist – H-Bomb [c. 1950s/ early 1960s]

One major distinction that the HUTSPIEL documentation itself makes between it and prior computer wargames is that it is turn-based, with each turn being one day. The players then made their adjustments, and when both hit their “ready” buttons, time moved forward one more day. Theoretically, if you’re sticking to your same strategy playbook, then you’ll be making the same calls either way and the simulation should work out the same as if you let the computer make the calls. Mainly what this dimension of “time” adds to the game is human legibility. In addition, unlike Kriegspiell and many (most?) other subsequent wargames, there’s no randomization, so everything is perfectly repeatable and deterministic. If you do the same thing twice in the same circumstances, you will get the same results. All in all, HUTSPIEL is designed to expose its inner workings to the players, which makes it both quicker to learn and easier to see cause and effect, and unlike a real battle it doesn’t move until both sides are satisfied and ready to see it move.

This obviously opens the door to what we might call “player empowerment.” The player has more knowledge of the inner workings of the machine, and nothing at all happens without their say-so. There’s nothing stopping them from adopting a more improvisatory playstyle, making snap judgement calls. Certainly, this is how most later computer strategy/war game players play. Historical HUTSPIEL players, interestingly, did not do this. They did not even play competitively, but cooperatively and exploratorily, both parties agreeing in general terms that say, the BLUE player might focus on attacking transport networks while the RED player focused on attacking airfields, with information freely exchanged between players instead of any “fog of war.” This way, they could create a rough matrix of how strategies performed up against one another.

HUTSPIEL was a training tool. The player is not empowered, they are at the mercy of the model. You’re not just mucking around in HUTSPIEL’s playground but trying to win. The way to win is to divine the shape of the model, what inputs produce what outputs. Every goal implies a theoretical perfection, as the 10 pins of 10-pin bowling [c. 1820] imply a strike. Indeed, apparently it became clear that there were only a few viable strategies. The transparency is there to give more rapid feedback on how well individual decisions perform in the model, and therefore the player could be quicker to adapt their inputs for better outputs. The computer is playing you.

The general idea of a serious wargame like this is that, if the constraints of the simulated model match faithfully the constraints of reality, then when you adapt your behavior to win in the simulation, you can then apply those adaptations in real life. I would like to think that this doesn’t work, that you cannot successfully inventory and translate real life conditions into a board or computer game no matter how complex, but the evidence is strongly against me: it works well enough, and that’s actually the more troubling thought. It implies to me not that we could make some kind of perfect recreation of real life (the science-fictional “simulation hypothesis”) but rather that warfare is such a delimited reduction of real life that maybe it can be charted, and that the way we chart it in turn informs how it is executed, creating a strange feedback loop. A human life is a complex thing, but a corpse and the process of collapsing it into one is much simpler to account. In war, all people are forced to be numbers.

HUTSPIEL was set during the summer of 1955 at the Rhine-IJssel line, then just-finished fortifying, which is in the center of the Netherlands, and it was made during the spring of 1955. Events that also occurred in the spring of 1955: West Germany became part of NATO, with West German rearmament following under NATO auspices a few months later in November. The Warsaw Pact formed a matter of weeks after West Germany joined NATO, in direct response to this aggressive escalation. It’s worth noting just to complete the portrait of paranoia that in 1952, there was a proposal (the “Stalin Notes”) from the USSR that Germany be both re-unified and made officially militarily neutral ala post-WW2 Japan with democratic governance and without restrictions on economic policy, but the proposal was not received by western power-brokers as serious and good-faith, but rather as a fiendish bluff, or even worse, not a bluff but a beachhead.

HUTSPIEL’s scenario is a testament to the fear of NATO’s leading military minds at the time, the gamesmanship that raised the Iron Curtain. If you know your geography, the Netherlands are west of West Germany, and if you know your calendar, summer comes between spring and November. The unstated backstory of HUTSPIEL is that the Soviets have maximally exploited the window before rearmament and steamrolled through West Germany and into the Netherlands in under three months, taking no significant losses and arriving at Rhine-IJssel with much the same forces as NATO figured that they had west of Oder-Neisse, the border between East Germany and Poland. It’s essentially the worst-case scenario for NATO: the Cold War has gone hot, it’s World War 3, and they’ve been caught with their pants down. Now we focus on the tactics of one small battle in this grand theatre.

HUTSPIEL wasn’t realistic, though. It doesn’t even much try. It’s a proof of concept. Over and over again in the documentation, we read the phrase “because of computer limitations or lack of significance” in different permutations. Some numbers, the creators admit, are pulled out of thin air. The judgements of things that lack significance are most telling. For example, the direct casualty rate from air attack on ground troops is entirely omitted. This isn’t a very controversial call, actually. Experience from the World Wars and the Korean War showed that direct air attack was so ineffective and insignificant as to qualify as statistical noise, and that the more effective route was to attack the supply chain, though the effectiveness of that strategy is debated to this day. And so, the option of using it as a strategy is simply entirely foreclosed upon, despite only paragraphs later telling us that one of HUTSPIEL’s main goals was to “study the effects of various employments of […] conventional air support.”

More questionable is the omission of things like “shifts in the line of battle” (HUTSPIEL does not seem to have had a map-board or any other way to track physical location) or “the influence of weather and terrain,” even though the simulated battle is at a place literally designed to be flooded to stymy the Reds. The relationship between effort and resources expended is even, literally, mathematically linear, where more input cleanly and consistently equates to a greater toll on the enemy, sidestepping the question of where and how those resources are allocated and directed entirely. The game ended strictly when the ground-troop line could be held no longer, due to a sufficiently diminished active force. In aggregate, you can see how these omissions basically tie the player to an already-decided boundary of tactics: a firmly-entrenched ground war over territory, with air support playing a limited role mainly on supply chains, which is pointedly not the philosophy of rapid mobility that would in the coming decades take hold of the USA’s military strategy.

Probably the most haunting break from realism is its casual incorporation of the atom bomb. That’s what I hid in the earlier […], it’s an exploration of using atom bombs on military targets. To HUTSPIEL, and implicitly the US Army and NATO of 1955, it’s just another bomb, just one that’s so big that you only need one to destroy a supply depot. This probably calls to mind the movie WarGames [1983], but the computer in WarGames was simulating the entire planet’s worth of atomic military strategy, while HUTSPIEL is simulating one skirmish, a hypothetical limited atomic engagement. The paranoia had evidently not yet progressed to such a sophistication that it recognized that the enemy was just as paranoid as you, and that no atomic engagement could remain limited for long. While it rules out conventional air attack on ground troops as insignificant and is backed up by three war’s worth of data, all of its data on atomic attack is almost purely speculative, since after all to this day there’s only two real atomic attacks, on civilian targets that were supply depots insomuch as nations mobilize their urban centers for production, which isn’t much of a statistical sample, and the bombs were dropped for essentially propaganda purposes to induce immediate surrender, which is a concept almost entirely outside the boundaries HUTSPIEL takes on for itself. It even makes the assumption that airfields that were hit with an atomic bomb “retain their usefulness as operational bases,” which is impossible to imagine if you’ve even seen footage of what an atomic blast does to structures.

HUTSPIEL was a training tool. You watch its model, adjust your behavior to match it, and then apply the lessons you learned from the simulation in the real world. And one of the main lessons it taught its 1955 military players who had World War 3 in the front of their mind was that atomic warfare was really no big deal.


Massive thanks to Aaron A. Reed’s recent article on HUTSPIEL for the phenomenal just-finished series 50 Years Of Text Games, and for uploading the documentation. When it fell into my lap just as I was planning my backtrack into strategy, war, and God games, it was fate.

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