Chaturanga – The first War-game



By: Kitbasha Jay

Many people consider H.G. Wells the father of modern day wargaming. This is partially true since he was the first to take miniature soldiers and attach a simple rules system that used coin flips to determine the winner. This is not necessarily the root of war gaming. It merely marks the difference between wargaming for political and strategic reasons and doing it for purely recreational purposes.

Obviously the man did not invent wargaming. Clearly chess is much older than H.G. Wells by centuries. Many of us would probably think of Chess when we think of the origins of war games. That would definitely be where my mind would first go. But is there anything older?

When we think of the origins of chess we think of medieval kings and warlords playing in their chambers to see who is the better tactician. In fact, what makes Chess the perfect war game is that it is a game of pure tactics. There are no variables. There is a finite number of combinations and once you’ve mastered all the possible outcomes you can potentially beat any opponent.

Wells’ game had a probability factor with the coin toss which makes it more similar to our current games that require dice rolls or card flips. This doesn’t make it the first war game. In fact, even chess is not the first war game. There is evidence that it was based on an even earlier game. This game is called Chaturanga.

Chaturanga is a game that originated in India in the 7th Century. It pre-dates medieval chess by hundreds of years. It was quickly adopted by the Muslim world and obviously later by the European world and adopted into modern day chess. It was played on an 8×8 board very similar to chess. But the similarities don’t stop there.

The game has a “King” called a “Raja” can move a single square either straight or diagonally. So long as it cannot be attacked by an enemy piece. The difference between the Raja and the King from Chess is that it can be placed on either of the middle squares at the beginning of the game. Which really doesn’t make that big a difference except that it could create a mirror image of what we’re used to.

The “Queen” equivalent is a minister or “Mantri” which can only move diagonally. The difference seems to be that it can only move to an adjacent space. The Queen in Chess can move any number of spaces diagonally.

The “Bishop” is replaced with an elephant called a “Hasti” which can also only move diagonally. Unlike the Bishop it moves two spaces and can jump over the intervening space.

I found it funny that when playing Chess some people refer to the Knight as a Horse. In Chaturanga it is called a Horse or “Ashwa”. Much like the Horse in common Chess it was allowed to move to the diagonal space in a 2×3 rectangle.

The last piece in the back row is a Chariot called a “Rat-ha”. This is what became the modern day Rook. Much like the Rook it can only move in a straight line.

The final piece in the game is the foot-soldier called a “Padāti”. This is the Pawn. Unlike the common pawn it could only move one space forward not two like the modern evolution. Exactly like the pawn it can only attack on a diagonal. Also when you reached the opposite side with the foot-soldier it became a minister much like the pawn becoming a queen in chess.

We can see by these similarities alone this game is clearly the precursor to modern day chess. I may have not needed to go into such detail but I always considered Chess the first war game. Guess I was wrong. When I discovered this I had no choice but to share it with you. It just goes to show you learn something every day.

I’m interested to hear what you think about this. Is this the start of wargaming? Do you know of any games that pre-date this? Let me know through the comments or by email at encounterwargaming@gmail.com

Until our next Encounter!

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