Although this grandiose term was coined by Rudyard Kipling to describe the intrigues between Great Britain and Russia for control of, of all places, Afghanistan, this term must mean something broader: The intrigues and struggles between the all of the colonial Powers of Europe, and later the United States and Japan, for political and economic control of the rest of the world. A description of the Great Game is a description of 19th century world history.

The Great Game was characterized by two competing forces:

The Napoleonic Wars had left Europe extremely war-weary, and the 1815 Congress of Vienna had set up a framework to prevent future Napoleons from setting everything off again. The infant United States's Monroe Doctrine, and more effectively, the overthrow of Spanish colonial rule in Latin America, kept the Powers from the stage of the Game's 18th century predecessor, the Americas. The Powers had to find new regions to expand their spheres of influence:
  • Africa. The slave trade no longer being profitable, it was abolished, and the Powers began to turn to agricultural development, and mineral extraction on the Continent itself. Britain had seized the Dutch colonies in South Africa during the Napoleonic wars and didn't want to give them back. The Royal Geographical Society sponsored expeditions into the heart of Africa, ostensibly to test theories about the 'Source of the Nile' or to spread Christianity.
  • The Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, was the 'sick man of Europe', growing ever weaker because of its feudal structure. Egypt was effectively independent, and Napoleon's expedition had left Frenchmen wanting more.
  • Central Asia. Great Britain had taken effective control of India by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and used it as a base to extend its influence outward. Meanwhile, Russia had just taken control of Siberia and was pushing southward. These interests met in Afghanistan.
  • China. Again, a decaying empire left a power vacuum. Qing Dynasty emperors tried to hold onto power by restricting trade with the West, making the Powers use less salubrious methods, such as the importation of opium into the country, leading to the 1850-1851 Opium War.
  • Europe itself.
Although the Great Game played itself out in thousands of intrigues, diplomatic missions, skirmishes, and atrocities all over the world, events that went little-noticed by history, several crises threatened to send the Powers into conflict with each other:
  • The Catholic southern half of The Kingdom of the United Netherlands had been thrown in with their Protestant northern neighbors despite having been separated from them for over 200 years. The Dutch king was physically kicked out of the country in 1830; he returned with an army in 1831. After beating up on the Belgians for ten days or so, he was expelled again by a French army. This made the British very, very nervous, since the Congress of Vienna had explicitly forbidden the French from annexing the Spanish/Austrian Netherlands. However, this was an easy resolution; no-one wanted to go to war over it, not even The Netherlands, and both Britain and France recognized the independence of Belgium. In an 1839 treaty, France and Britain gained The Netherlands' acceptance by guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality.
  • The Revolutions of 1848 frightened all of the Powers for a time, but everyone knew that one Power's support of another Power's insurgency could easily be returned in kind. The only country that changed its government was France, which gained a new Napoleon.
  • The Ottoman Empire's weakness in the Middle East was mirrored in its European possessions. Everyone was happy to let new states like Greece, Serbia, and Romania fill in the Balkan power vacuum, but greater temptations for certain Powers made the others nervous. Although Austria was weak, it was not nearly so weak as Turkey, and tried to gain influence over places like Bosnia and Herzegovina. The temptation for Russia was Constantinople itself, naval control of the Bosporus. In 1853 Russia decided to go for it. The other Powers couldn't let this happen, and The Crimean War resulted.
  • Another decaying empire was the absurd Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomeration of Hapsburg inheritances and conquests of the previous 500 years. Austria's only post-1815 sphere of influence was Italy whose national aspirations were kept firmly in check. After an 1848 attempt by Piedmont/Sardinia,  Napoleon III involved himself in Il Risorgimento, winning the battles of Magenta and Solferino; Garibaldi surprised everyone by showing up in Sicily in 1860.  The Kingdom of The Two Sicilies crumbled rapidly, and Italy was born.
  • The American Civil War broke out in 1860 when Southern plantation owners decided that Europe couldn't do without the cotton produced by their slaves. Dreams of European intervention were a fool's paradise as the need to keep the Balance of Power would have led some powers to support the Union, and the others to support the Confederacy.  Of course, after the Civil War, the United States entered the Game itself, carving its own sphere of influence out of China, buying Alaska from Russia, and later fighting a war with Spain and taking several of its possessions, most notably The Philippines.   An attempt to set up a sphere of influence in Japan, however, turned that country into a player.
  • The Suez Canal was designed, engineered and built by the French, but financed by British bankers.   Much of the debt was owed by Ismail, beylik of Egypt, who also had a half interest in the canal.  Ismail's attempts to raise taxes to pay his debts caused unrest in Egypt, resulting in British forces being sent to protect the bankers' interests.  France fumed over the loss of its toy.
  • Into all of this stepped Otto von Bismarck and his campaign of German reunification. Bismarck played the Great Game like no other, playing Powers off against each other, meanwhile strengthening support for Prussia within all of the tiny German states.   After watching the French isolate themselves from any potential allies in the wake of the Suez Canal affair, he engineered a war with France.  Winning the Franco-Prussian War got rid of Napoleon III and gave birth to The Second Reich, but it also gave Europe the loose cannon Wilhelm II...
  • Russia, frustrated by the Crimean War, and Austria, frustrated by Italian reunification, turned their attention towards the Balkans.  Russia played it safe by enlarging Serbia and eventually creating Bulgaria during several Balkan Wars between 1908 and 1913; Britain and Italy worked to enlarge Greece.  Nobody, especially the Serbians, liked Austria's growing influence over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Wilhelm's saber-rattling and military buildup eventually caused everything to gel.  The other Powers felt it necessary to form Continent-spanning alliances and enter into military buildups of their own.  Industrialists of all nations were, of course, all too happy to rake in money making guns and ammunition.

And then, in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, and his car happened to pull up alongside young Gavrilo Princip, sent by Apis and his Black Hand to assassinate him.  A shot was fired, opportunities were seized (German troops marched into Belgium), alliances (such as the 1839 London treaty mentioned above) were invoked, and the Great Game erupted into World War I.  When the smoke finally cleared over the rubble in 1945, there was a new Great Game: The Cold War.