Noted science-fiction author — and pacifist — H.G. Wells created the modern hobby of miniature wargaming 100 years ago, with 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.”
Wells’ game didn’t rely on dice to resolve combat but on an elegant weapon for a more civilized age:
The beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun. This priceless gift to boyhood appeared somewhen towards the end of the last century, a gun capable of hitting a toy soldier nine times out of ten at a distance of nine yards. It has completely superseded all the spiral-spring and other makes of gun hitherto used in playroom warfare. These spring breechloaders are made in various sizes and patterns, but the one used in our game is that known in England as the four-point-seven gun. It fires a wooden cylinder about an inch long, and has a screw adjustment for elevation and depression. It is an altogether elegant weapon.
Wells’ early work presaged the complaints of both modern gamers and Great War generals:
To Mr W. was broached the idea: “I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game, a kind of kriegspiel.”
We got two forces of toy soldiers, set out a lumpish Encyclopaedic land upon the carpet, and began to play. We arranged to move in alternate moves: first one moved all his force and then the other; an infantry-man could move one foot at each move, a cavalry-man two, a gun two, and it might fire six shots; and if a man was moved up to touch another man, then we tossed up and decided which man was dead. So we made a game, which was not a good game, but which was very amusing once or twice. The men were packed under the lee of fat volumes, while the guns, animated by a spirit of their own, banged away at any exposed head, or prowled about in search of a shot. Occasionally men came into contact, with remarkable results. Rash is the man who trusts his life to the spin of a coin. One impossible paladin slew in succession nine men and turned defeat to victory, to the extreme exasperation of the strategist who had led those victims to their doom. This inordinate factor of chance eliminated play; the individual freedom of guns turned battles into scandals of crouching concealment; there was too much cover afforded by the books and vast intervals of waiting while the players took aim. And yet there was something about it…. It was a game crying aloud for improvement.
The battles lingered on a long time, because we shot with extreme care and deliberation, and they were hard to bring to a decisive finish. The guns were altogether too predominant. They prevented attacks getting home, and they made it possible for a timid player to put all his soldiers out of sight behind hills and houses, and bang away if his opponent showed as much as the tip of a bayonet. Monsieur Bloch seemed vindicated, and Little War had become impossible.
Wells also mentions Bloch in The Land Ironclads. He was one of the Prophets of the Great War, who famously asked, Is war now impossible?, because modern artillery had become 116 times more deadly, and any war would become a war of entrenchments.
The centennial of Wells’ creation earned a mention in the New York Times:
Wells entertained a number of notable literary and political figures with his diversion. According to Padre Paul Wright of the British Royal Army Chaplains’ Department, who is perhaps the world’s leading authority on “Little Wars,” G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were among Wells’s guests while he was developing the game. “I think it is reasonable to suggest that Chesterton had some war gaming inspiration from Wells when writing ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill,’ ” Wright told me in an e-mail, referring to a novel in which toy soldiers play a decisive part. Winston Churchill and Wells maintained a correspondence too, though many of their letters have been lost. Wright wonders whether the two men ever faced off: “We are left with the fascinating prospect of an historical, toy soldier what-if between the two great toy soldier enthusiasts of the period.”
While miniature war-gaming has never been able to claim a place in the mainstream, it has influenced almost everything we think of as gaming today. By the middle of the 20th century, war-gaming had not only added new sets of rules for armies of many periods, but it had inspired a new kind of richly complex board game, like Axis & Allies and Blitzkrieg.Entirely novel face-to-face entertainments emerged from the same lineage. The game designer Gary Gygax, in a foreword to a 2004 edition of the book, credits “Little Wars” with influencing his own set of rules for medieval-period miniature wars, Chainmail — which in turn became the basis of a slightly less obscure role-playing game: Dungeons & Dragons.
The Beeb led me to Paul Wright’s Funny Little Wars, which updates Wells’ classic.
I’ve mentioned Little Wars before, of course. Robert Louis Stevenson designed a similar game and penned an amusing ode to his fallen soldiers.