Little Wars

Sunday, July 18th, 2004

H.G. Wells is known for practically creating the science-fiction genre (along with Jules Verne), but he also published the first set of commercial wargame rules, Little Wars, a follow-up to his Floor Games, about all the indoor games he played his sons. Little Wars opens with this amusing, if politically incorrect, intro:

Little Wars is the game of kings — for players in an inferior social position. It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty — and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple, — by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women.

Wells’ wargame is really just a slightly formalized way of playing with toy soldiers. In fact, the rules depend on a particular toy artillery piece:

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 somewhere 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 It has completely superseded all the spiral-spring and other makes of gun hitherto used in playroom warfare.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.

This origin story rings true:

It was with one of these guns that the beginning of our war game was made. It was at Sandgate — in England.

The present writer had been lunching with a friend — let me veil his identity under the initials J.K.J. — in a room littered with the irrepressible debris of a small boy’s pleasures. On a table near our own stood four or five soldiers and one of these guns. Mr J.K.J., his more urgent needs satisfied and the coffee imminent, drew a chair to this little table, sat down, examined the gun discreetly, loaded it warily, aimed, and hit his man. Thereupon he boasted of the deed, and issued challenges that were accepted with avidity….

By the way, “little wars” is a clever double entendre — the “little wars” of Queen Victoria were fought against various native groups in the colonies.

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