The 1913 book Little Wars by novelist H.G. Wells – whose 150th birthday we celebrate this year – rightly can claim to stand at the origin of wargaming as a hobby. I recently had the opportunity to get a cheap copy of the 1st paperback edition from 1977 (the original first edition is far beyond my price range!).
I admit that my main intent was to have the book in my collection, but when I started to read it I was hooked. Having recently read that Little Wars has “little to offer the modern wargamer in terms of its rules” (in the disappointing Tabletop Wargames. A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook, which in its conservativism reads like a design handbook for Games Workshop), I was surprised at how many interesting and modern ideas can be found in there. Of course, Little Wars is best known for its use of toy cannons to actually shoot at your opponents toy soldiers, and this is something modern wargamers are understandibly hesitant to do – although there is at least one fun looking game available which uses small rubber balls to shoot at MDF figures. However, apart from that, Wells introduced some basic mechanics that are still modern and not at all taken for granted in today’s rules.
One of them is the element of friction. In Wells’ game, due to a strict time limit, players may not be able to move all their figures, leading to “bodies of men lagging […], to careless exposure, to rapid, less accurate shooting”. Decisions have to be made in a short time and under pressure. Now, most modern rules model friction as an intrinsic game mechanic and don’t force it upon the player’s actual behaviour; however, the idea is there, and this is more than can be said of many modern rules.
Wells also has an ingenious idea for hidden deployment: Just move the figures’ boxes until they are within a certain range of the enemy. Some boxes might only contain a small token force, enabling feints and tactical surprises. Wells just invented the ‘blinds’ mechanic that can be found in games such as TooFatLardies’ I ain’t been Shot Mum!
There are also several ideas for scenarios as well as a campaign system in the book. And, to top it off, I was flabbergasted to discover a points system!
The book also features a nice battle report of a small engagement the author had fought against a friend, accompanied by photos. Incidentally, the book is illustrated by several photos, which are all great fun – especially the ones showing grown men lying about the grass and moving their figures!
This brings me to another observation: I’ve had some discussion about the subtitle of Little Wars, namely: “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”. I agree that this is very patronising; however, I think that in the context of the time, it was actually rather progressive to include girls at all in an activitiy that consisted of waging war and shooting cannons at toy soldiers. And Wells himself was a staunch proponent of women’s rights. It does, at least, signal the willingness to make wargaming a more inclusive activity.
Finally, Wells takes a clear stance regarding what he calls ‘Great War’ and sharply criticises “this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable ‘patriots'”, making it clear that to enjoy a wargame does not mean that one enjoys real wars. On the contrary, for Wells the game shows that real wars are “blundering things” that bring only destruction and misery.
Little Wars is worth reading for more than nostalgic reasons. It’s written in a lively style that conveys the joy of having discovered a “limitless game”, and it is suprisingly modern in many aspects.
Little Wars is available as an ebook for free from Project Gutenberg. If you prefer a print version, John Curry's History of Wargaming Project offers a volume of Wargaming Pioneers which includes Wells' text. Or you might find a second hand copy at a used book platform such as eurobuch.com. If you are interested in the history of female gamers, Jon Peterson has written an excellent article on the subject.