A wargame history lesson: H.G. Wells and Little Wars

Wargames are crucially important in the history of board gaming; as the progenitors of the Anglo-American game genre, they’ve had a huge impact on the games that we play today. We wouldn’t have popular games like Blood Rage, Star Wars: Imperial AssaultZombicide, or Heroscape if it wasn’t for entire generations of wargames that came before them.

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And wargames are themselves still popular. EclipseTwilight ImperiumMemoir ’44, and other similar games still see a lot of play and have diehard fans. And, of course, classics like War in EuropeRisk, and Axis & Allies haven’t disappeared either. The scene might not be as strong as it once was, but it’s still there.

Some enthusiasts might know that the history of wargames goes back to Kriegsspiel, a German game used for training military officers, but fewer are probably aware that one of the most celebrated science fiction authors of all time—H.G. Wells, author of such classics as The Time MachineThe War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau—was instrumental in shaping the hobby. Some would even say that he created it.

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Wells’ imagination was ignited when he had a friend, Jerome K. Jerome, over for a meal; after they had finished, Jerome picked up a toy cannon—a 4.7″, spring-powered, breech-loaded Naval gun, a very popular toy of the day—fired it, and hit a toy soldier, another staple of the era’s toys. Challenges were issued, and the two began shooting down soldiers with their little cannon.

Little Wars, or as it’s more properly called, 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, was born. As the story goes, another of Wells’ friends thought 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.”

Not one to ignore such a great opportunity, Wells began drafting and testing sets of rules for his wargame—rules for the creation of landscapes, movement of units, combat resolution, artillery firing, and others were created over the course of a number of games. Eventually, the rules began to solidify.

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One player would set up the countryside, including hills, houses, bunkers, and other buildings and obstacles that one might encounter on the battlefield. Both players then arranged their forces on their back line and took turns moving them; infantry would move one foot, while cavalry could move two feet. Pieces of artillery could only be moved if four soldiers were in close proximity to it.

Combat was close-range and very simple; one soldier from one team would eliminate one soldier from the other team. So if I have three soldiers and you have four soldiers and we get into a battle, you’ll have one soldier left at the end (more complex rules for firing rifles and taking hostages were developed later, and are sometimes included in modern plays of this game).

The most powerful unit on the board was the artillery gun; it could fire four times per turn, and any soldier knocked over by the small wooden dowel launched from its barrel was immediately killed. It was an infantry destroyer, and certainly the backbone of any successful campaign.

Most games were simple fights to the death, but Wells and his friends also devised games where a certain number of soldiers had to reach the enemy’s backline, or one side would dig into a defensive position and need to survive. (Interestingly, the game types seem to reflect some common first-person shooter video game modes of competition, like Unreal Tournament‘s Invasion mode.)

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This is certainly not the first nor the last game created by game-playing friends for play at home, but none of these others have had the legacy of Wells’ Little Wars, which presaged the rise of wargames in America. While the first slew of major wargames released didn’t necessarily follow directly in Little Wars‘ footsteps, the fact that Wells was able to design a game that was both strategically challenging (which Kriegsspiel was) and fun (which Kriegsspiel was not) certainly must have given them confidence in creating games for the genre.

One of the many things that sets Little Wars apart from pretty much every other game in history is that the rules were written by an immensely talented author, making them an absolute delight to read. They’re available here, at Project Gutenberg, where you can read them for yourself. Wells’ sense of humor shines through, and makes Little Wars a fun read on its own, even if you’re not interested in wargaming. I highly recommend it as a quick and entertaining read.

Although Little Wars has mostly faded into obscurity, its legend lives on if you know where to look. Mannie Gentile of Toy Soldiers Forever got hold of a copy of it, and made some custom projectiles for his 4.7″ spring breechloader, which is pictured below. There’s an Instructable on how to play the game, bringing the instructions into the modern age. The BBC wrote a long and insightful article about how Wells invented hobby war gaming.

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And, of course, its importance to the entire wargaming community is clear. Little Wars, despite its diminutive name, has had huge echoes throughout the history of gaming, from the first wargames to monster games including diplomacy, religion, warfare, and economics to modern Ameritrash games that feature minis. It’s possible that the gaming world as we know it would not exist if not for H.G. Wells and Little Wars.

It may be fading from memory, but its influence will continue to be felt by gamers of all types, whether they know it or not.

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