On this particular Tabletop Tuesday, it is our honour and privilege to direct your attention to the seminal game Little Wars, designed by the late Herbert George Wells. (Since last week we pointed to a game published in 1904, we thought we'd do something more modern; Little Wars was published in 1913.) And lest some of our readers of the gentler sex take objection to our subtitle, we will note that this is indeed the subtitle Mr. Wells (that advocate of the female suffrage, and proponent of Free Love) chose for his own ouevre.
Little Wars is a game of enormous importance, at least for those of us interested in the historical evolution of games as a medium; the first commercially published rules for gaming with military miniatures, it leads directly to the modern miniatures wargaming industry (including such offshoots as Warhammer)--and indirectly to the board wargame, the tabletop roleplaying game; and to all of the digital game styles influenced thereby, including computer wargames, the RTS, digital RPGs, and (of course) massively multiplayer games.
Doubtless, in his own era, Mr. Wells had no notion that his game would ultimately spawn such an enormous effluence of creativity in a field he could not have imagined; the games of his era were restricted to folk games such as Chess and the highly coloured commercial boardgames that only in recent decades had begun to appear on the shelves of the British and American middle classes. Indeed, it is hardly to be questioned that Little Wars was conceived as an amusing conceit, something tossed off amidst work on the serious (and even now, highly regarded) novels that were his life work.
And yet perhaps we gamers and game aficionados, despised though we may be by the predominant culture, may claim with some verity that Mr. Wells has had even a greater impact upon our own form than upon the novel in se, or even upon the prose genre of scientifiction.
By the end of the 19th century, the tradition of the Kriegspieler, wargames played either on boards or sand tables, with wooden blocks or pieces, by professionals for training purposes and by laymen for personal enjoyment, was well-established throughout Europe and the United States; indeed, in his Appendix to Little Wars, Wells speaks of the changes required to convert his admittedly simplistic rules into a more rigorous Kriegspiel. This is no great surprise; after all, Kriegspieler had existed for more than a century, the first being (to my knowledge) invented by Helmut, Master of Pages, for the Duke of Brunswick, in 1780.
Little Wars was no best-seller, by the terms of its era; yet the spirit of the age certainly offered it an audience. Fin de siècle Britain was a nation enraptured by military glory, by the successes of British arms against the "lesser breeds without the law," to borrow Kipling's term, and convinced of its fundamental superiority over all the world. It wasn't until a scant year later that Britain rudely learned that its ability to defeat undisciplined Arabs or spear-armed Zulus meant little when its miniscule army (by Continental standards) went up against people, like the Germans, who did possess the Maxim gun, or its equivalent.
In it its era of publication, the "future war" novel was popular not only in Britain but also in France and the United States; it generally portrayed the conquest of the nation of the author by some antagonistic state (usually Germany for the British or French, some Asiatic menace for the US). In short, there was a general and popular enthusiasm at least for the imagining of war--and possibly for its prosecution, at least judging by the celebratory crowds that turned out to hail its arrival a scant year later than this game's publication.
Wells, of course, as a socialist and internationalist, cannot be condemned as sharing the limited horizons of those who actually welcomed war; yet he wrote in an era wherein boyish enthusiasm was not an inappropriate emotion to bring to the contemplation of war.
Let us return, however, to Wells's merits as a game designer. Little Wars is, by modern standards, quite simplistic. It depends mainly on the existence of what Wells describes as the "spring breech-loader gun," which we may take to be a sort of cannon which fires a matchstick-like projectile at the foe through the action of a spring. Like many advances in the state of the art of game design, Little Wars was, therefore, inspired by a technological advance, in this case one having nothing to do with video resolution or particle effects, but in the manufacture of toys. Combat was mainly a result of properly aiming and discharging one's guns; mêlée, when it occurs, is resolved by a simple one-to-one exchange of losses, with the modification that the superior force preserves as many additional men, and suffers as many fewer casualties, as its superiority (thus a force of eleven against a force of nine suffers seven casualties and captures two).
These two rules, together with the movement limit of one foot per turn for infantry and two per cavalry, constitute virtually the whole of the rules set for Little Wars. How accurate a simulation is it, therefore?
Not particularly. It simulates cannonfire and infantry mêlée; no provision is made for morale, training, or the superiority of arms, vital elements in the colonial struggles of Wells's immediate past; nor does it simulate the enormous destructive power of early 20th-century artillery, the firepower of machine weapons, nor the effectiveness of defensive entrenchments, vital elements in the Great War to come. Intelligent use of terrain, the element of surprise, and the debilitating effects of imperfect information are all given short shrift.
Still, to condemn Little Wars as an imperfect simulation--an imperfect Kriegspiel, as Wells and his contemporaries would have put it--is beside the point. Wells was not striving to perfect the definitive military simulation of his day; he sought to turn "toy soldiers" into something a little more sophisticated, to produce an enjoyable pastime that male children, adolescents, and adults of carefree disposition could alike enjoy.
Wells, of course, was designing for an audience which had no great experience with any kind of game, other than Whist and Eucre. The fact, therefore, that I am capable of summarizing the rules to Little Wars in two sentences, is to be considered an illustration of commendable concision, rather than condemnable oversimplification. Indeed, as my colleague, Eric Goldberg, is wont to say, it is far harder to design a good, simple game than a good, complex one. In this light, we can only view Little Wars as a first-rate, highly sophisticated product. It was well-tailored to its prospective audience; and despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, it can still be enjoyed today.
I commend Wells's work to your attention; not merely for its historical importance, but also for the lessons it can teach to games enthusiasts even in the present era. The best games are the most elegant, in the sense of providing superior simulation and entertainment value for the least effort at mastery; and the appeal to intellectual engagement is, or ought to be, the main appeal of the superior game.
In this multimedia, interactive -- perhaps one ought to say "hyperactive" -- era, it is perhaps difficult to reach back to a time, ninety years ago, when a game like Little Wars could be considered the height of design sophistication; yet it is worth the effort. Ninety years, though it seem like a geologic epoch in this, eventful, era is, after all, not so long ago. And as we designers strive for a little bit of pride, a tiny bit of recognition from publishers and public alike that the work we do has some enduring merit, that the most commercially successful and most popular artform of our age can be considered, by the thoughtful and committed, a form of art, it is worth remembering that before us all, before Charles. B. Darrow and Charles Roberts, before Nolan Bushnell and Chris Crawford, before Jim Dunnigan and Gary Gygax, before Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright, came...
Herbert George Wells. 1866-1946. Socialist, novelist... and game designer.
N.B.: Since the Disney Corporation did not exist in 1913, Little Wars's copyright has not been extended into the indefinite future, and the full text is available via the link above as a free download from the Gutenberg Project. If you prefer a print edition, several are available via Amazon.