For his work on novels like War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau, British author HG Wells is rightly lauded as a visionary. What often gets lost amongst the applause for his ideas on science fiction, though, is another area he was a pioneer: the field of tabletop wargaming.
Which, at least as far as we know it today, was basically invented by Wells while he and a friend were...playing with children’s toys.
Before we continue, let’s get this straight: Wells did not invent the idea of using abstract rules to simulate the events of a battle. Prussian officers in the 19th century were trained on complex military board games called Kriegsspiel (literally “War Games”), while there are many other examples throughout history of using the basic ideas of war either as a primitive simulation tool or, in the case of chess, a game.
But what Wells did was invent the concept of the recreational wargame, the kind of experience you find today in things like Warhammer, games which are bought and enjoyed by the wider population, not just military professionals.
Sitting around after dinner one night with his friend Jerome K. Jerome, the pair began firing a toy cannon at toy soldiers, eventually making an impromptu competitive game out of it. Convinced that with some rules and a little more variety he could make a structured experience of it, Wells - an admirer of Kriegsspiel as a concept - decided to write what would become known as Little Wars.
The game was based around two concepts: that units and terrain would be represented by miniaturised models (or at least something lying around that resembled a hill or horse), and that the movement and interaction between the game’s units would be determined by a relatively simple set of rules.
Attempts to simulate the game that evening were, however, ruined by “a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects upon the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.”
Testing his rules another day with another pal, “a very dear friend, a man too ill for long excursions or vigorous sports”, the pair “got two forces of toy soldiers, set out a lumpish Encyclopaedic land upon the carpet, and began to play”.
Problems became instantly apparent. “The soldiers did not stand well on an ordinary carpet”, Wells writes, “the Encyclopedia made clumsy cliff-like ‘cover’, and more particularly the room in which the game had its beginnings was subject to the invasion of callers, alien souls, trampling skirt-swishers, chatterers, creatures unfavourably impressed by the spectacle of two middle-aged men playing with “toy soldiers” on the floor, and very heated and excited about it.”
The penny dropped when Wells and his friend decided to improve matters by drawing upon “childhood model-building experience”, ditching everyday objects in favour of spending time building adorable little miniature towns. With actual buildings to use and the pieces now resting on large wooden board, Wells had nailed down what was needed to make his idea really work.
Little Wars was first published in 1913. That’s also the condensed version of its full title, which was:
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’ description of the game’s target market reads, “’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.”
The game was a success, managing to take Kriegsspiel’s core concept of simulating warfare but stripping it of its sterile, arcane ruleset. It brought the art of recreating war, in an organised, competitive manner, to the masses. The use of toy soldiers as units no doubt helped as well.
Wells even believed that Little Wars’ approach to conflict simulation, while designed for the everyman (and intelligent sort of everygirl), was a more accurate representation of war than the more serious, complex Kriegsspiel, which was a “dull and unsatisfactory exercise, lacking in realism, in stir and the unexpected”.
It’s not hard tracing the legacy of Little Wars. Small units, fake landscapes, rules for movement and firing...all recreational wargames, Warhammer included (and all the video games based on similar rulesets) can trace their ancestry to Wells’ idea, that the deadly art of war could be simulated not with stacks of restrictions and boring conditions, but with some painted soldiers and simple rules.
If you’re at all interested, Little Wars is still being reprinted and played today; you can even read the whole thing online, which I’d recommend. It’s not everyday you get to read about the origins of tabletop wargames and see the term “trampling skirt-swishers”.
This story was originally published in September 2012.