Little Wars and the Evolution of Miniature Wargaming

Have you already heard how H. G. Wells invented miniature wargaming?  As usual, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but for all intents and purposes he’s the grandfather of Warhammer with a book called Little Wars published in 1913. It was written about a few times on the 100th anniversary, but here’s the rundown if, like me, you’d like to know more.

You could say it technically started in early 1800’s Prussia, where the Prussian army started a set of wargame rules utilising miniatures on a terrained and grided table for staff training called Kriegsspiel. This began the inspiration for wargamers for a long time, kept alive since it was used by other militaries – including the British – through times when military service was common for young men of a certain class and it wasn’t unusual to have seen or been involved in some way with war during their life, even before the world wars. Miniature wargaming as hobby rather than strategic training exercise quickly came with recreating historical battles, but was certainly not a common activity.

 

origin unknown

origin unknown

 

It was not what H. G. Wells had in mind when his friend Jerome K. Jerome (that’s not a typo) started playing with a toy cannon lying around at Wells’ house one day, and they both decided that it would be much more interesting if the toy soldiers he had aimed at could move as soldiers under fire obviously would. They eventually set up a war game of toy soldiers using anything they could find as landscape and props, deciding which aspects of actual combat to try and incorporate and which should be discarded for convenience. They slowly developed by trial and error a set of rules for battles, asking advice and receiving a lot of it too – including from military officers – while first publishing the rules serially. The tale of it is better described by Wells himself at the start of the book, and in proper early 1900’s style to boot.

In 1913 Wells published the end result in Little Wars, a rules system for wargaming with sets of toy soldiers, that was meant to be spread out on a floor or the ground. The full title is actually 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. (thanks Wells for acknowledging girls might be interested too, in full backhanded way). The rules included using standard lead toy soldiers and toy cannons that usually fired bits of dowel (toys in those days being built to last, outliving you thanks to lead poisoning and possibly losing an eye). It also included allowance and suggestions for using whatever was lying around to create the town and surrounds such as toy blocks, and suggestions for expanding the rules or incorporating Kriegsspiel rules. Its aim as a game for older children and adults to play rather than for war buffs, and few other competitors, made it popular; new wargaming rule systems for miniatures would be scarce for decades.

Ironically, considering the army origins of wargaming, one of Wells’ main goals with Little Wars was also to encourage people to merely play war instead of waging it. He was a staunch pacifist, and in Floor Games (written by Wells two years earlier, a collection of games for younger kids using toy soldiers and other toy sets – obviously, all intended to be played with plenty of space on the floor) even laments that toy soldiers are needed for miniatures games for children because toy civilians aren’t easily available while military toys are. While his noble pacifism goal didn’t work (World War I officially began in 1914), he started a legacy of miniature strategy gaming that is still going strong today.

from 'Little Wars' (H. G. Wells, 1913)

from ‘Little Wars’ (H. G. Wells, 1913)

 

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‘A wargame (also war game) is a strategy game that deals with military operations of various types, real or fictional. Wargaming is the hobby dedicated to the play of such games, which can also be called conflict simulations, or consims for short. When used professionally by the military to study warfare, “war game” may refer to a simple theoretical study or a full-scale military exercise. Hobby wargamers have traditionally used “wargame”, while the military has generally used “war game”; this is not a hard and fast rule. Although there may be disagreements as to whether a particular game qualifies as a wargame or not, a general consensus exists that all such games must explore and represent some feature or aspect of human behaviour directly bearing on the conduct of war, even if the game subject itself does not concern organized violent conflict or warfare’.      (Wikipedia.com, extract from article ‘Wargaming’.)

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Where does it stand in the history of published hobby miniature wargaming rule systems? It was not actually the first games rules published, since using models for recreating historical war campaigns had been around for a while; that honour goes to Rules for the Jane Naval Warfare Game in 1898, which as you can guess concerned naval warfare. Written by warship expert and avid miniature wargamer Fred Jane, and being sold complete with its own set of warship models, it is the first recorded rule book for miniature wargaming. Fifteen years later came Little Wars, encouraging people to make up their own battles rather than redo old ones, but it was another twenty years before anything new was around, and oddly it was another naval theme. Noted American author Fletcher Pratt, also known for his science fiction work as well as fantasy and war history, and part of a wargaming group, released The Fletcher Pratt Naval War Game first in 1933, using wooden ship models and mathematical formulae to calculate their movements, and it was republished during World War II in 1943. A decade later saw board wargames in the form of Tactics, self-published by Charles S Roberts as Avalon Hill Games in 1954, and Diplomacy, first published in 1954 by Allan B. Calhamer (while still a board wargame it focused on, well, diplomacy rather than strategy and warfare).

Despite the wealth of pro-army propaganda during the two World Wars, new books of standard rules for miniatures weren’t on shelves again until the late 1960’s-1970 with a handful of historic war rulebooks, starting in 1966 with both the Column, Line, & Square rulebook being released and Don Featherstone producing booklets for several different time periods that same year. In 1969, the Wargames Research Group (first as the Ancient Wargames Research Group) in Britain established itself with the intention of publishing wargaming reference works and period-accurate historical wargaming rules, and released many editions of wargames rules for different time periods regularly over the decades (including branching into fantasy in the 90’s). However, it was in the 1970’s that an explosion of creative and original miniatures wargames settings hit.

 

 

The International Federation of Wargaming wasn’t exactly international, and only ran from 1967 to 1973. But from its ranks were recruited contributors for Guidon Games, founded in 1971 with the intent to formally publish miniature wargames rules systems in answer to a demand in the wargaming community of the time. Three different rulebooks were published through Guidon Games in 1971 alone, followed by four more and several board games before their closure in 1973. Gary Gygax (probably better known as the creator of Dungeons & Dragons) and Jeff Perren both joined Guidon, and published Chainmail in 1971. It was a medieval setting battle rules system, but included expansion options for fantasy warfare (spell casting, mythical creatures, etc.) based on Lord of the Rings, a first for the historically-focused miniatures scene. The demand for new rulebooks was real, as despite the lack of formally published systems the miniature wargame community had been thriving for a long time. Magazines and societies for miniature wargaming had been around for a long time by that point, often sharing and serialising campaigns, rules, and more. Even the first Gen Con, started by the IFW, started as a wargaming convention in 1968. It’s not surprising that a flood of both historical and creative setting rule systems was published once the trend started, with even the first sci-fi one – Galactic Warfare from Skytrex – arriving in 1973. The first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle (which became Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles) was released through Games Workshop in 1983, and was thought to have an excellent rules system at the time compared to most others. With Warhammer 40,000 following in 1987 they soon became (and remained) favourites in the miniature wargaming scene.

Standard military and historical settings have been the most common, not surprising since that was the origin of wargaming, though it helps miniature wargaming as a whole encompass both fantasy players and war history buffs. But the sudden rise of fantasy setting rule systems – not to mention sci-fi, alternate history, and more, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s – changed the face of miniature wargaming forever. When Warhammer stands and displays are what’s seen by people glancing at miniatures you’d be forgiven for thinking fantasy settings had taken over, however historical war setting systems are still dominant as they’ve been the most published type since miniature wargaming started.

Hundreds of miniature wargaming rule sets have been published for the world to share as the industry has changed and grown, most inspired by or based on the mechanics from earlier games in a family tree of inspiration. Their ancestor Little Wars is still played today in different forms, with it’s public domain status leading to creative adaptions. It has been republished regularly since it first inspired young strategists, and even lends its name to an Australian wargaming convention. So thanks to Herbert George Wells not just for some classic fiction literature, but for playing games with his young sons and his friends, and making it a game for everyone. Thanks to J. K. Jerome for mucking about with his friend’s kids’ toys, as Wells extensively credits this with starting it all. Thanks to the 1812 Prussian army for starting war games with miniatures – even Kriegsspiel is still played today in different forms too. And thanks to Gary Gygax for adding monsters.

 

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‘I could go on now and tell of battles, copiously. In the memory of the one skirmish I have given I do but taste blood. I would like to go on, to a large, thick book. It would be an agreeable task. Since I am the chief inventor and practiser (so far) of Little Wars, there has fallen to me a disproportionate share of victories. But let me not boast. For the present, I have done all that I meant to do in this matter. It is for you, dear reader, now to get a floor, a friend, some soldiers and some guns, and show by a groveling devotion your appreciation of this noble and beautiful gift of a limitless game that I have given you.

And if I might for a moment trumpet! How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster—and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence. This world is for ample living; we want security and freedom; all of us in every country, except a few dull-witted, energetic bores, want to see the manhood of the world at something better than apeing the little lead toys our children buy in boxes. We want fine things made for mankind—splendid cities, open ways, more knowledge and power, and more and more and more—and so I offer my game, for a particular as well as a general end; and let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable “patriots,” and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers—tons, cellars-full—and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size. Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way of mankind, even as our fathers turned human sacrifices into the eating of little images and symbolic mouthfuls. For my own part, I am prepared. I have nearly five hundred men, more than a score of guns, and I twirl my moustache and hurl defiance eastward from my home in Essex across the narrow seas. Not only eastward. I would conclude this little discourse with one other disconcerting and exasperating sentence for the admirers and practitioners of Big War. I have never yet met in little battle any military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.

Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.’

   –   (Little Wars, chapter IV ‘Ending With A Sort of Challenge’, 1913, H. G. Wells (1866-1946))

HG_Wells_playing_to_Little_Wars 

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Little Wars is now in the public domain, which means you can find it for free at Project Gutenberg (and as an audio book at LibriVox). Like many classics, it has also been republished regularly, often along with Floor Games. And from myself, late salutations for International Tabletop Gaming day.

Please note that the dates of publication for the rules systems mentioned in the article are based on publication date as a self-contained book, not serialization or publication in a magazine, and the majority were sourced from an incomplete list, that had many dates of publication unknown. I’m pretty sure that many of the 70’s boom ones had been floating around the societies for a while before formal publication too. It also focuses on US and some UK history of wargaming, as that’s what I could dig up. This article is focused on hobby miniature wargaming, and not military training miniature war gaming, and so leaves out rule systems or publications that were intended for military use (apart from Kriegsspiel).

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2 Comments
  1. todd mason
    October 6, 2017 | Reply
    • Felicity
      October 11, 2017 | Reply

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