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Little Wars & Floor Games

An Introduction

This article was published in 1995 in a facsimile edition containing both of H.G. Wells's games, Little Wars and Floor Games, published by Hogshead Publishing Ltd. I wrote the introduction, at the publisher's request.

Herbert George Wells, 1866-1946. Socialist, humanitarian, enthusiast for the sciences and, with Verne, the founder of the genre of science fiction, though it wasn't termed such until the years near his death. And, of course, eminent game designer.

There are those who will say that for game designers to claim Wells as an intellectual progenitor has no more merit than, say, the dubious claim that Lucian, or Voltaire, wrote science fiction. True, they wrote of fantastical journeys to the moon, of fantastic futures, but they were merely writing in a fantastic mode, a legitimate form of literature, a form which was conceived neither as a genre nor a marketing category until centuries after their deaths.

And yet, here is the evidence, in this slim volume: Wells's Little Wars, and his Floor Games.

One can make much of them post facto; they are, as far as I know, the first professionally published sets of miniatures rules. Miniatures, still known in Britain as war games, a term reserved in the States mainly for board wargaming, remains a thriving pastime in both nations; and miniatures gave direct birth to the board wargame and to roleplaying, and indirect birth to computer gaming and collectors card gaming. So some credence must be given to the claim that Wells is, at least in some sense, our intellectual forebear.

But it is worthwhile, also, to consider the intellectual climate in which Wells worked. Floor Games was published in 1911, and Little Wars in 1913. 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.

And one must consider the intellectual climate as well; 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. [A conviction, incidentally, and politically incorrectly, in which I share.] 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.

And one must consider too that, Wells aside, the first flower of science fiction, broadly defined, was in the form of the "future war" novel, a genre popular mainly in Britain, but successful also in France and the United States, which generally portrayed the conquest of the nation of the author by some antagonistic state (usually Germany for the British, some Asiatic menace for the United States).

Wells, of course, as a socialist and internationalist, cannot be condemned as sharing the limited horizons of the purveyors of such nonsense; 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, the more advanced game of the pair, 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 memory management or video resolution, but in the manufacture of toys. Combat seems mainly to be 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).

Our esteemed publisher, who suffers from febrile enthusiasm for "diceless" games, sees this as presaging recent developments in roleplaying game design; certainly, Little Wars makes no concessions to random dice elements. The sophisticated game designer knows, of course, that, given a sufficiently large number of random number tests, the results regress to a mean; so to condemn a game that relies heavily on die-rolling as being luck- rather than skill-dependent, is absurd. Still, there is an elegant simplicity in relying on the players carefully to aim their shots, rather than recoursing to some sort of combat results table.

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. [I note in passing that the reader should assume chauvinism neither on my nor on Wells's part; Wells was an enthusiast for female emancipation, and I have recently begun playing Axis & Allies with my six year-old daughter. However, in 1913, one may assume, a passion for toy soldiers was presumed an exclusively masculine enthusiasm; and in our era, interest in things military remains a largely, albeit not exclusively, male preserve.]

In years gone by, I have attempted, without great success, to interest individuals of limited intellectual horizons, such as the games buyer for Toys R Us, in advanced, complicated, and praiseworthy examples of the game designer's art. I have learned an important lesson: that to reach the bulk of humanity, which constitute the market for mass retailers, one must create a game the rules to which can be explained in five minutes or less.

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, eighty years ago, when a game like Little Wars could be considered the height of design sophistication; yet it is worth the effort. Eighty years, though it seems like a geologic epoch in this, eventful, century 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 Sigeru Miyamoto and Richard Garfield, came...

Herbert George Wells. 1866-1946. Socialist, novelist... and game designer.

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© Copyright 1995 by Greg Costikyan.