Sci-Fi Wargamers

We Were First!

The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds brings to mind a delightful irony in the story of modern science fiction and miniatures wargaming. There is a truly delicious sense of satisfaction to be part of the Metal-Express enterprise where science fiction cohabits so happily with wargaming. The reason I take such pleasure is because of the role science fiction enthusiasts played in the origins of commercial wargames. Well, perhaps using the plural “enthusiasts” is a bit much because I’m referring to the pioneering science fiction writer, H. G. Wells who wrote War of the Worlds and is also widely acknowledged as the author of the first commercially published wargame for miniatures.

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Fig01: A first edition of H. G. Wells’ Little Wars.

This was his 1913 book Little Wars (see Figure 1) in which he outlines detailed rules for using tin soldiers and toy artillery pieces in epic battles that would fit neatly in the average Edwardian living room or garden. Wells drew upon and acknowledged the Prussian innovation of wargaming known as Kriegspiel used by military academies there to train the next generation of officers in the finer points of battlefield tactics. By the way, Wells was definitely into the diversity thing; the complete title of his book is: 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; With an Appendix on Kriegspiel.

What is less well-known is that Little Wars was preceded in 1911 by Floor Games, in which Wells explored the process of play by describing the toys he bought for his children and how his family actually used them. He goes into great detail about the nature of play and games. In fact, his insights were considered so good that the book was reprinted in the 1970′s as a text in the field of psychoanalysis and has remained so since then. I think it should be on the bookshelf of every would-be game designer.
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Fig02: First edition of H. G. Wells’ Floor Games.

Somehow, I find it unsurprising that someone who could stretch his (and our) imagination to envision military conflict across a planetary system (or across time, for that matter) could likewise squeeze it down to the size of a single room. Wells’ rules, although crude by modern standards (funny how the original invention always looks crude after nearly a century of refinements) anticipate many of the issues game designers wrestle with today; time allowances for making moves, terrain, distances troops could move and how to measure them, etc. By the way, if you’re interested in reading Wells’ rules for yourself, you can find a text-only copy of the complete text of Little Wars courtesy of Project Gutenberg, located at http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3691. They also have Floor Games available at http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3690. Since they are text only you won’t get the charming line drawings that graced the pages of the original, but there is more than enough for you to get the flavor of it.

I have wondered if Little Wars could have been written any later than it was; the world-shaking Guns of August were literally months away when this books was published, and its view of combat is not merely Edwardian but positively Victorian with all the idealization of combat that went with that age. Wells, like many of the intellectuals of his day was horrified by the cost and carnage of the Great War and I can’t help wondering if that horror might have prevented him from being able to abstract war into a children’s game. Luckily for our hobby, things went otherwise.

So be proud, you geeky gamers, as you hunch over your tables and roll the dice in your games of Silent Death or Carnage or Noble Armada, because in the world of miniature gaming, we were there first.