Basic Training

H.G. Wells’s century-old wargaming rules kicked off the hobby and helped spawn everything from tabletop RPGs to big-budget video games.
New York Times Sunday Book Review, May 3, 2013

If you happened to visit the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, in April, you may have spotted neat ranks of red- and blue-coated soldiers converging on the front lines of a grassy battlefield — a miniature battlefield, that is, peppered with soldiers just over two inches tall. Their commanding officers were gathered to celebrate the centenary of the book that gave birth to their hobby and, in so doing, spawned a family tree that has since branched out to include tabletop role-playing pursuits and big-budget video-game extravaganzas.

The book that started it all, “Little Wars,” was written by H. G. Wells, who is better remembered for his science fiction than for his game design. “Little Wars” was published in 1913, after Wells — inspired by a child’s discarded toy soldiers and breech-loading cannon — created a set of rules that the “recumbent strategist” could use to wage war across parlor floors or neatly manicured lawns and gardens. Wells and his gamer buddies refined those rules over a number of battles (as contemporary game designers do), looking to discover the best way to resolve hand-to-hand combat, for instance, or what to do if a detachment of bombardiers hid for too long behind the low hill formed by a strategically placed encyclopedia.

Wells entertained a number of notable literary and political figures with his diversion. According to Padre Paul Wright of the British Royal Army Chaplains’ Department, who is perhaps the world’s leading authority on “Little Wars,” G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were among Wells’s guests while he was developing the game. “I think it is reasonable to suggest that Chesterton had some war gaming inspiration from Wells when writing ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill,’ ” Wright told me in an e-mail, referring to a novel in which toy soldiers play a decisive part. Winston Churchill and Wells maintained a correspondence too, though many of their letters have been lost. Wright wonders whether the two men ever faced off: “We are left with the fascinating prospect of an historical, toy soldier what-if between the two great toy soldier enthusiasts of the period.”

While miniature war-gaming has never been able to claim a place in the mainstream, it has influenced almost everything we think of as gaming today. By the middle of the 20th century, war-gaming had not only added new sets of rules for armies of many periods, but it had inspired a new kind of richly complex board game, like Axis & Allies and Blitzkrieg.Entirely novel face-to-face entertainments emerged from the same lineage. The game designer Gary Gygax, in a foreword to a 2004 edition of the book, credits “Little Wars” with influencing his own set of rules for medieval-period miniature wars, Chainmail — which in turn became the basis of a slightly less obscure role-­playing game: Dungeons & Dragons.

D.&D., of course, has deeply informed the entertainment revolution that was ignited by the rise and widespread distribution of computing power. But while it’s possible to bring a measure of on-the-fly creativity to bear during a round of multiplayer Call of Duty, video games have stripped away much of what makes face-to-face gaming so compelling. (And I say that as an avid electronic and tabletop gamer both.) The sense of collaboration and shared storytelling has been replaced by high-def graphics and product placements from weapons manufacturers. It’s no longer a matter of carefully aiming your matchstick cannon at a cavalry detachment in a gripping struggle for control of the carpet. Now you’re expected to frag enough noobs to earn the SCAR-H assault rifle that will let you maintain your position on the Black Ops leader boards.

In a world in which war itself has been transformed, perhaps that’s only to be expected. War, since Wells’s day, has become increasingly depersonalized; the image of a military drone delivering death from thousands of miles away is emblematic of the ways in which conflict has changed. Games have tracked those changes, it’s true. But they have also made attempts to highlight and even resist them. The depersonalizing military advance of Wells’s day — the automatic machine gun, which delivered a brutally efficient, industrialized kind of death not seen before on the battlefield — is absent entirely from “Little Wars.”

Still, Wells was keen to maintain a certain level of verisimilitude. “Little Wars” produced what he described as “little brisk fights” in a game that was “in a dozen aspects extraordinarily like a small real battle.” So real, in fact, that Wells hoped his game might deter its players from participating in the genuine article. “How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing!” he wrote toward the end of the book. “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 countrysides, 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.”

Wells — along with much of the rest of the world — could sense something on the horizon, and he did not like what he saw coming: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize 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 realization conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.”

Wells’s book fell somewhat short of this goal, as we know. And his own interest in fighting little wars declined sharply with the start of World War I, along with his pacifism; as the violent century wore on, Wells became an advocate of an “armed peace,” with England holding the gun.

But “Little Wars” endured, becoming one of the first sets of war-gaming rules to gain more than a temporary hold on the public’s imagination. Even now, when video games are ubiquitous, nothing can match the experience of miniature war-gaming. Standing shoulder to shoulder with your fellow generals and surveying the troops arrayed in formation, ready to fight and die for their little causes, brings something tactile and immediate to the activity, a feeling rarely on offer in electronic contexts. Video games can provide rich worlds of entertainment, yet there is something just as immersive about pushing miniature soldiers around a lawn, carpet, or 4-by-8-foot plywood battlefield decorated with toothpick fences and cardboard hills. With battles lasting half a day or more, a very physical fatigue sets in as the evening wears on. Handshakes are exchanged at the end of the day, and you can go home knowing your opponent better for having faced him across the field of tiny battle.