Flash of Steel header image 2

H.G. Wells and Game Design

April 26th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

Greg Costikyan’s article on the history of board and strategy gaming provoked me to return to H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

Actually, the full title 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. Note that we already have the quaint idea that these sorts of games are for boys and men. In the book, Wells makes reference to a female acquaintance and doesn’t miss the opportunity to refer to her as a “daring ornament of her sex”.

The Gutenberg version omits the pictures that accompany the text in the book, so his description of a game he completed (an early After Action Report) is missing some clarifying images. But for the most part you can get a good idea of the game from his account and an even better idea of Wells’ high hopes for the game.

First, there is little shame in Wells about a bunch of adults running around with tin soldiers. The minutiae of the rules and measurements clearly takes this out of the realm of simple play, and would probably be a challenge for even the cleverer sort of boys, let alone masculine girls. Wells emphasizes standardization in the size of soldiers, something that most children would not care much about in a game of this sort, I figure.

Second, there is no denying the middle class nature of the game. Only in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” world of Edwardian England could one conceive of gentlemen crawling on the floor large enough to measure troop movements in feet. Wells proposes a lawn version of his game, as well. Wells speaks of spending an afternoon and evening on a single session – this is the purview of those who can afford to spend the time.

But there is so much recognizeable in Wells’ efforts to modify his game that he well earns the title of Father of Wargaming. There were certainly Kriegspiels before; Wells refers to them. But those are for training the soldiers. Wells seeks amusement – the thrill of battle without actually having to die. Wells is an idealist positing that his game is a great substitute for war.

Look at Wells’ emphasis on the historicity of rules. Unhappy that solo soldiers were encouraged to charge bodies of men, Wells developed rules that mandated that greatly outnumbered troops would become prisoners instead of Sergeant York. Guns can be captured in similar circumstance. He suggests alternate rules that would cover rifled weapons and shrapnel. Even the idea of moving beyond piled encyclopedias to miniature houses is based on the recognition that it just didn’t feel right.

Wells also tries to implement fog of war rules, by suggesting that troops be moved in unmarked boxes until an opponent gets in range to see what is in the box. The suggestion is not perfect, of course; you will always see the box. But the idea of an amateur game with minimal refereeing trying to provide the necessity for scouting is a brilliant step.

In Little Wars, Wells admitted that he had not tried all the variants he mentions. And, as simple as the rules are, I still can’t fathom how this sort of thing gets worked out in the absence of an umpire, who would have to know the rules. As adult as Wells portrays the activity to be, even the eccentric English probably thought that this was a little peculiar.

Still, anyone interested in game design should probably check out Little Wars. It’s an early twentieth century design document that shows how a great author tried to make a game for grown-ups.


No Comments so far ↓

Like gas stations in rural Texas after 10 pm, comments are closed.