Little Wars of the Worlds | 2405

A review of HG Wellsโ€™ most important work, Little Wars. The book that changed the way table top war games were played and paved the way for the development of role-playing and modern war games.

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Little Wars of the Worlds

I have finally gotten around to reading HG Wellsโ€™ most important book – Little Wars.

Or to give the full 1913 title upon publication: โ€˜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.โ€™

Which unfortunately sort of set the tone of wargaming towards women for the next 110+ years. And as for other social and cultural sensitivities, the book goes downhill from page one. In fact, my 2015 reprint has a note in the front matter forewarning the reader โ€œthat the text in places contains cultural references characteristic of the era, which may be deemed offensive by modern standards.โ€ All that aside, Wellsโ€™ Little Wars still influences tabletop wargames today. 

The book began life as two articles published in โ€˜Windsor Magazineโ€™ in December 1912 and January 1913. Little Wars and Floor Games. Apparently after their publication, the publisher Frank Palmer approached Wells and asked if a book might not be written on the subject of boyโ€™s games.

The story goes that Wells soon showed up unannounced at Palmer’s office in Bloomsbury lugging huge boxes filled with lead soldiers, bottle brush trees and other terrain. Interrupting a meeting between Palmer and author R. Thurston Hopkins, he proceeded to crawl around on his hands and knees extolling the virtues of the game from the office carpet for over three hours. Finally, an exhausted Palmer (and presumably Hopkins) gave Wells a contract. Behaviour that sets the tone for how wargame nerds enthuse about their hobby to innocent social victims to this day too.

Little Wars marks the moment when toy soldiers had becoming serious objects. Wells explains that when he was a boy, toy soldiers used to be flat – pressed and stamped out from tin sheets with bent tabs to allow them to stand. Whereas by the 1910’s they were now hollow cast, painted and mass produced. He describes the toy soldiers as “magnificent beings”. And calls the advances in production as an โ€œenormous improvement in our national physique in this respect.โ€ He also effervesces about the vast collections of models that people can amass.

As an aside; in a consulting conversation the other day about worlds and IP, Warhammer and Games Workshop came up. I pointed out that it was Citadel Miniatures and not IP that built the company. GW is above all, an engineering firm. In the business of selling war dollies made with cutting edge injection plastic moulding machines.


Wellsโ€™ Little Wars of course do differ from tabletop wargames as we know them today. Primarily, battles are fought using actual projectiles rather than dice roles to resolve combat. In the Victorian period, the cost of mechanical springs fell dramatically. Making them economical for the inclusion in toys. Wells writes: โ€œThe beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun.โ€ Some elements of the rules are recognisable to us today, like the deployment phase. But our familiarity is soon shattered with the requirement of a curtain to be hung in the middle of the arena whilst the players set up their armies. The combat phase then follows exactly like you would imagine. With the clicking of buttons and the firing of tiny projectiles across the room towards their targets. Presumably whilst making pew pew noises the whole time.

Despite the subject matter Wellsโ€™ lifelong pacifism is on display throughout the book. He says that wargames are a โ€œhomoeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disasterโ€”and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sidesโ€. Published one year before World War 1, Wells seems prescient in writing: โ€œGreat 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 butโ€”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.โ€

The book closes with an appendix on the military simulation Kriegspiel – German for War-game or War-play – and a tributary further up the timeline in my book on the history of worlds.

Wells notes that after the publication of the original articles, many military men got in touch. Kriegspiel they said “as it is played by the British Army, is a very dull and unsatisfactory exercise, lacking in realism, in stir and the unexpected, obsessed by the umpire at every turnโ€. Whilst protesting that as a civilian, Kriegspiel is not his โ€˜proper businessโ€™ Wells, like any good wargamer goes on to suggest advanced rules to be played in a larger space involving military logistics, military engineers, cavalry charges, and railway transport of troops etc – a complexification of the base simulation.

One I was of course, reading with an eye toward any mention of worlds. And found; within a discussion of terrain, this:

โ€œThese we arrange and rearrange in various ways upon our floor, making a world of them. In doing so we have found out all sorts of pleasant facts, and also many undesirable possibilitiesโ€ Another early hit at something  – the worlds as a medium – are doing for us today.

All in all, despite its quite shocking casual racism, itโ€™s an interesting book.

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