Little Wars

This article Copyright 1997 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated April 6, 1997

Little Wars, a set of miniatures rules by H. G. Wells, was first published in 1913 - just before World War I. (It has been reprinted periodically since then - I have a Dover edition from 1977, I think.)

Little Wars is an interesting book. Most of the book tells about how he came to write the game, the evolution of the rules, some of his various battles, and essays on how playing with toy soldiers is so much better than the real thing. The actual rules take up a very small part of the book, and are very simple by today's standards. The game actually works, though - I've played a modern version of it at the Havoc Miniatures Convention in Massachusetts, and it was a blast.

The game differs the most from modern miniatures games in its choice of randomizer: no dice are used, nor cards, nor spinner, etc. Instead, Little Wars uses toy cannons to knock over the toy soldiers, thus deciding who lives and who dies! In addition, there are melee rules, which are very bloody - appropriate, with WWI lurking in the wings.

The miniatures Wells recommends are about two inches tall, though he also says you can use some about an inch-and-a-half tall with acceptable results. There are only three types of units: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. All pieces are individually based, though they may be moved together as a unit. The toy cannons were finely made, quite accurate, actually fired soft pellets, and their like would be hard to find and very expensive today. The game I played at Havoc used small toy guns that fired little disks. We had cannons on the floor, but they didn't really fire. When it came time to fire, we put the butt of the toy pistol on the floor next to the cannon, aimed at the foe, and fired away. Quite a fun game, though the toy pistol wasn't very accurate, I must confess. Didn't seem to matter much - the enemy's weapons were no better.

The rules state that one side shall set up the terrain, and the other choose which side to start on - sensible beginning. Either place a curtain across the table, so both players can set up simultaneously, or flip a coin to see who sets up first. Set up is along the back row of your starting edge. There is no firing until each side has had at least one move.

Movement is simple: infantry can move one foot, cavalry two feet, and guns can either move or shoot in their turn, but not both. A gun requires at least four men to move it. If all four are cavalry, it moves at cavalry rate; otherwise, at the infantry rate. Playing on a floor with one-foot square tiles makes movement very easy!

The turns are timed. Wells recommends one minute per gun and one minute per 30 men. (More on army composition later.) A very simple rule is "Guns first." That is, you must first decide whether to move or fire your guns, and take care of them before moving the rest of your army. If you fire, you are allowed four shots per gun - but when your time is up, you must stop moving/shooting, so don't take too much time aligning your sights. He has rules for pieces that are hit but don't fall over, as well as multiple casualties for a single shot.

Melees are very bloody, and use an interesting "support" rule. If a body of troops is within six inches of a troop of its own men, at least half the size of the advance force, it is said to be supported. If not, it is isolated. In a melee, if both forces are even, all are destroyed - remove them from the board. If one side has more than the other, check to see if the inferior force is supported. If so, remove the entire inferior force, and an equal number of the larger force. If the inferior force is isolated, however, remove an equal number of soldiers of both sides until the larger force is twice as large as the inferior force. (Note that this may mean removing no soldiers at all!) At that point, all of the remaining men of the inferior force are captured. Captured units may be escorted to your rear - if you get them off your edge of the board, they're out of the game. One soldier can escort up to seven prisoners. If the enemy kills an escort, the prisoners may return to their own side, but must return to the back board edge before being able to fight again.

Various victory conditions are given, including point costs: Fight to the Finish, Blow to the Rear, and the Defensive Game. As for composition of forces, Wells writes that he usually plays with a force of 80 infantry, 50 cavalry, and 4-5 guns. (Given his rules for timed turns, he would then start out with 9-10 minutes per turn, gradually dropping as casualties are taken.) He offers advice on force composition, and even a point system: each infantry is worth one point; a cavalry 1.5 points, and a gun 10 points. Each team takes 150 points (or agreed-on sum) as it wishes.

That's basically the game as Wells played it. In a note, he tells how he originally flipped a coin to determine melees. But after one soldier felled over 15 opponents without losing a coin toss, he changed to the system described above!

The last chapter is extremely interesting: Wells was an active pacifist, yet invented the twentieth century's first wargame. He discusses this since he was apparently questioned on it quite a bit. His answer, when asked if playing at war made him less of a pacifist, was that it made him more of a pacifist. This is because he played with many army officers of his day, and found them to be buffoons at the game: they lost many, many soldiers and most battles through simple tactical errors. Had it been the real war, Wells said, he would fear for his country. Given the millions of Britons that died shortly after this book was published, that fear was realized, alas.

Little Wars as written isn't played much today, but can be fun if you get in the right mind-set. It is very good reading, and should be in your library if you have any interest in the history of the miniatures hobby, whether you play it or not.

Read the Little Wars rules online!

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