Wargames Study: Little Wars

I suspect that many people have developed the essentials of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars on their own. At its core, one tries to knock over the other player’s toy soldiers with a projectile before they do the same to yours; I played a similar game with my father as a child, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Committing simple rules to print, though, helps emphasize Wells’ central idea: “[t]hings should happen, and not be decided.”

We take it for granted that things are decided in games, usually by a system constructed for the purpose. Yet, there’s something remarkable about resting on “what happens” instead of “what the rules tell us happened.” It feels natural and immediate; the toy soldier is out of play because he was knocked over. How could it be otherwise?

It couldn’t. There’s no intermediate step to Little Wars combat, no opportunity for the excitement to dribble out of the resolution process. Our intuition tells us the soldier is lost, and instantly he is.

There are lots of other things to say about Little Wars. Charles Pratt accurately pointed out that its playful, toylike quality defuses the concern for precision that can make miniatures games fiddly; whether that trooper got knocked 1/16″ or 1/8″ to the left when he was tapped accidentally is irrelevant, because it’s the same challenge to hit him with a projectile either way. Little Wars is also a melding of dexterity and tactical play in a way that disappears from the strategy genre thereafter. It’s got as much in common with modern basketball and American football as it does with Warhammer.

Yet, I can’t get away from the sense of immediacy as the truly gripping element of Little Wars. “Things should happen, and not be decided.” How many games could follow that advice? How often could the system be refined, or cut away, to enable things to happen?

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