Book Review -- "Little Wars"

Book Review -- "Little Wars" Hot

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"We still found it difficult to introduce any imitation into our game of either retreat or the surrender of men not actually taken prisoners in a melee. Both things were possible by the rules, but nobody did them because there was no inducement to do them. Games were apt to end obstinately with the death or capture of the last man. An inducement was needed. This we contrived by playing not for the game but for points, scoring the result of each game and counting the points towards the decision of a campaign."

In case you are under the impression that the games we're playing are new or innovative, this clear description of a victory point was published in 1913 by H.G. Wells.

The rest of the paragraph --

"Our campaign was to our single game what a rubber is to a game of whist. We made the end of a war 200, 300, or 400 or more points up, according to the number of games we wanted to play, and we scored a hundred for each battle won, and in addition 1 for each infantry-man, 1-1/2 for each cavalry-man, 10 for each gun, 1/2 for each man held prisoner by the enemy, and 1/2 for each prisoner held at the end of the game, subtracting what the antagonist scored by the same scale. Thus, when he felt the battle was hopelessly lost, he had a direct inducement to retreat any guns he could still save and surrender any men who were under the fire of the victors' guns and likely to be slaughtered, in order to minimise the score against him. And an interest was given to a skilful retreat, in which the loser not only saved points for himself but inflicted losses upon the pursuing enemy."

British_Troops

I'm forty-six years old and like most people there's a part of me that thinks much of the world began just around the time I became aware of it, somewhere around the age of twelve.  To me wargames began with PanzerBlitz and Tactics II and I see the echoes of those games in most of the tactical titles I come across 35 years later.  But they too are reflections of concepts far older.  In fact John Nash's Nobel-garnering gaming theories were published nearly half a century after H.G. Wells described the similar concepts (though in a far less academic way) in this simple little 49 page book.

Good news.  It's in the public domain.  Gutenberg.org has it for your eyes, Librovox.org for your ears, and given how short and how positively enlightening it is I recommend you use it to fill in an hour of your evening or a couple of days worth of your daily commute to work.

I "read" the book on my Sansa Fuze during my drive to Baltimore.  The first thing I noticed was the the tone of voice used by Mark Smith, Librovox's volunteer reader.  Almost childlike, Smith imbues the text with an uplifting spirit, the joy of a child in discovery, a perfect expression of the text in his hands.  For Wells is not merely an observer of children playing make-believe with tin soldiers, but instead a fully involved participant, crawling around on the floor and describing how a shoot-em-up game evolved in stages into what anyone in the industry would consider a well-designed, tested, legitimate tactical simulation of combat.

The second thing I noticed was that much of the concepts that we consider modern or innovative in modern titles were conceptually available and apparently put into play by our gaming brethren of a century ago.  Wells' wargame incorporates line-of-sight, detachment and isolation, range of fire, information hiding, initiative, and complex movement.  Organically grown from simple concepts into a well-organized and clearly written suite of rules, he describes with more than a bit of pride the amount of time and effort required to create this fine wargame, one which more than a few of us would be very pleased to take part in.

"And at last our rules have reached stability, and we regard them now with the virtuous pride of men who have persisted in a great undertaking and arrived at precision after much tribulation. There is not a piece of constructive legislation in the world, not a solitary attempt to meet a complicated problem, that we do not now regard the more charitably for our efforts to get a right result from this apparently easy and puerile business of fighting with tin soldiers on the floor."

This puerile business now employs thousands and has a dedicated following around the world.  The rules within this short read present a game that is clearly understandable and very recognizable to anyone that's so much as glanced at a modern wargame.  Concepts most of us consider new and trendy are displayed in the simplest of terms.  In fact, something key to good game design -- complex play that emerges from simple concepts -- is apparent in the design, as Wells' frequent references to failed concepts and how they were addressed lead the reader to consider the construction of the game as much as the final product.  Though stumbling often on their way to completion, the rules that resulted are remarkably simple.  It's playable today by anyone in possession of two key pieces of equipment -- a few dozen toy soldiers, hopefully mixing cavalry, infantry and artillery, and a gun.  A real gun.

Indeed the most surprising aspect of Wells' game and the one piece of it that calls out to me to reproduce his efforts is the replacement of oft-debated dice and cards as the generator of chance with a spring loaded gun.  Not a pop gun, one of these:

Four-Point-Seven-Gun

Wells specifically calls out the British Four-Point-Seven as the gun of choice.  Sharp eyes will notice the spring lever on top of the barrel.  This critter fires wooden projectiles, and the screw adjustment near the breech gives the firer more than a bit of control at dropping shots onto the heads of enemy units in the field.  In Little Wars, when your men are being hit by artillery, they're really being hit by artillery, and figuring out who's gunned down is a simple matter.  My guess is that most of you don't have a dozen of these lying around the house.  I don't either, though Christmas day may change that.

ModernToyCanon

There are modern alternatives like the one in this photo.  But that old spring-loader sets the bar pretty high. Wells declares a 90% accuracy with the Four-Point-Seven when fired carefully by a seasoned gunner, out to a range of nine yards.  He describes good firing as vital to strong tactical play, bringing a physical aspect into the game alongside the intellectual.  He also calls the careful control of chance an important aspect of any game worth playing.  Apparently that talking point is more than 100 years old as well, and indeed that was the kind of thing that got me grinning from ear-to-ear in spite of ugly traffic on I-95 -- much of the discussions here on FortressAT would present nothing new to Wells.  His words written a century ago could be presented in a forum here today and most of us would consider him a contemporary, not someone stepping out of the time machine.

Wells breaks his ruleset into simple pieces that just about any wargamer will find recognizable.  Terrain effects, movement, mobility, combat and capture, scenarios and their associated victory conditions, army composition.  Some sections are recommendations to players, though most address rules for specific situations.  The end reads as a scenario description that would be quite at home on ConsimWorld or BGG, going into more than a bit of detail on how rules played out in a particularly rewarding session.

Though deemed the "Father of Miniature Wargaming," this isn't a phrase you stumble across in the modern conversation of the genre.  What was so surprising to me was how much of what we deem recent innovation is clearly included in his ruleset, and more than a bit of what we find distractive specifically excluded.  Wells speaks of considering supply lines and logistics, but chooses to ignore them to keep the scope of the game more limited and engaging.  "Our battles are little brisk fights," he declares, stating that support mechanics "would add little to the interest or reality of the game." He also discusses the concept of analysis paralysis though not with the cutesy-ass phrase attached and clearly describes using a clock to place pressure upon the players, both during the planning stage prior to maneuvers then again to the time allotted to move and aim guns for firing, dialing down that 90% accuracy rate and forcing the player to make tough choices.  More than a few modern games war-based or no could benefit from his simple premise that uses analysis paralysis as an inverted mechanic -- one where all the return on investment is negative.  If you're opponent is gritting his teeth over a particular decision, your best play is to toss a few extra options onto the table.

This short read proved worthwhile for me largely because it reaffirmed an impression I've taken away from gaming for the last few years -- new games are newer, but only on rare occasion are truly better.  Just a few games each year get to run with the big dogs of history.  But it also broke one of my preconceptions as well.  It stretched my timeline by a factor of four.  Instead of looking to the early seventies as the incubator of modern wargaming I now see it as just one more era in a much longer history, one that predates most of the modern mathematical theory that describes it.  In this case chicken came first, and as a mathematician I found that quite surprising.

S.

Book Review -- "Little Wars" There Will Be Games
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