October 18, 2021

Nineteenth Century Military Wargames – H.G. Wells’ Little Wars as Kriegsspiel

Research article by Robert Mosher,  7 October 2021

H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” first came to public notice via two articles in Windsor Magazine in December 1912 and January 1913, which can be read online here. The articles noted that the game and rules had their inspiration in the discovery (during a house party) among some toys of the spring-loaded cannon modeled on the 4.7” naval gun to accompany an already popular line of toy soldiers. This gun actually fired a one-inch-long wooden cylinder projectile and it was possible to elevate or depress the gun to adjust the range, as a result a shooting competition soon began.

Our continuing look at the early history of modern wargaming. Links to all articles at the end.

(A collector’s page presented the following discussion and images of the original gun as reportedly used in Little Wars creation)
This firing of actual projectiles remained a central feature of the “Little Wars” rules that emerged from the experiments made by Wells and friends. The Man of Tin blog has put names to Wells’ wargaming friends, originally identified only by their initials.
By the way, Robert Louis Stevenson likewise engaged in little wars with toy soldiers, though reportedly with a much more rigorous set of rules. There’s an account of one of his games in an 1898 issue of Scribner’s as recounted by Lloyd Osbourne.

19c-Little-Wars-full

The two articles by Wells generated a wave of interest (and much correspondence with the author) and a book version of “Little Wars” was published in 1913 by Palmer of London.[1] The first 20 pages recount the inspiration for and evolution of the rules. The next 20 pages present the rules themselves as used at the time of publication in 1913. The last third of the book recounts an actual game as played by Wells and company.

Included in the book was a ten-page appendix “Little War and Kriegspiel”. The author acknowledged in this appendix that “Little Wars” itself was a game designed for play by two to six ‘amateurish persons’ and did not represent a proper kriegspiel. He noted, however, that the Windsor Magazine articles had led to ‘quite a considerable correspondence’ with members of the military who showed a friendly interest while admitting that the Army’s kriegspiels were ‘very dull and unsatisfactorily’ lacking in realism…obsessed by the umpire…and of very doubtful value in waking…the imagination.’

19c-Sykes
COL Sykes, Image from Wikimedia

Wells thanked in particular Colonel Mark Sykes from among these correspondents for his advice and guidance in how “Little Wars” might be developed into a kriegspiel offering real educational value for the army’s junior officers. The Appendix goes on to set out the amendments to the original rules that would bring “Little Wars” closer to the realm of a kriegspiel. While Wells and company appear to have used Britain’s First Version 1899-1913 figures in 54mm – just over 2 inches high for their floor/garden games, Wells suggested that the kriegspiel use the smaller, less expensive figures also available and about 1 inch in height.

The proposed kriegspiel rules follow the original rules where no new procedure is set forth, thus the order of play in this ‘you-move, I-move’ game is determined by a coin toss, the winner of the toss moving first. The original Little Wars as played by Wells and company normally involved three or four players, so it must be expanded to accommodate the greater number of players desired for a proper army kriegspiel. Therefore, two players take the roles of respective army commanders, who are allowed to communicate freely with any other players acting as associated or subordinate commanders. Each player was usually allotted five minutes real time to execute a turn. There is no discussion in Little Wars or in the Kriegspiel Appendix suggesting that this anything other than real time.

The proposed kriegspiel rules follow the original rules where no new procedure is set forth, thus the order of play in this ‘you-move, I-move’ game is determined by a coin toss, the winner of the toss moving first. The original Little Wars as played by Wells and company normally involved three or four players, so it must be expanded to accommodate the greater number of players desired for a proper army kriegspiel. Therefore, two players take the roles of respective army commanders, who are allowed to communicate freely with any other players acting as associated or subordinate commanders. Each player was usually allotted five minutes real time to execute a turn. There is no discussion in Little Wars or in the Kriegspiel Appendix suggesting that this anything other than real time.

Movement rates within each turn appear below, each unit limited to either moving or taking an action such as firing in that interval. Moving up or downhill 1 contour level equals one foot of movement up hill and two contours downhill count as one foot. Any slope of one foot in length that crosses four contour levels is impassable.

Movement Rates and Other Costs by Unit Type

 

Unit Type Basic Move Road Bonus Fording
Rivers
Formation
Changes
Other
Infantry 1 foot 6 inches in column Costs 1 turn ½ move to change from 2 to 4 ranks or back 1 full move to extend the line
Cavalry 3 feet 18 inches in column Costs 1 turn ½ move 1 move to mount
Or to dismount
Royal
Engineers
2 feet impassable Cannot move and carry out an action
Royal
Artillery
2 feet impassable ½ move to limber
Or to unlimber
Transport
& Supply
6 inches 6 inches impassable Cannot move and deliver supplies
General/CinC 3 feet 6 feet byMotor car
Boats 1 foot Embarking 20 men – 2 turns
Disembarking 20 men – 1 turn
Railroads 8 feet (see Boats above for ideas on loading or unloading)

 

Royal Engineer Actions

RailwayBridge RailwayCulvert River
road bridge
Supply
depot
Contents of
6 wagons
To destroy: 2 moves 1 move 1 move 2 moves (by fire) 4 men for 1 move
To repair: 10 moves 5 moves 5 moves

 

Infantry can build their own entrenchments in four moves, two men together making one inch of entrenchments each turn. Gun emplacements can be constructed by six men per emplacement working for four turns. Two men working for six turns can emplace a buried contact mine on a road or other location. It will be detonated by the first unit that passes over it and the blast will destroy everything within a 6-inch radius.

Infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers without supply cannot move. To be considered in supply, infantry must be within 6 feet and cavalry within 18 feet of supplies placed in position by the Transport & Supply unit. The supply must be replenished every 6 moves and the requirement are:

  • 1 food packet per 30 men;
  • 1 forage packet per 6 horses;
  • 1 ammunition packet per every 30 men who fire for 6 consecutive moves.

If there are an additional 15 men or more but still short of 30 they require a full food packet, any extra men less than 15 do not require an additional packet. An enemy unit moving between the supplies and the unit they support will cut them off from supply. Supplies must be replenished every 6 turns.

A surrounded and besieged unit requires the same rate of supply but when food packets have all been consumed they can substitute their horses at the rate of 1 horse equals 1 food packet. Such a surrounded force must surrender 4 moves after eating the last horse.

A minimum of 8 cavalry may execute a charge and must be in a proper formation. Infantry who are in close order when charged are immobile for the subsequent move. Infantry who are in extended order when charged must retire 1 foot in the following turn and can be charged again, likewise artillery who voluntarily withdraw from charge range must continue to retire as long as the cavalry pursues.

Charge Target Charge Distance Infantry Losses Cavalry Losses
Infantry in Extended order More than 2 feet 1 man per each cavalryman charging 1 cavalryman for every 5 infantrymen charged
Infantry Closed Order More than 2 feet 1 man per each 15 cavalrymen charging 3 cavalrymen per each infantryman charged
Infantry in Extended Order Between 1 and 2 Feet 2 men per each cavalryman charging 1 cavalryman for every 10 infantrymen charged
Infantry in Closed Order Between 1 and 2 Feet 1 infantryman per each 10 cavalrymen charging 2 cavalrymen for every infantryman charged
Infantry in Extended Order 1 foot or less 3 men per every cavalryman charging 1 cavalryman for every 15 infantrymen charged
Infantry in Closed Order 1 foot or less 1 infantryman for every 5 cavalrymen charging 1 cavalryman for every infantryman charged
Infantry that tried but failed to withdraw from charge range 2 feet 3 infantrymen for every 1 cavalryman charging (x2 if infantry is in extended order) No losses
Infantry that tried but failed to withdraw from charge range and are in 2 ranks or in ‘4’s 3 feet 2 infantrymen for every 1 cavalryman charging No losses
Artillery 3 feet 1 gun captured 4 cavalrymen lost per gun charged
Artillery 2 feet ditto 3 cavalrymen lost per gun charged
Artillery ditto 1 cavalryman lost per gun charged

 

Cavalry against Cavalry

Cavalry within charge distance of enemy cavalry at the end of the enemy’s move MUST either Dismount, Charge, or Retire. If it remains stationary and mounted and the enemy charges, 1 charging cavalryman will kill 5 stationary cavalrymen and force the survivors to move 3 feet to their rear. If dismounted cavalry are charged by mounted cavalry treat them as infantry in extended order per the above table. If the cavalry retires rather than be charged it will continue to withdraw as long as pursued by the enemy cavalry which it will do until fired upon by infantry or artillery. If the retreating unit is forced off the field or into an unfordable river it is destroyed.

If cavalry charges an equal force of cavalry on level ground, a coin toss decides the winner. The loser’s cavalry lose ¾ of their number while the winner loses ¼. Cavalry charging downhill are effectively doubled in number for crossing one contour, tripled in number for crossing two contours, and multiplied by four if they cross three contours.

19c-Wells-Portrait
HG Wells, by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

I have seen it claimed elsewhere that H.G. Wells invented ‘melee’ in wargaming, but such close combat was covered by every 19th Century Kriegspiel I have studied, from von Reiswitz to Major Shaw. However, Wells can probably lay claim to being the first to use the term ‘melee’ in referring to close hand-to-hand combat in a game context.

When two infantry forces come into contact and the numbers are unequal, the melee rules are followed

  • if the smaller force does not have within one move’s distance a friendly force of half or more its own number, then the smaller force in the melee is supported and not isolated.
  • If supported, then the larger force fights the smaller force and each man kills the other man until those surviving outnumber the smaller force 2 to 1 at which point the smaller number become prisoners of the larger force.
  • If isolated, then the difference in numbers between the two forces becomes the number of men of the smaller force taken prisoner.The remaining members of the smaller force are each killed and themselves kill one member of the larger attacking force.For example, an attacking force of 11 against a force of 9 will see 2 of the 9 are taken prisoner, both sides each lose 9 men killed leaving 4 surviving attackers with 2 prisoners.

As to the matter of fire combat in his kriegspiel, in which as in Little Wars fire was based upon the projectile firing toy cannon, Wells made no concessions. However, he does propose a modification in which this gun can be used to simulate rifle fire in the kriegspiel. The players substitute brass screws of various sizes and weights but capable of fitting into the barrel of the gun after the wooden projectile is loaded. When the cannon loaded in this way is fired, the wooden projectile remains in the gun but the selected brass screw flies out, drops, and remans where it landed. Fired against a line of infantrymen (the firing cannon positioned behind an opposing line of riflemen) it should fly roughly over the head of the middle of the line of targeted figures. The targeted men who are within 3 inches of the projectile’s landing spot are killed (anyone only partially within a 3-inch circle around the projectile are wounded and disabled for 2 moves).
Windsor

Much of what H.G. Wells has shared as Colonel Sykes’ thoughts on making a Little Wars Kriegspiel may be of interest to those who want a more realistic version of the original floor game. It’s not clear that his Little Wars Kriegspiel was widely adopted by its target audience of young officers and I suspect that any initial interest fell by the wayside in the face of the horrors of the Western Front and the new ways of war. But this is an early example of dialogue between game designers from the hobby world and the professional military seeking a usable game to meet their needs. The original Prussian kriegspiels had a civilian audience who played their own examples of the game and were able to follow innovations and games played by the military as reported in the army’s newspaper (available for subscription!). Both Livermore’s American Kriegspiel and Totten’s Strategos (especially the latter) were addressed to interested civilians in addition to their peers and superiors in the post-Civil War U.S. Army. But Little Wars appears to be the first civilian designed war game that offered modifications to its design aimed at appealing to the professional military.

 

[1] I am working from a modern facsimile edition published in 1973 by The MacMillan Company.


19TH CENTURY WARGAMING
THE ORIGINAL KRIEGSSPIEL  ~ AMERICAN KRIEGSSPIEL ~ STRATEGOS ~ LITTLE WARS ~ PAWNS OF WAR
DISCUSSION FORUM THREAD


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