Recently I have posted and focussed on outer space a bit more through the unlikely figure of the ‘father of modern wargaming’ Donald Featherstone and the wargaming grandfather and science fiction writer H.G. Wells
Following up my previous post on the influence on Donald Featherstone of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars rules of 1913 and how the worlds of fantasy gaming and historical wargaming developed and occasionally overlapped through the 1960s and 1970s, I wanted to read again and think about Gary Gygax’s 2004 foreword to a reprint of Little Wars.
Gary Gygax’s origin story as a miniatures gamer seems similar to many of ours of the Airfix generation that I have read online or Harry Pearson’s Achtung Schweinhund. However not many of us would go on like Gygax to co-author and develop Dungeons and Dragons!
His Wikipedia summary biography mentions:
“In 1971, he helped developChainmail, a miniatures wargame based on medieval warfare. He co-founded the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR, Inc.) with childhood friendDon Kayein 1973. The next year, he and Dave Arneson createdD&D, which expanded on Gygax’sChainmailand included elements of the fantasy stories he loved as a child.”
Gygax, Arneson, Kaye – all have Wikipedia biographies and their role in the cretinous of this game is widely covered in many of the footnotes to their Wikipedia entries. US Games designer George Phillies was also somehow involved. https://users.wpi.edu/~phillies/
If you don’t own a copy of the 2004 Little Wars reprint, the Foreword text by Gary Gygax can be found at:
Here is the Foreword written by Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, for the Skirmisher Publishing LLC edition of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars 2004.
Gygax writes: “Being offered the honor of writing this introductory piece was something impossible for me to refuse. Not only am I a fan of the science fiction works of H.G. Wells, but I am also a military miniatures buff familiar with his wargaming rules, the material contained in this book, Little Wars.”
I remember seeing this curious and striking photo cover design of the 1970 reprint featuring a vintage Britain’s style cavalryman, similar to ones that Wells would have used in Little Wars.
Gygax wrote about the Isaac Asimov foreword to this 1970 Little Wars reprint. I only saw the 1970 reprint once in a local branch library (it always seemed to be borrowed and out) but I was very taken with its charming marginal line drawings by J.R. Sinclair. I don’t remember noting the Asimov foreword (mentioned in the front cover) and hadn’t read his work at the time, but it must have made sense to have such an endorsement by one famous science fiction author to another.
With no easily available Little Wars originals or reprints in the 70s and 80s, I picked up the background rules to Little Wars when it was covered in the 1982/83 Wargames Manual article in Brian Carrick’s Big Wars article. The only further reference to Little Wars that I could find in Featherstone’s War Games which I could find in the branch library as a youngster. It was also the background to F.E. Perry’s Second Book Of War Games which I bought, but didn’t find the Little Wars based First Book Of War Games.
Gygax: “Furthermore, and as icing on the cake, is that Isaac Asimov, an author I much admired, wrote the forward to the 1970 reprint of this book. Isaac and I were going to be collaborators on a series of books based on a science fiction feature film, but the movie never got into production. By writing this prefatory essay, I am following in Isaac’s footsteps, so to speak, and paying him homage in posthumous fashion.”
Wells’ thoughts on Big Wars and Little Wars on the ethics of wargaming, something that I remember was around in the Cold War 1980s, resurfaced in the first response by many gamers to the Ukraine conflict in 2022.
Gygax: “When defending the hobby of playing military miniatures games, I have often quoted or paraphrased Wells’ statements — as I do now — regarding the fact that miniature soldiers leave no widows and orphans, and that if more people were busy fighting little wars, they might not be involved in fighting big ones.”
Gygax: “There is no question that Wells wrote a ground-breaking work when he penned Little Wars, which started the hobby of military miniatures war-gaming. Had World War I not come hard on the heels of its first publication in 1913, military miniatures game play might have gained a far larger audience than it did back then.”
“As it was, the big war made interest in the book about little ones virtually disappear. For years, Little Wars was known only to a select few, mainly military miniatures gamers in the United Kingdom. Their pursuit and development of the hobby was considerable, but details of that activity remained relatively obscure elsewhere.”
Gygax goes on to describe how he emerged from the childhood soldier “shoot em up” games that we probably all did – matchstick guns, marbles, etc. – then made the discovery of rules.
Gygax: “My own experience with creating rules for wargaming began inauspiciously. I had no idea of the existence of Little Wars or the military miniatures gaming hobby back in the early 1950s, when my friend Don Kaye and I thought we could devise rules for playing with toy soldiers — my extensive collection of World War II figurines and tank models, and the many 54 mm Britians figurines from varying periods I had collected since that war had ended.”
“Unlike the wise Wells — who used toothpick missiles when he fired his miniature artillery pieces — we employed ladyfinger firecrackers, fuses lit, and those explosives proved to be detrimental to the toy soldiers. Casualties were high!”
Insert your own memories of decimating Airfix figures and planes with air guns, firecrackers and flames. Nothing so sacrilegious happened in my house!
Gygax writes about his childhood dissatisfaction about the randomness of coins rather than dice to resolve combat or Melee:
Gygax: “Worse still, our combat system — a coin flip — turned out to be even less satisfactory. It was boring. As typical of teenage boys, we gave up on the idea rather than trying other methods of resolving small arms fire and hand-to-hand combat. The toy soldiers were stored away, and we went on to other games.”
“What a revelation it was when another friend loaned me his copy of Little Wars in the late 1960s. By that time, I was a board wargame devotee and I had played a few tabletop games with military miniatures. To read the rules the author had established for resolving combat made me want to slap my forehead because we had not thought of them. What a joy it was to see the pictures of grown men in suits, with collars and ties, crawling about on the floor amidst toy soldiers as my friends and I had done as boys.”
“No wonder, then, that the book Wells wrote managed to create a whole new hobby in the face of the Great War and its aftermath. Nothing would do but playing the original wargame as set forth in the book. This was accomplished with fellow game hobbyist — and thereafter a two-time co-author with me of military miniatures rules books — Jeff Perren. Jeff and I fought several battles, and his accuracy with toothpick artillery rounds proved devastating. Even in defeat I loved the game.”
Published in 1971, the Wikipediaentry mentions: “The first edition ofChainmailincluded a fantasy supplement to the rules. These comprised a system for warriors, wizards, and various monsters of nonhuman races drawn from the works ofTolkienand other sources“. Chainmail is still available online.
Gygax: “Consequently, Little Wars influenced my development of both the Chainmail miniatures rules and the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy roleplaying game. For example, it established the concept of a burst radius for cannon rounds, an idea that was translated into both the Chainmail catapult missile diameters and the areas of effect for Fireballs in D&D.”
“Wells’ shooting/melee rules were simple but not particularly realistic, however, so wargamers soon developed more detailed means for resolving such combat, and I used the later developments in the hobby in those regards.”
H.G. Wells’ influential role on Gary Gygax is acknowledged, not just in Little Wars, but as a pioneering science fiction author of The Time Machine, The War Of the Worlds, The Shape Of Things To Come etc., along with Jules Verne.
Gygax: “Beyond Little Wars, Wells’ treatment of subterranean humans in the Time Machine certainly reinforced my concepts of underground adventure areas other than dungeons (as did Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and a number of later works of imaginative fiction).”
“While military miniatures rules have come a long way since Little Wars was first published in 1913, the simple game presented in this book remains an unquestionably enjoyable one. Furthermore, when you read the work you will see that its basic concepts remain in many of today’s games. This book will give you the knowledge that there is strong fellowship between Wells and his wargaming companions and the military miniatures gamers of today. I predict that 100 years from now, readers will experience the same warm feeling across the centuries.”
“There is nothing more I can say — other than to enjoy your ride in this gaming time machine!”
Gary Gygax, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, March 2004
Gygax died in 2008 aged 70; both Dave Arneson and Don Kaye have also passed away. Gone but definitely not forgotten …