Tuesday, July 13, 2010

H.G. Wells, Uncle Toby, & The Really Old School Gamers

I perpetually haunt used book stores in my area, and I recently picked up a copy of Little Wars by H.G. Wells. This book was originally published in 1913, and it is, essentially, the first modern book outlining rules for tabletop wargaming. My edition is a paperback reprint from the late seventies. I hadn't planned to even read it right now as I'm deep into teaching my summer English class, but I just was looking it over and its proving to be an interesting little book (no pun intended).

The opening chapter has some interesting speculations concerning the prevalence of this type of activity in the past. I was particularly struck by the following passage. Quoth Herbert George:

But first let it be noted in passing that there were prehistoric "Little Wars." This is no new thing, no crude novelty; but a thing tested by time, ancient and ripe in its freshness--like spring. There was a Someone who fought Little Wars in the days of Queen Anne; a garden Napoleon. His game was inaccurately observed and insufficiently recorded by Laurence Sterne. It is clear that Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim were playing Little Wars on a scale and with an elaboration exceeding even the richness and beauty of the contemporary game. But the curtain is drawn back only to tantalise us. It is scarcely conceivable that anywhere now on earth the Shandean Rules remain on record. Perhaps they were never committed to paper. . .

Tristram Shandy, for those unacquainted with Eighteenth century literature, is a remarkable book in which the above mentioned Uncle Toby spends most of the novel staging and re-playing a battle with toy soldiers. This battle is a re-creation of the events of an actual battle Uncle Toby was wounded in when he was younger. The specifics of his war wound are never gone into, but it is repeatedly implied to have been to his genitals.

What interests me about Wells' quote above is his particular interest in the rules of the game that Sterne was writing about. Wargaming, as Wells is pointing out here, has been with us for a very long time. You might also be surprised who some of the enthusiasts have been. James over at Grognardia posted an interesting Little Wars connected post a while back here featuring one of my favorite horror actors.

My weekly group is currently playing D&D 4E, and one aspect of it that I'm enjoying is the arts and crafty element of preparing a physical landscape and playing with miniature figures which is something I never really did when playing earlier editions of D&D.

This aspect of using the figures has got me more curious about Chainmail than I've been in some time, and after reading aldarron's wonderful distillation of the rules which you can get here. I'm rather excited about trying to play OD&D with Chainmail.

See you in the Garden!


  1. A minor correction (or addition perhaps): the book does say Poor Uncle Toby! was wounded on his groin...

    ... but precisely where on his groin? /Widow Wadman

  2. Fair enough. It's been some time since I read the book, and I originally read it rather hurriedly for a lit class that covered the whole book in two class sessions (seems like we should have taken longer).