A Guide to Playtesting from H.G. Wells

26 January 2011 | 3 comments

In 1913, H.G. Wells wrote a book called Little Wars. It’s a set of rules for a toy-soldier game, and it sounds like it’s probably pretty good fun; but the main appeal of the book lies in two areas:

1. There are lots of pictures of moustache-wearing Edwardian men looking puzzled by little paper houses.

2. And Chapter 2, “The Beginnings of Modern Little Warfare”, is an incredibly detailed 4000-word essay on how the game was designed: the rules Wells started off with, what worked, what didn’t, how it changed, basically the entirety of his design process. Anyone who’s designed a game may find some of it eerily familiar.

There’s the inspiration, with a throwaway observation:

The beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun. This priceless gift to boyhood appeared somewhen towards the end of the last century, a gun capable of hitting a toy soldier nine times out of ten at a distance of nine yards.

Technological impetus to innovation, there. Then some casual declarations about how there’s “definitely a game in that”, and a vague attempt at trying it out with whatever they had to hand:

The seed lay for a time gathering strength, and then began to germinate with another friend, Mr W. To Mr W. was broached the idea: “I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game, a kind of kriegspiel.”…

Deciding to cut down on the random factor:

We arranged to move in alternate moves: first one moved all his force and then the other; an infantry-man could move one foot at each move, a cavalry-man two, a gun two, and it might fire six shots; and if a man was moved up to touch another man, then we tossed up and decided which man was dead. So we made a game, which was not a good game, but which was very amusing once or twice.

Occasionally men came into contact, with remarkable results. Rash is the man who trusts his life to the spin of a coin. One impossible paladin slew in succession nine men and turned defeat to victory, to the extreme exasperation of the strategist who had led those victims to their doom. This inordinate factor of chance eliminated play; the individual freedom of guns turned battles into scandals of crouching concealment; there was too much cover afforded by the books and vast intervals of waiting while the players took aim. And yet there was something about it…. It was a game crying aloud for improvement.

Practical questions to answer and problems to solve:

Houses and sheds must be made of solid lumps of bricks, and not hollow so that soldiers can be put inside them, because otherwise muddled situations arise. And it was clearly necessary to provide for the replacement of disturbed objects by chalking out the outlines of boards and houses upon the floor or boards upon which they stood.

And while we thus perfected the Country, we were also eliminating all sorts of tediums, disputable possibilities, and deadlocks from the game. We decided that every man should be as brave and skilful as every other man, and that when two men of opposite sides came into contact they would inevitably kill each other. This restored strategy to its predominance over chance.

Clever ideas with unexpected outcomes:

We then began to humanise that wild and fearful fowl, the gun. We decided that a gun could not be fired if there were not six—afterwards we reduced the number to four—men within six inches of it. And we ruled that a gun could not both fire and move in the same general move: it could either be fired or moved (or left alone).

Making the players’ tasks more interestingly difficult:

Our next step was to abolish the tedium due to the elaborate aiming of the guns, by fixing a time limit for every move. We made this an outside limit at first, ten minutes, but afterwards we discovered that it made the game much more warlike to cut the time down to a length that would barely permit a slow-moving player to fire all his guns and move all his men. This led to small bodies of men lagging and “getting left,” to careless exposures, to rapid, less accurate shooting, and just that eventfulness one would expect in the hurry and passion of real fighting.

Airy statements about how it would definitely be easy to find a technical solution:

But I think it would not be difficult to procure a cheap clock [...] that would have minutes instead of hours and seconds instead of minutes, and that would ping at the end of every minute and discharge an alarm note at the end of the move. That would abolish the rather boring strain of time-keeping.

Making sure it’s fair:

At first we played the game from the outset, with each player’s force within sight of his antagonist; then we found it possible to hang a double curtain of casement cloth from a string stretched across the middle of the field, and we drew this back only after both sides had set out their men. Without these curtains we found the first player was at a heavy disadvantage, because he displayed all his dispositions before his opponent set down his men.

And of course, tweaks to stop people exploiting holes in the ruleset:

All sorts of odd little difficulties arose too, connected with the use of the guns as a shelter from fire, and very exact rules had to be made to avoid tilting the nose and raising the breech of a gun in order to use it as cover….

They’re a devious lot, toy soldiers.

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