In The Beginning
Posted on December 01 2019
Tabletop wargaming with miniatures and dice as we know it, started to gain popularity in the mid to late 1970’s. However, not many hobbyists know where this whole crazy idea of playing with little plastic space men (or space women) truly came to be.
Hold on to your dice, it’s time to take a trip in the Wayback Machine, and see where it all began.
Wargaming was invented in Prussia near the end of the 18th century. The earliest wargames were based on chess; the pieces represented real military units (artillery, cavalry, etc.) and squares on the board were color-coded to represent different terrain types. Some time later wargames used realistic maps over which troop pieces could move in a free-form manner, and instead of chess-like sculpted pieces they used little rectangular blocks because they were played at smaller scales (e.g. 1:8000). The Prussian army formally adopted wargaming as a training tool in 1824. After Prussia defeated France in the Franco_Prussian War of 1870, wargaming as a result, spread around the world and was played enthusiastically by both officers and civilians.
In 1881, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (famed author of Treasure Island) became the first documented person to use toy soldiers in a wargame, and he just might be the true inventor of miniature wargaming. Stevenson never published his rules, but according to an account by his stepson, they were very sophisticated and realistic, on par with German military wargames. Stevenson played his wargame on the floor, on a map drawn with chalk.
The English writer H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) developed his own codified rules for playing with toy soldiers, which he published in a book titled "Little Wars" in 1913. This is widely remembered as the first published rulebook for miniature wargaming. Little Wars had very simple rules to make it fun and accessible to anyone. Players did not use dice or calculations to resolve fights. For artillery attacks, players used spring-loaded toy cannons which fired little wooden cylinders to physically knock over enemy models. As for infantry and cavalry, they could only engage in melee combat. When two infantry units fought in close quarters, the units would suffer non-random losses determined by their relative sizes. Little Wars was designed for a large playing surface, most commonly a lawn or the floor of a large room, because the toy soldiers available to Wells were too large for tabletop play.
An infantryman could move up to one foot per turn, and a cavalryman could move up to two feet per turn. To measure these distances, players used a two-foot long piece of string. Wells was also the first wargamer to use models of buildings, trees, and other terrain features to create a three-dimensional battlefield.
Wells' rulebook was for a long time regarded as the standard system by which other miniature wargames were judged. However, the miniature wargaming community would remain very small for a long time to come. A possible reason was the two World Wars, which de-glamorized war and caused shortages of tin and lead that made model soldiers expensive. Miniature wargaming was seen as a niche within the larger hobby of making and collecting model soldiers.
Moving forward to the 1950’s, Jack Scruby has been dubbed the "Father of Modern Miniature Wargaming". He popularized modern miniature wargaming and organized perhaps the first miniatures convention in 1956. Jack also was a manufacturer of military miniatures whose efforts led to a rebirth of the miniature wargaming hobby in the late 1950s.
Today, we are blessed with multiple top notch companies who create some of the most beautiful miniatures/models and great rules sets to go along with them.
So next time you are moving those soldiers across the tabletop, take a minute to think about those founding hobbyists who came before us, and helped shape the games and community we love so very much.