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LITTLE WARS, by H. G. Wells

Edited by Nigel Lepianka and Deanna Stover

Streamlined Rules

In this section, we have attempted to streamline the rules presented in Little Wars. Our hopes are that this rule list will offer a better option for reference should one desire to play Little Wars, as it condenses Wells’s sometimes verbose and disorganized instructions. In some sections, Wells’s rules are unclear or in need of further explanation. This is most apparent in the rules for the mêlée, where some questions arise about which player may act first, or about how to make decisions regarding the loss of units. We have added notes to Little Wars to address moments of confusion or contention in the rules, and the streamlined rules presented here attempt to resolve those complications.

We would like to extend credit to Jason Fairfield, who did the original pass on the rules of Little Wars for us and wrote what formed the basis of the streamlined rules.

1. The Forces

    1.1 The Units

  • There are two types of units: infantry and cavalry. Infantry may move up to 1 foot, while cavalry may move up to 2 feet. Other than movement speed, infantry and cavalry follow the same rules.
  • A space of 1/16 of an inch should be kept between all units and terrain. A unit may never be placed inside any part of the battlefield, including houses.
  • When a unit moves within ⅛ of an inch of an enemy unit, it must stop its movement and is considered in contact with the enemy unit.
  • If a unit is not within one move of at least half of the remaining friendly units, it is considered isolated.
  • Units may retreat from battle by crossing their own back line. They are removed from play, but may still be counted as alive and uncaptured when determining points for the battle.
  • Units may be captured by the enemy and made prisoners.
    • Prisoners may not participate in mêlées, cannot escort other prisoners, and do not count when determining whether or not a cannon is active or captured.
    • One friendly unit may escort up to seven enemy prisoners within 6 inches of it.
    • Escorted prisoners are moved by the opposing player on their turn, but unescorted prisoners may be moved normally by their player.
    • A unit is no longer considered a prisoner if it makes it to its friendly back line. It is removed from the battlefield if it is taken to the enemy back line. These changes are made during the Aftermath stage of a player’s turn.

    1.2 The Cannons[1]

  • Require at least four friendly units within 6 inches to be considered active by that side. A cannon must be active in order to be moved or fired.
  • Can either be moved or fired in the same turn, not both.
  • May not be fired during the first turn of the game.
  • Can fire up to four shots during a turn. After firing its last shot, the cannon cannot be aimed or adjusted, and one friendly unit within 6 inches must be placed on each side of the cannon near the wheels.
  • When being moved, at least four units who are with the cannon must move up with it to its new position, and these units must be placed within 6 inches of the cannon's new position. The cannon may move the speed of the four fastest units moving with it. The muzzle of the cannon must point backward toward the direction it came from.
  • A shot from a cannon kills the first unit it touches as well as any other unit that falls because of it. A unit is considered killed that cannot stand on its own and would fall if unsupported after a shot.
  • While firing, cannons may be rotated around the middle point of its wheel axle to take aim. Any friendly units within 6 inches may be laid down to allow the gun to fire unobstructed.

2. The Battle

    2.1 Setup

  • Before playing, the players will need to set up the battlefield and the forces that will fight upon it. The battlefield is also formally called "the Country."
  • Ensure that each player has a way of measuring distances in inches and feet. Two pieces of string, one measuring 2 feet and the other 6 inches, will suffice.
  • Each player must determine the composition of their forces between infantry, cavalry, and cannons. In a standard game each side's forces have a total value of 150 points, though larger or smaller battles may be fought as well. Infantry are 1 point, cavalry are 1½ points, and cannons are 10 points.
  • Players will flip a coin to decide who shall arrange the Country. The winner may place obstacles and cover to represent houses, trees, hills, etc., anywhere they wish over the battlefield. If any pieces of the Country are bumped or moved during the turn, they must be placed back to their original position immediately.
  • The player who did not arrange the Country will choose which side they will fight from, determining which end of the battlefield will be their back line.

    2.2 Deployment

  • Once the players have chosen their forces and arranged the Country, it is time for them to set up their armies and prepare for battle. The following steps outline this process:
    • The players flip another coin to determine which shall go first.
    • The first player will arrange their forces along their back line. Units not placed on the back line must be placed as close as possible to it, and the distance moved on their first turn must be measured as if they started on the back line. The second player will then do the same.
      • Alternately, if some way of hiding the deployments can be arranged (such as with a curtain between the two sides), then both sides may deploy their forces at the same time. After both sides have finished, the deployments are revealed and the players begin taking turns, starting with the first player.

    2.3 Turns

  • A player’s turn will consist of several phases: Command, Hand-to-Hand Fighting, and the Aftermath. These phases are outlined below. These phases must be resolved in order. After the Aftermath stage of a player’s turn has finished, the next player will start the Command phase of their turn.
  • 2.3.1 Command. In this phase, the player will move their cannons and units across the battlefield as well as fire their cannons. This phase is timed; the length of time allowed is determined by the size of the original forces as follows: 1 minute for every 30 units and 1 minute for each cannon. Warnings should be given at 2 minutes, 1 minute, and 30 seconds. A player may not interact with any cannon or unit until the timer starts and must immediately stop once the timer expires. Every cannon and unit may be activated during this phase as the rules and time permits.

      Activate Cannons. Any active cannons controlled by the current player must be moved or fired before any of their units can move, the only exception being units that are moved up with a cannon after it moves.

      Activate Units. After cannons have been moved or fired, any and all units may be moved across the battlefield up to their speed value (1 foot for infantry, 2 feet for cavalry). Any units that are considered in contact after moving will trigger a mêlée in the next phase.

    2.3.2 Hand-to-Hand Fighting. In this phase, the players will resolve the outcome of any mêlées that were triggered from the previous phase. The following steps will be repeated as needed for every mêlée on the battlefield. This phase is not timed.

      Choose Mêlée. The current player selects one of their units that is in contact with an enemy unit. This will be the center point of the mêlée for the following steps.

      Determine Forces. Each unit within 6 inches from the center point of the mêlée will be counted for each force. If both sides are equal, isolation is not a factor and the players may move on to the Resolve Mêlée step.

      Determine Isolation. If the number of units in a mêlée for each side are not equal, the players must determine if the inferior force is isolated, measuring from the center point of the mêlée. If any unit of the inferior force is considered isolated, the entire force is isolated.

      Resolve Mêlée. In this step, the casualties and prisoners are determined for the mêlée.

      • If the forces are equal or the inferior side is not isolated, each unit kills an opposing unit, if it can, and then is killed. This continues until no more units of an opposing side are within the mêlée.
      • If the inferior force is isolated, a number of its units become prisoners equal to the difference between the forces. The remaining units then kill one unit and die, as outlined above. The current player determines which units (of either side) are made prisoners and which are killed during a mêlée.

    2.3.3 Aftermath. After all mêlées have been resolved, some steps need to be taken to determine the new state of the battle. Each player must perform the following steps for their units:

      Determine Status of Cannons. During this step, players determine which cannons are currently active for each force. If a cannon has no friendly units, and if it has at least four enemy units within 6 inches that have crossed the cannon’s wheel axis, that cannon is captured and is considered active for the enemy force. The enemy player may use this cannon as if it were part of their force on their next turn.

      Determine Status of Prisoners. With units moving across the battlefield and being killed, the status of prisoners may have changed. During this step, both players determine which of their captured prisoners are currently escorted. Escorted prisoners are moved by the opposing player on their turn, but unescorted prisoners may be moved normally by the player to whom they belong. Prisoners that return to their own back line are no longer considered prisoners during this step, and any prisoners brought to the enemy back line are removed for the duration of the game.

    3. Game Modes

    3.1 Fight to the Finish. This is the standard way to play the game. The objective is to kill, capture, or drive back the entirety of your enemy’s forces. Both sides continue to fight until either all units of one side retreat, are killed or captured, or both sides are reduced to below 15 units (which results in a draw).

    3.2 The Blow at the Rear. The objective of this game mode is to be the first player to get at least three of their units to the opponent’s back line. At this point, the defeated player has suffered a strategic loss and is allowed six turns to retreat as many units as possible over their back line. The victor captures any units that have not retreated after the sixth turn. This game mode is designed for a smaller and more constrained Country and is much shorter than the Fight to the Finish mode.

    3.3 Defensive. In this game mode, one player is designated as the defender while the other is the attacker. The objective for the attacker is to get one-fourth of their original units to the defender’s back line, while the defender must prevent this. The defender must have a force that is two-thirds as strong as the attacker's. After setting up the Country, the player who chooses their side will become the defender. The defender will become first player (without a coin flip) and may deploy their units anywhere on their side, as long as they are not within one move of the center of the battlefield. The attacker will then deploy their units, which may be within one move of their own back line. The defender may ignore the restriction on cannons firing on the first turn and may open fire immediately.

    3.4 Campaign. Several battles may be strung together to create a campaign. Players will score points at the end of each battle adding them up until an ultimate victor prevails. All three types of battles may be fought in any combination during a campaign. Once a battle is over, points are awarded to each side as follows:

    • The winning side gains 100 points (each side gets 50 points on a draw).
    • Both players gain points for the value of each of their remaining units that are alive and not captured. Players get 1 point for infantry, 1½ points for cavalry, and 10 points for each cannon they currently control or are in a position to take (meaning if a cannon would be considered active during a player’s next turn).
    • Both players gain ½ point for any prisoners under their control and ½ point for any of their own soldiers held prisoner by the enemy.
    Depending on the number of games desired in the campaign, a point value is determined (usually 200, 300, or 400). At the end of any battle where a player’s new point total would exceed their opponent’s total by this amount, that player has won the campaign.


1. There are several options available to players seeking to acquire cannons in order to play Little Wars. The guns manufactured by William Britain and used by Wells in the text are available from antiques dealers, specialty toyshops, and platforms such as eBay. Do-it-yourself options exist for creating spring-loaded cannons that function similarly to the antique models. However, the most practical and easily obtained option we have found are the small rubber-band cannons found here. Use of this cannon may involve a more elastic interpretation of the game's rules. [back]