This review is based on the 1912 edition of Floor Games, published by Small, Maynard and Company, but there’s no reason to assume the 1911 edition was anything different.
The title Floor Games is somewhat misleading. The book does not describe games with a proper set of rules, but rather a number of playful activities for children and adults alike. I guess the main reason this little book is known in the gaming community is due to its famous author, as well as it being the older sibling of a more famous book, “Little Wars”, which is often seen as the first published hobby wargame to be played with toy soldiers.
Nevertheless, Floor Games is an enjoyable read. The book, using a large font size and narrative style is obviously aimed at children. The book is written from the point of view of H.G.Wells playing these games with his sons George Philip (1901) and Frank Richard (1903), only referred to as G.P.W. and F.R.W. in the book. The book is also not that long, it can easily be read in less than an hour.
The first chapter, “The Toys to Have”, describes all the toys needed to set up the games described in later chapters: wooden blocks, an electric train, (metal) toy soldiers and animals, but also what Wells calls “boards and planks”. The latter serve as the playing surface, and holes should be drilled into them as to place twigs and such to form woods and forests. As for the toy soldiers, it is interesting to read that there seems to be a lack of “civilian types”, and there’s a call to toy manufacturers to take note and please produce all sorts of non-military figures as well.
The second chapter is titled “The Game of the Wonderful Islands”. Various boards should be arranged on the floor (which serves as the sea) such that an archipelago is formed. Each island is then dressed up with trees, temples, buildings, minerals (silver paper!), tribesmen and animals, waiting to be discovered by explorers arriving by ship. The parties land and alter things, build and rearrange, hoist paper flags, subjugate populations and “confer all the blessings of civilization upon these lands” (this is still the time of European colonial expansion). The game lasts as long as all the players want them to last, after which everything is put away and a new game can be started.
Chapter 3, “Of the Building of Cities” describes a very similar game, but now the playing field is taken up by a large city area, divided in two. The city is conveniently a twin city (London and Westminster, or Buda and Pesth (sic)), and it is agreed that railway tracks are shared such that trains can run between both parts of the city without negotiations or administration. All sorts of things happen on the cities, such as an election for mayor(only citizens with two legs and at least one arm and capable of standing up can vote – but not children, boy scouts or women!) The chapter vividly describes the entire city lay-out: farms, museums, shops (with paper billboards), the zoological gardens, train stations, duck ponds, parades, etc.
The last chapter has the longest title “Funiculars, marble Towers, Castles and War Games, but Very Little of War Games”, but is actually the shortest. It describes a few additional games, such as building a funicular (a mountain railway track sloping downhill, with the purpose of letting a loaded car roll from top to bottom), or building a marble tower, which is really the same idea but using marbles instead of a railway track. The last page in the book is about building a castle and war games, but of the latter “… I must either write volumes or nothing. Let it be nothing. Some day, perhaps, I will write a great book about the war game and tell of battles and campaigns and strategy and tactics. But this time I set out merely to tell of the ordinary joys of playing with the floor, and to gird improvingly and usefully at toymakers.” Quite a statement to end, knowing that “Little Wars” was published only 2 years later.
So does Floor Games still have relevance today? It is of course firmly linked to the history of toy soldier games, and subsequently hobby wargaming and everything that came after that (so pretty much the entire gaming hobby as we know it today), and as such, it is of interest to anyone interested in the history of the gaming hobby.
But I was especially struck by the notion that Floor Games is not an outdated book. Indeed, it describes activities that children must have played since then (and probably before). When I look back on my own childhood during the 1970s, me and my siblings were very lucky to have our own play-room (which later turned into my bedroom when me and my brother were too old to share a bedroom, but that’s a different story). In that play-room, we had a large table on which we laid out an electric train, houses were made with Lego bricks, we added plastic toy animals in the landscape, and our Matchbox cars were driving around on the streets made from grey cardboard and masking tape. Very Wells-like, now that I think of it, and as Wells writes as well, “the setting out of the city is half the game”. Perhaps the activities describes on Floor Games were not at all uncommon in those days as well, although I suspect that in 1911 these were the privilege of children belonging to a certain social class whose parents could afford all the toys described in the book.
Obviously, modern toys have changed since Wells’ days. Kids these days no longer have metal toy soldiers or wooden bricks, but they do have Lego and Playmobil, and I see them building cities, connecting them by electric trains, populating the city with toy people and animals, and inventing all sorts of adventures for their imaginary worlds.
I guess Floor Games could as well have been published today!