Issue: 5

Bows and Arrows against the Lightning
Wargaming H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds
by Simon Evans


"No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched so keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's...'

So begins arguably the greatest work of science fiction ever written, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Published in 1898 this novel of a Martian invasion of Earth lass never been Out of print and has spawned films, an LP and the famous panic-inducing American radio play of 1948. Set around the turn of the century, War of the Worlds is a work of enormous vision and imagination, predicting as it does space travel laser technology, chemical weapons and robotics. War of the Worlds, along with works by Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, must take the credit for popularising science fiction and opening the way for the thousands of authors who followed them. Simply for this reason it deserves a second look by wargamers, but also because it can provide the background for some very interesting encounters and occasional campaigns. There are also the logical tie-ins with the Space: 1889 systems from Games Design Workshop which can provide some useful rules mechanisms.

"They're Coming!"

One of the first things that needs to be considered when attempting to translate War of the Worlds (WOTW) ontO a tabletop is how to portray the Martians. They are described as: "A big greyish, rounded bulk, the size perhaps of a bear... Two large dark-coloured eyes... there was a mouth under the eyes, the brim of which quivered and panted and dropped saliva... (with) Gorgon groups of tentacles..." Charming creatures. Martians caught in the open are easy meat if fire can be brought on them by anything more powerful than a single rifle, and for this reason they will not expose themselves any more than they have to. They are very slow and clumsy compared to man, due both to the higher gravity on Earth and their lack of limbs, and they can move only with great difficulty over short distances. In consequence they will not move far from their cylinders until they have built their transport.

These cylinders - their spacecraft - are in effect giant artillery shells. Fired from a gigantic gun on Mars, they are thirty yards (90 feet) in diameter and on impact form a huge crater. For game purposes a cylinder will create a crater 400 feet in diameter, in the centre of which will be the protruding end of the cylinder itself. Games can begin with cylinders already on the board, randomly landing or not present at sill depending on the sort of encounter you're looking for. They can't be shot down but they can be destroyed by heavy artillery once they've arrived, provided you can get your heavy artillery within range in time. The most important thing to remember about Martians is that unprotected and in the open they are very vulnerable, even if they are armed. They can't run and they can't fight, they can only use direct-fire weapons.

"Giants in Armour"

Martian transport consists of a number of different types of armoured vehicles for want of a better description; fighting machines, mobile shields and handling machines.

The mobile shields are just that, an armoured cover or carrier under the protection of which Martians can move about safely.

The handling machines "... presented a sort of metallic spider with five jointed agile legs and an extraordinary number of jointed levers, bars and reaching and clutching tentacles about it's body." These, like the mobile shields, are unarmed. Their task is to move into subdued areas behind the fighting machines and collect people for future consumption.

The fighting machines are the most important of all in game terms as they have an effect out of all proportion to their number. They are described as "A monstrous tripod, high than many houses... a walking engine of glittering metal..." This is not to say however that they are clumsy or ungainly, let's get that notion out of the way immediately. These things are fast and manoeuvrable. According to the narrator of the story they are: "...capable of the speed of an express train...", "... going with a rolling motion as fast as flying birds." and "... co-ordinated and animated to on extraordinary pitch..." To me, that's a pretty fair description of a battlemech on the move and they should be thought of in those terms. It's a mistake to apply a nineteenth century view in this case because they're not terrestrial machines and are not limited by Victorian technology. Their effect is that of a Challenger tank let loose at the battle of Marston Moor, and the difference in tech levels is about the same. This does of course mean that a strictly accurate wargame using Martian fighting machines would be over very swiftly, so some moderation in their performance is necessary. Rather than having the things hurtling all over the board at a scale of 70 or 80 miles per hour they need to be slowed down and made less manoeuvrable. The rules for tripods in Space: l889 tabletop rules, The Soldier's Companion are useful here as they can be modified to give an acceptable performance with out making the fighting machines invincible. Alternatively you can make up your own from scratch, but whatever you choose, remember that each cylinder only contains the components for five fighting machines, and two or three handling machines and mobile shields so don't make them too easy to beat.

"This Flaming Death"

"... a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible instead of visible light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch..."

The heat ray is one of the most memorable of all science fiction weapons, and a striking example of H.G. Wells' breadth of imagination. In it he succeeded in creating a convincing advanced beam weapon in enough detail to make it recognisable with hindsight as a laser. The heat ray gives any enormous advantage to the Martians, but, like the fighting machines it is neither omnipotent nor indestructible. It relies on a large generator for it's power and if this generator can be hit it will not only knock out the heat ray but the Martian as well. The resultant explosion will be spectacular to say the least! The heat ray has an unlimited range and a catastrophic effect an most targets, but heavy armour will negate some of it's power: the ram Thunder Child takes two direct hits from heat rays before exploding. Also, it has a tightly focused beam so cannot deal with area targets which for game purposes can be considered as anything bigger than a circle forty feet in diameter. Obviously it can sweep back and forth to achieve area coverage, but this should be limited by making it necessary to recharge the heat ray for two moves after four moves of firing. One has to assume that even Martian batteries are not inexhaustible so this rule will prevent them from being too free with suppressive fire. It also gives the Human player a chance to hit back without a guarantee of being wiped out the moment he fires his hidden guns. As an aside this is quite an important point; although the Martians have awesome weaponry it does not come with sensors; the Martians cannot detect anything they are unable to see or hear. This gives an interesting twist to the game and allows the use of both tactical deployments and camouflage by the defenders of Earth. Remember - if it can't be seen it can't be targeted.

The other Martian weapon is even more deadly than the heat ray, and again displays Wells' vision and imagination - poison gas. His depiction of it in WOTW precedes it's use in the First World War by about twenty years, and the descriptions of it's delivery and effect are uncannily accurate: "... Martians, each carrying a thick black tube...discharged it gun wise, with a heavy report..a big projectile hurtled overhead... These canisters smashed upon striking the ground - they did not explode - and incontinently discharged an enormous volume of heavy inky vapour...that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes."

Britain's standard chemical weapon of the First World War, the Livens Projector, was almost a carbon copy of this tube and canister arrangement, while Phosgene and Mustard gas acted in a very similar way to the 'heavy inky vapour'. This makes it relatively easy to construct rules for the gas projectors of the Martians as any set of First World War rules, or any decent book about that conflict, will provide enough information for rules to be written. No countermeasures should be available to the Human forces and casualties to any stationary unit should be 90-100%. The rules should reflect this high lethality and lack of protective measures, but should also limit the number of canisters of gas to one per fighting machine per game. The gas can be dispersed by spraying it with water or steam, but unless a campaign is played this method should not be available to the forces of Earth. Spread and drift of the gas should be controlled in much the same way smoke screens are in historical or military SF wargames.

"Guns were in rapid transit"

So what is available to the hard-pressed forces of Mankind to combat the menace from the Red Planet? In simple terms, any weapon systems in existence at the turn of the century can be used. These include such diverse items as Dreadnought battleships, Maxim machine-guns and heavy artillery including those pieces described in WOTW as: "...long wire guns of 95 tons..." These giant guns of position were usually mounted in forts such as those around Dover and Portsmouth but could be fired from mobile (and I use the word advisedly) platforms in the right circumstances. Transported by rail they required an enormous amount of preparation before they could be used, but their effect was devastating. Calibres varied between 10" - 18" and they could put an armour piercing round through about 41 feet of cast iron armour and teak at three miles. Should one of these rounds land even close to a fighting machine, the blast alone will knock it down and may well destroy it into the bargain. Smaller calibre field guns fired at troops or batteries can be just as effective as well as easier to conceal and deploy.

In addition to all the standard late l9th/early 20th Century weapons a couple of other items are mentioned in WOTW. At one point in the text it is disclosed that; "...enormous quantities of high explosive were being prepared to be used in automatic mines..." This obviously allows the Human player to prepare killing grounds into which Martian machines can be lured for destruction. Wells also mentions in passing Lilienthal soaring machines. These early gliders have an application in the game both for long-range observation and possible for combat as light bombers or - in extreme circumstances - Kamikaze glide bombs!

As this is SF there is nothing to stop you from using weapons that, in reality, were not available in the years preceding the First World War. In particular the use of tanks and powered aircraft would add a new dimension to the game, as would some of the more outlandish ideas that were in vogue at that time. The idea of 'land battleships' could easily be adapted for use in a WOTW game, for instance the concept of a 'big wheel' machine. This would have been about 180 feet long with three 40 foot diameter wheels and armed with six 6' guns in three twin turrets! (See Ragnarok 7 for more details) Try taking on the Martians with a couple of those! The whole point is that, although the Humans are outgunned they are not by any means defenseless and can, given the right weapons and the right circumstances inflict crippling losses on the invaders.

Conclusion and Rules

The War of the Worlds is a fascinating and imaginative story that gives a glimpse into a world that is gone forever. Its influence on SF was profound and anyone who has never come across it before reading this article is strongly urged to put their hands on a copy ASAP. I am sure you will not be disappointed.

As I mentioned in the introduction WOTW has spawned a number of spin-offs in the cinema, TV and radio as well as recording. Chief among these is the 1938 Orson Welles radio play which was so believable when first broadcast it triggered a panic-striken mass exodus from New York. This was followed in 1952 by a cinema film which brought the Story up to date with Martian grav vehicles impervious to everything including nuclear weapons. The characters are cardboard and effects average but it's worth a watch for curiosity value. In the late 1980s American TV latched Onto the idea again and came up with a truly appaling series that was a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Evil Dead and V. The idea was that the Martians from the 1952 film weren't destroyed but stored in oil drums at a secret location. An accidental exposure to nuclear waste revives them and they proceed to take over peoples bodies and slop around the place like cut-price zombies. The series is available on video but you'll need a strong stomach to watch it (not because of the effects, but because it's total crap.)

Prior to this abysmal offering Jeff Wayne produced his celebrated LP version of the story in 1978. It cuts the book about a bit but it's an interesting excursion into musical experiment and the narration by Richard Burton and Justin Hayward's song Forever Autumn make it well worth listening to. Regrettably no film or TV company has seen fit to produce an offering that is true to the book, but one can but hope.

Wargaming WOTW requires a basic set of Colonial rules for the humans. The GDW Soldiers Companion (currently published by Heliograph.) is a good one as it includes rules that can he adapted for the Martians. Other possibilities are The Sword and the Flame from Yaquinto Publications (Current edition is published by And That's The Way It Was...); a good set of light-hearted rules basing themselves on Kipling and Hollywood, or Table Top Games' sets Zulu and Soldiers of the Queen, which are good solid systems with much to recommend them. For smaller scale battles (6mm) Irregular Miniatures' Rules Box for the Victorian period is well worth utilising. Any set will do, whatever you the gamer are comfortable with. Some ideas about writing rules for the Martians have been included in the main body of the article, and I don't propose to elaborate greatly on them because obviously they will depend on which system you're using for the Human forces. Just remember it's important not to make the Martians too powerful or the games will be short and unenjoyable. One possibility is to have them controlled either by an umpire or randomly with dice, as the Indians are in The Pony Wars by TTG.

So there you are. I hope this article encourages you to have a go at the War of the Worlds in miniature, and even if it doesn't perhaps it will trigger ideas of your own for exploiting other books. Stainless Steel Rat wargaming anyone?