H.G. Wells is rightfully celebrated as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but he is rather less well-known as one of the pioneers of tabletop wargaming. Wells’ Little Wars is way down on the list of his books in terms of general name-recognition, outside the better-read segments of the wargaming community, but it’s difficult to read it without concluding that the great man is staking out the territory a huge number of subsequent games have occupied in the century or so since its first publication.
It’s essentially a description of the rules that Wells and his friends – we are invited to assume that Jerome K Jerome was a regular opponent – concocted to play wargames using a mixture of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pieces. Some of Wells’ system feels distinctly odd to me, as a modern gamer – beyond the very occasional use of a tossed coin, it makes no use of randomisation, gunfire is handled by the players physically launching pellets at each other’s miniatures, hoping to knock them over, and there are some (fairly unwieldy, if you ask me) rules for models being taken prisoner – but time and again Wells either hits upon a consideration which will be familiar to any modern player – army comp, how much terrain to use, unit coherency – or comes up with a gaming convention which is still in use today – for instance, one player setting up terrain and the other getting choice of sides. I rather think that, were Wells to walk into any branch of the UK’s leading wargames store chain, he would find much more that he recognised than was strange to him. Would he, perhaps, recognise power-armoured SF warriors and colossal titans toting melta-cannon as somewhat-distorted descendants of his own creations? I don’t know. I would like to think so.
In any case, these two threads of Wells’ career come back together, sort of, in Osprey Games’ War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895, written by Mike Brunton (whom I dimly recall as a GW writer back in the mid 80s, when they didn’t just sell their own miniature games). Osprey are one of the newish, small wargames publishers that I have become rather more familiar with since severing my own engagement with Games Workshop. This book, along with the rest of the range it belongs to, are slightly odd in that they are composed entirely of ‘fluff’ – in other words, they’re all background, with no actual game rules included.
To be honest, a War of the Worlds tabletop game would be a rather odd prospect, given that the whole point of the story is that the war is a one-sided slaughter pretty much from start to finish, with the Martians suffering only a few token casualties along the way. However, the book, which presents itself as a ‘historical’ account of the war written from a modern perspective, is rather engaging – although I am admittedly a bit of a War of the Worlds devotee, and thus most likely biased.
The book takes an ambivalent approach to the ‘facts’ of the Martian invasion as recounted by Wells himself (perhaps most obvious from the title of the book itself, which dates the conflict to 1895, when the author explicitly specifies it took place in ‘the early years of the twentieth century’). The text indicates that Wells was ‘not the most accurate of war correspondents’, and inclined to present the Martians as more of an implacable menace than was actually the case, which is presumably the justification for some of the divergences from Wells in the new book. However, unlike most books and films inspired by Wells, they agree with the author that the Martian invasion was limited to southern England (no global despatches on this occasion).
Things get underway with an overview of the disposition of the two forces prior to hostilities commencing: the stuff on the British army is a little bit dry but historically interesting, the material on the Martians and their technology obviously a bit more imaginative: Brunton comes up with some interesting amendations when it comes to Martian biology and the nature of the silicaceous-boned servitors brought with them from Mars. The revelation that the Heat Ray was actually a maser should really surprise no-one, though.
Past this is an account of the war from beginning to end, which is… well, it’s faithful to Wells up to a point. The thing about The War of the Worlds is that much of it concerns the initial weekend of the Martian arrival, and the days on either side, with the government having effectively collapsed by Monday (the same day as the Thunder Child‘s battle with three Fighting-Machines). Wells’ primary narrator spends most of the next fortnight in the cellar of a ruined house, emerging into a devastated landscape where the last of the diseased Martians is about to expire (do I really need to give a spoiler warning for a book published in 1898?). What the army and the Martians have been up to in the interim is mainly a matter of hearsay, as far as the book is concerned, so you would have thought this would be fruitful territory for Brunton to expand on.
But apparently not. The Osprey book diverges considerably from the actual chronology of the novel, with the Martians arriving on a Saturday, not a Friday, and the Thunder Child engagement happening ten days later rather than three. The saturation use of the lethal Black Smoke by the Martians to destroy the defences around London is only obliquely referred to, although Brunton does come up with a few instances of actions taking place not mentioned in the novel – heavy fighting around the Palace of Westminster, for instance. On the whole, though, he seems happy enough to deviate from his source material in terms of the details, but very reluctant to make really significant additions to it in terms of narrative.
Hey ho. As I’ve said before, The War of the Worlds is such a magnificent book, and such a brilliant idea, that it takes a really concerted effort to totally stuff it up (for the record, I think Greg and Sam Strangis were the only ones who really managed it), and Osprey’s The War of the Worlds is entertaining enough, especially when it’s not dealing with the particulars of the novel. There have been many worse offenders, after all, and there’s a sense in which the novel has surely become a sort of folklore, or collection of ideas and images which different people play with in different ways: it seems to be an irresistible, endlessly rewarding game.
Post-invasion history is also touched upon, with the Russians being the only foreign power to get their hands on a Heat Ray projector – the technological bounty brought by reverse-engineering Martian devices, which Wells alludes to, doesn’t really seem to have been an issue, however. Brunton also suggests a reason for the Martians not making another attempt, but nobody tell Stephen Baxter about that (Baxter’s own War of the Worlds sequel is out next year).
Perhaps inevitably, the Osprey book engages in the usual metafictional conceit where every significant literary figure from Victorian England lives in the same city: I remember reading Anno Dracula back in 1994, when this seemed terribly new and interesting. Now it just feels routine. The results are not quite as grotesque as in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s version of the Martian invasion: we hear of Fu Manchu’s role in the upheaval afflicting London, and of Colonel Sebastian Moran bagging himself a trophy like no other. (It’s not quite the same thing, but we also learn of a young Winston Churchill’s exploits in the war.) Elsewhere, the author looks further afield, with perhaps more laboured results: we are told that, luckily, the Martian landing which damaged the botanical gardens at Kew did not result in the escape of any triffids, while many years later a ‘lost’ Martian cylinder turned up, mistaken for an unexploded bomb when it was discovered under an underground station in Hobbs Lane. Hmmm.
Whatever you may think of this sort of thing, the writing itself is consistently brisk and engaging, and the art is very nice: these are slightly steampunky-looking Fighting-Machines, and not entirely faithful to Wells’ description, but then that fits pretty well with most of the rest of the book. Quite who this is aimed at, though, still bemuses me a little: there’s pretty much zero wargames content for anyone intent on recreating a series of one-sided massacres on their tabletop, while it’s simultaneously neither detailed nor expansive enough to be a totally satisfying addition to the already-sizable War of the Worlds canon. The slimness of the volume when you consider its price is also likely to be an issue for many people. Hard-core fans of The War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, will likely find a lot to enjoy here, though.