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Month: July 2023

Game #107 : The War of the Worlds (1983)

Illustration from the first French edition of the War of the Worlds (1906), by Brazilian artist Henrique Alvim Corrêa.
Found on John Guy Collick’s blog

– Lieutenant Narwhal ! We need you again ! Aliens !
– What kind of weapons do I have this time ? Missiles ? Disruptors ? Blasters ?
– Lee-Enfield rifles and cavalry swords, mostly !

As the year 1898 drew to a close, an anomaly was vexing the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, currently sitting in his office in London. Presented with a newly drafted map of London, he found it impossible to understand. The map had been rotated for some unfathomable reason, with the Thames River running from top to bottom instead of from left to right. And where was Buckingham Palace ? Where was the Tower Bridge ? Where were all the symbols of British Imperial power ? “This map would not do“, thought the Commander-in-Chief.

Opening of the game. Impossible for me to recognize London so I am just going to pretend that East is on the right.
As per the standard iconography, the cross represents infantry, the dash cavalry and the dot artillery.

And yet it would have to do. Before the Commander could reject the map, he received news of a most startling nature : a massive cylinder had fallen from the sky just southwest of London ! At first, he suspected the messenger had been sampling the military’s rum ratio, but more messengers arrived confirming the peculiar event. It was true then ! A contraption of outlandish design had indeed plummeted from the skies, apparently choosing the capital of the British Empire for its grand debut.

Her Majesty was informed without delay, and Her Government was hastily gathered. The top brains of the Royal Society sent urgent memos to Downing Street, stating in no uncertain terms that the cylinder was Martian in origin and more were on their way – ten of them, no less. True to his reputation, Premier Gascoyne-Cecil suggested to Splendidly Isolate from the newcomers. If the visitors had something to say, they should clamber out of their tin cans and say it. If not, they could sulk in their cylinders, bustling as they were with guns and gas canisters and other external devices whose nature was unknown.

As for the Commander-in-Chief, having gained his ranks the hard way in Sudan, he suspected foul play. He ordered whatever forces were on hand to surround the alien contraption. and called more reinforcement from the countryside, just in case.

Units can normally move by 4-5 squares depending on type and terrain, but they can move by between 12 (cavalry) and 18 (infantry) squares a turn using rails., allowing me to immediately surround this cylinder.

And then, for a while, nothing much happened. The Colonial Office even managed to squeeze in a quick meeting, dreaming up ways to stake a claim on Mars before the French could react. There would be no Martian Fashoda this time !

Alas, those deliberations ended when three towering tripods emerged from the cylinders and began setting the onlookers, and subsequently the city, ablaze !

It is impossible to attack the Martians in the first turn, so I had to let them deploy. After that, the objective of the game is to preserve as many city tiles as possible, with additional points for destroyed tripods and cylinders.

As another cylinder fell right next to the first one, the Commander-in-Chief grasped the grim reality : London was under attack, and his role was to save as much of it as possible.

The dilemma that presented itself was a matter of weaponry. No one knew which weapons could potentially placate the Martian invaders. The Commander had a variety of forces at his disposal, but none seemed inherently suited to tackling extraterrestrial machinery. While figuring this out, he ordered the soldiers to stay well clear of the cylinder’s collection of weapons, at least until reinforcements arrived. Still, a plucky unit of infantry squared off against a tripod, and much to everyone’s shock, the colossal machine crumpled like a house of cards. Well, it looks like those things are vulnerable to bullets, just like everyone, really.

Each game, one of the human unit types has 50% chance of destroying the other, another 20% and the last one 10%. Of course, which unit type is effective is hidden and changes every game so the player has to discover it the hard way.

More tripods emerged from the second cylinder, and then more from a third one. This time, the tripods resisted further attacks, whether by bullet or by guns, and their strange weapons vaporized whole regiments of soldiers. There was, however, one success : a regiment of Horse Guards had charged one of the tripods, and hacked its legs with their swords ! The tripod collapsed, destroying several blocks of housing in its fall.

This was not enough to stop the invaders, and soon the oversized machines were running rampant, obliterating the brave souls sent to hold them at bay and even having the audacity to set Buckingham Palace aflame. One particularly cheeky tripod had the gall to amble directly to the City, taking out a crucial railway link in the process. Others meandered across the Thames to wreck the Eastern side of the city. Frustratingly, none of the tripods had torched Whitechapel yet.

British reinforcement kept pouring in, but shock turned into despair when another cylinder landed in the North-Western part of London. There was nothing to stop the tripods which would inevitably emerge from it !

The tripods move fast – 3 squares by turn – but they must end their movement if they fail an attack.
They leave a trail of destruction behind them that remains until the end of the game. Burning tiles are passable, but the railroads are gone.

In despair, the Commander ordered a newly arrived unit of cavalry to charge the cylinder, and to everyone’s surprise (especially, I should presume, the one of the Martians), the cylinder was soon turned into salami from outer space ! In the City, the Horse Guard somehow pinned the marauding tripod to the burning remains of the Bank of England with their lances.

It looked like the swords and lances used by cavalry were more efficient against Martian technology than mere bullets. On the East side of the city, a hail of gunfire did little to halt a tripod’s advance, while another was brought down by a lucky artillery shell.

The Martians only score points for destroying city tiles, so I can ignore that tripod in the South-West

Despite a brief respite, the Martian onslaught resumed with renewed vigour. A cylinder fell in the North of the city while in the East the surviving tripod trampled and destroyed a regiment of infantry. Another tripod began a sound and light show in the city centre.

Reinforcements arrive every turn – at least 3 units every turn. As the Martians don’t attack human units if they can move around them, the humans eventually gain a numerical advantage.

However, never underestimate the stiffness of British upper lips. Every cylinder crash-landing in the North was welcomed by angry cavaliers with pointy swords – in total 9 tripods were destroyed before they could even exit their cylinder. The tripod touring the centre of the city was also eventually destroyed by the Horse Guard, and the situation only looked a bit dicey in the East due to a local dearth of horse-mounted forces. Still, the British army managed to stall the devastation of the city by surrounding the gigantic machines.

At this point, I am fairly certain that my infantry has 10% chance to hit, the artillery 20% and the cavalry 50% I had been very lucky the first turn, but it triggered some early ill-informed moves as I expected my infantry to do the killing.

Eventually, the remaining two tripods in the East End met their end – one at the hooves of the cavalry, the other via a well-aimed cannon fire. With the tides of battle shifting, the Commander decided it was high time for a counter-offensive. Utilising the remaining functional west-east railway line, he amassed most of its cavalry in the West.

I am staying away of the cylinders for now, because unlike the tripods they can attack all the units around them simultaneously.

When tripods emerged from a cylinder that had landed in the West, they were immediately charged and hacked down by the cavalry. Some other cavalry were even allocated to the destruction of the three cylinders near the Thames to reopen the Southern bridge and let the Londoners, who had kept calm thus far, to now carry on by commuting to their offices. When another cylinder fell in the South-East of London, infantry and guns immediately circled it, and looking at the faces of the soldiers and the ones of the Martians it was not clear anymore who was invading who.

Units can cross a “destroyed” bridge, though of course without the rail movement.

The next cylinder crashed in the middle of London, and more specifically just North of a group of horsemen who made sure that the Martians were hacked before they were able to even check their surroundings. The Martians coming from the cylinders in the South-East were marginally more lucky – by lack of local horses two of them managed to survive a bit, but hopelessly surrounded they were unable to proceed toward the parts of London not yet burning.

The last enemy cylinder fell in the South-West, an area already completely charred. With nothing to save in the area, the Commander opted for a slow but systematic advance. Meanwhile, the Martians in the South-East were mopped up, though at an appalling cost in men and guns.

I lost a lot of units compared to the previous screenshot because my units surrounded the South-Eastern cylinders, but failed to destroy it immediately, triggering a devastating counter-attack.

The Martian Blitz on London was over. Half of the city had survived ! Once again, the British Empire had prevailed !

A score above 90 is a “good game”. A score above 140 is an “excellent game”

Now, it was time for the Empire to strike back. But first, it needed to source the blueprints of that contraption the French used to go from the Earth to the Moon in only 97 hours and 20 minutes, and then, after some repurposing…

Ratings & Review

Cover of the boardgame edition of War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds, computer version by Joe Delinski, published by Task Force Games, USA
First release : July 1983 on Atari according to an ad in Analog Computing Magazine,
Total time tested :
Three hours
Average duration of a game
: 30-40 minutes
Easy (1/5)
Final Rating : Well-designed but obsolete
Ranking at the time of review : 14/103

Summary :

The War of the Worlds is a faithful port of the board game of the same name. Its simple but solid ruleset, short sessions and great balancing make it a superior game in 1983. Alas, it remained mostly unnoticed and Task Force Games never doubled down on the attempt to penetrate the computer market.

The War of the Worlds is a game by Task Force Games (TFG), a company I’ve often mentioned on this blog, but only as the victim of blatant rip-offs, most famously with SSI’s first successful foray into sci-fi : the Warp Factor (a copy of Star Fleet Battles), and less famously with Avalon Hill’s The Alien (a rip-off of The Intruder).

TFG had been founded only a few years earlier in 1978 by Stephen Cole and Allen Eldridge. Still, both had a lot of experience. In 1973, Cole, then a student at Texas Tech, had founded a magazine called JagdPanther, which Eldridge joined as an editor in 1975. Despite only a few hundred subscribers, JagdPanther was a labour of love which included one and often several small wargames each issue, most of them WWII-themed, most of them by Cole himself. Alas, probably because maintaining a magazine like JagdPanther was a full-time effort that was not bringing much revenue and Cole did not have the means to release boxed games, JagPanther was discontinued in 1976.

A sad announcement in the March 1977 issue of The Space Gamer. By coincidence, we also know on this blog the Tom Cleaver mentioned on the right.

The timing was unfortunate. In 1977, just as Cole was selling his copyrights, Metagaming Concepts revolutionized boardgames with the microgames, those simple $2.95 games sold in Ziploc bags. Suddenly, the barrier to entry had just disappeared and there was a format which could allow enterprising hobbyists to become professional ; there was a market in which TFG could exist.

Where JagdPanther had been mostly about historical games, Cole and Eldridge pivoted toward sci-fi games, possibly inspired by Metagaming Concepts’ lineup. Their first products in 1979 were Starfire (a game already published in JagdPanther), Asteroid Zero-Four, Cerberus and, critically, Star Fleet Battles. The latter, to which they managed by a combination of moxie and luck to attach the Star Trek licence, was an immense success ; so much so that the game received a second boxed edition the same year.

The first edition of Star Fleet Battles, the licence that defined Task Force Games

Cole and Eldridge’s bet on sci-fi had worked. In 1980, they doubled down with 8 more games, half of them sci-fi : Intruder, Starfire II, Robots and The War of The Worlds. The latter was the first game designed by Eldridge: the licence was popular and free, Eldridge loved the theme – it was a good fit for TFG and it received generally positive reviews (and even a long featured review in The Space Gamer).

Three years then passed. The microgames vogue faded, taking with it SPI in 1981. TFG, luckily, had managed to upgrade to boxed games just in time. In early 1983, Cole had left TFG to found the Amarillo Design Bureau, only producing content for Star Fleet Battles, whose success never faltered leaving Eldridge at the helm of TFG. As he recalls, Eldridge had absolutely no plan to chase after video games, at least until a self-taught developer called Joe Delinski showed up at his office with an Atari port for two games. It was some high-quality work, and from Eldridge’s perspective a boon from the sky. Delinski was hired to make more games, though due to some personal events, he could only work for TFG for a short while. Ultimately, four ports were commercialized : Starfire and Asteroid Zero-Hour which are now lost, Survival which I could test and turned out to be a pointless game with a lot of randomness and no real decision, and finally The War of the Worlds.

Sources for the history of Task Force Games :

  • Designers and Dragons , Task Force Games
  • Email interviews with the co-founders of TFG : Allen Eldridge and Steve Cole
  • Retro365‘s wonderful article on The War of the Worlds. Its owner was also kind enough to scan and send me the manual of the game.

A. Immersion

Poor. I have a hard time swallowing a world where cavalry, using either the same weapons as infantry or melee weapons, could be more efficient than infantry and artillery – on this design trumped immersion. On the other hand, no design decision can explain why the map of London cannot be recognized. Generally speaking, the game lacks chrome.

On the other hand, I give the game credit for two things :

Picture from Retro365’s collection
  • An introduction / short story about the cause of the war from the point of view of the Martians that is particularly well-written. It is exactly the same as the one found in the boardgame, but I enjoyed reading it.

B. UI, Clarity of rules and outcome

Good. The rules are intuitive and well-explained.

C. Systems

Good. I think I explained all the rules during the AAR except one : a cylinder has a tiny chance (5% at the level of difficulty I played) to be destroyed upon landing.

The ruleset is very close to the board game, including the unique feature of not knowing which weapons work against the Martians. The key differences are :

  • Up to two human units can stack in the same hexagon,
  • Tripods can split their attack against several targets at the same time, at the cost of efficiency,
  • Units can become “disrupted” and forced to retreat as a result of combat
  • The existence of depot hexes from which the human players receive reinforcements … if they are not destroyed

The board game version also has a proper map of London, more diversity in terrain, which has a significant impact on the performance of the Martians. Finally, the board game has two optional units (the warship on the human side and the flying machine on the Martian side) sadly absent from the computer version. Again, I wish there had been a few more units in the game but of course part of the strength of War of the Worlds is its simplicity.

D. Scenario design & balancing

Quite good. The game randomizes where the Terran units and the cylinders appear, and there are 6 levels of difficulty whose parameters strongly change the dynamics of the game.

I played at difficulty level 3

If that’s not enough, the game allows you to customize the values above.

E. Did I make interesting decisions

Yes, almost every turn. What to defend, what to abandon. When to attack and when to wait.

F. Final rating.

Well designed but obsolete There is one category of games that are not made anymore and aged pretty well. Those games feature a simple but original ruleset (one that has not been copied by a more modern game) organized around short sessions that still require difficult decisions every turn. The War of the Worlds belongs to this category, along with VC and Starbase Hyperion. Unlike those two games though, there is a recent game that sends some of the same vibes the War of the Worlds : the superb Into the Breach, in which the player must defend a city against a large number of aliens for a very short number of turns. The existence of Into The Breach and the lack of chrome and unit diversity of The War of the Worlds cost the latter a “Still interesting” rating, but it is an impressive game for 1983 !

Contemporary Reviews

I could only find one full-fledged magazine review for the computer version of The War of The Worlds. It was published in the January 1985 issue of Electronic Games and showcases the Commodore 64 version of the game – a version that does not seem to have ever been advertised.

This review is mixed, with reviewer Arnie Katz liking the game but finding the art and the programming lacklustre : “Task Force Games is miles ahead of most competitors when it comes to concept, but the publisher will have to develop a better feel for the added dimension which the computer brings to strategy games. […] The flaws notwithstanding, War of the Worlds is a quick-playing strategy game that should appeal even to those gamers who normally don’t enjoy military simulations.”

The War of the Worlds had a more surprising reviewer, in Allen Eldridge’s words : “One of the retail accounts that sold these games was Games of Berkeley in Berkeley, California.  The then-owner of the store once told me that he sold a copy of the War of the Worlds computer game to Robin Williams, and that Robin later came back and said he liked the game.”

Eldridge does not remember how much the game sold, but given TFG did not carry on making computer games after Delinski’s departure it cannot have been that much. Eldridge also recalls that the games were complex to produce : “we did the production ourselves and that we had a lot of returns due to games being defective”.

Even if Starfire and Asteroid Zero-Hour are never found, we will talk about TFG again. TFG followed the most important trend in gaming in the mid-80s and pivoted toward RPGs, both with its own licences (eg Delta Force : Americas Strike Back in 1986) or with supplements for games they did not own. TFG was eventually sold to a video game company : New World Computing. After various minor projects, New World Computing and TFG decided to cooperate on a common product that would be released – that was the plan anyway – at the same time as a board game and as a computer game : King’s Bounty.

But that’s a game I will not cover before I reach 1990, and next I am going to head in the other direction and backtrack to the 70s and a forgotten computer : the SOL-20.