Back in the day when the real threat of nuclear annihilation was in the air, the doomsday clock ticked away, and the feel good ABC film The Day After was on the horizon, only one game had the cojones to poke fun at the threat of a nuclear holocaust. That game was Nuclear War! Back in high school many of our gaming group used to get together to play a few sessions of Nuclear War and it was never long before the chant of “Nuke ‘Em ‘Til They Glow!” was taken up. The game is a humorous confrontation between touchy world powers as each player attempts to sway his opponents’ populations with diplomacy, propaganda, and finally nuclear weaponry. “Got change for 25 Million people?” is something you’d only hear during play of this classic. Little old ladies defect in electric cars and the dread SUPERGERM spreads devastation! Nuclear War only takes about 10 minutes to learn and around 30 minutes to play. Designed by Doug Malewicki in 1965, the game has remained popular for over 40 years and is still distributed by Flying Buffalo Games. Anyone who ever had to participate in a “civil defense drill” by hiding under his or her desk in grade school, or ever had a bomb shelter in the back yard should play this game. In fact, if memory serves me, Elliott still has the game in his collection.
The game is for 2-6 players, with each player having a small cardboard playmat upon which cards are placed and revealed. It is intended to be played by 3 or more players, but can also be played with only 2.
At the start of a game, each player is dealt a number of “population cards,” ranging in denomination from 1 million to 25 million people. Players must protect their population, as the total loss of population leads to player elimination. They are then dealt a number of cards, which may be of the following types:
Propaganda, which steal another player’s population, but have no effect once war has started.
Delivery Systems (Missiles & Bombers), which stay in play ready to hold a warhead.
Warheads, which are fitted to a Delivery System, or discarded if there is not one available for them.
Specials, which are usually defensive cards to shoot down incoming Missiles, or cards to increase the devastation caused by attacks.
Initially, players take turns playing secrets. Once all players have played all secrets and replaced cards from the deck they can announce ‘no secrets’ and place two cards face down. Players then take turns during which they will play a third face down card, and then reveal the oldest face down card (first in, first out) and resolve it. Secrets and propaganda cards are resolved immediately upon being exposed, while missile launches take more than one turn to properly setup.
Once players have a warhead fitted to a delivery system (for example by revealing a missile on one turn, and revealing a warhead on a subsequent turn), they may launch an attack. A successful attack reduces the target player’s population; when a player’s population reaches zero, they may launch an immediate retaliatory attack (called “final retaliation”) but are then out of play. Often, this strike will end another player’s game, leading to a final strike on a third party, and so on. Hence, in some cases, many players can be removed at once (via this mutual assured destruction method). If a player is knocked out with a propaganda card, no retaliation is allowed. When someone launches an attack, war is declared and propaganda cards are now worthless until a player is eliminated, at which time “peacetime” resumes.
The object of the game is to be the sole player still in play after all attacks are resolved. More often than not, retaliatory strikes remove all players. If everyone is eliminated from play, then there is no winner – sort of like in a real nuclear war!
Alternately, a variant scoring system determines the winner via a point system — 1 point for a knock out, 2 points for a propaganda knock out, 3 points for a retaliation knock out, a variable number of points for position depending on number of players, and finally 2 points for surviving (with the survivor not necessarily being the points winner).
The delivery systems in the game reflect those rockets that were in the American arsenal at the time, including Atlas, Titan and Saturn rockets. The available systems include the XB-70 Valkyrie deep penetration bomber, which had been cancelled several years prior to the game’s release, but which had two operational prototypes at the time.
Nuclear War has had a number of expansions over the years including Nuclear Escalation, Nuclear Proliferation, and Weapons of Mass Destruction along with some bonus packs and a short lived (and ill advised) booster pack system of cards.
Nuclear War was always a fun game – in fact it was a blast – and it’s one of those games that are perfect to play as a game night is winding down.