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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 17 of 21 Next

16. Nuclear War

Published currently by Flying Buffalo

Type: Two to six player nuclear aggression-themed beer-and-pretzels card game.

Depth: Very low

Designed by: Douglas Malewicki

Luck factor: High

Description: The players all play the leaders of nuclear-armed nations. There are two types of attacks, but they only work during different game phases. One kind of attack gives you more people, but only works during peacetime.

The other kind takes two turns to pull off, but triggers war that prevents the other kind of attack from working. Running out of people puts you into "final retaliation" but out of the main game. The goal is to be the last player in the game. It is easily possible for everyone to lose.

Play Summary

For a change, this game is simple enough that I can fit nearly the entire rules here, and a little more.

There are two kinds of cards that come with the game, population cards and order cards. At the start of the game, population cards are dealt out to all the players. These cards each bear from 1 to 25 million people. A nation's population is analogous to its health: run out, and you're out of the game. The number of Population cards is known, but how many people are on them is hidden from other players during play, adding uncertainty to whoever is in the best condition.

During the game, "change" is made with unused cards if someone loses less population than is on a card. Players are also dealt a hand of order cards. Some of these cards bear special events, marked Secret; whenever a Secret is drawn, at any time, it is turned up for everyone to see and happens immediately, then another card is drawn to replace it. (The fact that Secrets are immediately known to all players is one of the game's many little sarcastic jabs at world events.) Secrets can immediately give a player a lot of people or kill off much of his population.

Every player has a placemat in front of them that bears several spots on which to place cards. The most important such spots are the orders. Before the first turn, players place two of their hand cards face down on these spots. These form a queue; when the player's turn rolls around, he first lays down a third order, then turns over the first order, which is his action that turn. Afterward, the second and third orders move up a space. In this way, players are forced to act two turns in advance, giving them a kind of inertia of action.

Other than Secret cards, there are only four kinds of cards. Propaganda cards are the easiest to use. When one of them turns up, that player may immediately take the listed number of people from any one other player. These are very powerful, and besides random Secrets are the only way to increase population, but they only work in peacetime.

Peacetime ends the moment a successful attack is made, and such an attack comes from using the second and third kinds of cards -- missiles and warheads. These cards must be used in concert with each other, over two consecutive turns. A missile must be launched in a turn, and a warhead matching one of the types listed on the missile used in the following turn, in order to launch an attack.

This allows one player to "fake" an attack during peace and possibly send the other players scrambling to mount attacks first. A successful attack causes a declaration of war. All players are at war from this point until one player is eliminated; all Propaganda cards in order queues are wasted turns at this point. The target of an attack is decided when it happens.

Each type of warhead lists the base number of deaths it causes, but before that happens, the attacker must spin the spinner, which is divided into a variety of random things that might happen to the attack, things like triple casualties, add or subtract a set number of deaths, or a dud attack. (One spinner item, if it comes up during an attack with the most powerful warhead, destroys the world, ending the game with no winners.)

The only defense against a missile is if you have a matching anti-missile card in your hand. There aren't very many such cards, but if you have it and are the target of an attack, you can then play it to immediately thwart the attack, and the game immediately advances to your turn.

During war, when one nation runs out of people, it is out of the game, but not before getting a round of Final Retaliation. The losing player may take up all his orders back into his hand, then immediately match missiles to warheads and make as many attacks as he likes right away. Naturally the player that launched the last attack against him is a prime target, but so are players with few population cards or whoever has the biggest missile about to go up.

Each attack is made with a spin on the spinner like normal. If another player runs out of people during this the he, too, gets to go into Final Retaliation when the current player is done. It is entirely possible for the last player to be eliminated this way, in which case no one wins. If there is one survivor then he wins the game; if there's more than one then peace is declared, everyone left may take back up his order cards, lay down two new orders, then the game resumes.

What can we draw from this game?

Nuclear War is a fast and fun game without a great amount of strategy. Obviously a lot of this is due to the jovially apocalyptic theme. The game was created in the 1960s, when nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, and standards for game design depth were maybe a little low.

It must be said that some of its impact is lost today, but it is still fun to take it down and play End of the World sometimes. Like some of the other games on this list, it is really pointless to play it with two players, which is weird given the theme since the Cold War had just two major participants.

Nuclear War contains a couple of really good play mechanics. Hiding the true population of the players is excellent for toning down attacks calculated to knock individual players from the game. The queue-based order system is a clever idea that becomes meaningless the moment war is declared. Because war affects everyone, anyone can start it with two turns' notice, and it stops population hemorrhage from well-peopled nations, it is often begins at the earliest opportunity.

Another kind of ruined idea is the missile launch system; creating tension over which warhead is carried by a missile doesn't really affect the game much except to focus attacks-in-progress on the launching player -- but if he's wiped out, he goes into Final Retaliation, and gets to launch that attack immediately! About the only real strategy there is is to try to eliminate the last opponent with Propaganda cards, since that knocks someone out without triggering Final Retaliation. But he knows that too.

If you have a lot of bad luck, with population cards, anti-missiles, missiles, warheads, and/or with Secret cards, you're mostly doomed. Worst of all, if you end up with a hand full of Propaganda cards when war is declared, there's nothing you can really do except continue to make impotent attacks until you draw something with teeth.

It is difficult to make any heavy claims on Nuclear War's "strategy," which is mostly limited to attacking whatever players you think most deserves it, is furthest in the lead, or is the biggest jerk. The theme lends it an odd kind of appeal however, and that still puts it miles ahead of pop-culture drek games like Uno.

Article Start Previous Page 17 of 21 Next

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