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Conrad Zimmerman avatar 4:16 PM on 03.01.2008  (server time)
On the Table: Nuclear War

While I adore video games, I'm equally fond of board and card games. On the Table is a weekly feature of my cBlog that examines some of these analog entertainments. If you have a suggestion for a game to appear in this column or suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know.

Nuclear War, Flying Buffalo Games

As someone who grew up watching the cold war come to an end, I'm endlessly fascinated by the concept of nuclear war and the impact its threat had on the generation which preceeded me. Back in January, this column reviewed another game in which you obliterate all who oppose you with nukes, Supremacy. But what if you don't have several hours on your hands but still want the thrill that comes with launching missles that will decimate millions of lives in one fell swoop?

Enter Nuclear War, a card game originally developed in 1964. The game was invented by aerospace engineer Doug Malewicki, who went on to invent one of the greatest marvels the world has ever known: Robosaurus.

This toungue-in-cheek look at global thermonuclear war for two to six players is simple and very fun. Every player represents the leader of a nation constantly under threat of war. All the nations have differing population levels (managed by population cards ranging from one to twenty-five million people dealt out at the beginning of the game) and nobody knows exactly how many people live in their enemy's nation.

Each turn, players issue orders to their strategic forces by way of playing cards in front of them. The orders, however, take time to execute, so they aren't carried out until two turns later. Everybody will have two orders already issued (face-down in front of them) and, after playing a new one, reveals the oldest order in their chain.

The orders that can be issued fall under three categories: Propaganda, Delivery System and Payload. Propaganda cards are played to make people defect to their country from an opponent. Delivery Systems carry nuclear warheads to their targets and payloads represent warheads of various megatonnage.

When the game starts, everyone is at peace. This is the only time propaganda cards work as, once war breaks out, their effectiveness is eliminated. A war begins once someone launches a nuclear offensive. This is done by issuing a Delivery System order, immediately followed by a Payload order. Delivery Systems vary in size, with limits to the number of megatons it can carry. Payloads have megatonnage ratings on them, so you have to pair up a warhead with a missle or bomber large enough to carry it.

The spinner increases or decreases the effectiveness of your nukes.

Each time a nuclear offensive is launched, there's a chance that it could deal more or less damage to its enemy than it is rated for. To represent this, the game comes with a spinner that is spun after every attack. Missiles could have their yield doubled, tripled or reduced to nil when they happen to be a dud. Other spins can result in citizens managing to reach the safety of bomb shelters, reducing the casualty count, or winds could carry the fallout and kill many more than intended.

Wartime lasts until one nation is completely destroyed, its population reduced to zero. When this happens, the defeated player gets to make a final, retaliatory strike, launching any and all combinations of missles, bombers and warheads at any nations they choose. If this results in the destruction of another nation, they too then get to retaliate. Once all the missles have hit their targets, the game returns to peacetime and players may cancel any existing orders and issue new ones.

Since this is a game of elimination, sometimes a player or two will be knocked out very quickly and have to sit and watch everyone else have a good time for the rest of the game. This is a little annoying but, thankfully, rounds usually don't last more than twenty to thirty minutes and it's easy to be entertained by your friends getting blown to hell when the missles can't be pointed at you.

Nuclear War has seen several revisions over its 40-year run.

The orders system is very effective at spreading the fear of a nuclear exchange. Payloads played on their own or Delivery Systems played without a warhead are considered "tests" and have no effect on the game. When that first missle crops up during peacetime, however, you have to reassess what your plans were. Is it a test or are they going to initate an exchange? Are you prepared to fight back now, or will you press your luck with more propaganda cards? Also, once cards are played, players aren't allowed to look at them again until they are revealed to everyone, which can result in some humorous misfires if you aren't paying attention.

A few other cards don't fall under the categories listed above. There are defense systems, which will shoot down missles or bombers and spare your people. And there are Secrets, cards which must be played when drawn that can dramatically alter the course of play by severly harming or helping the person who drew them, adding another highly volatile, random element to the game.

Randomness is both the greatest strength and weakness of Nuclear War. Since populations are dealt randomly at the beginning of the game, some players can be at a significant disadvantage while others can have huge quantities of cannon fodder at their disposal. Secret cards drawn at the beginning of the game must be played just as if they were drawn during play and can sometimes eliminate a player before they've had a chance to start. At the same time, these random occurences keep the tension level high since there's no way of knowing how a game might play out.

Paper cards suck.

Another shortcoming to the game come in the form of components. The main cards are of a decent quality, but the main box uses paper cards, more akin to chits, that you must cut out. The paper is fairly thick but they still feel flimsy and won't last too long with regular play. At thirty dollars for a card game, this is something that really should have higher quality parts.

Expansions to Nuclear War add many new and exciting ways to indiscriminately kill millions.

Several expansions have been released for Nuclear War in the forty-plus years since its release, each of which can be played independently or as part of a Nuclear War game:

Nuclear Escalation adds an espionage element in the form of Spy cards, the ability to build space platforms and a "Nuclear Misfunction Die" that can result in disasterous consequences for a player unfortunate enough to have a problem with a missle they've launched.

Nuclear Proliferation brings nuclear submarines and stealth bombers to your arsenal and introduces a trading system to exchange cards between players (and the opportunity to lie about what you're giving them).

Weapons of Mass Destruction is the newest release. While smaller than the rest and only adding Special cards that bend the game's rules, it's the best expansion of all of them because it comes with real population cards instead of the paper chits. If you're only going to buy one expansion for Nuclear War, WMD is the one to get.

As they are, technically, all individual games they all carry full-game pricing. WMD is quite a bit more affordable, as it only has cards with no additional components, but the other two carry $30 price tags. They're all frequently on eBay or smaller game websites at a small discount.

The online version of Nuclear War.

There's also an online version of Nuclear War available through a service called Game Table Online that allows for a full group of six to play or the option to play against an AI. It is a pay service, but they offer a two-week trial that would allow you to try out Nuclear War and see if it's something you're into.

Nuclear War is an excellent game if you are willing to look past the highly random nature and price tag. The simple rules, humorous circumstances and quick play time make it ideal for a pick-up game between more serious pursuits. Dropping a 100-megaton Saturn rocket on someone, killing 25 million people in a blast of raw, radioactive force will always put a smile on your face.

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