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Friday 20 November 2020

1965: Nuclear War

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Invented in 1965 by Doug Malewicki and published by Flying Buffalo, Inc. since 1972, the Nuclear War Card Game is a satirical game of Cold War brinkmanship, black propaganda, and mass destruction designed for between two and eight players. Designed for players with a sense of humour, aged thirteen and up, who each control a major nuclear power, it  can be played in roughly thirty to forty-five minutes. Whilst the aim of the Nuclear War Card Game is to win by defeating a player’s rivals—either by persuading their population to defect or bombing them back into the Stone Age, either way reducing their population to zero—a game can also end in a storm of retaliatory missile and bomber strikes that leaves everyone’s population dead and dying. In which case, everyone loses. If you think that this sounds M.AD., then that is Mutually Assured Destruction for you.

The Nuclear War Card Game consists of two decks of cards, eight player boards, a Nuclear Spinner Board, and a four-page rules leaflet. The two decks are the Population Deck and the much larger Nuclear War Deck. The Population contains cards representing between one and twenty-five million persons, whilst the Warhead Deck contains cards of various types. Warhead cards represent nuclear warheads ranging in size from ten to one hundred megatons, each indicating how many members of a population it will kill, ranging from two to twenty-five million. Delivery cards indicate the size of Warhead tonnage they can deliver to a target, raging from a single ten megaton warhead in a Polaris missile to a Saturn rocket capable of carrying a single one hundred megaton warhead, whilst a B-70 Bomber can carry multiple warheads up to a total of fifty megatons. Other cards include Anti-Missile cards which will bring down incoming missiles during an attack, whilst others are Top Secret or Propaganda cards. Top Secret cards can decrease an opponent’s or the current player’s population, force him or the current player to lose a turn. For example, ‘Your Cold War prestige soars due to being the first on the Moon’ causes five million of the enemy to join the current player’s country and ‘TEST BAN!’, which called by the President of the current player’s country forces him to miss a turn. Propaganda cards simply cause Population from a rival country to defect to the current player’s country.

Each of the Player Boards, illustrated with a photograph of a Titan missile launch station, is marked with six spaces—‘Face Up Card’, ‘1st Face Down Card’, ‘2nd Face Down Card’, two ‘Deterrent Force’ spaces, and ‘Population’. A player uses the ‘Face Up Card’ and ‘Face Down Card’ spaces to set up and bluff using his country’s nuclear arsenal; the ‘Deterrent Force’ space to establish a threat against anyone who might attack his country; and the ‘Population’ space to keep track of his Population cards. The infamous Nuclear Spinner Board is spun whenever a missile is launched or a bomb is dropped to give a random effect, such as ‘Explodes a Nuclear Stockpile! Triple the Yield’ to increase the number of Population killed or ‘Bomb Shelters Saves 2 Million’ which reduces the damage inflicted. The Nuclear Spinner Board also tables to get the same effects from rolling either two six-sided or two ten-sided dice as an alternative, or if the spinner is broken! Lastly, the rules sheet both explains the rules, answers various questions, and gives some suggestions as to tactics when playing the game.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives a Player Board, a number of Population cards (the number determined by the number of players), and nine cards from the Nuclear War deck. On a round each player takes it in turn to play all the cards marked Secret or Top Secret in his hand, draw back up to nine cards, play any cards marked Secret or Top Secret in his hand so added, draw again, and so on until he no cards marked either Secret or Top Secret in his hands. The fun of these is a player using the text on the cards to build a story about his country, taking it through the Cold War to the point where Nuclear confrontation turns hot…

Then each player places two cards face down in the first two slots on his Player Board. They will be revealed in subsequent turns and in doing so, will reveal a player’s strategy. A player with weak warheads or inadequate means of delivery—bombers or missiles, or who does not immediately want to turn the Cold War hot, can play Propaganda cards to reduce a rival country’s population. A player who wants to go aggressive immediately can put down a delivery system—bomber or missile—followed by a warhead, which has to be launched at a rival country once the combination has been revealed. A player can also bluff, playing a warhead, but not a delivery system—and vice versa, instead playing a Propaganda card. In some instances, a player does not have a choice as to which option he chooses, it very much depends upon the cards in his hand.  Alternatively, a player can place Anti-Missile cards or even a combination of a warhead and a delivery system onto the Deterrent spaces of his board. These are placed face up rather than face down and serve as a warning against any other player who might be thinking of launching a nuclear strike at that country. The classic combination being a Saturn missile with a hundred megaton warhead ready to launch in retaliatory fashion against an enemy. 

Once a player has put two cards into the first two slots, and sets up his initial strategy, he draws a third from the Nuclear War deck and places a third card into the third slot on his Player Board. The last thing a player does is turn over and reveal the card in the first slot on his Player Board. This will reveal the initial suggestions as what his current strategy is. On subsequent turns, a player will draw a card first and then play the rest of the turn as per normal.

If a player reveals on subsequent turns that he has a delivery system loaded with a warhead—in the order of delivery system first, followed by the warhead, he is ready to launch a nuclear strike! He designates his chosen target, spins the spinner on the Nuclear Spinner Board and applies the results to the warhead’s detonation. If the warhead is successfully detonated, the targeted player loses the indicated number of casualties from his Population. Once a nuclear strike has been launched at another player, a State of War exists not between the attacker and defender—but between all players! This State of War continues until one player, whether the attacker, defender, or another player is eliminated. An eliminated player can retaliate by combining warhead and bomber or missile cards and target not just the player who struck at him, but any player! It is entirely possible for an eliminated player to eliminate a rival with a retaliatory strike, and that rival to eliminate a rival with a retaliatory strike, and so on. Basically in one giant M.AD. conflagration!

Peace then breaks out… until another player has a warhead ready to launch. Play continues with rounds of missile and warhead build-ups punctuated by deadly strikes. Of course, during the build-up phases, there is scope for further bluff, as well as negotiation, counter bluff, and intimidation. A game of the Nuclear War Card Game continues until one player is left standing (amidst the irradiated rubble) undefeated and still with a Population of at least a million. Alternatively, everybody might have been wiped out, in which case, everybody loses.

With simple rules and direct mechanics, the blast ’em, bomb them style of play of the Nuclear War Card Game is quick. Which means that once a player is eliminated, he should not have to wait too long before either the game finishes (with a winner or not) and a new one, quickly and easily set up to start play anew or a wholly different game chosen. In this way, the Nuclear War Card Game serves as a solid filler.

Physically, the Nuclear War Card Game does not share the production values as more contemporary titles. The card stock for both the Player Boards and the Nuclear Spinner Board is adequate enough though still feels slightly cheap. The cards for the game feel slightly thin, but apart from the Propaganda cards which are rather plain and lacking in flavour, all of the cards are brightly and engagingly illustrated. The rules sheet is simple and utilitarian, but like everything else in the game, does its job.


In 1984 Games Magazine called Nuclear War, “the quintessential beer and pretzels game” and put it on its  top 100 list. The game also won the Origins Hall of Fame Award as one of the best games of all time in 1998 and in 1999, Pyramid magazine named it as one of The Millennium's Best Card Games. Editor Scott Haring said “Back when people were well-and-truly scared of the possibility of nuclear vaporization (I guess today either the threat is lessened, or it's become old hat), Nuclear War dared to make fun the possibility of mankind's dreaded nightmare via a card game.”

Designer and publisher Steve Jackson reviewed the Nuclear War Card Game in Space Gamer Number 34 (December, 1980). He described it as, “...[N]o sense a serious simulation - and even as a game it is very, very simple. Other than that, the only drawback is that the "strategy" rules often lock you into a bad move a couple of turns ahead. Real life is like that - but this game isn't real life and shouldn't try to be.” before concluding that, “This is NOT an "introductory" wargame - it's not a wargame at all. It's a card game. Recommended for a quick social game or for when everyone is too sleepy to play anything complex.”

In Dragon Issue #200 (Vol. XVIII, No. 7, December 1993), Allen Varney included it in a list of ‘Famous & forgotten board games’, in his article, ‘Social Board Games’. He stated that, “It’s a sin for a multi-player design to throw out a player before the game is over, but in this venerable game, that’s the whole point.”, ultimately describing it as the “black-humored contemporary of Dr. Strangelove.” More recently in Scarred For Life Volume One: The 1970s (Lonely Water Books, 2017), authors Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence described the Nuclear War Card Game as “A card game about the unthinkable, featuring a Twister-style spinner containing results such as ‘RADIOACTIVE BETA RAYS KILL ANOTHER 5 MILLION’ and ‘ADDITIONAL 1 MILLION ARE ENGULFED IN THE FIREBALL’ might not seem like most people’s idea of a fun night in, but Nuclear War is a darkly comedic, even educational game. And it’s a brilliant one to boot.”


The Nuclear War Card Game is a game of nuclear brinkmanship, of nuclear standoffs and deterrence, one in which peace is always temporary and war always inevitable. Its subject matter—notoriously black, if not tasteless, in terms of its humour—combined with its mechanics (especially the retaliatory strike rule) make it the ultimate ‘take that’ game, often escalating into everyone having to ‘take that’ and suffer the consequences. The Nuclear War Card Game captures the foolishness and absurdity of the Cold War, pushing everyone to slam their fists on the big red button in the ultimate ‘screw you, screw everyone’ game—whether as first strike or in revenge.


With thanks to Steve Dempsey for locating Allen Varney’s ‘Social Board Games’ in Dragon Issue #200 and Jon Hancock for Steve Jackson’s review in Space Gamer Number 34.

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