Nuclear War is a card game designed by and copyrighted to Douglas Malewicki. Its current editions are produced by Flying Buffalo, Inc. It is recognized as something of a classic in its field. While it is largely unknown to the mainstream game playing audience, as are most other card and board games that don't have big corporate backing and Wal-Mart shelving on their side, among those who know it has a good reputation. It is notable for its deft combination of strategic and random elements, and for the large role psychology plays in the game. It is lots more fun played with friends than total strangers, but, much like Paranoia, it's lots more fun when there's some amount of playful dishonesty on the table.
There are two decks in Nuclear War, the standard deck of cards that come, precut, with the game, and two sheets of "Population Cards" that must be cut by hand. (Rather than destroy the game materials, we made our own using index cards.) The Population Cards are used a little like money, but unlike such games like Monopoly that start all the players off evenly, the Population Cards are shuffled and dealt out to the players at the start of play. Players are allowed to look at their own Population Cards but not at those of their opponents. While the stack of Population Cards for each player must be visible at all times, there is no easy way to tell exactly how much population that stack represents, as a single card can be worth from 1 to 25 million people. This is just the first level of uncertainty present in this very uncertain game.
Next, the "normal" cards are dealt to each player, giving everyone a hand of nine. Any cards marked "Secret" or "Top Secret" that a player receives, at any time during the game including now, must be immediately put into action, following the instructions on those cards. There are a good number of these cards in the deck (more uncertainty!), and while there are no cheap cards like hand- or population-swappers, it's possible to lose up to 25 million people by luck of the draw. Every time a Secret or Top Secret card is played (there is no difference between these two types in practice) a new card is drawn from the draw pile to replace it, and if it's a Secret or Top Secret card the procedure is repeated. It is very possible to run out of people due to multiple Secret and Top Secret cards before the game has even started, putting the losing player into Final Retaliation before the first turn!
After all the players have run out of (Top) Secret cards, but before the first turn, everyone must take two cards out of their hand and place them on the table. These represent the first two turns of the game. You see, all the action in Nuclear War takes place "two moves in the future." When a player's turn comes around, he draws a new card and adds it to his hand (unless it's a Secret/Top Secret card, in which case it's immedately played and another new card is drawn), puts one card down, face-down, then turns up the "next turn" card and shows it to everyone, as that's the card he's playing that round. Then, the other cards each "move up one space," the old two-turns-ahead card moves up to the next-turn space, and the new face-down card becomes the two-turns-ahead card. No player is ordinarily allowed to change the order of his in-play cards, which adds an element of tension to the game, when the great move you planned two turns ago suddenly becomes obsolete. The game comes with four mats, each with marked spaces to make clear which cards are to be played in which turns, although if more than four are playing the mats can easily be dispensed with for the excess players, so long as it's clear which cards are which.
This two-moves-in-advance play adds much of the psychological aspect to the game. There are two primary things you can do with your in-play cards. There arePropaganda cards that, when turned up, "steal" from 2 to 25 million people from an opponent and adds them to your total. Propaganda cards are not blockable and contain no random features, and they not only hurt your foes but add to your own population at the same time, so they are very certain and nice things to play, except for one little thing: when war is declared, all Propaganda cards cease working.
Options: Nuclear Attack
Then, there are "carrier" and "warhead" cards that must be turned up in sequence; when a carrier card is turned up on your turn, you place it in the "Face Up Card" section of your mat, to remind everyone it's there, and play continues normally. When your next turn comes up, if the new card revealed is anything but a warhead, then the carrier is discarded harmlessly. Similarly, if a warhead comes up without a preceding carrier then it, too, is discarded. If a warhead comes up after a carrier, but is too large for it (according to the capacities printed on the cards), then they are both discarded. But, if an appropriate warhead should immediately follow a carrier, ah, then the fun is just about to begin....
War & Resolving Attack
First off, as soon as that happens, war is declared. War is a state that encompasses all the players, you can't just declare war against one player. It affects everyone, there is no Switzerland in this game. That means any Propaganda cards currently in the pipeline are now nothing more than wasted turns. War continues until one of the players is removed from the game by running out of people, so if only two players are left you're pretty much going to be in war until the bitter end. Second, the player with the compatible carrier and warhead cards picks another player to be a target of the attack. Now, if that player has, in his hand, an Anti-Missile card that is able to block the carrier used (compatible carriers are listed on the card), then the attack fails, the Anti-Missile card is discarded, and it is now suddenly the blocking player's turn! He plays as normal, and afterwards play continues to the next player after him – anyone skipped has basically lost their turn. Even if a war-causing attack is thus blocked, the players are still at war.
Now, if the attack is not blocked, then it's time to spin the big Spinner of Death. The game comes with a simple spinner divided, in fields of varying width, into results ranging from "Dud Warhead (no effect)" to "Lethal Doses of Gamma Radiation Kill Another 10 Million" and "Explodes a Nuclear Stockpile! Triple the Yield." This pleasantly random little gimmick can turn the big 100 Megaton Warhead into a useless lawn ornament, or so extend a lowly 10 Megaton Warhead, usually capable of only killing a paltry 2M, into a barbeque with twelve million invitations.
Once war has started it continues until a player runs out of people and is removed from the game. But before a depleted player truly exits the game, he gets to play a fun little consolation round called "Final Retaliation." He immediately gets to take all the cards in his play area, orders yet to be carried out, Deterrent Force cards, and ready-to-fly carriers, and try to match any carriers he has among them or in his hand to any warheads in any of the above places. Any matches may be launched as attacks immediately, against anyone he chooses, however he chooses. Targeted players may attempt to block with Anti-Missiles if they have them. Any attacks that get through result in spins on the spinner to determine damage. While not explicitly acknowledged by the rules, we choose to interpret them as meaning that, if a player is wiped out because of a Final Retaliation, he is then also allowed to go into Final Retaliation. However, only players who leave the game due to attacks, Secret, or Top Secret cards are allowed to do this. If you lose your last million people from a Propaganda, you go out with a whimper, not an earth-shattering ka-boom. If, through the cumulative effects of however many Final Retaliations, no players are left with any people, then the game ends without a winner. Everyone loses! Hey, it's better to destroy all traces of human life on Earth than to let that bastard win, isn't it?
When a player leaves the game during war, then peace is declared and Propaganda cards become useful again. All the players are then allowed to take up their upcoming orders (that is, the two cards they have face-down, waiting to be played) and put two new cards down in their place. Any carriers waiting to fly off and deliver cargoes of joy, however, remain where they are until their owner's next turn, meaning a blood-thirsty participant can place a warhead in the next-turn slot, all set to start war up all over again fairly quickly.
Two other little things: one of the carriers, the "B-70 Bomber," is capable of carrying up to 50 megatons from any combination of other cards. When it drops a warhead, it remains in play until the next turn. If another warhead comes up that, when added to the tonnage dropped in previous turns on its run, doesn't go over 50 megatons, then that warhead gets dropped as well. Each warhead can be assigned to different targets. However, if an anti-missile blocks the B-70, or if anything besides an appropriate warhead comes up in your queue, then the B-70 is discarded. It is also discarded if the spinner indicates that it ran out of fuel.
One of the niftiest features of the game, one that doesn't appear to affect play at all at first, are the two "Deterrent Force" spots on the play mats. These are basically public resting spots for cards in your hand. At any time the player wants, he can take cards out of his hand and and put them, face-up, on the Deterrent Force spots. There is no in-game benefit or penalty for doing this; the cards, although on display, are still considered part of that player's hand. These spots exist solely to credibly prove you have that Anti-Missile S saved up, or in order to cast that 100 Megaton warhead's long shadow onto the enemies of your nation.
A lot of the strategy Nuclear War comes from predicting what your opponents will do. If at peace, it's to your best interest to play Propaganda cards, since they're more certain, and on the average do more damage faster than warheads (strange but true). However, the first person to break the peace reaps nice benefits, since any players who were still using Propaganda at the time of the attack will be stuck for a couple of turns. Note, however, that you can't start war instantly, it takes two turns, so your opponents have a chance to react to your possible attack... which always means you can fake them out by playing a carrier followed by a propaganda card.
Because the game depends so much on each player's individual style, and reacting to how you think your opponents will act, playing Nuclear War multiple times in a row tends to make it a richer game.
Never underestimate the value of the Deterrent Force cards, but if you're going to use them, do it with panache. Don't put a lowly 10 Megaton card there, you're better off putting down nothing, unless you're purposely trying to convince the other players you have nothing better. Anti-Missile cards are great for these spots. If you decide to use a card in the Deterrent Force area, decide if you want to make it obvious that this card is going directly into your order queue (if you do, then take the card and, very obviously, put it face down in the proper spot) or if you want to add an air of uncertainty to your action (in which case you might want to move the Deterrent card to your hand before playing, so the other players aren't sure what will be on its way). But the best use for Deterrent Force cards may be proving you've got credible muscle to make Final Retaliation painful.
Finally, notice that the game doesn't like to last too long, especially if there are only two players left. If you don't take active steps towards winning the game, eventually the flow of Secret and Top Secret cards will decide for you, more or less randomly; some of them shuffle people around, one actually gives you people from the bank, but population loss cards are too frequent. Do what you can, when you can, or the cards will take up the matter on their own.