Okay, to be honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve played Nuclear War by Flying Buffalo Games. But it has been a number of years since I shuffled the cards, spun the spinner, and dropped megatons of nukes on my opponents. Nuclear War is an old game; it was first released in 1965 when the fears of a nuclear Armageddon were more prevalent in everyone’s minds. Then, I’m sure the game felt like a poke at Cold War fears–a way to assuage nervousness about what was perceived to be a very real threat by a light-hearted game. Now, the game feels a little quaint.
Gameplay is very simple. Each person is dealt a stack of cards with population numbers on them. The sum of all your population cards is the population of your country. You also have a separate hand of cards that cover Propaganda attacks, nuclear weapon delivery systems, and nukes. On the first turn, you lay out the next two cards you plan to play face down on a playmat. Each subsequent turn, you activate the first card you layed down and add a new card face-down to the chain. To use Propaganda, you just put the card in the chain and flip it over to activate it when it moves to the top of the chain. Nuclear attacks work the same way, but you have to activate the delivery system (like a Polaris missile) in one turn and then activate the payload (like 10 megatons of nukes) in the next turn. Everyone starts at peace, but once one person fires a nuke, everyone is at war, and Propaganda cards are useless until one player is eliminated. When you are hit by Propaganda, you lose a number of population, according to the card played. Sometimes your disloyal citizens defect to the other player’s country. Sometimes they just disappear. When hit by a nuke, the same things happens–you lose some population–but then you also have to spin the spinner to see what the effects of nuclear fallout are. (Usually this means you lose some more population.) When you lose all of your population, you are out of the game, and last country standing wins. (I should note that there are also some “Secret” cards that are played immediately when you draw them, and they don’t have to go in your chain of cards.)
In our play test, one player was wiped out in the first round because of a combination of low population cards and being ganged up on by me and the other player. Needless to say, he didn’t care much for the game. The other player and I slugged it out for a few more turns, but I had been dealt far more population cards, and I easily won. Neither of the other players really enjoyed the game, thinking it was too random.
So, do I like Nuclear War? Sort of. It’s a passable game as a filler between meatier games. There’s a little bit of strategy in putting the right cards in the right places in the chain and in anticipating your opponent’s moves. But by and large, it’s a game of luck, where a lucky card at the right time, a lucky deal of population cards, or some lucky spinning will win the game. I imagine it plays better with 5 players than with 3, as you’re less likely to start out in a 2 against 1 situation. I’m also not a big fan of games that eliminate players–even games as short as Nuclear War. As a historical artifact of the hobby, though, I think it’s pretty important. The game has longevity and a number of sequels, and it was in the Games 100 back in 1984. I think everyone who enjoys board games should give it a spin, but I doubt it will wind up in the top 10 of most players, unless they just love beer & pretzels games.