Nuclear War (card game)

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1965 edition box art

Nuclear War is a collectible common-deck card game designed by Douglas Malewicki, and originally published in 1965. It is currently (as of 2012) published by Flying Buffalo, and has inspired several expansions. It is a satirical simulation of an end-of-the-world scenario fought mostly with nuclear weapons.


The game is a multiplayer game, with each player having a small cardboard playmat upon which cards are placed and revealed. It is intended to be played by 3 or more players, but can also be played with only 2.

At the start of a game, each player is dealt a number of "population cards," ranging in denomination from 1 million to 25 million people. Players must protect their population, as the total loss of population leads to player elimination. They are then dealt a number of cards, which may be of the following types:

  • Secrets which usually steal or reduce another player's population.
  • Propaganda which steal another player's population, but have no effect once war has started.
  • Delivery Systems usually missiles and bombers, which stay in play ready to hold a warhead. Later expansion sets add submarines and other options.
  • Warheads which are fitted to a Delivery System, or discarded if there is not one available for them.
  • Specials which are usually defensive cards to shoot down incoming missiles, or cards to increase the devastation caused by attacks.

Initially, players take turns playing secrets. Once all players have played all secrets and replaced cards from the deck they can announce 'no secrets' and place two cards face down. Players then take turns during which they will play a third face-down card, and then reveal the oldest face-down card (first in, first out) and resolve it. Secrets and propaganda cards are resolved immediately upon being exposed, while missile launches take more than one turn to properly set up.

The game begins in a Cold War, in which no one is yet at war and propaganda cards have full effect. Once players have a warhead fitted to a delivery system (for example by revealing a missile on one turn, then revealing a warhead on their next turn), they must launch an attack. When someone launches an attack, "war is declared", the Cold War is over, and propaganda cards are now worthless until a player is eliminated, at which time the Cold War resumes.

A successful attack reduces the target player's population; when a player's population reaches zero, they may launch an immediate retaliatory attack (called "final retaliation") but are then defeated. Often, a final retaliation will end another player's game, leading to a final retaliation by that player, and so on. Hence, in some cases, many players can be removed at once (via this mutual assured destruction method). If a player is knocked out with a propaganda card, no retaliation is allowed. Some groups have a house rule that if a player is eliminated by a secret during a Cold War, no final retaliation is allowed.

The object of the game is to be the sole player remaining after all attacks are resolved. More often, final retaliation strikes remove all players in a chain reaction. If all players are eliminated from play, then there is no winner. Alternatively, a variant scoring system determines the winner via a point system—1 point for a knock out, 2 points for a propaganda knock out, 3 points for a retaliation knock out, a variable number of points for position depending on number of players, and finally 2 points for surviving (with the survivor not necessarily being the points winner).

The delivery systems in the game reflect some of those in the American arsenal at the time each set was released, including the Polaris, Atlas and Saturn rockets. Other available delivery systems include the XB-70 Valkyrie deep penetration bomber, which had been cancelled several years prior to the base game's release, but which had two operational prototypes at the time; and the Convair B-58 Hustler, out of service for 35 years by the time it was introduced in 2004's Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Flying Buffalo has released a number of expansions, many of which can be played separately or with the original game. Each expansion highlights the worries of the end-of-the-world scenarios—including actual, theoretical, and feared weapons—at the time of their releases.

Nuclear Escalation (1983)
Adds deterrents and defensive capabilities, space platforms, the "glow-in-the-dark nuclear death die", and more.
Nuclear Proliferation (1992)
Each player now represents a different country with unique special powers. Adds submarines, atomic cannons, and more.
Nuclear War Booster Packs (1995)
Packs of 8 random cards from a set of 47 new cards.
Nuclear War Bonus Pack #1
9 new countries, warhead cards, a set of population cards, a bumper sticker, and a player assistance chart.
Nuclear War Bonus Pack #2 — India/Pakistan War Variant (1999)
Combines the Nuclear War game with the India Rails game.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004)
More cards for the game including new cards usable as either a missile or a warhead and a Deluxe Population deck featuring characters from Nodwick, Kenzer & Company and Dork Tower.
Nuclear War Bonus Pack #3
Same as Bonus Pack #1 but with new style of deluxe population cards from Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Steve Jackson reviewed Monsters! Monsters! in The Space Gamer No. 34.[1] Jackson commented 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."[1]


In 1999 Pyramid magazine named Nuclear War as one of The Millennium's Best Card Games.[5] 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."[5]


  1. ^ a b Jackson, Steve (December 1980). "Capsule Reviews". The Space Gamer. Steve Jackson Games (34): 31.
  2. ^ "The Charles Roberts Awards (1983)". Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. Archived from the original on 2008-04-15. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
  3. ^ "Origins Award Winners (1992)". Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. Archived from the original on 2008-04-15. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
  4. ^ "Origins Award Winners (1997)". Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. Archived from the original on 2008-01-30. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
  5. ^ a b Haring, Scott D. (1999-12-17). "Second Sight: The Millennium's Best Card Game". Pyramid (online). Retrieved 2008-02-17.

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