nuclear war, card game, tabletop gaming, douglas malewicki
nuclear war, card game, tabletop gaming, douglas malewicki

“Nuclear War” Turns 50: A Fun Game About Human Extinction

GX3UnicornBootyAd_V6

Nuclear War — the 1965 card game invented by Douglas Malewicki, creator of the first Monster Truck Robot, Robosaurus — turns 50 this year. In the game, each player represents a head of state trying to take the others out; ideally via peaceful means like propaganda, but usually by launching warheads at each other. A player loses when their entire population — anywhere from 6,000,000 to 165,000,000 people — disappears, either by emigration or death. All losing players get to fire off all their warheads at the remaining players… meaning that, as the official site says, two out of three games end with no winner.

The high probability of everyone losing doesn’t make the game feel pointless; instead, it adds a comic thrill to the game; generally, if you lose, you start rooting for all of humanity to go extinct. And, just like in real life nuclear war, much of the game is determined by chance. When a warhead is launched, no one knows quite what will happen: You have to use spinner to see the result.

The Nuclear War spinner, minus arrow. (Photo: BoardGameGeek.com)
The Nuclear War spinner, minus arrow. (Photo: BoardGameGeek.com)

It’s hard to read the footnote in the image above, but it says that if a 100 Megaton warhead “Explodes a nuclear stockpile!”, it sets off a chain reaction that blows up the entire world, and everyone loses. That might seem a little silly, but when folks were still researching and testing nuclear weaponry in the ’50s and ’60s, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to hear of accidents involving nuclear weapons, adding a whole different type of danger — that of The Bomb dropping accidentally.

By reducing national populations to faceless numbers on playing cards, Nuclear War encourages players to think of people in the same way that military analysts do… as, well, mere numbers. The rules even suggest referring to the remaining population deck as “the meat market” and asking “Got change for ten million people?” when changing out population cards — both which became catchphrases so popular among players they got sold as bumper stickers. And while you’re laughing about “the meat market” and making change, it becomes clear the real military advisors and heads of state in charge of actual nuclear arsenals probably saw you the same way.

And, as in real life, the larger war is more than just volleying warheads at each other — players also have propaganda cards that get “10 Million Enemy [citizens to] Denounce Their Form Of Government For Yours!”, and also “secrets” with events that happen at random. Some of the secrets make “Two Million of your highly moral little old ladies rebel against your country’s military policies and disgustedly drive off in their electric cars to the enemy’s country” or have it so that a “Super Germ, the result of a blunder in your enemy’s germ warfare experiments, destroys 25 million of their own people.” The game is openly cynical about politics: After all, those little old ladies defect to an enemy country that is just as lethal and manipulative, and the Super Germ —the card that destroys the most people in the game — is the result of a blunder, not a successful attempt at germ warfare.

Should we really be gaming and joking about nuclear war?

What makes Nuclear War and other Cold War media different from today’s apocalyptic media is the combination of heaviness and humor. For example, the video game Fallout, which takes place decades after a nuclear apocalypse, is known for its sense of humor — but the jokes don’t come from a pre-apocalyptic present but rather a post-apocalyptic future. Cold War humor that comes from the actual Cold War period — like Nuclear War or Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — feel like they’re close to something that could really happen at any moment and, in a sense, help us laugh in the face of fear.

That dark sense of humor about the end of the world is a bit less common nowadays, but makes sense considering the mid-to-late 20th century mindset where Americans felt certain that the Russians would one day destroy our country, Russians felt the same about Americans, and the rest of the world feared one of the two would do something manically stupid and kill us all… and worst of all, we wouldn’t even know about it until a couple minutes before the bombs fell. Great.

Today, we’re still afraid of the imminent apocalypse, but the most common scenario is environmental disaster due to climate change like Roland Emmerich’s film The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike nuclear war, climate change is a gradual process. It will doom us all, but it’s not going to destroy us at any second. Plus, we can individually feel like it’s possible to do something about global warming, even if it’s just recycling or installing low-flow shower heads… but if a state leader, like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, gets a wild hair and decides to bomb Russia, there’s nothing anyone can do. So we have games like Nuclear War as a classic case of laughing to keep from crying… or constantly screaming in terror.

Thankfully, no bombs were dropped, the world didn’t blow up and the Cold War ended with the fall of Communism in Russia — huzzah. But we can look at Cold War-era media as both cautionary tales and examples of pitch-black gallows humor.

Would a game like Nuclear War be as popular today?

Could there be a comedic game like Nuclear War today for today’s world-ending scenarios? In terms of an environmental disaster game, it’s not likely: While the Union of Concerned Scientists (among others) point to our extreme weather patterns as results of climate change, and governments worldwide can enact policies to help fight it, there’s not a sense that one person’s behavior can set off a chain reaction to affect the entire world.

A case could be made for our fear of terrorism being fashioned into a Nuclear War-style game, but individual acts of terrorism strike on a local scale. Yes, terrorism can (and does) have worldwide repercussions, but again, there’s too many steps involved to end the entire world at the drop of a hat (or a bomb)… not to mention that if an act of terrorism destroys the entire world, there’s nobody left in which to instill terror, which kinda defeats the purpose of the act.

Also, the actual threat of nuclear war hasn’t gone away: In fact, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock (which shows the likelihood of apocalypse) to three minutes to midnight this year — as high as it’s been since 1984 — due, in part, to improvements in nuclear weaponry and an increase in tensions with our old frenemy Russia. And that’s not even counting the nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan.

But for whatever reason, we’re less concerned about immediate armageddon when it comes to today’s pop-culture. Nevertheless, games like Nuclear War (available soon in a new anniversary edition) remind us why we shouldn’t discount the idea we might all die at once in a nuclear fireball… and while we’re waiting, we might as well laugh.


GaymerX, GX3, Everyone Games

GX3: Everyone Games marks the third year of the GaymerX convention, a meeting of LGBTQ tabletop and console gamers with panels, meet-ups, parties and more! The convention takes place December 11 to 13 in San Jose, California.

This year’s Bosses of Honor include RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel, Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, and many, many more!

Tickets are available at GaymerX.com.

105 Comments

  1. Pingback: What Day Is It? Links | Gerry Canavan

  2. Pingback: Unicorn Booty x GX3: Magical Rainbows of Coverage | GaymerX: Everyone Games

  3. Pingback: George Zimmerman Finds A New Way To Be The Worst: Revenge Porn! | Unicorn Booty

  4. Pingback: karen millen dresses sale uk

  5. Pingback: Noto Suspension Light by Michele de Lucchi Shop

  6. Pingback: aluminium pendant light

  7. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Pendant

  8. Pingback: wholesale Philadelphia Eagles T-Shirts

  9. Pingback: Tradition Spinning Bh1 Pendant Online Price

  10. Pingback: lacoste polos

  11. Pingback: Tom Dixon Pressed Glass Suspension Light

  12. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Suspension Light Online Sale

  13. Pingback: Beat Tall Pendant Store

  14. Pingback: 2160 AT5 Ceiling Light by Luz Difusion Online

  15. Pingback: AXO Muse 40 by Sandro Santantonio

  16. Pingback: &Tradition Lamps Replicas

  17. Pingback: Castore Tavolo 25 Suspension Light Replica

  18. Pingback: Buy ALIBABABY 1 Pendant Light by Karman

  19. Pingback: 5 light vanity light

  20. Pingback: Bent Glass 70775 Desk Light Replica

  21. Pingback: living room light fittings

  22. Pingback: Artemide Float Linear Light Replica

  23. Pingback: &Tradition Copenhagen Pendant Lamp

  24. Pingback: Alouette Wall Light

  25. Pingback: 12v led light fixtures

  26. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Suspension Shop

  27. Pingback: 300 watt floor lamp

  28. Pingback: Lightyears Caravaggio Grande Pendant Lamp

  29. Pingback: Fortuny Petite Floor Lamp Online

  30. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Suspension Light Online Price

  31. Pingback: 12v light fixtures

  32. Pingback: Ukiyo 110 Lamp by AXO

  33. Pingback: Abc Pendant Light

  34. Pingback: kitchen table lighting fixtures

  35. Pingback: all modern lighting

  36. Pingback: Artemide Dioscuri Tavolo 35 Desk Light

  37. Pingback: Glo Ball F1 Floor Lamp by Flos Online Sale

  38. Pingback: Central Park Pendant Lamp by Matteo Ugolini Replica

  39. Pingback: Brand van Egmond Lights Price

  40. Pingback: Central Park Table by Matteo Ugolini Shop

  41. Pingback: Wholesale Niche Modern

  42. Pingback: t8 fluorescent light fixtures

  43. Pingback: family living room ideas

  44. Pingback: flood lighting

  45. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Light Store

  46. Pingback: Etch Pendant by Tom Dixon Store

  47. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Pendant Lamp Store

  48. Pingback: Dix Heures Dix Light fixtures Price

  49. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Pendant Shop

  50. Pingback: access lighting fixtures

  51. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh1 Pendant Light Store

  52. Pingback: cheap bedroom lighting

  53. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh1 Light

  54. Pingback: Cell Pendant Lamp by Matteo Ugolini

  55. Pingback: copper kitchen lighting

  56. Pingback: Loving Arms Suspension Light by Ilfari

  57. Pingback: halogen kitchen lighting

  58. Pingback: Agnes Wall Lamp

  59. Pingback: Tom Dixon Beat Stout Pendant Store

  60. Pingback: &Tradition Replicas

  61. Pingback: lamp shade black

  62. Pingback: Carmen Floor Light Shop

  63. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh1 by Benjamin Hubert Replica

  64. Pingback: Niche Modern Minaret Suspension Lamp Online Sale

  65. Pingback: 3w led bulb

  66. Pingback: Juicy Pendant Online Price

  67. Pingback: Etch Light by Tom Dixon Online Sale

  68. Pingback: 5w led bulb

  69. Pingback: Nelly 60 Wall by AXO Online Price

  70. Pingback: adjustable lamp

  71. Pingback: buy desk lamp online

  72. Pingback: 3 recessed lighting

  73. Pingback: Barovier Toso Babylon Chandelier Shop

  74. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Suspension Light

  75. Pingback: light fixture with outlet

  76. Pingback: affordable modern home decor

  77. Pingback: Studio Italia Design Nuvola Pendant Light Store

  78. Pingback: Pochette Wall Light by Flos Shop

  79. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Pendant Lamp Shop

  80. Pingback: &Tradition Spinning Bh2 Pendant Light Shop

  81. Pingback: lamps & lights

  82. Pingback: 100 watt bulbs

  83. Pingback: light fixtures nyc

  84. Pingback: Metalarte Copacabana Floor Light ReplicaArtemide Tizio Table Shop

  85. Pingback: home goods lamps

  86. Pingback: tatou s1 pendant light by patricia urquiola online price,platone w3 wall by prandina,brunilde light by samuele mazza online

  87. Pingback: tolomeo basculante by michele de lucchi online sale,louis poulsen ph snowball light shop,crown lamp

  88. Pingback: talak led table by artemide online,flos ariette wall lamp online price,float linear suspension light by artemide store

  89. Pingback: romeo babe light by philippe starck replica,castore by huub ubbens online sale,anta leuchten zac floor shop

  90. Pingback: standing floor lamps

  91. Pingback: interior design

  92. Pingback: contemporary

  93. Pingback: 172 suspension light

  94. Pingback: pendant fixtures

  95. Pingback: lamp parts

  96. Pingback: dar lighting

  97. Pingback: bedroom lighting

  98. Pingback: tech lighting

  99. Pingback: primitive chandelier

  100. Pingback: pendant lights

  101. Pingback: the lighting superstore

  102. Pingback: wayfarer ray ban baratas

  103. Pingback: gafas graduadas deporte

  104. Pingback: oakley fuel cell

  105. Pingback: My Homepage