Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Game of the Month: War

One of the all-time classics, War is a deeply intriguing game with almost limitless mathematical complexity. War couples extensive replayability with the chance to get back in the game on nearly every turn. It's a game that a child can master in minutes yet delights and frustrates adults all the same, and it's a natural choice for the April Game of the Month.

Style and Gameplay

War is a deck-building card came that uses a standard 52-card deck (without jokers). Suit is ignored, and cards are ranked 2 (low) through ace (high). An equal number of cards is dealt to every player, forming each player's deck. Then, each player plays one card simultaneously, with the high card winning the round. One of the unique mechanics in War is that the winning card "captures" the other cards, adding them to the winning player's deck.

The most important mechanic, though, is the eponymous "War". When two cards tie, one (or more) cards are dealt face-down to increase the stakes of the war, then one is dealt face-up to resolve the battle. It's the only situation in which imperfect information exists in War, and it can be used to reinforce the strength of a deck--or to subtly steal a player's best cards.

War plays quickly, though play time can vary depending on how the war draws work out, and it can suffer from the need to constantly shuffle decks, particularly when relatively few players are playing. Plenty of variants exist, house rules are easy to apply, and the game scales well for two to six players.

Analysis and Anecdotes

Despite a simple set of rules and the use of a standard deck, War is far from a solved game. Its mathematics have been studied extensively, and a number of its aspects have been studied in detail, including finiteness, predictability, and periodicity. In particular, the rules for shuffle triggers and card addition upon winning a round are not standardized, introducing substantial potential for variance.

War has a propensity to create unpredictable situations and large swings in win probability after only a single move. In contrast to Euro-style board games, where strategic consistency is rewarded and a misplay on an early turn can unduly jeopardize a strategy for the rest of the game, War allows unexpected victories, and bad draws in early rounds can easily be erased later on.

Perhaps the greatest source of tension in War tends to be the climactic final battle, when one player is reduced to zero cards and must play out a war knowing it could be his last. This is another area where variants and house rules abound; sometimes, if a player is unable to send enough "troops" to a war, he simply loses, while other rules state that a player's final card can make a "last stand" and fight whatever cards the other players can throw at it.

Overall Impressions

Because of how versatile and widely known it is, War is an ideal time-passer, and it's fascinating to learn how each player has interpreted the game slightly differently. It's easy to get multiple games in, and since each game plays wildly differently, a single game of War that doesn't quite go your way isn't tough to recover from

2+ players, 10-20 minutes, free with a deck of cards.

And a very happy, if slightly belated, April Fools' from Ludi Berkeley!