Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Learning from A Classroom Game

 All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door”

Albert Camus

When I was in high school way back in the early-mid 1980s – and totally immersed in roleplaying games as well as a few wargames – I pursued an idea for a nuclear war themed card game. I’d never seen Flying Buffalo’s Nuclear War, though the advertisements for it in Dragon Magazine probably lurked in my subconscious. My junior-year English teacher encouraged me in my game-design endeavors, to the point where she asked me to prepare a master to photocopy and trim so everyone in the class could give it a try. Looking back on it all these years later, it reminds me of a few lessons about creativity, production, and a game’s intention; lessons I failed to realize at the time but issues with which I’ve contended throughout my involvement in the adventure game hobby.

I look back on my idyllic high school afternoons with longing for a simpler time. Each day I got up early to get an hour’s practice of violin (a big part of my life at the time), then breakfast, catching the bus, and an intense, stress-inducing day of classes. After getting home I had about two or three hours before dinner, after which it was time for several hours of homework. I spent that afternoon time immersing myself in games: writing material for my intended roleplaying game adventures; painting miniatures; playing out my own map-based campaigns with the minis; running games for neighborhood kids; and creating my own board, card, and wargames (which I also inflicted on the local kids). Most of this work seems embarrassingly dreadful today: a typed and photocopied roleplaying game fanzine, odd scenarios, and many extremely mediocre (at best) board and card games elaborating on numerous interests and ideas.

Coming of age in the early 1980s I lived with a latent fear of nuclear annihilation. No doubt the Cold War had eased since the 1950s and 60s, but anxieties about world war still lurked in our consciousness. The Day After had premiered my sophomore year in high school; it and the world’s seeming disregard for military escalation didn’t help my worrisome imagination. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fare emerged in media, even in games. The news reported on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” systems of weapons that might interdict a nuclear strike. Naturally all this talk of nuclear war worked its way into my gaming. I began developing a simple game where players attacked enemy cities and protected their own assets with an array of contemporary weapons.

I’m not sure how aware I was that a game about nuclear war already existed in the hobby games market, but I moved forward developing a serious game about nuclear war based on my incredibly limited knowledge of the subject and my incomplete understanding of how game rules, components, and strategies worked. I still have the original rules and cards for Nuclear Diplomacy, a collection of manual-typewritten rules and hand-drawn cards with stamped names, along with earlier, hand-written drafts and cards. Beyond using the family’s portable Smith-Corona typewriter, I raided our stash of 3x5 index cards, meticulously cutting them in half to somewhat approximate a standard-sized playing card. The rules came in at seven typed pages, double-spaced (as I’d been taught in junior high typing class), with 48 cards.

The rules accommodated 2-5 players. Each received seven cards from the deck, an assortment of cities, bombers, nuclear missiles, interceptor missiles, a few incident cards, and the coveted defense satellites, all with values from 1-3. Players deployed their cards face-up. Each turn a player drew and deployed another card, could trade cards with other players (necessary to get cities, without which a player could draw no cards on their turn), then initiate up to two attacks. ICBMs and bombers could eliminate enemy cards of equal or lesser value (and combine attacks if necessary), including cities and enemy weapons. Only the largest (and rarest) missile could destroy the seemingly all-powerful defense satellite, which could stop one attack each turn. Looking back on it now, the gameplay offered few player choices and little strategy, a simple slugfest between nuclear powers. I played it a few times with the neighborhood kids. We didn’t have terribly high standards, but we enjoyed blasting away at each others’ cities with an array of weapons.

At that point I’d really only played roleplaying games, starting with Dungeons & Dragons and branching out to other titles available at that time. My board and card game experience remained limited to Avalon Hill wargames and a handful of other hobby games. I had no access to near unlimited (and sometimes contradictory) resources on an internet like tutorial videos, game-design articles, or information about professional military wargames. I only had access to print publications, game magazines and meager resources discovered in the school and public libraries’ card catalog, and even those didn’t amount to much. No books about game design. Nothing but news stories about the non-classified aspects of SDI. Just reading the SDI page at Wikipedia today I realize how much I didn’t know – and wasn’t available through print publications at the time – that I might have incorporated in a more accurate, fact-based portrayal of nuclear conflict.

Seeing (and no-doubt hearing me talk incessantly about) my game design efforts, my English teacher gave me an opportunity to run the game for our class. I prepared letter-sized card sheets she could photocopy and trim into sets enough for student groups to play. I quickly learned how much production preparation matters; rather than making sure each page was evenly divided into nine cards, I had some spare space on one side and the top...so if all the pages weren’t oriented the same way in the photocopier, trimmed evenly, or even misaligned with the top sheet it created an offset mess. But it’s what I had to work with. It provided me with my first experience with a third party producing a game from my initial direction. I learned the importance of clear production instructions for someone else to produce the game.

We spent one class period playing Nuclear Diplomacy. I explained the rules as players shuffled and dealt out their misaligned decks among groups of four players. As people started playing, asking questions, and voicing frustration, I realized it was a disaster. No doubt I didn’t explain the rules terribly well and the misaligned cards probably puzzled some folks, but students tried their best to make sense of everything (it was at the very least a break from challenging class discussions). Games didn’t last very long. Nobody likes having their cities blown up, especially if they didn’t happen to have any countermeasures available. As the game wrapped up, one classmate approached me and declared that this game wasn’t fun at all, everybody lost. So, despite my own frustrations, poor game design, and a production mishap, I did get one thing right: nobody wins in a global nuclear exchange.

After high school I put most of my homemade games in a box, which I’ve dutifully hauled around from one place to another throughout my adult life. As awful as they were, I still keep them around as a reminder of my younger days, of how far I’ve come in terms of writing and game design, and of my youthful ambitions. I doubt if looking at them might provide any tidbits of viable game ideas, not after more than 30 years of the adventure gaming hobby evolving with innovative developments. They bring back memories of afternoons spent playing games with neighborhood kids, of free periods in school with like-minded friends rolling dice, dealing cards, and moving chits across a board, of summers spent painting miniatures, creating scenarios and maps, and indulging in escapist entertainment. Reflecting on them reminds me of lessons I didn’t quite learn back then but can appreciate today.

There are no classes in life for beginners; right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult.”

Rainer Maria Rilke


  1. "A strange game. The only way to win is not to play." But of course, nuclear scenarios were being gamed out since the 60's at the RAND corporation, where the hexagonal wargame grid was developed.

    1. As I grew older I realized how wargaming a nuclear scenario had little appeal: neither side won and the real-world ramifications were unimaginable. These days post-apocalyptic games have no appeal to me. That said, games exploring the build-up to and avoidance of such scenarios, especially in modern-day issues, prove interesting and can inspire further discussion.


We welcome civil discussion and polite engagement. We reserve the right to remove comments that do not respect others in this regard.