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Laughing at Apocalypse : In 'Nuclear War,' the End of the World Is in the Cards

April 18, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer(

Aware of the out-of-print game's small but loyal following among gamers, Loomis tracked down Malewicki in 1972. Malewicki, who now averages several hundred dollars a month in royalty payments, is amazed that since Loomis began reissuing the game "it somehow caught on. Don't ask me how."

Because of Nuclear War's antiquated arsenal of B-70 bombers and Atlas and Polaris missiles, Loomis in 1984 began producing an updated, spin-off card game called Nuclear Escalation which features Star Wars-style killer satellites and orbiting missile bases. But Nuclear War is still the Coke classic of its genre, with game outlets selling about 6,000 copies a year, according to Loomis.

With the popularity of home computers, it was only natural that a Nuclear War tournament would be played electronically over a computer network, in this case both CompuServe and MCI Mail.

On April 14, 1984, Loomis conducted the first annual "The Day Before" Nuclear War tournament with teams playing in 18 cities. (The tournament was so named, he explained, as both a play on words on the TV-movie "The Day After" which dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, and also because the first tournament was held the day before the deadline for filing income tax returns).

"The Day Before" may also hold the distinction of being the only game tournament in which there has so far been no winners. Says Loomis: "Everybody got blown up both times."

For the first two tournaments, Loomis said, "it was all done over the (computer) networks, but we shuffled the cards here (in Arizona), dealt them out and laid them on the table. This year we've written a computer program to shuffle and deal the cards automatically so we don't have to do that. That saves considerable time."

Still, he said, there is no telling how long the tournament may last. With only about seven-hour breaks for sleep at night, he said, "The first year we finished about 1 or 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon. The second year the world ended on 10 a.m. Sunday."

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Because there were no winners the first two years, Loomis said, "We sent the trophies off to the last surviving groups--the ones that died last": Toledo, Ohio, the first year; and Santa Ana the second year.

During a lull in the tournament on Saturday, some of the players provided a status report on how they had survived the first round of the tournament.

"Everybody kind of left me alone the first round," Barb Baser said by telephone from Detroit. The 38-year-old office manager for a computer software firm whose computer "handle" is Ms. Wiz, is a veteran of the first two Nuclear War tournaments.

"Normally," she said, "I use the strategy of leaving everybody else alone and doing nonaggressive type things and I normally last just about the whole game."

Cliff Mertins of Jacksonville, Fla., who has played the Nuclear War card game since 1978 and who also played in the first two tournaments, said he and his friends made it through the first round unscathed.

"I played a propaganda card on Pasadena for 10 million people, and I also played a secret card on Pasadena and knocked them out for a turn," Mertins said, explaining the reasons behind his tactics: "I think they played last year and they wiped me out of the game."

Nevertheless, he said, he went after Washington D.C. instead of Pasadena on the second turn "just because I really didn't want to be the person to put them (Pasadena) out (of the game)." Referring to the $30-per-team fee that Flying Buffalo charges to finance the tournament, he added, "I know I'd be a little upset if three or four people ganged up on me and put me out in the second turn."

As for "the morality of pretending to destroy cities," Mertins said, "if you can't play this game with a laugh you shouldn't be playing it. Anybody that takes this game seriously must be on drugs. It's basically just a good time game."

Arthur Rubin of the Pasadena team, who lost 35 million people in the first round thanks to Jacksonville and Irvine, agrees.

"Maybe," said the 30-year-old computer programmer, "it's a way of laughing at nuclear war."

Malewicki, who was participating in his first Nuclear War tournament, said he can't explain the game's popularity. In fact, he acknowledged, he is both surprised and pleased the game is still around.

"Oh yeah, I love it; I like getting my little (royalty) checks," he said in his kitchen during a lull in the action. Money aside, he added, "Even though it's a stupid game, to have one of my inventions called 'quintessential' is really neat."

Malewicki was interrupted by a flurry of activity in the "war room." It was 9:40 a.m.

"Someone just Super Germed us!" reported Frank Hines, a 24-year-old computer systems analyst from Encino. "Little Rock did it."

The dreaded Super Germ card wipes out 25 million people. But because Irvine had only 21 million people left after the first round, Malewicki announced the inevitable: "We're out."

Back in the "war room," he and his team mates planned their final retaliation.

"Let's drop 10 megatons on Pasadena--then we'll apologize," suggested Malewicki, adding with a grin: "If we hadn't insulted everyone last night, we'd probably still be in the game."

"The Day Before," a postscipt: By Wednesday morning, the tournament was dragging into its fifth day of play, with 17 teams down and three to go: Chicago, Detroit and Enid, Okla.

Because most players are working, they are now doing only two turns a day, said Loomis, who admitted he didn't expect the tournament to last this long.

"There's a good chance (Chicago and Enid) will finish off Detroit with their final retaliation, then we'll be down to two," he said. "And after that, maybe there will be four more turns. My prediction is that Chicago is going to win."

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