24 What is War Good For? Still Nothing, Apparently
Card games are a fantastic way to pass the time, and socialize. But, what if I told you that not all card games are actually games? Definitions of games come in many shapes and sizes, each one changing what it means to be a game. Greg Costikyan’s definition includes many pieces, all vitally important to the system of a game. I’ll be using his definition to analyze the card game known as “War.”
“War” is a card game played with a single, “standard” deck of cards. The amount of players in “War” is only two. The typical recommended age is three or above. Players only need to know how to count or tell what number is higher than another. The deck is split in two equal halves and given to each player. The game is played in rounds rather than turns. Both players simultaneously flip a card up from their respective decks. Whichever player has the higher value card gets the other player’s card. These cards are then put on the bottom of that players deck. If the cards are the same value or rank, then it is “war.” When this happens, both players put a card face down and a card face up. If it is war again, they repeat this until one of them has a higher ranking card. Whichever player has the higher ranking card gets to take all of the cards from the war and put them on the bottom of their deck. The game repeats like this until one player has all the cards and then they win.
The Costikyan definition of a game revolves around six main elements. These elements are game tokens, goals, opposition/ struggle, decision-making, managing resources, and information. Every game requires these elements. If it is missing one, then it’s not considered a game. I will delve deeper into what these elements mean alone and in terms of the card game “War.”
Game tokens are any entity that a player can manipulate directly. These entities represent how well the player is doing in-game. Depending on the game, the game token could be the player’s cards, their character, or something that represents the player. In “War,” this would be the player’s deck of cards. This is because the deck represents how the player is doing in the game. If the deck is bigger, then they’re winning. If it’s smaller, then they’re losing. Resources are things you can use or collect in-game. They help you accomplish your goals. In “War,” your resources are all the cards in the game. In Costikyan’s definition, you have to be able to manage these resources using your game token(s). While the players “use” their respective deck halves, there’s no decisions to be made about the resources. Everything is straight-forward and there is only one thing you can do with your resources. Since there’s no choices to be made about the resources, there’s no managing of them. This is one of the downfalls in “War.”
Information is an interesting thing in “War” because both players constantly know the same information. Each player knows all the rules, types of cards, and the value of the card both players draw in any given round. There is hidden information (not knowing the next card in each deck), but the game is hiding it from the players rather than the players hiding it from each other.
Goals are something the player strives toward in a game. In “War”, the only goal is to collect all of the cards in the entire original deck. The opposition to this goal isn’t the other player, as one would suspect in a two-player game, but rather it’s the game’s system or chance. I say this because the players aren’t making any decisions or particularly controlling much of what goes on in the game. Neither player has control over whether anyone wins or loses.
This brings me to the most important aspect of “War:” it had no decision making. The game completely lacks the ability to provide this. The only thing the player does is flip a card over and give it away or take their opponent’s card depending on the value. According to Costikyan, this would be the biggest weakness in this “game.” Due to the fact that there’s no decision making, managing resources is extremely simple. Goals feel meaningless because everything is left to chance. There’s no strategy involved whatsoever, as players need to be able to decide things in order to make a strategy. The “game” eventually stops being fun due to this lack of decision-making.
“War” was an extremely fun game when I was a little kid. I used to play it for hours on end while sitting in bed with my siblings. Now that I’m older, I really can’t see myself playing it for more than ten minutes, much less over an hour. I would have wondered about why but after analyzing it I realize it’s because of the lack of decision-making. Knowing this, I have to wonder how many successful children’s games don’t have a decision making element in them.