War Games

The future of global-thermonuclear-war

An original Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory kit, showing four jars of radioactive samples in the upper left corner.

The Most Dangerous Toy in the World

by Voula Saridakis, curator at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit, includes three sources of radiation and four radioactive uranium ores. The kit first available in 1950, comes with an instruction booklet, a pamphlet on how to prospect uranium, and a variety of tools that enable you to dive deep into the world of atomic chemistry.

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab is a toy lab set that was produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, who was an American athlete, magician, toy-maker, business man, and inventor of the "Erector Set". Gilbert believed that toys were the foundation in building a "solid American character", and many of his toys had some type of educational significance to them. Gilbert was even dubbed "the man who saved Christmas" during World War I when he convinced the US Council of National Defense not to ban toy purchases during Christmas time.

The Atomic Energy Lab was released by the A. C. Gilbert Company in 1950. The kit's intention was to allow children to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions using radioactive material. The Atomic Energy Lab was just one of a dozen chemical reactions lab kits on the market at the time. Gilbert’s toys often included instructions on how the child could use the set to put on his own "magic show". For parents, he pushed the idea that the sets' use of chemical reactions directed their children toward a potential career in science and engineering.

In 1954, Gilbert wrote in his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise, that the Atomic Energy Laboratory was "the most spectacular, of new educational toys". Gilbert wrote that the Government encouraged the set's development because it believed the lab would aid public understanding of atomic energy and emphasize its constructive aspects. Gilbert also defended his Atomic Energy Laboratory, stating it was safe, accurate, and that some of the country's best nuclear physicists had worked on the project.

The set originally sold for $49.50 (equivalent of $520 in 2018) and contained the following:

  • Battery-powered Geiger–Müller counter
  • Electroscope
  • Spinthariscope
  • Wilson cloud chamber
  • Four glass jars containing uranium-bearing ore samples (autunite, torbernite, uraninite, and carnotite from the "Colorado plateau region") serving as low-level radiation sources of Alpha particles (Pb-210 and Po-210), Beta particles (Ru-106), Gamma rays (possibly Zn-65).
  • "Nuclear spheres" for making a model of an alpha particle
  • Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual — a 60-page instruction book
  • Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom — comic book introduction to radioactivity
  • Prospecting for Uranium — a book
  • Three C batteries
  • the 1951 Gilbert Toys catalog

The product catalog described the set as follows: "Produces awe-inspiring sights! Enables you to actually SEE the paths of electrons and alpha particles traveling at speeds of more than 10,000 miles per SECOND! Electrons racing at fantastic velocities produce delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation – beautiful to watch. Viewing Cloud Chamber action is closest man has come to watching the Atom! Assembly kit (Chamber can be put together in a few minutes) includes Dri-Electric Power Pack, Deionizer, Compression Bulb, Glass Viewing Chamber, Tubings, Power Leads, Stand, and Legs."

Among other activities, the kit suggested "playing hide and seek with the gamma ray source", challenging players to use the Geiger counter to locate a radioactive sample hidden in a room.

Unlike other A.C. Gilbert Company chemistry sets, the Atomic Energy Lab was never popular and was soon taken off the shelves. Fewer than 5000 kits were sold, and the product was only offered in 1950 and 1951. Gilbert believed the Atomic Energy Lab was commercially unsuccessful because the lab was more appropriate for those who had some educational background rather than the younger crowd that the A.C. Gilbert Company aimed for. Columbia University purchased five of these sets for their physics lab.
Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, Wikipedia

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"Boom goes London, and boom Pa'ris, more room for you, and more room for me"

Rules: Nuclear War


NUCLEAR WAR is a game for two to six players. Each player represents a major world power and attempts to gain world domination through the strategic use of propaganda techniques or nuclear weapons. A sound strategy, however, is not always a guarantee of success. As in the real world, the results of strategic decisions are not predictable and such factors as the chance dispersion of deadly radioactive fallout particles may significantly alter the course of events.

Detailed Instructions

Object of the Game

Each player seeks to gain world domination by eliminating the other major powers. This can be accomplished in two ways. The peaceful way is to persuade the population of opposing countries to join your superior form of government. The warlike way is to destroy the enemy population by using nuclear weapons. Population is the measure of success or failure in the game and you withdraw from the game if you lose your entire population.


Population Cards. There are forty population cards in the game in the following five denominations: 1 million, 2 million, 5 million, 10 million and 25 million.
Nuclear War Cards. There are 100 cards, each being either a warhead, delivery system, propaganda, anti-missile, secret or top secret card.
Dice. There are two ten-sided dice to use when making an attack.
Placements. Each player has a placemat which holds their cards in play. The placemat has locations for your face up card, first face down card, second face down card, two deterrent cards, and population cards. A germ symbol moves from placemat to placemat to indicate whose turn it is.

Setting up the Game

  • A random player is selected to go first.
  • Starting population is determined by a random deal of the population cards. Each player gets a set number of cards depending on how many people are playing the game:
    • 2 Players 15 Cards
    • 3 Players 10 Cards
    • 4 Players 8 Cards
    • 5 Players 7 Cards
    • 6 Players 6 Cards
  • The remaining population cards are placed in the bank in the center of the table.
  • The Nuclear War deck is then shuffled and nine cards are dealt to each player. The remaining cards are placed face down in the center of the table, forming the draw pile.

    Setup Phase

    The first player begins by playing all secret and top secret cards in their hand. The cards are discarded after being played and the player is immediately given replacement cards from the draw pile and proceeds to play any more secret or top secret cards that are drawn. This process continues until their nine-card hand contains no secret or top secret cards. The next player clockwise then does the same, and so on around the table.

Next, each player places two cards face down on the table in the spaces provided on the placemats. Since these cards are turned over on succeeding turns, the player is now committed to a specific strategy for the first two turns.

Game Turn

Play starts with the first player and proceeds clockwise around the table. The turn order is as follows:
Draw Cards and Resolve Secrets
You are automatically given cards from the draw pile until your hand size totals ten (including cards on your placemat except those in the face up card location). The moment that you draw a secret or top secret card, you need to resolve it. Once it is resolved, you continue drawing until you reach ten cards without having any secrets or top secrets. At this time, the card in your first face down card location automatically moves to your face up location, with the card in the second face down location moving up to the first.
Modify Deterrents
If you?d like, you can move a card from your hand to one of the two deterrent locations on your placemat, or vice versa. These spaces are used to show all other players one or two cards in your hand, normally with a hope that they'll serve as a deterrent against being attacked.
Place a Card
You must now place a card in the second face down card location. This card can come from your hand or from a deterrent location. Once you do this, you cannot modify your deterrent cards until your next turn.
Resolve Face Up Card
The card that was just moved into your face up card location is turned over and it is resolved. See the next section for card resolutions.
End Turn
Play proceeds to the next player clockwise, unless someone intercepted a missile. If so, then the last person to intercept during the turn becomes the next player (and play proceeds clockwise from them).

Card Resolutions

Follow these rules when your card is resolved on your turn:

Propaganda Card

As long as there is a state of peace (see below), this card is effective. You steal population from the enemy of your choice and the card is discarded. If there is a state of war, the card is discarded with no effect.

Delivery System (Missile or Bomber)

These cards are used to set up an attack on your next turn. The delivery system remains face up and is not discarded. If on the next turn you turn over a warhead card useable by that delivery system, then you are ready to attack. If the next card is not a usable warhead card, the delivery system is discarded. Each delivery system lists the maximum size warhead that it can carry; anything equal to or less than this number is useable.


For a warhead card to be effective, it must be preceded on the turn before by a delivery system capable of carrying it. If it was, then you must launch an attack (see below). If not, the warhead is not launched and is discarded.

Anti-Missile Card

These cards are only effective in defending against an attack, if you have placed it on your placemat it is not useful and is simply discarded.


When you launch a warhead you must choose a target for your attack. The target can intercept your warhead if they have and choose to play the appropriate anti-missile card. Each anti-missile card lists the delivery systems that it can shoot down. To keep you from knowing their cards, the target needs to signify that whether they are intercepting even if they have no anti-missile cards. If the target does intercept, the attack is a failure. If not, then you roll on the nuclear fallout chart to see what happens. The warhead does the damage listed on the card, then modified by the chart. Note that in the computer game version, a missile that explodes on launch damages the attacker.

00-04 Missile booster explodes on launch. If attack was anything other than a bomber, attacker takes damage. Bomber runs out of fuel If attack was with a bomber, then all cards in the face up cards location of the attacker are discarded and no one is hit with a warhead.
05-09 Dud warhead Nothing happens.
10-22 Bomb shelter saves 2 million. Target takes damage minus 2,000,000.
23-35 Additional 1 million engulfed in fireball. Target takes damage plus 1,000,000.
36-49 No appreciable radiation fallout. Target takes damage.
50-63 Radioactive fallout kills another 2 million. Target takes damage plus 2,000,000.
64-76 Radioactive beta rays kill another 5 million. Target takes damage plus 5,000,000.
77-89 Lethal doses of gamma rays kill another 10 million. Target takes damage plus 10,000,000.
90-94 Dirty Bomb! Double the yield. Target takes damage times 2.
95-99 Explodes a nuclear stockpile! Triple Yield! Target takes damage times 3.
100 If the attacking warhead is a 100 megaton variety, a Super Chain Reaction destroys the world!

If the delivery system was a missile, the missile and the warhead are discarded. If the delivery system was a bomber, check to see if the bomber's payload is empty. The bomber can attack in multiple, successive turns until it has dropped warheads equal to its payload or until the next card turned up is either not a warhead or takes the payload over the limit, at which point the bomber and its warheads are discarded.

State of Peace and State of War

Once the target of a warhead is selected, a state of war exists. This is true even if the delivery system is subsequently shot down, explodes on launch, or is a dud. Peace is not restored until a player has been forced from the game through annihilation of their population.

When peace is restored, each player may alter their strategy by replacing one or two face down cards with cards from their hand. You may not replace a card that has already been turned face up, but the face up cards remain in play, in case you wish to continue with your previous strategy.

Final Retaliation

If you have been eliminated through the use of secret or top secret cards or by a warhead you have the privilege of immediate final retaliation before retiring from the game (you do not have this privilege if you were beaten peacefully with propaganda cards). You:

  1. Combine each acceptable delivery system and warhead card that you possess (multiple warheads are fine on a bomber as long as you follow the payload limit)
  2. Announce a target for each separate delivery system
  3. After all targets are selected, roll for the attacks in the order that you announced them.
  4. Discard any remaining cards. You can continue to watch the game and chat with the other players.

Note that you do get final retaliation if you draw a secret or top secret card that destroys the last of your own population. Also, if final retaliation wipes out another player, that player also gets final retaliation, so it is possible to start a chain reaction that destroys all of the remaining players!


You win the game if you are the last player left with population. Thus, there may not be a winner in the Nuclear War game.

Copyright © 1965 by Douglas Malewicki
Published by Flying Buffalo

Political Science by Randy Newman

No one likes us
I don't know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one
And see what happens

We give them money
But are they grateful
No, they're spiteful
And they're hateful
They don't respect us
So let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one
And pulverize them

Asia's crowded
And Europe's too old
Africa's far too hot
And Canada's too cold
And South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia
Don't want to hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an all American amusement park there
They've got surfing, too

Boom goes London
And boom Paris
More room for you
And more room for me
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town
Oh, how peaceful it'll be
We'll set everybody free
You'll have Japanese kimonos, baby
There'll be Italian shoes for me

They all hate us anyhow
So let's drop the big one now
Let's drop the big one now

Songwriters: Randy Newman
Political Science lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

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