Do you want to launch nuclear weapons at your friends while wearing a balaclava with ‘evil’ written on it, from the comfort of your living room? Do you like satire, have a somewhat dark sense of humour, and enjoy anarchic games of world conquest? Then War on Terror is the game for you. The lovechild of Risk and Have I Got News For You, War on Terror has players play the role of powerful nations, out to ‘liberate’ the world, who can use terrorists to help them win. The twist is that anyone who gets knocked out joins the terrorists, whose ranks swell the longer the game goes on.
Although playable with between two and six players, the game is better with at least four. It takes between two and three hours to finish, and is best supplemented with beer, crisps and pizza. The idea for the game was conceived way back in 2003, at the height of Bush, Blair and Iraq. It’s now more than a decade since it first came out. It made headlines as tabloid newspapers rushed to condemn it as tasteless, subversive, or even dangerous. The media circus has moved on, but, sadly, the game still feels relevant.
You’ll need to choose your audience. Players without a sense of humour, who hold a grudge, and are the sort to get uptight and argumentative about politics won’t like this. It’s maybe not the game to play with Great Aunt Hilda. But do you really want to play with her anyway? Unless you’re playing with particularly sensitive people, War on Terror is harmless. There’s no swearing, sex, and only cartoony violence, so there’s no real reason children couldn’t play, other than the game being a shade too complicated and confusing for the very young. You could argue there is an educational aspect to the game, as it draws attention to global politics, hypocrisy, double standards, and power grabs masquerading as morality.
The main charge against it is that it pokes fun at serious subjects – terrorism, global conflict, nuclear weapons – but that’s something you could say about any war-themed game. Was Chess controversial when it first began? Or is it abstract enough that we forget it is about war?
Calculating gamers, those who stroke their chins, consider their options, and think ten moves in advance, are not going to like War on Terror. A huge amount of luck is involved. Your empire can be reduced to rubble in a single round, and no amount of careful planning will save you. If you’re the type that prefers euro-games of quiet contemplation, worker placement, and careful accumulation, this is definitely not for you. Aside from your starting cash, you’ll be financing your war effort through oil rolls. Any zones you control collect oil money if the number they are on comes up. Each player rolls the oil dice at the end of their turn, so you have a chance to collect dosh even when it’s not your go. As 7s come up more often than 2s and 12s, zones with middle ranking numbers are more valuable.
The oil counters are placed randomly, and some are blank, so you might end up fighting over Antarctica and South America, and ignoring the barren Middle East. You win by controlling regions, with bonus points for cities. You’ll be looking to expand and build upwards in oil rich zones, as towns and cities collect more oil revenue that villages.
You’ll need cards to attack, steal from, and generally harass other players. These are drawn each turn, entirely at random, so you might not get what you’re looking for. You can spend your loot on extra cards or to fund terrorists, which you can use to pester your rivals, but keep an eye on your opponents, and try not to make yourself too obvious a target.
The ‘axis of evil’ is a spinner on the board, determining which player becomes the ‘evil empire’. This is where that balaclava comes in. The evil empire player has to wear it, and other players get bonuses for attacking them. It’s a neat little gimmick, but doesn’t add much to the game. The board and components are decent quality, with plastic pieces that are basic, but colourful. The scrappy artwork, which in another game might look amateurish, fits the chaotic theme.
There isn’t much strategy beyond trying to get hold of oil-rich zones, and spreading yourself out, to limit your vulnerability to a nuclear strike. The real heart of the game is bluffing and diplomacy. You’ll need to establish alliances, pretend to have powerful cards – like nukes – in your hand, and persuade your rivals to fight amongst themselves. Backstabbing and double-dealing is the order of the day, and there’s a secret memo pad to use, to add to the paranoia.
Removing player elimination by having defeated empires become terrorists is a nice touch, but it’s actually difficult for the terrorist players to win, especially in games with fewer players. Terrorists are cheap and easy to use, but can be used by anyone, so empire players are wary of relying on them as they know they’ll cause problems later. The terrorist players win collectively if they dominate enough of the map, but they’ll have to work hard, or get lucky, to triumph.
You’ll need to decide when to turn-terrorist. You can switch in your first turn if you like, but you’ll want to do so when it will have maximum impact and benefit you the most, usually when you realise you’re unlikely to win as an empire. Do you fall away subtly, manipulating others Machiavelli style in the background, exploiting distractions, or do you flood the board with terrorists and launch an all-out attack, burning bright and fast? Terrorists have their own deck of cards – which the evil empire also has access to – but they run out of money quickly, as they don’t collect oil revenue. Without other players joining, and bringing their cash with them, terrorists don’t do much besides annoy other players. You’ll be looking for empire players to bribe you not to attack them, or to attack their enemies.
There are templates for you to make your own cards, and the game encourages you to make your own house rules. Empires rise and fall, things can quickly descend into mayhem, and the game mechanics give you enough to do without feeling overwhelming. On the satire side, War on Terror gets its point across with humour, without seeming too heavy- handed. If you can get your hands on a copy for between £40 and £60, and have a group of like-minded friends, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.
It’s more fun than never ending dice roll-a-thons like Risk, and less dense and rules heavy than serious war simulators like Axis and Allies. Although a shade longer than it needs to be, there’s an actual game here, not just a political joke, that’s well worth your time. As long as you don’t mind wearing a sweaty balaclava that several other people have wrapped around their faces, that is.