This is a children's game played in many parts of the world. No strategy is involved - simply the ability to recognise which of two cards is higher in rank, and to follow the procedure of the game. The standard two-player game is described first, then the game for three or four players, a version in which captured cards can be stolen, a Russian version of it called Drunkard (P'yanitsa), and a German version Tod und Leben.
See also the War Variations page, for variations of War submitted by readers.
In the basic game there are two players and you use a standard 52 card pack. Cards rank as usual from high to low: A K Q J T 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2. Suits are ignored in this game.
Deal out all the cards, so that each player has 26. Players do not look at their cards, but keep them in a packet face down. The object of the game is to win all the cards.
Both players now turn their top card face up and put them on the table. Whoever turned the higher card takes both cards and adds them (face down) to the bottom of their packet. Then both players turn up their next card and so on.
If the turned up cards are equal there is a war. The tied cards stay on the table and both players play the next card of their pile face down and then another card face-up. Whoever has the higher of the new face-up cards wins the war and adds all six cards face-down to the bottom of their packet. If the new face-up cards are equal as well, the war continues: each player puts another card face-down and one face-up. The war goes on like this as long as the face-up cards continue to be equal. As soon as they are different the player of the higher card wins all the cards in the war.
The game continues until one player has all the cards and wins. This can take a long time.
Most descriptions of War are not clear about what happens if a player runs out of cards during a war. There are at least two possibilities:
War can also be played by three or more players in much the same way. Deal out as many as possible of the cards so that everyone has an equal number (17 for 3 players, 13 for 4).
All players simultaneously turn over a card and the highest wins all the cards tuned up. If two or more players tie for highest there is a war - everyone plays their next card face-down and then turns up a third card. This continues until one of the face-up cards is higher than all the others, and then that player wins all the cards in a war.
Note that all players take part in a war, not only the ones who had the highest cards.
A player who runs out of cards drops out. The game goes on until only one player has cards, and that player wins.
Many players play three face-down cards in a war rather than just one. When equal cards are turned up the players play the next three cards from their pile face down, sometimes saying "W - A - R" and then turning up the next card to decide which player wins all ten cards. Some say "I - de - clare - war" with the word "war" said as the new face up card is played.
Some add two jokers to the pack, in which case they count as the highest cards, above the aces. Since the jokers are very powerful, some prefer to make sure that both are not given to one player, but separate them from the pack before dividing it between the players and then burying one joker in each player's stack of cards.
In the Romanian variation Război, the number of cards played in a war is determined by the value of the card that caused the war. For example if both players turn over sevens, the war consists of each player playing seven cards, the last of then face up to determine the winner. I am not sure how picture cards are treated in this version - maybe they all have the value 10. If one player does not have enough cards for the war, all players play the same number of cards as the player who had fewest. If there is a war and one of the participants has no cards at all to play, that player loses.
Many variations submitted by readers of this site will be found on the War Variations page of the Invented games section.
This variation, reported by Gary Philippy and Hayes Ruberti, is a sort of hybrid of War and Stealing Bundles. The basis is a normal game of War, in which wars consist of three cards played face down followed by one face up. The deck includes two jokers, which are the highest cards.
When cards are won, they are not added to the bottom of the winner's card supply but placed in a pile face up beside the player. Each player has a single face up pile. Newly won cards are added to the top of the pile and the winner can choose which of the new cards to place on top.
As players take cards from the top of their face down packet to play, they look at them before playing them. If the rank of your card matches the top card of an opponent's face-up pile, then instead of playing it normally you can use it to steal that pile. You put your card face up on top of the pile your are stealing and then take the whole of the stolen pile and place it on top of your own pile without changing the order of the cards. You then look at the next card from your face down packet and play it (or, in a game of more than 2 players, possibly steal another pile and play the next card).
If each player's card matches the top card of the other player's capture pile, they can both steal and the two capture piles are exchanged.
The three cards played face down during a war are not looked at and cannot be used to steal an opponent's pile, but the following card can be used to steal instead of competing to win the war if it matches an opponent's pile.
Once you have played a card and let go of it, you can no longer use it to steal an opponent's pile. Sometimes players miss stealing opportunities accidentally, but you may deliberately choose to play your card rather than stealing with it. For example you might prefer to use it to win a war rather than steal a small pile.
As soon as a player's packet of face down cards runs out, the player's face-up pile is turned over and shuffled to make a new face-down packet of cards to play from.
A player who runs out of cards during a war loses immediately.
As the game was originally described, there is the possibility for a pile that was stolen to be stolen back immediately if both players draw a card the is equal to the top card of one of the stacks. This depends on the timing of the play. If A's face-up pile has a 9 on top and A and B both have 9's as their next play card, then B can steal A's pile and A can steal it back, provided that B steals before A has played. If B waits until after A has played the 9, then A can no longer use it to steal and the cards remain with B. This is rather unsatisfactory, since in this situation A and B might wait indefinitely for the other to play first. The following rule is suggested as a solution: if you play a card that matches your own pile, it protects your pile from being stolen during that turn of play. So in the example A can play the 9 normally and B cannot steal A's pile. B can only play the 9 normally for a war.
Leo Broukhis contributed this Russian version of War, which he says is mostly played by kids in summer camps on a rainy day.
Günther Senst played this simple variant as a child in Mecklenburg, Germany.
The collection HOYLE Card Games for Windows or Mac OS X includes a War program, along with many other popular card games.