When I was a kid, one of my favorite card games was War. In retrospect, I don’t really understand why I got so much enjoyment out of it, given that there is absolutely no strategy to the game whatsoever. If you happened to miss this game during your childhood, the rules are simple:
The deck is divided evenly between the players face-down. Each player reveals his top card, and the player with the higher card puts both the cards on the bottom of his deck. If the cards are of equal value, each player plays three face-down cards and a fourth face-up card, and the higher-valued card wins all the cards on the table. This is known as a war. In the case of another tie, the process is repeated until there is no tie.
A player wins by collecting all the cards. If a player runs out of cards while dealing the face-down cards of a war, he may play the last card in his deck face-up and still have a chance to stay in the game.
As you can see, since the player has no knowledge of which cards are in their initial hand, and no choice in which cards to play, this game could just as easily be played by a properly trained parakeet. The mechanical gameplay and lack of strategy, however, makes certain questions about the game mathematically interesting.
The other day when this game popped into my head, one of the first things I remembered about it was how many games I left unfinished due to their sheer length. I suddenly became curious about the expected number of turns required to finish a game of War.
It turns out that the answer is “about 277” (which is considerably less than I expected). You see, people on the Internet tend to be pretty big nerds, and certainly I wasn’t the first one to consider writing a War simulation to figure out these kind of statistics. What I didn’t see discussed, though, is any treatment of the structure of a game of war.