The art and craft of making board games for the CIA

The logo of the CIA, photographed during a visit of US President Donald Trump the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia
Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images

The United States has exactly 16 agencies devoted to intelligence gathering and analysis, but only one which reports directly to our nation’s Chief Executive: the Central Intelligence Agency. Founded in 1947, the CIA’s most glamorous mission is to conduct “covert action as directed by the President.” But without good information and prudent decision making, any possible covert action could lead to an international incident.

That’s why the CIA trains its own analysts, and analysts from other agencies, with board games.

By day, Volko Ruhnke is an instructor at the CIA’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. It’s a kind of university within the CIA that offers basic training and advanced coursework in the skills needed to be a defense analyst. By night, Ruhnke is an acclaimed designer of commercial board games best known for the COIN Series, published by GMT Games.

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Columbia was the first game in Ruhnke’s COIN Series, published by GMT Games. It allows players to explore the conflict between four different factions in the 1990s.
GMT Games

It took a couple of months to get the appropriate clearances, but a few weeks ago I was able to interview Ruhnke about his work. He told me that the CIA has been interested in tabletop games for a very long time, well before he started working there in the 1980s. Applying his knowhow in the commercial space to building games for CIA officers in a classroom setting was a natural fit. The goal, he explained, is to get them repetitions in the practical application of intelligence gathering skills. It’s about separating the actionable information from the noise and then acting on it in time.

A good example of the kind of work that he does is a project called Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo, which he co-designed with another instructor in the Defense Intelligence Agency. Kingpin uses the historical details of the capture of Sinaloa drug cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán as well as some fictional elements to create a challenging, asymmetrical game.

Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo, a CIA-produced board game co-designed by Volko Ruhnke.
Central Intelligence Agency

Kingpin is an adversarial game where one side plays the role of law enforcement and the other plays the role of Guzmán’s own handlers and associates. The goal is to teach analysts about the use of intelligence resources in tracking someone down.

The game revolves around hidden information, with each side playing on their own hidden game board behind a screen. El Chapo’s team is constantly moving around inside Mexico trying to evade the law, but the cartel leader has certain tastes and expectations. He’s not just willing to sit inside a hole somewhere and is interested in leading an active, social lifestyle. Law enforcement has to use that against him. In the classroom the game is played twice, with students taking turns playing on both sides of the table.

The key to the game, and to every other game played at the Kent School, is the facilitator. It’s their responsibility to keep the game moving by interpreting the rules and feeding them to students on the fly. But in Kingpin, the facilitator also plays the role of referee. They have an important role in moving the action forward and revealing information to both sides.

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is represented here by the green pawn. The cartel’s game board shows his various needs and defenses.Central Intelligence Agency
A close-up of cartel’s game board. It shows how the cartel has robbed law enforcement of some intelligence collection capability, represented by the white pawn. It will constrain law enforcement’s ability to track El Chapo.Central Intelligence Agency
The pool of green markers here are used to indicate when the cartel has fulfilled El Chapo’s various needs.Central Intelligence Agency
The cartel’s game board includes a map. Here El Chapo is shown at the resort where he was ultimately captured by authorities in 2014.Central Intelligence Agency
On the shared game board, police units are represented by blue pawns. The black unit is an elite strike force that would ideally be used by the law enforcement side to capture El Chapo.Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
Traditional wargame-sized counters are used on the law enforcement side to keep track of where and when El Chapo and his assets were spotted, or to indicate an area they believe is clear. The production value here is actually quite high. Notice that the CIA spent time rounding the corners.Central Intelligence Agency.
These markers are used by the referee. They’re handed out to the law enforcement player to validate leads and help track down hidden cartel assets.Central Intelligence Agency
The law enforcement player uses white pawn to represent their ability to gather intelligence in the field. They are a finite resource.Central Intelligence Agency
The complete set-up for Kingpin. The law enforcement team’s game board is on the left, while the cartel’s game board is on the right. Both of those would be hidden behind a screen, while the middle board includes information shared by both teams.Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency

“In the classroom we are pretty time constrained,” Ruhnke said. “We can’t take analysts off the line too long to train them. In this case, we spend something like a couple of hours over the course of the game. ... For a training game, it’s not nearly as important that you finish the game. It’s not even important that the game be balanced or have replay value. It might have those things. But our students are probably never going to play it again. It’s more about the insights and the process.”

After each playthrough, students return to a traditional classroom setting for a debrief, analyzing what transpired and applying it to the lessons of the day. It’s a very small fraction of what Kent School students will do in their coursework, but Ruhnke said the kind of hands-on work that tabletop gaming provides is invaluable.

“They are a tremendous tool for helping us prepare our understanding of complex affairs,” Ruhnke said. He likened it to studying the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan. “An insurgency is the interactions of many different actors, interests, tribes, forces, political movements, parties, village elders. It’s a complex compilation of factors, and that’s what we’re asking our analysts to understand. But human beings deal with complexity by forming mental models. So now, as instructors, we have to communicate those models to our students. Games do that very well.”

I was first introduced to the Ruhnke’s design work with a game called Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?, first published in 2010. In it, one player takes on the role of the United States while the other plays as Islamic jihadists. Each player takes actions by playing from a hand of cards that includes real-world, historical events. In one of my most memorable playthroughs the U.S. prevailed only by keeping Benazir Bhutto alive long enough to drive the opposing player entirely out of Pakistan.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?
Image: GMT Games

I asked Ruhnke about the potential conflicts that might arise between his commercial work and his classified work at the CIA. He said that keeping them separate is actually easier than you might think.

“It is something that I have to watch,” he said. “But I have help.”

One of them was Jonathan Liu, a CIA media spokesperson who was present for the duration of our interview.

“I use my judgement in choosing to participate in work that’s outside of CIA work, and I’m not alone in that,” Ruhnke said. “I have ... authorities here to double check. And in situation where I could have been exposed to sensitive information, I need to make sure that I’m okay here. That’s a routine procedure at the CIA. In my case, it happens to be that I’m making games, but if I were writing a book or writing an editorial in a newspaper it would be the same thing.”

The most gratifying part of the job for Ruhnke is in bringing intelligence officers together in a low-pressure environment in the same room with their peers. The Kent School isn’t just for members of the CIA, but provides instruction for analysts from the 16 members of the United States Intelligence Community and all branches of the armed forces.

“It’s professionals coming together to practice their craft,” Ruhnke said, “separated from the immediate, pressing needs of our country. Of course, they’re interacting with each other every day, but in here it’s coming off the line, getting together as a brotherhood or a sisterhood of terrorism analysts. ... I think it has to help.”

Several of the games in Ruhnke’s COIN series are available now, while others are currently out of print. They focus on asymmetrical, insurgency/counter-insurgency scenarios from throughout history including games set in the Roman Empire and the Vietnam War. Several are currently part of GMT’s P500 pre-order program.

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