Buy the Board Games Made by a CIA Spy For Analysts & Amateurs

Former CIA analyst Volko Ruhnke is a legend in the world of wargaming, a feisty corner of the board gaming world who’ve been on the attack since the US launched Tactics in the 1950s. 

Ruhnke doesn’t just design games. He’s used his creations to teach CIA spies how to think strategically as operatives and as their enemies. The Russian expert spent the latter part of his career teaching at the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, a sort of spy university for CIA intelligence analysts.

Now retired, Ruhnke sells his games to amateurs, sometimes blurring the line between the shadow world and gaming. In Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Ruhnke drew from his clandestine experience. “I did the game design in 2009 and drawing on, of course, a lot of my day job experience and information in counterterrorism,” he told the Cyberwire podcast.

Ruhnke’s games are sold online through his California publisher - and they sell out quickly


The making of a CIA game designer

So what came first, espionage or gaming? Ruhnke started playing military history board games in the sixth grade while growing up in Virginia. The games fueled his love of history and fascination with the French and Indian War, leading Volko to major in history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Volko certainly wasn’t the first teenager to have a fascination with military games during the US-Russia Cold War, as fans of Matthew Broderick’s WarGames know, but in Volko’s case it became a lifelong passion.

After collecting his Master's Degree in Foreign Service at Georgetown, Volko was considering a career in either diplomacy or international business when he got a tap on the shoulder.

“I happened to have two professors there who were both CIA veterans, and I think they recruited a half-dozen of us from our seminar.” 

Buy the Board Games Made by a CIA Spy For Analysts & Amateurs

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Caroline Byrne
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Former CIA analyst Volko Ruhnke is a legend in the world of wargaming, a feisty corner of the board gaming world who’ve been on the attack since the US launched Tactics in the 1950s. 

Ruhnke doesn’t just design games. He’s used his creations to teach CIA spies how to think strategically as operatives and as their enemies. The Russian expert spent the latter part of his career teaching at the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, a sort of spy university for CIA intelligence analysts.

Now retired, Ruhnke sells his games to amateurs, sometimes blurring the line between the shadow world and gaming. In Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Ruhnke drew from his clandestine experience. “I did the game design in 2009 and drawing on, of course, a lot of my day job experience and information in counterterrorism,” he told the Cyberwire podcast.

Ruhnke’s games are sold online through his California publisher - and they sell out quickly


The making of a CIA game designer

So what came first, espionage or gaming? Ruhnke started playing military history board games in the sixth grade while growing up in Virginia. The games fueled his love of history and fascination with the French and Indian War, leading Volko to major in history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Volko certainly wasn’t the first teenager to have a fascination with military games during the US-Russia Cold War, as fans of Matthew Broderick’s WarGames know, but in Volko’s case it became a lifelong passion.

After collecting his Master's Degree in Foreign Service at Georgetown, Volko was considering a career in either diplomacy or international business when he got a tap on the shoulder.

“I happened to have two professors there who were both CIA veterans, and I think they recruited a half-dozen of us from our seminar.” 

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From the Army to the CIA 

One of Volko’s first jobs after grad school involved working as a contractor for the US Army. He helped run what was, essentially, a tabletop simulation in a computer that tested US Army proposals for defending Germany against the Soviets. 

The Department of Defense also used seminar-style, role playing games - imagine a mini UN - and interacted as they would in a summit, trade negotiation, or war. Rather than amateurs, however, the role players were analysts, real-life Generals, and policymakers interacting with regional experts who might portray foreign political leaders.

Volko Ruhnke designs wargames like Labyrinth and the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) series
Volko Ruhnke designs wargames like Labyrinth and the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) series 


The spying game

As Volko moved into the CIA analytic ranks, military analysts were already using wargames in the style of board games sold commercially; toward the end of his career, Volko was creating his own games and instructing analysts. “I was very much aware of how powerful a medium tabletop games are for showing you a complex system, for showing you how interactions add up to a larger whole because the games allow you to get inside and operate the machine yourself, and do experiments, and pull a lever or push a button, and see what happens,” he said.

“And because it's happening on the tabletop rather than, say, in a computer program, you can understand it very well. You can see exactly why what just happened, happened.”

Volko Ruhnke's board games
Volko’s top-sellers include the COIN Series; A Distant Plain; and Nevsky, Teutons and Rus in Collision

CIA wargames in the real world

International affairs are, of course, more complex than board games. Small interactions can lead to dramatic departures from the linear style of games, particularly when politics and personalities get involved, yet they make excellent training tools.

Volko’s Wilderness War, for example, is inspired by the Seven Years' War in the 1700s which was fought across five continents. The game trains players to consider reconnaissance and the challenges of geography.

“What it [the war] was about was, which empire - the French or the British - was going to control the vast area that was west of the British colonies at the time. And that meant that the forces involved were those who lived there, so Native American nations, and French trappers, and English rangers, and explorers and adventurers.”

Using a tabletop, rather than a computer, players can consider how their actions might work or not, then test the model to see if the outcomes are plausible. “And what we found is, just in the construction of such a game, you could learn a lot. It was very powerful collaboratively for a lot of different experts to figure out: how should it work?” 

 

The CIA analyst is proud of his gaming awards including two Golden Geeks
Volko said he is proud of his gaming awards including two Golden Geeks


The games people play

Volko isn’t just a legend at the CIA. He’s won several Charles S. Roberts Awards - the Oscars of the wargaming board game world, named after the creator of the 1950s game Tactics. He’s also picked up two ‘Golden Geek’ awards from a wargames community site.

While he was still employed by the government, Volko also co-designed a winning game called Coalition to teach political analysts about parliamentary politics and minority governments in countries outside of the US. For Coalition, Volko teamed up with a senior analyst who’d worked in a specific region and lived through historic events there. Volko’s co-creator wasn’t a game designer, but he’d been building a complex mental model of the region in his mind for decades.

“And once it [the game] was running, his phrase was, ‘That's my brain on the table’,” Volko said, “it was a high-fidelity, dynamic expression of his expertise that we could now pass on to other people.”

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