CIA trainer David Clopper was bored with flip charts and seminars so he shook things up at work by adding board games to illustrate how spies can forge alliances and fend off attackers.
He also designed his own in-house training exercises, so when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the US the CIA reached for Clopper’s board game Collection.
Collection - similar to the Pandemic game trilogy - trains spies how to gather intelligence by splitting them into teams that include political, military and economic analysts. The teams must solve three major global crises to win.
Clopper told the South by Southwest technology conference that teams who strategize together have a better chance of winning than solo heroes: “The tables where someone would go on their own and do what they wanted, or do their own thing, or didn't collaborate until it was too late, they couldn't catch up to the crises."
Collection’s rules and instructions have been released through a Freedom of Information request and turned into a commercially available board game, but SPYSCAPE’s more enterprising gamers may want to create their own version by downloading the CIA files and rules.
Of course, the CIA isn’t the first agency to use games as a training tool. The US Defense Intelligence Agency issued its Iraqi Most Wanted deck of playing cards in 2003, and during World War II Airplane Spotter cards taught enlisted men and civilians to identify friendly and enemy aircraft while Naval Spotter playing cards taught the military and spies about Allied and Axis power vessels.
CIA training games are more than just a break from PowerPoint, however. Clopper also created Collection Deck (similar to Magic: The Gathering, which can also be downloaded). The collectible card game introduces ‘reality check’ cards - essentially problems that interfere with success. One player may use a satellite card to take a photo, but another might throw down a 'ground station failure’ card to prevent the satellite from functioning. The winner has to solve problems by using various collection techniques.
Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo was designed by Volko Ruhnke, a retired CIA analyst and instructor at the Agency’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. Ruhnke is now a commercial game designer who boasts that he has two Golden Geek awards.
Kingpin trains analysts to work alongside law enforcement in the US and worldwide to track down a wealthy, well-defended fugitive likely to harm innocent people. (Kingpin’s game specifications are also online.)
The game is adversarial - one side plays the role of law enforcement while the others take the side of drug lord Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán and his associates who move around Mexico.
“We are trying to familiarize analysts with a simplified version of what is a very complex, dynamic affair and a board game is a very accessible way of doing that,” Ruhnke explained. “And then, critically, [we] ask them ‘So where do you think this model gets it wrong?’
In an interview with the gaming website Polygon, Ruhnke likened the game to Afghanistan or Iraq: “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.”
Ruhnke has also developed commercial COIN (counterinsurgency) war games like Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ? where one player takes the side of the United States while the other is an Islamic jihadist.
Clopper's latest game, Satellite Construction Kit, involves managing resources, deciding on redundancies and dealing with Congressional budget cuts. It may not be as thrilling as chasing down a drug cartel or fighting jihadis, but living in the shadows throws up all kinds of challenges.