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We Asked Game Designers If the CIA's El Chapo Board Game Is Any Good

The newly declassified training board game "clearly was done by people who love games."

Michael Gaynor

Image: CIA

When you hear about the Central Intelligence Agency releasing a cache of declassified documents via Freedom of Information Act request, you probably envision sordid, heavily redacted tales of black ops sites and deep-cover spies. And sure, there’s a little bit of that revealed through this series of FOIA requests by entrepreneur Douglas Palmer, but they’re not real-life spies: this is the secret world of the CIA’s board games.

The documents detail the set-up and rules for two of the agency’s in-house tabletop creations, Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo and Collection Deck. In addition to rulebooks, there’s also pages of components and materials for the enterprising gamer to print out and play on their own. But are these games any good? And how could they possibly help the work of agents and officers out in Langley? For some insight, I asked two professional board game designers, Jason Matthews and Dominic Crapuchettes, to read over the documents and give their opinions.

Image: CIA

“There’s good game design going on in there,” Crapuchettes, designer at North Star Games, which publishes Wits & Wagers, Evolution, and more, said about Kingpin. The game reenacts the 2014 manhunt for drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. It pits a team of “hunters” against “the cartel,” as one group collects intelligence and deploys pawns representing law enforcement across a map of western Mexico, while the bad guys try to evade capture and keep their boss happy by playing certain cards and rolling dice.

Revealed in the FOIA documents are a handful of slightly revised rulebooks for the game, something that Crapuchettes points to as evidence of a careful and dedicated designer. “That’s clearly from playtesting and caring about it and working hard,” he said. “It’s probably the number one thing you need to have a good game, is someone who loves games. And this clearly is done by people who love games.”

Kingpin is co-developed by Volko Ruhnke who, when he’s not serving as an “intelligence educator” at the CIA, is also known for designing several popular commercial board games, including Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, and Cuba Libre. “We use a real-world historical case...to improve our analysts’ own mental models of how to help hunt down such ‘hard target’ fugitives from justice,” Ruhnke wrote in a statement included in the FOIA response.

Notes on the game design. Image: CIA

Jason Matthews, designer of politically themed games like 1960: The Making of the President, Campaign Manager 2008, and the exalted Twilight Struggle, believes Kingpin’s game mechanics can work a valuable educational tool for a place like the CIA.

“I think it would compel new analysts to start thinking about interrelationships and countermeasures, and do so in a way that’s both educational and fun.” He thinks it succeeds at accomplishing the goal laid out in the game’s introduction to “familiarize intelligence analysts with manhunting methodology.”

But, Matthews says, it’s clear that both games are for education first, and fun second. “If you were going to try and make them commercial games, they’d require a couple of rounds of refinement to increase the ‘gaminess’ of them, for lack of a better term,” he says. “They’re not focused so much on giving players the satisfaction of winning and losing.”

Crapuchettes notices that education-first aspect in Kingpin’s “referee” role, a sort-of neutral moderator that makes sure certain secret information like dice rolls remain hidden to the correct players. It seems to be meant to be played by an Agency instructor overseeing the game, rather than a player looking to have a good time. “If you had a group of friends that want to play, there’s likely not someone who wants to moderate—that’s probably not really the fun job,” he said. “It’d be something you’d want an app to do.”

Image: CIA

Another game revealed in the documents is Collection Deck, designed by CIA senior collection analyst David Clopper. In remarks accompanying the FOIA, Clopper compares his creation to collectable-card games like Magic: The Gathering, with players using a hand of “Collection Technique” cards to solve global crises like “Macedonia Ethnic Violence” and “China Cyber Warfare.”

“In a strange way, even though it’s a simple card game, it has more of a role-playing component,” says Matthews, of Collection Deck. “When you play your cards out, someone can demand that you make up a story for how your cards actually fit together.”

Role-playing, which bring to mind games like Dungeons & Dragons, seems a far cry from what you’d expect national-security officers to train with. The Defense Department has long been known for “wargaming,” or simulations of battles that might involve moving troop figurines and counters across hexes and maps. But Matthews sees Collection Deck as evidence that role-playing, which values decision-making over rolling dice and placing counters, might be supplanting those more standard training games.

“I think ultimately they found that your capacity to play a wargame of the traditional kind was not as helpful as practicing the mental-muscle memory of making decisions under pressure,” he says. “Because that’s the skill that you really need. Someone else is going to figure out odds ratios and that sort of thing. The skill you need to practice is the one you need to make a decision.”

So the experts agree, these games are pretty good, and succeed as educational tools. But how would they fare in the commercial retail market?

“I would never expect to see this on the shelf of Target or Walmart—ever,” says Crapuchettes, who says he’s bombarded with board game pitches constantly. But, he says, if someone brought his company Kingpin, he’d be interested in marketing it from the clandestine-agency angle: “If they said, ‘Oh I work at the CIA and this is what we do,’ I’d want to know more. Now there’s a marketing hook that I can take to a wider group of people.”

Matthews, too, sees a market for Kingpin, especially among the wargame/simulation crowd. The only drawback, though, is one you wouldn’t expect from a game developed inside the CIA: it’s not complicated enough.

“Most of the rules were contained in that game in five pages,” said Matthews. “There are rulebooks for contemporary wargames that will go on for 50 pages.”

It looks like the CIA needs to spend more time gaming.