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The CIA uses board games to train officers—and I got to play them

March 15,2017 16:27

They were testing out the weirdest training exercise the CIA has ever publicly revealed: board games. These aren't off-the-shelf games; instead, CIA officers designed and assembled these elaborate tabletop games to reflect the realities of the CIA's ...and more »



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AUSTIN, Texas—"You have got to be kidding me."
Alarms and flashing lights have begun blaring in a hotel meeting room, much to the chagrin of CIA Senior Collection Analyst David Clopper. The officer, along with a team of his colleagues, is in the middle of demonstrating his department's training materials, and he has to account for these materials before leaving the room. In some cases, this might require picking up a few stacks of paper, or some pamphlets and flyers.
Clopper, on the other hand, has to pick up dozens of 10-sided dice, over 100 colored gems, and hundreds of custom-printed cards that describe hypothetical crises across the globe. That's nothing compared to the mess of cards on the other side of the room, which, moments ago, were being used to track and capture the elusive drug kingpin El Chapo.
They were this close.
Uh-oh, Venezuela’s causing trouble again!
The two groups of South By Southwest attendees split up in this conference room hesitate to get up. They were testing out the weirdest training exercise the CIA has ever publicly revealed: board games. These aren't off-the-shelf games; instead, CIA officers designed and assembled these elaborate tabletop games to reflect the realities of the CIA's day-to-day operations.

Don't expect to see CIA training game Collection in board game shops anytime soon.

Each acronym on the board represents a real-life intel collection agency.

I didn't get a shot of a card that explains what each role in the game is, but this explains how the dice-rolling process works when you attempt to gather intel for a particular campaign.

These are some of the campaigns you may be saddled with during a game of Collection. "Venezuela Causing Trouble is easily our favorite.

Almost every "crisis expansion" card ratchets up one of the three "fire" meters on the board, but these can also make collection agencies ramp up their efforts accordingly. Kind of like in real life, when shit hits the fan and agencies start actually taking your phone calls and getting things done in response.

You're going to want the "collector response" numbers as high as possible, because in the board game, these represent which dice rolls will count as intel successes.

Clopper recalls one day in 2008 when his "boss's boss" called him into a meeting and asked him to develop new internal training exercises. Normally, these exercises test whether recent lessons and seminars have been absorbed by officers, and they usually involve "teams, flip charts, and briefings," Clopper says. "Incredibly boring." But Clopper had now been at the CIA long enough to reshape its exercises, his boss said, and he got excited: "I'm a gamer. I enjoy games, video games, tabletop games. Could we bring games into learning?"
He used SXSW to present three board games made for his training exercises over the span of a four-year period, one of which is still in development. The first is the one we got the most hands-on time with during SXSW: Collection. If that dry-as-a-desert name isn't a good indicator, rest assured—this is not a game meant for retail or for the highest ratings at BoardGameGeek.
Collection compares favorably to the popular cooperative game Pandemic. In Clopper's game, a group of players must work together to resolve three major crises across the globe. The object is for players, who each represent different types of CIA officers, to collect enough relevant intel to resolve all three crises. If any one of the three impending disasters boils over (as represented by three increasing "fire" meters), the team loses. Every game must have at least three players to fill the roles of "political analyst," "military analyst," and "economic analyst." Those three are only able to collect intel in their specific fields, while additional players (up to seven on a team) have their own specialties.
The difficulty comes from the low number of actions each player can do per turn, along with how quickly the fire meter ratchets up. Players can take two actions per turn: move your agent around the globe, foster new relationships in your current location, or attempt to acquire intel. The latter move is a dice roll. Those rolls are bolstered by having more relationships in a certain zone, by having fellow agents in that same zone (if they offer a specific "colocator" bonus), by having bonus cards, and by how good your relationship is with a specific agency.
Let me be blunt: These boosts and bonuses are not doled out in ways that game designers would call "fair." This game is hard. That's how Clopper likes it.
"This game is really about value of collaboration," Clopper says. "We saw [game sessions] where people took the time to talk to one another, talk about your [individual] capability, how we can work together, or thought ahead, strategized, 'I go first, you go next.' They tended to win. The tables where someone would go on their own and do what they wanted, or do their own thing, or didn't collaborate until too late, they couldn’t catch up to the crises. It was a simulation of what we do, but also teaching the importance of working together."
Thanks to detailed cards about department descriptions, our civilian test group was able to squeak some fun out of this game by role-playing. I enjoyed knowing that one of my turns revolved around me working as a political analyst in collaboration with the CIA's Department of Operations. I peppered my table-talk with descriptions of my very "clandestine" efforts in Palestine.
Magic: The (covert intel) Gathering

One of Clopper's other game designs, which we didn't get to demo.

Clopper's unfinished game about satellite grid creation and management. Should your team use fewer satellites and make them more powerful? Use more to account for failures? Either way presents different challenges (which is great for training scenarios, the CIA says).

Another Clopper game game, Collection Deck, focuses less on collaborative work and more on the sheer act of collecting intel. It also differentiates between "things that are secret and not secret." This collectible card game plays like Magic: The Gathering, Clopper says. Multiple players work to resolve intelligence problems (represented by cards laid on the table) while dealing with out-of-nowhere issues (represented by "reality check" cards that players can use against each other).
"You try to use a card representing an overhead satellite—you want to use that to take a picture," Clopper says. "Another player throws down a 'ground station failure' card. Now you can’t use that one."
The game was built to simultaneously deliver context about intelligence-gathering methods and to help officers understand how real-world hiccups can get in the way while in the act. "People would come up to me after [a session] and say, 'David, I learned bout something I didn't know existed before,'" Clopper says. "'I think we can use this on a real intelligence problem I’m tracking.' It’s a game, but it had real mission impact."
His unfinished project, tentatively titled Satellite Construction Kit, will have players cooperate to manage resources, budget, and time to build and maintain connected satellites. While managing costs and deciding whether to build redundancies in this satellite network, Clopper says players will deal with challenges like the Department of Defense demanding certain capabilities, or Congress slashing your budget by 10 percent. "That never happens," Clopper says with a laugh about the latter.

This is one of two giant, confusing boards for Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo.

Facial reconstruction surgery? That's intense, guys.

CIA officers refused to answer Ars' questions about where these photos came from.

Sadly, I didn't get to play this one and explore exactly the game's mechanics or how chits get shuffled around the board.

At least I got some photos before the fire alarm went off.

The other board game at the event, which I didn't get to test thanks to that unfortunate fire alarm, has a far cooler name: Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo. This one was co-developed by CIA Intelligence Educator Volko Ruhnke, who happens to have designed his fair share of publicly available board games, as well. "I have two Golden Geeks," he brags.
Kingpin, which was made in collaboration with the Defense Intelligence Agency, is used "to train analysts who might work with law enforcement and other partners around world to find a well-armed, well-defended, well-protected bad guy," Ruhnke says. "It's a game about finding a fugitive from justice who, if not found sooner than later, will likely do harm to innocent people and harm US interests."
This is a two-team versus affair, Ruhnke says, because analysts need to be aware of how their targets work. "It's a real brain-on-brain affair," he says. "The fugitives we're analyzing, they're analyzing right back." While I, unfortunately, didn't get to explore all of the methods that each team uses to react to the other in this game, I did spy a "facial surgery" option on the board for Chapo's side—which goes to show that Ruhnke's game has made room for a vast range of response possibilities.
Enlarge / Bonkers data models like these are better represented in board-game form, the CIA argues.Sam MachkovechRuhnke says that board games are particularly useful in helping officers and analysts synthesize giant criss-crossing charts' worth of data to understand complex real-world situations. He points to modern insurgency and counter-insurgency engagement in Afghanistan as an example. First, he presents a bonkers-confusing chart while listing off its myriad elements and actors on all sides. Then he shows an image of people playing a board game.
"People playing a game, together they're experiencing the designers’ mental model of insurgency in Afghanistan and sharing that model," he says. "They are learning it, very quickly, because they’re inside, operating in it. Pushing levers, pulling cords, seeing what happens. Stories are very sticky, and they’ll remember their own stories. " He also insists that this is a great way for outside perspectives to critique an office's biased model of how insurgency may play out and receive more dynamic feedback. "The greatest power of simulation games is that players have to operate these games themselves and know the rules."
Cheaters never win (but they help the CIA)
The officers on hand at SXSW were kind enough to let me take photos of their boards. However, they wouldn't let me do the same with manuals, and I couldn't take photos of the officers next to the board games (even though they were photographed at a panel the day prior). "It's not the government's IP, per sé," Clopper says. He is still exercising caution about what is and isn't publicly shared, or exactly how it is represented.
With that in mind, as I briskly walked out of the hotel with fire-alarm alerts ringing in my ears, I couldn't help but wonder: Had we seen too much? Had the officers noticed a few SXSW attendees with particularly thick foreign accents and decided enough had been disclosed? Had we, as unwitting board game players, suddenly found ourselves as part of a meta game?
The whole thing certainly made me think of another CIA officer's comments during a SXSW panel—in which game-based exercises wound up teaching CIA staffers more than they expected. One game about global map management included giant touch-panel screens, which required an IT staffer to routinely visit two competing teams and keep the systems working. In one session, the "blue" team soundly won—an unusual result, considering the game was specifically built for the other "red" side to have better odds. A post-game debrief with both teams of players didn't turn up any interesting details... but a throwaway comment by the IT pro to the educators spilled the truth.
"That game was awesome," he said, which surprised the staff. Turns out, the blue team had recruited the IT pro to snoop—and did so in such a way that didn't make him think he was assisting any cheating. The blue team managed to keep its debrief stories straight to hide the sneaky move. The game's runners laughed it off, because the insight proved useful.
"That's real human behavior," CIA Chief Strategy Officer Rachel Grunspan says. "If you design a game right, you’ll see a lot of complexity organically emerge. That’s what you want."
Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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