In the world of war games, Volko Ruhnke has become a hero
At the last stop on a wooded cul-de-sac 15 miles outside of Washington, four middle-age men huddle around a table to decide the fate of Afghanistan. A map is spread before them. Colored wooden cubes and discs denote military installations, troops and insurgents. A subtle movement — pieces slid from Nuristan province to Kabul — is met with tensed shoulders and exhaled expletives. In the north, the Warlords prep an opium harvest while threatening a terrorist attack. Elsewhere, everywhere, the Taliban is filthy with car bombs, roadside IEDs and suicide bombers.
The fifth man in the room, a CIA national security analyst named Volko Ruhnke, called us here. The palpable discomfort among us brings him joy. It means he has done his job.
When not ensconced at HQ in Langley, Ruhnke, 51, designs commercial wargames. He has invited us to his home in Vienna to playtest his most recent, A Distant Plain. Along with Cuba Libre, they’ll be his fourth and fifth published board games, and the latest in his series simulating insurgencies throughout history: Colombia, Afghanistan and Cuba, with Vietnam, Ireland and the Philippines to follow.
“Jason, you’re letting our country go to s---,” comes a voice from my left, a Virginia drawl. One of my rivals, a 20-year Marine, now retired, and veteran of three Afghanistan deployments, is manning the Afghan government. He’s peeved because I, as the Coalition, am unconcerned with the Warlord threat. He’s right: I don’t care. I find his policies equally irksome, as he spent all of our shared aid securing popular support — support I know he’ll soon undo and dole out as political patronage.
In the game as in real life, the Afghan government and Coalition are ostensibly allies. And in the game as in real life, “ally” has loose meaning. I ignore him and drag his troops to the south to make a move against the Taliban. He scowls as Ruhnke beams. Ruhnke wants us to undermine each other. This is how he designed the game. This is how we learn.
Ruhnke is obviously enjoying his roles as party host, rules expert and teacher. He leans in. He speaks only when needed or pressed, and his explanations arrive with cheerful excitement but also a hint of gravitas, like that of a father patiently conveying hard facts to his children.
“So you’re telling me terror is always effective for the Taliban?” the Afghanistan vet squawks. “It shouldn’t always work; it has to have the possibility to backfire.”
Ruhnke answers without hesitation: “It always works. But remember, I’m not going for a high-fidelity model of district-level counterinsurgency operations.” He adjusts his frameless glasses. “That particular instance of terror is what happened in Nuristan over months of time ... I’m most concerned about delivering the inter-factional pressures and politics.”
Later, when I need the long-gone aid money, I fire back at the vet. “What are you doing over there, Karzai? Remember, this is our cash. Share.”
Ruhnke jumps in again, building bridges. “Tell Jason it’s not corruption. It’s just your traditional way of running things. You have to live here; he’ll eventually leave.” The Taliban leader across the table makes no attempt to stifle a giggle as he reaches for pretzels.
Ruhnke thinks of a day, however remote, when his games might sit on store shelves next to the classics. He sees people just like us having epiphanies through gamed agitation, quick bonds such as ours forged within an intense, inhabitable narrative. But mostly his goal is as unique as it is stark: to educate by providing tabletop insurgencies for any board gamer who would like one.
Although wargames always have been a niche within the board gaming market, there was a time when they held a level of pop culture legitimacy. According to James Dunnigan in “Wargames Handbook” — Dunnigan being one of wargaming’s founding fathers at the now-defunct Simulations Publications Inc. — more than 2 million were sold in 1980.
Wargamers have nearly as many definitions for what qualifies as a wargame as there are conflicts throughout history to simulate. Some say highly abstracted games such as chess fit; others include big sellers such as Axis & Allies and Risk. But, on the whole, hobby wargames are the literary fiction of the gaming universe: dense and respected but often existing in the margins.
Between the release of what most consider the first commercial wargame in 1954, Tactics, and the hobby’s high-water mark in early ’80s, wargames became increasingly complex, often packaged with byzantine rule books and playtimes measured in days, not hours. Fewer than 20 years after the peak, both of the largest wargame publishers ceased to exist for factors including business missteps and the rise of electronic and computer gaming. But there’s been a renaissance, in large part because of the Internet’s ability to facilitate global democratic conversations among like-minded wargame zealots.
Beginning as a 10-year-old more than three decades ago, I spent innumerable hours hunched over wargames playing commander. My parents didn’t understand. My friends who saw the sun regularly didn’t either. But I wasn’t alone. Even though I left wargaming behind, I never forgot the games’ ability to evoke a sense of time, place and history. After stumbling on them again a few years ago, I found a rabid subculture both familiar and unknown. There were hundreds of new games holding echoes of the era I’d cut my teeth on, but with new mechanics and streamlined gameplay that created stories more nuanced than I’d ever experienced.
Ruhnke’s games stood out. He was tackling recent and still-raging conflicts, such as the amorphous war against terrorism in his game Labyrinth. It seemed as if he was attempting to span the divide between the kitchen-table gamer and the grizzled hard cases from wargaming’s first golden age. I contacted him and asked if this was true.
“It may be a big ambition,” he said, “but I most definitely want to interest board gamers from all traditions in meaningful topics like insurgency. Fun and accessibility are a big part of getting them there.”
Then he invited me to Virginia to play some games.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Ruhnke’s design-studio-cum-game-room is his reproduction of a Brown Bess musket. Hanging high on the wall, it visually dominates the period maps, shadowbox of hand-collected Revolutionary and Civil War bullets, prototypes, books and war-themed gewgaws on every flat surface.
While Ruhnke is reluctant to divulge details regarding his CIA work, he’s transparent on how his professional life has dovetailed with his decades-long wargaming passion. Ruhnke’s path was set in sixth grade with his first wargames, PanzerBlitz and France, 1940. Then, the games for him were all problem solving and decision points. The interest in the why and how didn’t come until the early ’80s, when he was an undergrad at the College of William and Mary. “The colonial remnants got into my blood, and the French and Indian War captivated me,” he said. “It was the 18th-century warfare with powdered wigs, supply lines and siegeworks taking place in the wilderness.” Like any proper autodidact, he spent years reading, walking the battlefields and immersing himself in the minutiae of this oft-overlooked war.
His push into a career in intelligence came in graduate school at Georgetown but once again pointed back to the strategic riddles he encountered playing wargames. Many of his professors were in- and out-of-power politicos. He realized a person could be smart and still end up on the wrong side of an issue. “I didn’t want to be in that position,” he said. “I wanted to improve policy by elevating the debate. Providing information and analysis gives the best chance of pursuing the right strategy.”
In the ’90s, while at the CIA, Ruhnke designed a role-play session for his work friends. The Seven Years’ War role-play morphed into a board game. Then he submitted his design to GMT Games, the modern hobby’s highest-profile wargame publisher. Wilderness War was released in 2001 and is now one of GMT’s all-time bestsellers. This led Gene Billingsley, a GMT principal, to approach Ruhnke in 2009 with a commission to create a game about the war against terrorism. About a year later Labyrinth became another bestseller and industry award-winner. Now it was Ruhnke’s turn. He told Billingsley he had idea for a game series on insurgency. The first would be set in 1990s Colombia.
“I loved the idea but hated the topic,” Billingsley said. “I told him I couldn’t sell it.” Then Billingsley played Ruhnke’s prototype.
Listing for $75 retail, Andean Abyss was another hit in 2012, and the COIN (counterinsurgency) Series was launched. Soon after, designers began approaching him asking to use his core ideas, while, at the same time, Ruhnke was reaching out to the industry’s most respected topic experts.
One of those collaborations is a Vietnam War-themed game called Fire in the Lake — the title giving a nod to Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer-winning book. Both posit an insurgency wrapped in a conventional war. GMT has a preorder system wherein a threshold must be reached before a game is sent to final production. It’s not unusual for that to take months or years as orders trickle in. Fire in the Lake hit its number within four days.
While different in feel and detail, all of Ruhnke’s COIN Series games use the same simple mechanism: a deck of brightly colored cards featuring actual or generalized historical events. An example from A Distant Plain would be “U.S.-Pakistan Talks.” Cards are flipped two at a time. One card is live; the second allows players to see what’s coming. Two factions are allowed to act on the live card; then the other two factions, on the next.
The first-choice player opts to trigger the event and listed outcomes. Each event has two possible paths: one interpretation benefiting the insurgents; one, the counterinsurgents. In the case of “U.S.-Pakistan Talks,” the card could worsen the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, making it easier for the Taliban to operate. Or if a counterinsurgent faction could pick the event, it may choose less antagonistic effects. But it’s not an either-or decision. A faction could bypass the event as if it never happened and, instead, select from a list of faction-specific operations. The Coalition can train troops, patrol Afghanistan’s ring road, sweep into provinces to locate insurgents, or assault. The Taliban’s options include rallying to recruit guerrillas, marching, attacking or executing terrorism. The unique history of each conflict is then baked in, but it never arrives in the same sequence from game to game, if at all.
To win A Distant Plain, the Afghan government has to control as much of the population as possible. The Coalition wants support for the current regime and as many of their pieces off the board, out of harm’s way. The Taliban work to intimidate the population into opposing the government, and the Warlords care little about support or opposition, only that no one is in control so they can traffic drugs with impunity.
Characteristic details aside, all of the COIN Series games are exercises in restraint, tenuous diplomacy and management of chaos.
We’re hours into our war and no longer strangers. Jeff Gringer, known to us as the Taliban, stands and thrusts a hooked finger in my direction while declaring he’s going to “pop those Coalition troops in Helmand.” The Taliban is using a car bomb to ambush my men. I rock back in my chair, resigned to my fate.
Robert Leonhard, pulling the strings for the Warlords, is in real life a national security analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He has been sitting in mostly quiet concentration but finally speaks up: “I hate to hear you say that, Jeff. My oldest is in Helmand province.” He pauses, moving his glasses from his nose to the top of his graying high-and-tight. “I think. He can’t tell me exactly where he is.”
A thick silence covers the room. My thoughts move to a country half a world away as I consider my deficiencies in truly understanding a war I’ve been reading about for 10 years. On the board in front of us, my troops don’t make it back. I move them to a brown box marked “Casualties.” They’re just wooden cubes. Still, I find it hard to make eye contact with Leonhard.
But a half-hour later Leonhard is asking to play again. The games provide a first-person opportunity to rewrite history where books, movies and video games fall short. Leonhard wants to play again because there’s much more to learn and understand.
Soon after, I execute a quick and dirty surge to bring my pieces home, in this case mirroring future history. I win the game while leaving our Afghanistan on the cusp of anarchy. The victory leads to sincere handshakes all around and a dense discussion of American foreign policy.
This is where Ruhnke parts company from many of his wargame designer peers. Drawing out dichotomous reactions such as Leonhard’s are purpose-built into his games. He wants to touch those who maybe shouldn’t be having as much fun as they do, while also reaching across the aisle to players for whom board games are primarily a tactile brainteaser and social activity.
Elegant as the COIN Series is, I ask Ruhnke if his goals are a stretch. What’s going to happen when one of the uninitiated sits down and realizes his options don’t include shuffling resources to trade goods in the Mediterranean, but rather terrorism, assassination and extortion? “You’re bound to launch some highly consequential thinking,” he says. “Not only about what should and shouldn’t be fun, and why it is, but about the world you live in.”
The World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., is far from the biggest board gaming convention in the world, but for many wargamers, it matters the most. Over seven days, nearly 2,000 gamers descend on the Lancaster Host Resort to compete against the best in the hobby. In the parlance of the convention, many of the events are “shark tanks” with unwary chum regularly exiting in mortifyingly short time frames.
Designers also use the convention as a petri dish. If a game has cracks, they’ll be discovered here. Ruhnke and Mark Herman, his defense analyst design partner for Fire in the Lake, will run walk-up sessions of the game throughout the week.
I wander to the GMT demo area through rows of skirted tables dotted with games and surrounded by players hunched in thought. Nametag lanyards are worn backward so as not to disturb the pieces. The kibitzing thrum filling the room is punctured by shouts of cheer. I locate Ruhnke flanked by two active games of Fire in the Lake and a gaggle of paunchy, pasty onlookers. Cuba Libre, an exploration of Fidel Castro’s insurgency in 1957-58, is unboxed on the table. This is the first time Ruhnke has seen the printed game. “We should play,” Ruhnke says. “Who wants to play?” Four hands shoot up, including mine.
Peter Perla, the principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis and author of “The Art of Wargaming,” thinks that Ruhnke has created game effects that cross over among different types of gamers, but also the professional and hobby communities.
“Wargaming is a powerful medium,” Perla says. “Even within a simulation, when you’re responsible for lives and whether your country breaks, you’d better think carefully. If Ruhnke wasn’t as knowledgeable and sensitive to these issues, his games would be a very different, very unpleasant experience.”
Over the five days I spend at the WBC, Ruhnke is rarely alone. If it’s not well-wishers or the curious lined up, it’s other designers wanting to ask questions or chat.
At 10:15 p.m. a flatbed hand truck towering with brown boxes is wheeled into the room. A Distant Plain has finally arrived. The representative from GMT Games is instantly swarmed. Grown men grab their booty and scatter to quiet corners to tear at the shrink-wrap.
Later in the week, I catch Ruhnke walking around the wargaming room. He moves from table to table slowly with seeming purpose, but he offers no commentary. Then he stops, crosses his arms, and looks at the tournament playing out in front of us. The game is Waterloo, first released in 1962.
“It’s great to hit preorder numbers, sell games, know there’s buzz,” he says. “But if someone were still playing my games 40 or 50 years from now? Even if it were only a couple people? That’s lasting. I work in intelligence. There’s not a lot that lasts in intelligence. All I want is to see people playing. That’s immortality.”
Jason Albert is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn.
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