GUATEMALA CITY -- It was a little more than a year ago that Clemens Ingwersen and Albert Vourvoulias found themselves jaded by Central American politics and somewhat at a loss for amusement in Guatemala.
So they invented "The Covert Central American War Game."
Also known as "Volcano," the Monopoly-style board game combines war, diplomacy and high finance with a sense of humor and a certain cynicism about the real games people play in Central America.
Among roles assumed by players of the game are the governments of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras, the Salvadoran rebels of the Marxist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the CIA, Cuba and the international "drug mafia."
The game reflects reality in that, as Vourvoulias puts it: "You cannot win militarily. You can only win through economic development." But when diplomacy fails, players do battle with everything from conventional armies to mercenary forces and death squads.
The game, which Ingwersen and Vourvoulias started producing here this summer, provided some diversion last week for journalists covering the Central American summit conference and other weighty matters affecting war and peace in the embattled region. The two hope to market the game in the United States where it could find itself competing with at least one other board game on the subject already being sold here called "Central America: The United States' Backyard War." In the meantime, they have produced a "deluxe limited edition" of 100 games, about half of which have been sold here so far.
The two might seem like unlikely entrepreneurs. Ingwersen, 26, is a Dutch free-lance journalist who has lived here more than three years. Vourvoulias, 28, from Philadelphia, is a Yale University student who has been here nearly two years researching a doctoral dissertation on Guatemalan politics.
"When I first came down here I felt like I was watching a game whose rules I didn't understand," Vourvoulias said. With the board game, he said, "at least all the players are playing by the same rules."
The object is for the players, whose game identities are kept secret from each other, to control certain areas on a map of Central America in the center of the board by accumulating money and buying development projects and armies. To do this they move tokens on squares around the edge of the board.
The players' projects can be attacked or protected by armies they buy, but the armies alone do not ensure control.
There are, of course, hazards. You can land on squares marked "First Miami Capital Flight Bank," or "Devaluation," which cost you 20 percent of your money. Other squares require you to pay the costs of being kidnaped for ransom or having to go into political exile in Mexico.
One of the most dreaded squares is marked "Human Rights Investigations," which forces you to pay heavily in cash and lose two armies for each "mistreated prisoner" you hold. On the other hand, the "Drug Smuggling" square gives you cash for every airport you control.
If you land on the "Moscow" or "Washington" squares, you can borrow money by mortgaging your projects. The trouble with a mortgaged project, though, is that you can never launch an attack from it.
And if you land on "IMF" or "COMECON," you can be devastated by having to repay your debts. That is, unless you possess an "Alan Garcia card," in which case you do not have to pay interest. The reference is to President Garcia of Peru, who unilaterally suspended payments on his country's foreign debt and recently nationalized the Peruvian banking system.
Squares marked "Chance" require you to draw cards that can bring penalties. For example: "The Pope condemns your ideology. Return to start. Receive no money." Or: "Pay rent on your apartments in Miami, Houston and Madrid: 1,500."
Some chance cards, on the other hand, give rewards, such as: "TV minister displays hemispheric map with Central America colored in red. Congregation contributes 1,000."
The idea for the game was first suggested by Ingwersen during a meeting of the Organization of American States in Guatemala last year, where, according to Vourvoulias, "So many things were being talked about that weren't what was really happening."
After they decided to create their game, he said, it took six months of trial and error to work the bugs out. Then it took another three months to get U.S. copyrights and start production in Guatemala, not widely known as a hub of the board-game industry.
"It took a long time to explain what we wanted because board games are not part of the culture here," Vourvoulias said. There were also political hangups in a country long dominated by rightist military rulers who have been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against Marxist rebels.
One company that was approached refused to produce red tokens with a hammer and sickle emblem to be used to denote mortgages from Moscow, Vourvoulias said.
"It can be viewed as a very cynical game," he said. "We were worried that Central Americans would be angry about this, but like in any country, there are people with a sense of humor here."
He said he thought the game would be enjoyed by groups as diverse as guerrilla solidarity networks in the United States and the Cuban exile community in Miami.
"Finally here's a game the contras can win," he said. "Maybe we'll advertise it that way.