Last month, a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to the CIA unearthed a trove of documents related to the agency’s in-house board games, used to train agents in intelligence gathering and other clandestine activities. The documents included detailed rulebooks and pages of cut-out components and cards, and it seemed only a matter of time before gamers with a printer and some scissors started playing the once-classified games themselves.
Yesterday, the blog Techdirt and Diegetic Games took it one step further. They’ve announced a Kickstarter campaign to produce their own version of one of the CIA’s games, Collection Deck. Retitled CIA: Collect It All, it’s a card game that agency documents say is akin to Magic: The Gathering, with players using different tactical cards to solve various global crises.
“I was like: this is amazing,” says Mike Masnick, Techdirt’s founder and editor, of when he first saw the CIA’s declassified games. His blog frequently covers news about the agency and FOIA politics, and Masnick, a board game fan, had already been talking with game designer Randy Lubin about potential projects. The confluence of interests seemed too much to pass up.
Masnick first printed out the FOIA’d documents and assembled a deck of the game’s cards for a practice run. He was pleasantly surprised by the gameplay, even if the rulebook’s wording took some deciphering to fully grasp.
“It’s not what you expect, right?,” says Masnick. “The CIA guy who made it, he’s admitted he’s a game fanatic, and you can see that. He clearly knows what he’s doing.”
The game’s secretive backstory piqued the interest of fellow gamers, and Masnick decided it was worthy of a proper physical edition. The Kickstarter, which is currently over halfway to its $30,000 goal, will fund the creation of both a print-and-play PDF of CIA: Collect It All, as well as a boxed copy with over 150 “quality playing cards.”
The finished product will also be more polished than the blurry photocopies in the FOIA documents. Masnick says they’re going to refine the card presentation and reword portions of the rulebook for those not versed in agency vernacular. They’ll also include their own variant of the ruleset to feature a storytelling aspect behind the cards.
When the CIA’s games were first released, Motherboard asked game designers for their reviews. Jason Matthews, designer of Twilight Struggle, noted that Collection Deck had a interesting role-playing element, a provided good insight into what skills the agency values in its wargaming experiments. Designers had high praise for another game detailed in the files, a manhunt-simulator called Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo, but Masnick said that one proved too complex to build through Kickstarter.
Masnick cites US copyright law as his license to market the game—as a creation of the federal government, it’s not subject to copyright protection, he says, and thus in the public domain.
One of the more curious alterations that Masnick and Lubin have to make to the game is filling in the CIA’s secret redactions. Among the cards detailing the various intelligence problems that players must solve (think “Atrocities in Darfur” and “Syria Chemical Weapons Testing”), there are several that have blanked-out titles. Masnick is writing new cards to replace them, but he can’t help but wonder about their original wording.
“Maybe they didn’t want us knowing the CIA was part of that coup or revolution or whatever it could have been,” he says.