reader comments 48 Share this story Last year, the CIA used a South By Southwest festival event to reveal one o
Last year, the CIA used a South By Southwest festival event to reveal one of its weirdest training exercises: a series of globe-trotting, espionage-filled board games. If you’re wondering why we’re circling back to this news almost exactly one year later, we have four letters for you: FOIA.
A series of Freedom of Information Act requests, filed last June by Southern California tech entrepreneur Doug Palmer, finally bore fruit last week. The CIA has now released rules, art, and design documents for the two board games we played at last year’s SXSW.
If you’re wondering: yes, these documents include enough rules and materials to help budding CIA officers print and play their own versions of the games Collection Deck and Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo. Unfortunately, the released files don’t come close to printing-grade quality, owing both to low resolution and fax-grade 1-bit color. Ambitious board gaming fans will have to pick up the aesthetic slack themselves. (Here’s to hoping someone creates entries at BoardGameGeek to inspire such an effort. As of press time, no BGG entries for either game exist.)
You’ll want to head back to my original report for more color about how the games function, but here’s the gist: Collection Deck plays out like the popular players-against-board title Pandemic, with all players cooperating to manage resources before any “crisis” meter boils over. In contrast, Kingpin divides players into two teams: one runs El Chapo’s cartel, and the other hunts for him. Thanks to a giant cardboard screen and certain hidden cards, both Kingpin teams operate with a certain amount of asymmetric secrecy.
The files released for Kingpin are perhaps more revealing from gameplay and design perspectives. They include four deprecated rulesets, each marked up with an iterative series of changes and requests; there’s also a final, unmarked set of rules for anybody who might want to print and play the game themselves. Additionally, these files include the CIA’s own educational “module” about the game, so interested readers can understand more about how the game was used in a training capacity. After poring through the documents myself, I can’t help but marvel at how unique its gameplay is even one year after getting a brief in-person tease. You’ll need a giant table to manage two nearly identical game boards, and one willing friend must serve as the game’s “referee” (since both sides operate with a lack of information).
That educational module, however, shows that perhaps the most intriguing CIA detail is missing. Turns out, Kingpin has a video component—one that could last as long as 30 minutes, to boot. Sadly, the FOIA documentation neither includes this video nor describes it, so it’s anybody’s guess at this point what it contains. Flat rules delivery from CIA officers? A dramatized story starring an El Chapo imitator?
Unfortunately, between the CIA’s internal ruleset and included pages of chicken scratch notes, it’s easy to stumble over exactly how Kingpin is supposed to operate. The same goes for Collection Deck. The latter game’s published documentation is doubly vague, since it includes the CIA’s series of internal training cards… which are marked up to an incredible degree, since they refer to a number of apparently classified intel-collection practices. But technically, all of that game’s marked-up cards are still totally usable, since the CIA was kind enough to leave the math-related rules of every card untouched. (Grab a marker and insert your own paranoid guesses in the blank text boxes, print-and-players.)
For the full series of files, which also includes the CIA’s internal notes from that SXSW panel, head to Palmer’s FOIA request page at Muckrock. Should any avid Ars readers or board game fans come up with smoothed-out print-and-play sets for the games, we’ll update this report with links.
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