Well, here’s a first (so far as I know)—a commercial wargame designer treated to a full-length profile article in the Washington Post:
In the world of war games, Volko Ruhnke has become a hero
War game designer Volko Ruhnke plays the board game Angola at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in August. (Al Tielemans/For The Washington Post)
WRITTEN BY Jason Albert
FRIDAY, JANUARY 10,11:20 AM
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….
It is an excellent piece, both on the designer and the modern evolution of the hobby. You’ll find PAXsims reviews of some of Volko’s games here, here, here, and here.