Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Boardgames and the indirect surveillance state


Big Brother is watching–for boardgamers buying suspicious game titles, that is.

A current thread on BoardGameGeek describes PayPal investigations triggered when gamers have used the service to buy games with certain words in the title. The PayPal query looks like this (with personal details redacted):

Dear [X],

As part of our security measures, we regularly screen activity in the PayPal system. During a recent screening, we noticed an issue regarding your account.

PayPal’s Compliance Department has reviewed your account and identified activity that may be in violation of United States regulations administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

PayPal is committed to complying with and meeting its global regulatory obligations. One obligation is to ensure that our customers, merchants, and partners are also in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including those set forth by OFAC, in their use of PayPal.

To ensure that activity and transactions comply with current regulations, PayPal is requesting that you provide the following information via email to

1. Purpose of payment [XXXXXXXXXXX] attempted on [DATE] in the amount of $[XX] including a complete and detailed explanation of the goods or services you intended to purchase.
2. Explanation of [WORD] in the above transaction.

Please go to our Resolution Center to provide this information. To find the Resolution Center, log in to your account and click the Resolution Center subtab. Click Resolve under the Action column and follow the instructions.

If we don’t hear from you by [DATE], we will limit what you can do with your account until the issue is resolved.

We thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We apologize for any

Thus far, games that have triggered a PayPal investigation include:

  • Cuba Libre!
  • Drive on Damascus 
  • Cuba: The Splendid Little War 
  • Santiago de Cuba 
  • Shining Path: The Struggle for Peru
  • Tupamaro 
  • Kandahar
  • Target: Iran

You can guess which keywords are popping via their internal transaction-monitoring algorithms!

All of this is an example of the powerful indirect effect of Treasury Department rules—and the consequent fear of financial institutions that failure to adequately monitor transactions might not only violate US law but also leave them open to civil lawsuits.

h/t Rory Aylward and Brian Train

UPDATE (22/01/15):

Jon Compton at One Small Step Games recounts his own experience with this issue:

We recently released the game Shining Path. Every time someone purchases the game via PayPal, the transaction is held pending investigation. Takes about a day, and then the money shows up in the account. On the flip side, the map artist for the game lives in Europe. When we paid her via PayPal, the transaction was held up almost a week, and we had to write a lengthy explanation for why we were paying a foriegn national for something that contained “Shining Path” in the title.

2 responses to “Boardgames and the indirect surveillance state

  1. brtrain 20/01/2015 at 7:14 pm

    The question is, how long is that list of words?
    And I suppose they figure they have to put the obvious ones on there, for evildoers who aren’t smart enough to use code words… or to just leave the “note to seller” box blank (because in cases where someone bought a Shining Path, Kandahar etc. from me and left the comment box blank, no one was the wiser).

  2. Lou Coatney 21/01/2015 at 6:57 pm

    I suspect “Great Patriotic War” would now qualify too, Brian. :-) But really, this is destructively invasive. I can accept the government (via the Treasury/Secret Service) monitoring who is interested in potentially subversive and/or pro-adversary titles, but actually coming out to try to block purchase – harass – is an egregious violation of personal rights and the act of a stupidly and dangerously heavy-handed dictatorship.

    And some of the titles are silly. Drive on Damascus is Vance von Borries’ 3W/Wargamer no. 19 classic about Lawrence of Arabia!, while Splendid Little War is about the Cubans’ 3 rebellions against *Spain*, published by Alan Emrich’s Victory Point Games.

    Think of all the current-topic boardgames Volko Ruhnke has done. Are they going to hammer *him*? (*Not* likely. :-) )

    It also tips off a potentially dangerous person – as ridiculously remote as that danger may be in the case of a *boardgamer* – ?! :-) – that they are being monitored, which (from a national security enforcement perspective) is counterproductive, other than for general intimidation/terrorizing of the population, which is anti-Constitutional to the point of seditious. (Indeed, was this instigated on the authority of one of McCain’s National Defense Authorization Act NDAA military dictatorship clauses?)

    I have been a sharp critic on international forums of our foreign policy regarding Syria and (starting World War 3 over) Ukraine, and last June (2014) I suddenly got a $1000 IRS fine for putting my state retirement on the wrong line of my *2011* tax return. (It *looked* like someone went fishing way back, consistent with Republican charges that the Obama government is corruptly/dictatorily using the IRS for political retaliation/harassment/coercion.) To the IRS’ credit, they at least reduced the fine to about $200, when I appealed.

    Anyone getting something like this from PayPal should go to their Congressperson and senatorS about it. This is way over the top – national security *dictatorship* – and utterly contrary to America and what we stand for … to say nothing of indiscreet.

    This should be gotten out to the media too.

    The Tea Party would have a ball with this.

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