Volko Ruhnke

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The Washington Post profiles War game designer Volko Ruhnke:

In the ’90s, while at the CIA, Ruhnke designed a role-play session for his work friends. The Seven Years’ War role-play morphed into a board game. Then he submitted his design to GMT Games, the modern hobby’s highest-profile wargame publisher. Wilderness War was released in 2001 and is now one of GMT’s all-time bestsellers. This led Gene Billingsley, a GMT principal, to approach Ruhnke in 2009 with a commission to create a game about the war against terrorism. About a year later Labyrinth became another bestseller and industry award-winner. Now it was Ruhnke’s turn. He told Billingsley he had idea for a game series on insurgency. The first would be set in 1990s Colombia.

“I loved the idea but hated the topic,” Billingsley said. “I told him I couldn’t sell it.” Then Billingsley played Ruhnke’s prototype.

Listing for $75 retail, Andean Abyss was another hit in 2012, and the COIN (counterinsurgency) Series was launched. Soon after, designers began approaching him asking to use his core ideas, while, at the same time, Ruhnke was reaching out to the industry’s most respected topic experts.

Volko Ruhnke's Games

One of those collaborations is a Vietnam War-themed game called Fire in the Lake — the title giving a nod to Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer-winning book. Both posit an insurgency wrapped in a conventional war. GMT has a preorder system wherein a threshold must be reached before a game is sent to final production. It’s not unusual for that to take months or years as orders trickle in. Fire in the Lake hit its number within four days.

While different in feel and detail, all of Ruhnke’s COIN Series games use the same simple mechanism: a deck of brightly colored cards featuring actual or generalized historical events. An example from A Distant Plain would be “U.S.-Pakistan Talks.” Cards are flipped two at a time. One card is live; the second allows players to see what’s coming. Two factions are allowed to act on the live card; then the other two factions, on the next.

A Distant Plain Karzai Card

The first-choice player opts to trigger the event and listed outcomes. Each event has two possible paths: one interpretation benefiting the insurgents; one, the counterinsurgents. In the case of “U.S.-Pakistan Talks,” the card could worsen the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, making it easier for the Taliban to operate. Or if a counterinsurgent faction could pick the event, it may choose less antagonistic effects. But it’s not an either-or decision. A faction could bypass the event as if it never happened and, instead, select from a list of faction-specific operations. The Coalition can train troops, patrol Afghanistan’s ring road, sweep into provinces to locate insurgents, or assault. The Taliban’s options include rallying to recruit guerrillas, marching, attacking or executing terrorism. The unique history of each conflict is then baked in, but it never arrives in the same sequence from game to game, if at all.

A Distant Plain Game Board

To win A Distant Plain, the Afghan government has to control as much of the population as possible. The Coalition wants support for the current regime and as many of their pieces off the board, out of harm’s way. The Taliban work to intimidate the population into opposing the government, and the Warlords care little about support or opposition, only that no one is in control so they can traffic drugs with impunity.

Characteristic details aside, all of the COIN Series games are exercises in restraint, tenuous diplomacy and management of chaos.

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