SpyCast 3.15.22
Ep 530 | 3.15.22

"So, I Design Board Games for the CIA..." - with Volko Ruhnke

Show Notes


Volko Ruhnke (Website; Twitter) joins Andrew (Twitter; LinkedIn) to discuss his life and career in the CIA as an analyst and designer of board games. He is a former World Board Game Champion.

What You’ll Learn


  • Designing board games to teach CIA analysts
  • Moonlighting as an award-winning board game designer while working at CIA
  • Similarities and differences between intelligence analysis and board-games 
  • The difference between role-play games and board-games in training national security professionals


  • Humans are good models of humans 
  • Volko’s journey from Virginia to the CIA via William & Mary and the U.S. Army

And more…

Episode Notes 

Volko Ruhnke is a helluva interesting guy. He grew up as an avid board gamer raised on stories of the French and Indian War, which led him to design the 2001 winner of the best pre-WWII boardgame Wilderness War. His time at the CIA after 9/11 then led him to design the 2010 winner of the best post-WWII boardgame Labyrinth, where players were immersed in the operational and ideological aspects of the Global War on Terror. It doesn’t stop there, though, he has also designed a series of counter-insurgency games such as Andean Abyss, which focused on 1990’s Columbia, and Fire in the Lake, a multi-faction treatment of the Vietnam War.

While teaching a new generation of intelligence analysts, Volko combined both of his passions to help them understand the complexity and open-endedness of the real-world via board games. As an analyst himself, Volko looked at the Soviet & Russian military and counter-proliferation, before going on to be Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology at the National Intelligence Council, and then on the Presidents Daily Brief (PDB) staff to brief cabinet level officials. 


Volko is now a commercial board game designer, and you can get quite a few of his games here – but not all of them. One day historians, one day…

Quote of the Week

"Games allow you to get inside and operate the machine yourself and do experiments and pull a lever or push a button and see what happens. And because it's happening on the tabletop, rather than say, in a computer program, you, you can understand it very well. You can see exactly why what just happened. So, I became among others, a promulgator of, of that particular medium for teaching as well as for analysis." - Volko Ruhnke




  • Storytelling in the Modern Boardgame, A. Arnaudo (McFarland, 2018)
  • White King & Red Queen: Cold War on the Chessboard, D. Johnson (Mariner, 2008)
  • Best Books on Play (Five Books)



Primary Sources

Wildcard Resource