"So, I Design Board Games for the CIA..." - with Volko Ruhnke
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian/curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is Volko Ruhnke. Volko is a hell of an interesting guy. He's a former World Boardgame Champion. He's an award-winning designer of board games, such as Wilderness War, inspired by growing up steeped in the history of the struggle between Britain and France and the colonies, Labyrinth, where players are immersed in the cat-and-mouse game of counterterrorism in the post-9/11 world, or a series of counterinsurgency board games, such as Andean Abyss, which focused on the Colombian conflict of the 1990s.
Andrew Hammond: In his own analytic career, Volko has looked at the Soviet and Russian military, counterproliferation. He went on to be a national intelligence officer for science and technology, and then on to the president's daily brief staff to brief cabinet-level officials. You can get quite a few of Volko's games if you go to gmtgames.com, but not all of them. One day, historians. One day.
Andrew Hammond: Along the way, we discuss 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 and the difference between role-play games and board games in training national security professionals. Enjoy.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's a pleasure to speak to you, Volko. And I'm really glad we finally managed to get some time to do this. So thanks for taking time to speak to me.
Volko Ruhnke: Hi, Andrew. Thanks. Happy to be here.
Andrew Hammond: You've devised a number of war games. And I know that one of them begins, Labyrinth: The War on Terror. Looking at the box title, it's 2001-? I guess one of the most obvious questions was, do you see the end of - the latest American chats around Afghanistan - do you see that as the end of the war on terror, or do you think that it's just going to continue in a different form?
Volko Ruhnke: I think we're at a very fresh point yet to be looking back on how do the periods of history divide. But I had just that thought that as historians look back, you know, maybe some decades from now, they might indeed consider the war on terror - the so-called global war on terror as being that 20-year period with - beginning with 9/11 and ending with the coalition's withdrawal from Afghanistan. It does make some sense.
Andrew Hammond: I haven't played the game, unfortunately. Is there any kind of scenario about how this was all going to wrap up or what denouement would be within the game?
Volko Ruhnke: In effect, yes. The game - I did the game design in 2009 and drawing on, of course, a lot of my day job, you know, experience and information in counterterrorism. And at that time, I titled it 2000 - subtitled it 2001-? because in 2009, of course, the global war on terror was still very much active. And the game wasn't so much trying to make a prediction or forecast, but just acknowledge that it was covering this process up to the present day.
Volko Ruhnke: And the way that the game would end is if the jihadists established their desired form of Islamic rule or Islamist rule in enough Muslim countries commanding enough resources, then that would've been sort of a juncture. And at that time in 2009, you know, we didn't have the Islamic State yet. You know, there had been the Taliban, Afghanistan. But the idea that international jihadists could really control enough of a territory to call it a state was still just a theoretical possibility. But it was their goal. And so in the game, that's your goal - that was your goal as the jihadist player. And that would then end the game, that you at least gotten that far. You'd established a multinational - or, rather, a cross-border caliphate. On the U.S. side, you were trying to, over the long run, defeat terrorism by helping improve Muslim governance so that these people would have accountable-enough governments that they wouldn't, you know, send recruits and money to organizations like al-Qaida to achieve the rule of Islam. And so if the U.S. side in the game would get enough good governance, you know, going in the Muslim world, then by the theory at the time of the administration fighting the war on terror at the time, then that would, you know, suck the life out of al-Qaida and the like because there would be alternative, peaceful means to achieve what Islam promised.
Volko Ruhnke: So that was - that's sort of a juncture in the game. It's not necessarily the end of everything. What happened was another designer, Trevor Bender, expanded on "Labyrinth" after the game was popular. And we had - shortly after the game was published, we had the Arab Awakening and everything that flowed from that - first promising and then disastrous in many ways - and the Islamic State and so forth. So there are two expansions to the game, actually, that carry it forward. One's called The Awakening. And the second one is called Forever War. And they take it, you know, to recent years.
Andrew Hammond: It's just, like, when I was doing the research for our interview, it just - that seemed really interesting to maybe revisit this because at the time, it was much more open-ended. And I know that some of the scenarios in the game were, which juncture is history going to take us down? And of course, no one knew that at the time. But now that we've preceded in our four or five steps, I guess I thought I'd be quite interested in your view on it, just using the game as a snapshot in time.
Volko Ruhnke: And I think the game, you know, in some ways, holds up reasonably well with retrospect. For example, we do end up with, you know, a Islamist - hard-line Islamist caliphate being formed and so forth. And now we do have the Taliban, of course, in charge again in Afghanistan. Those are things that can happen in the game. The time the game was done, bin Laden was still at large. In the game, you can nab bin Laden. That happened shortly after the game came out. But an area that the game really did not envision in the original design and took an expansion by another designer to bring in was the force, the internal popular force, that generated the Arab Awakening, and its spinning into catastrophic civil wars in several countries. And, you know, in the original game, I didn't really have anything like that.
Volko Ruhnke: So it just shows you that actual international affairs, of course, are much - naturally much more complex, but also far more non-linear in their effect, far more surprising in how small interactions can lead to really dramatic departures that are very, very difficult to capture in simple models like board games - and, for that matter, very, very difficult for analysts to forecast. It's just the nature of human affairs that makes projection so difficult, particularly if you're talking about things like politics.
Andrew Hammond: There's just so many variables, right, you know? Political scientists can't predict the future. Economists can't predict the future. So I don't know why intelligence analysts are expected to predict the future. I'd like to revisit the counterterrorism work and the work you've done at the CIA. But I just want to take a jump cut back to the beginning, because we've spoke about the board game, about the global war on terror. But I know that the first game that you had was on a war that fascinates you, the French and Indian War. And it fascinates me as well. I find that really interesting.
Andrew Hammond: And talking about small effects - like, just thinking about George Washington and his role in the early stage of the war, that's a great analogy of how one small event can, you know, send - chain a number of other events. But I guess my question was, can you - just for our listeners that are a little bit rusty on this or that know absolutely nothing about it, could you just tell our listeners about the intelligence game or the intelligence angle of the French and Indian War, maybe just with a preface with, like, a sentence or two on what the French and Indian War was?
Volko Ruhnke: You know, reconnaissance and understanding of geography were big aspects and challenges of it. But what - my game is called "Wilderness War." And the reason it's called that is because the war that became the Seven Years' War, well, in North America, it was fought across the frontier and across a vast wilderness. And what it was about was which empire, the French or the British, was going to control the vast area that was west of the British colonies at the time. And that meant that the forces involved were those who lived there, so Native American nations and French trappers and English rangers and explorers and adventurers, a little bit. As you mentioned, George Washington was sort of in that mold in that time. And into that wilderness world comes European conventional, formal warfare, drilled battalions and siege procedures and tactics and logistical systems hacking their way through the wilderness. And what fascinated me so much about that war, to do a game on it, was that clash and contest between very asymmetric means - petite guerre of the frontier, the skulking way of war, as the whites called it, versus the massed armies from the European continent. And, you know, which of those modes would triumph and win out was just a very interesting systems clash to consider.
Andrew Hammond: Can you just tell our listeners a little bit more about where the genesis of all of this comes from? I know that one of your previous roles was with the U.S. Army and the department - the Army, and then you were in the CIA, and now you're - just tell us about how wargaming entered your life and how we got to the stage where you came out with "Wilderness."
Volko Ruhnke: Yeah. In fact, the causality is actually in the opposite direction - that is, Army and intelligence community came out of wargaming, believe it or not, because I started playing these board games about military history when I was in sixth grade and kept that up. And what it fed in me especially was an interest and love in history. I was a history major then at the College of William and Mary up - you know, the second-oldest university in the country. So history is very vivid all around you as you're there, colonial history in particular. And I lived in Virginia since I was a small boy. So the idea of the - you know, of the Virginia frontier and, as you mentioned, George Washington's role in all that was part of the interest in the French and Indian War. As I came out of undergraduate with a history and international relations degree, I wanted to go in an area that was, you know, practical and applicable and would, you know, do something in the world, and I thought that's probably more going to be foreign affairs than it is on continued study of history. So for graduate school, I went to get a master's degree in foreign service at Georgetown and was thinking about diplomacy or international business or whatever. But I happened to have two professors there who were both CIA veterans, and I think they recruited a half-dozen of us from our seminar...
Volko Ruhnke: ...Because they were great recruiters. What is wonderful for me at the end of the story is that those two interests merged, and I was able to do a lot with simulation games in the realm of intelligence analysis, up to the last day before I retired. So that was quite a joy.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about the merging of that because I find that really, really interesting. So you come - you know, you've got this interest in wargaming. Was it you that said, oh, by the way, there's this thing that I'm interested in that will really - that may help what you are doing? Or was it already there, and you were like, oh, great, you know, wargaming is part of this? Or - tell us about how both of them came together and the sort of dynamic between them.
Volko Ruhnke: Well, so - of course not my invention or introduction...
Volko Ruhnke: ...Into the national security business, and the Department of Defense has a quite an industry of wargaming going on. And there was the same thing going on in the intelligence community. And one of the first jobs I had out of grad school was as a contractor for the Army, actually. And I had been brought on board to help run a - essentially, a tabletop simulation that was in a computer. But it would - it played like a board wargame, if you will, to test out some, you know, various Army proposals and programs for defending, you know, Germany against the Soviets. And so that was kind of - that was, like, already a way for me to get in the door. As I entered the analytic ranks at the CIA, the, you know, theater forces, military analysts, for example, were using, essentially, board wargames of the style of commercial games already. And so that was happening here and there. It wasn't - not central activity, but it was here and there.
Volko Ruhnke: What happened that really made it come to life for me was that, in about the last third of my career, I became an instructor, and so I was teaching intelligence community analysts. And I was already aware - and, again, not my invention; my colleagues were doing this also here and there. But I was very much aware of how powerful a medium tabletop games are for showing you a complex system, for showing you how interactions add up to a larger hole because the games allow you to kind of 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 can understand it very well. You can see exactly why what just happened happened. So I became, among others, a promulgator of that particular medium for teaching, as well as for analysis - and not just seminar games or computer games but specifically board games in the classroom. And I think we had a number of successes with that.
Andrew Hammond: I think that people from movies or from other maybe cultural products, they are very familiar - the military is known to use tabletop games and wargaming and so forth, but it's probably a little bit less known that the intelligence community uses them. Are you able to speak a little bit more about the ways in which they're used?
Volko Ruhnke: Sure. So what was, and I'm sure still is, very, very common is seminar-style games just like the Department of Defense might use. And you can think of it as professional level Model United Nations, if you will. People are playing roles interacting with outcomes that are partially adjudicated to re-enact some event. It might be a summit. It might be a trade negotiation. It might be a war. The role players are experts. The role players are analysts, actual generals, actual policymakers and so forth, right? You know, experts on a region might portray political leaders from that region, that kind of thing. So that's very, very common. It happens a lot. What was less common was to develop a model with a rule set that would play out on a tabletop. And the advantages of that are that you have to think through very explicitly, how do things work? And then you can test that model to see if the outcomes are plausible or not, and where might it go? And what we found is just in the construction of such a game, you could learn a lot. It was very powerful collaboratively for a lot of different experts to figure out, how should it work?
Volko Ruhnke: One example of that - I did a - I co-designed a game that was intended actually for the classroom to teach political analysts about parliamentary politics, you know, political analysts who'd come up in the U.S. system but were studying parliamentary systems elsewhere in the world. And so we had a game called Coalition that was about, you know, parliamentary coalitions and minority governments and how these different things work. And to design the game, I teamed up with a senior analyst who had - was an expert in the politics of a region, had lived there, worked there, lived through some of the events and - but was not a game designer. And I was not an expert in any of that. I was a game designer. So working together to do this instructional game meant that he had to answer a lot of questions from me about how things worked. And they were sometimes things that, you know, he hadn't necessarily thought of, that - as he'd been building this complex mental model over decades, literally. But, you know, we don't know what the gaps are in our own thinking about complex affairs, but that game has to work. You know, it has to run. And once it was running, you know, his phrase was, that's my brain on the table. I mean, he - to him, it was a high-fidelity dynamic expression of his expertise that we could now pass on to other people.
Volko Ruhnke: So we apply that to analysis with live topics, and we would get in collaborative sessions with analysts who were - they were expert in different aspects of, let's say, some region, right? And they work with each other all the time producing corporate analysis, of course. And we'd start to talk about, well, OK, how should we bound this problem? What's the scope of the game? Who are the key actors? What do they want? You know, what should their capabilities be? And it immediately become a very rich discussion in which these experts were surprised by and then synthesizing and building on each other's mental models of those complex dynamics because they hadn't had a chance to have that kind of conversation before. So that was a surprise for me was that we learn a lot just - we learned a lot just making the thing as opposed to playing it or testing things out. And the kinds of topics - so in the Department of Defense, that kind of war gaming when we think about the term war gaming, of course, there - it's warfare, generally, right? It's combat at the tactical level, operational level, strategic level, whatever it is.
Volko Ruhnke: In the intelligence community, the range of topics and settings, it's much wider than that. You know, military analysts were using that - were using games to look at potentials of different conflicts, perhaps, that hadn't happened. But we have political games. We have economic games. One game we did for - again, for training, but the idea was to help analysts see the processes that go into helping partners like law enforcement find fugitives, such as narcotics kingpins or terrorist leaders or whatever. And it wasn't about, you know, kicking down doors. It was about the analysis. It was about what is the analytic process to helping these partners zero in on these targets? You know, what kind of questions do you ask? And that process is a - it's brain versus brain, right? You're analyzing somebody who's analyzing you back, and they're, you know, reading the signals that people are giving by looking for them in different places and collecting information and all of that, right? And so it's a - you can think - you can see already it's a perfect situation for a game because we can have one team be the analysts and another team is getting in the mind of the target, if you will, the bad guy, the fugitive, trying to evade that. And they're kind of collecting information on each other.
Volko Ruhnke: So we had a game, again, that I paired with an expert in that methodology, that analytic methodology that supports that kind of manhunt. And we did a game together that was then part of a course to let analysts crawl inside that process and kick it around. And, again, in that process, you know, together we discovered aspects of that complex affair that the expert hadn't specifically enunciated. You know, it's something he knew but, for all the writing that he had done in his thesis about that, you know, hadn't quite put a point on it. But you have to get the model to work. And so it came out in the design of the game.
Andrew Hammond: Is this the genesis of the game Kingpin?
Volko Ruhnke: This is the game Kingpin. Exactly.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners, this looks at Chapo Guzman. Is that right?
Volko Ruhnke: Yes. So we had that case available to us - you know, an unclassified case, a lot of information out there, a very hard target because Guzman was very well-resourced and very creative in his ability to resist capture. And then there was a successful effort to capture him and actually - you know, by the Mexican authorities. And actually, we were designing the game, and I think this was in 2014. We're designing the game. We hadn't finished the design, and he had already broken out of prison again. And there was a second - you know, a second manhunt underway. But the game is based on the first manhunt for Guzman.
Andrew Hammond: And this teaching - this was at the Sherman Kent School, right?
Volko Ruhnke: That's right - at the Sherman Kent School, which is, of course, our - you know, our schoolhouse for analysts, if you will.
Andrew Hammond: I don't want to get - to go down to this rabbit hole. But, I mean, it seems to me that just thinking about the Sherman Kent School - and when you start talking about, you know, causation and complex systems and and so forth, I mean, you're really getting into the philosophy of social science, the philosophy of science and the nature of phenomena and so forth.
Andrew Hammond: How do you make that bridge between the, OK, we're the CIA; we're in the applied business, but nevertheless, there's all of these more abstract epistemological questions that are going on in the background? How does the Sherman Kent School deal with, we need to oxygenate our thinking with, you know, what people are doing at a more abstract level, but we have to bring it down so that we can apply it? Yeah, help us understand that because that seems quite fascinating to me.
Volko Ruhnke: So first of all, you know, your implication is absolutely correct that this is a training establishment, right? It's not knowledge for knowledge's sake. And the pressure is really on the course designers and the instructors, as it should be, to very quickly convince their students who are away from their busy jobs, you know, investing by choice or assignment in this classroom experience, convincing them rather quickly that what you're doing there in the classroom has a chance of helping them be better at their jobs when they return to their desk the next day or Monday morning or whenever it's going to be.
Volko Ruhnke: So the idea that the overall course goal has to contribute to the mission, meaning it has to contribute to the students' effectiveness in doing their job - and the learning objectives are tied to that, right? That's fundamental and ever present. At the same time, the analytic directorate as a whole was going through a period in the latter half of my career of realizing there were aspects of knowledge and cognition that were not just deeply affecting how we do our job but sometimes misleading us to error.
Volko Ruhnke: And we needed to understand that. And so, you know, we went back rather enthusiastically to Richards Heuer and the psychology of intelligence and - you know, an analyst who in the 1970s was thinking about, how do we - you know, are we really applying scientific method, or are we doing something else as analysts, and wrote a book about that and came up with a methodology about that in the '80s that I picked up in my career in the '90s. I mean, it was - things were moving a little bit slowly, but they were moving. And with going through 9/11 and then Iraq WMD and looking back on, how did we get that wrong, which we did, there's a lot of consideration of our analytic tradecraft. And when I was originally trained as an analyst, we didn't have the phrase analytic tradecraft. But that phrase was very much in the lexicon of the analytic directorate by this century. And that means we are thinking about, what is our method? What are the biases that are hardwired into the brain, like confirmation bias and hindsight bias and optimism and so forth? What are these aspects of cognition that we need to - we can't completely mitigate them because we're human beings, but we sure need to be aware of them. And can we adopt method processes that can be taught in the classroom and on the job to mitigate them? And so there was a large-scale effort in the directorate to do that. And the Kent School was very much in the heart of that in terms of training analysts and analytic managers how to think more effectively, right?
Volko Ruhnke: And what we ran into - and this is - comes back to this issue of complexity because, for me, this was just eye-opening in the last - you know, as I said, last few years of my career. But we had been teaching methods that were analytical and procedural. And analytical means you're breaking a larger problem up into little pieces to understand it. And so the methods that we took from places like Richards Heuer, "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis," were that. What are all the chunks of data we have? What are all the hypotheses that we can think of? OK, now let's compare each individual chunk of data against each hypothesis. How consistent is it? Rack up the score. That's analysis.
Volko Ruhnke: A problem is that the world is mostly complex systems - complex adaptive systems if you're talking about human affairs. There are all these relationships and dynamics, emotions, and the whole has a character that is different than the parts. So as we organize ourselves to split the world up into little pieces and as we endeavor through that cognitive process of studying each little piece and then trying to put it together, we can miss these complex system effects.
Volko Ruhnke: So the Kent School - not - you know, before I was there - had seen that and had brought in a part of the curriculum that had to do with understanding complex adaptive systems - looking at human affairs as the outcome of all these interactions, a whole that is different than the sum of the parts, and trying to understand problems in that way - dynamic interactions, adaptive actors and factors and the like. The hitch was, to get back to the - that's great for - from a theoretical point of view. But then what do we tell the analysts? What do you do with that, OK? You know, and it was - for a time, what we had was, OK, here's what you're up against, analysts. Complex adaptive systems - it means you're going to get all kinds of nonlinear effects. This was, by the way, in the moment of the Arab Awakening where we had interactions we hadn't seen before lead to, you know, things happening in Tunisia that, you know, we might have written a scenario about or something, but it wasn't - it just hadn't happened that way for decades - right? - if ever, and then rippling out into big, big changes, you know, in a region of the world.
Volko Ruhnke: OK, so this idea that these nonlinear, very hard to predict, complex systems effects are out there, that's something you have to deal with, analysts, right? We were teaching it. And then it was sort of, OK, and have a nice day, you know? I mean, what - it'd be - what tools do we have? - was the next question right away. What - you know, what tools do we have that we can train people in to deal with that? Why do we expect intelligence analysts to predict? Well, you have to be able to at least forecast conditionally to do opportunity analysis, right? You have to say, well, policymaker, operator, you know, if you push here, then the likely effect is it'll go there, because we're trying to be policy-relevant. So we need to kind of forecast how a system will react.
Volko Ruhnke: So we came down to the way that we can equip ourselves to better understand complex adaptive systems is through a series of modeling tools - models. Models of complexity are the way that scientists and engineers and economists and good historians try to understand a complex system well enough to navigate it. And there are all kinds of models that help do that. One flavor of such models is tabletop simulations - board games.
Andrew Hammond: You've already answered this, but I just want to piggyback on what we were just talking about. So, you know, this idea that intelligence analysts - they read stuff, they write stuff, period - just crystallize what gaming is bringing to the table that you're not getting from just reading a book or something.
Volko Ruhnke: Again, this - the kind of gaming that are role-playing, seminar-style games, the intelligence community has been using for a long time. It's a very familiar tool. And so what - you know, what - why do that? What are you getting from them? My way of looking at that - this is what I think, you know, you get in that - is that a seminar-style game, a role-playing game, is a model of a complex system. You've identified actors and potentially key external factors. You've identified - or the role-players, as experts, will do so within your game - what the incentives are on those actors. What are they trying to achieve? The ends. You've either identified, or they will supply you by what they do in the game, the ways that those actors might achieve those things. And you've also equipped them with certain capacities, the means. So ends, ways and means, those are strategy. That's strategy. That's the definition of strategy, ends ways and means. And when we're trying to understand the world of politics or war or economics, trade, terrorism, counterterrorism and so on, we're trying to understand competing strategies. There are all these actors out there. They're all trying to do something, somehow, with some, you know, stuff, you know, against each other or partially against each other or in coalition against somebody else or whatever. How do those strategies interact? Well, we can play all that out in a seminar game or a computer game or a tabletop game. We can play all that out to watch it in action because imagine, I mean, how difficult that is.
Volko Ruhnke: It is just devilishly difficult to think about all of these capacities and interactions and decisions that haven't even been made yet. And what will be their overall result, right? That's what you're asking intelligence analysts to do. So to help them form their own mental models of all that complexity, it's very helpful to play it out, and especially to play it out from the inside, you know, where you're helping create the story yourself. And you can, as I say, experiment and see how other people, other brains, react. What we're doing with a game like that is we're using humans to simulate humans. Humans are good models of humans, so a game makes sense.
Andrew Hammond: Tell me what you think of this. I just had the thought there that - do you think that being an intelligence analyst is a little bit like being a professional gambler? You study the form. You study the bloodline of the horse. You do all of the research that you can. You immerse yourself in it. And you make estimations and probabilistic statements. But there's always going to be the freak horse that comes from behind. Or there's always going to be a situation that is not normal, that's not predictable. Do you think that that's a fair analogy?
Andrew Hammond: It is in the sense that forecasting, by a lot of research, not necessarily universally - forecasting is thought of as a skill. If you measure your performance in forecasting, you can get better. If you train to think probabilistically, you can be more effective in, let's say, placing bets, if you like. So in that sense, I think the analogy is sound because effective speculators are going to be able to convert observations of a complex affair, a complex system, into probabilistic forecasts and act on them and win out over time.
Andrew Hammond: And there are other analogies. Think about being an effective politician. So what do great politicians do well? Great politicians look out there at other politicians who are navigating with and against them through some human system. Maybe it's a Communist Party. Or maybe it's an electorate. Or maybe it's a kingdom. But it's a complex system. And great politicians are able to navigate that by taking in all these little details of these individual personalities and interactions and other factors - like economics and environment and culture - and understand all of those competing strategies well enough to maneuver in such a way to come on top when they form a coalition or turn on and attack another politician publicly, or advocate this policy or switch positions on that, right? They're navigating a complex system. I think, by the same type of effective building of one's mental model - OK? - that a gambler would.
Andrew Hammond: And surely, the same is true of a titan of business (laughter) or a cartel kingpin or a military commander, right? They are all able to observe complex systems, complex human systems, form a mental model of that that is a good, purposeful simplification - it's got to be a simplification, but it's effective in helping them navigate it - and then acting on that. Now, the analyst has it, if anything, a little easier because the analyst doesn't so much have to act on that - right? - as opposed to simply convey that understanding to somebody who will. But it seems to me the same challenge and the same skill.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's fascinating. And I want to move away from this and move back onto your career and the games. But I just find this, like, really, really fascinating. But just to go back to that translation from the abstract to the applied. Like, say, the Sherman Kent School, how are those ideas about the different ways that people are thinking about social systems, about human beings, how are those ideas coming into the Sherman Kent School? And for the analyst that's coming to one of the courses, are they - I guess I'm wondering, like, do they get a sense of the fact that there's different points of view, you know? There's, like, constructivist views of the world. There's realists. I don't want to go too down into the weeds. But there's, like, different ways of understanding the world. I guess I'm just - I guess the question is, how do all these ideas from sociologists, systems analyst, how do they come into the Sherman Kent school? Like, how does that oxygen kind of come in to feed what the analysts are getting? Help me understand that kind of look.
Volko Ruhnke: Perhaps this is a part of the answer and something that I think is very important to, you know, what I consider the success of the Sherman Kent School in that it has, you know, sustained itself and grown and advanced its curriculum and taken on a bigger role in the directorate than at its birth. And that is that it's very much based on rotations, that the people who are teaching the thing were recently doing the thing or managing leading the thing, the thing being analysis. And most of them will be doing that again. And so I just thought that that was a key linkage, without which the risk is very great, that the training house goes off in its own direction and is thinking about whatever things that are out there in theory, while the way that the business is done back on the line has moved on.
Volko Ruhnke: And I don't know if that was true of past, you know, analytic training environments that predated my time as an instructor at the Kent School. But for us, it was very valuable in every subpart to have somebody come in who had just been doing this, you know, or managing a branch or more in the analytic directorate because that - it wasn't the only way we tried to stay in touch with what the work day needs and challenges were. I mean, we did a lot to try to do that. But it was perhaps the most valuable aspect of that, so that we were constantly refreshing the curriculum based on, OK, we have enough of this. We already understand this. The challenge facing the analysts now is that. Or maybe even the nature of the world as we see it has changed, you know, when I think about the Arab awakening as an example. Our view of our own capacities might change as it did with Iraq WMD, I think. We knew that we had to show how what we were teaching was going to improve performance against the mission, as any training house must. I think we were perhaps better able to do that because we were a faculty of practitioners and with a certain portion of us being very recent practitioners and soon to be practitioners again.
Andrew Hammond: That's fascinating. Foreign instructors at the Sherman Kent School - can you get a sabbatical, where you go away and read Martin Heidegger or something like that or is that kind of wishful thinking? Or is that something that you would like to see implemented if it's not there?
Volko Ruhnke: Yeah. I mean, there were programs like that actually also for analysts on the line, particularly if you were in the senior analytic track. And in some cases, those sabbaticals - I know this because those sabbaticals produce papers that then became literature on which to base a course module or providing classroom reading. So that happened, you know, within my part of it, the Kent School, more than more once. And Department of Defense does the same thing, by the way. That was the nature of the studies that produced the game Kingpin was because DoD people had been sent on sabbatical to go study that and write about it, you know, write a thesis about it. So it's very analogous.
Volko Ruhnke: And I would say a normal part of being on staff there at the Kent School was the idea that you would be doing exactly that, that you would be driving your curriculum forward, that you would be doing, you know, you would be building new courses, that you, of course, would be updating and improving and refining the courses you had. It was a feedback-rich environment. We collected eva house (ph) from the students all the time. We tried to do what we called Level 3 assessments where we'd go back in and say, well, did this course change what analysts actually did on the line? And if so, was it in a good way and so forth - to try to get at, how much where we actually helping the mission?
Volko Ruhnke: And so to do that, to refine what you've got to bring it forward or to create something new, of course, you're going out and doing research and taking in what you can. So that, I think, was something for which there was time for instructors to do. It was just a part of - normal part of the job because, you know, if we determine there's a need for a course or a module, we say, OK, now we have an overall course goal. Great. We know that from talking to analytic managers, let's say. We want our analysts to do X better, you know. OK, so now we have an overall course goal. All right. Specifically, what are the pieces of that? Those are the learning objectives. And the learning objectives are kind of like - basically, students will be able to blank. You know, after taking this course, students will be able to blank. OK. Great.
Volko Ruhnke: But how to get them to be able to do blank? The learning objectives are almost just like a question. It's almost like an intelligence requirement. Yeah. We want students to be able to do blank. OK. Great. What do we give - what's the content? What method do we give them? What information do we give them? What attitude can we encourage in them so that they will be able to do blank better, right? Well, that takes a lot of research. And some of that research is going back into the directorate in finding centers of excellence, practitioners, people who do this well, how do you do it? You know, what can we - how can we convert that to something we can teach? Some of that might be absolutely very much outside experts, outside reading and so forth. So that should be going on and in my time was going on all the time.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's fascinating. So can you tell us a little bit more about your time with the CIA, the types of things that you are focused on and what you'd done before you ended up teaching at the Sherman Kent school?
Volko Ruhnke: Sure. So when I joined, it was pretty much at the tail end of the Cold War. And I was very - I mean, I interviewed with several offices. But I was mostly interested in being part of the big show that was going on.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Volko Ruhnke: So I started in the office of Soviet analysis as a military analyst there. I kept on as a Russian military analyst after the fall of the Soviet Union, eventually got involved in counterproliferation, you know, from that angle, and then did some service in the National Intelligence Council. I was a deputy national intelligence officer for science and technology. And among the beats I had there was cyber threat, and then went back to my home office, managed on counterproliferation. And I eventually got selected as a daily briefer. So I was on the president's daily brief staff - not briefing the president, but briefing cabinet-level. That was in the period of time - the beginning of the Operation Iraqi Freedom. So it was very much still in the midst of the war on terror. And so I basically had to very quickly learn all of that, which I had not been doing at all the previous century, and came out of that and joined the Counterterrorism Center as an analytic manager there, which was the rest of my time until joining the Sherman Kent School.
Andrew Hammond: And if you could go back to one of those iterations just to be an analyst, what was, like, your bag? What did you enjoy the most? Was it the counterterrorism, counterproliferation, military analyst? Yeah, give us an idea.
Volko Ruhnke: Yeah. As a military analyst, there was a period of of years - and of course, I have to be limited in how specific I can be about this. But there was a period of years where my task boiled down, essentially, as, to be part of a team, lead a team in the community to try to figure out what was the nature of a particular facility that we didn't understand. And it was an opportunity for me to start to apply some of these tools, such as analysis of competing hypotheses, to bring some structure and, hopefully, success to this community effort. And, you know, if you know experts in esoteric areas - like, it could be, you know, medieval literature or something - and you get these experts together and they - you know, they will argue like it's, you know, life and death, right? And they're totally opposed. And it might be some exotic issue that probably no one else on the planet cares about. But they are tearing at each other's throats. I mean, if you've experienced that - I have.
Andrew Hammond: I have (laughter).
Volko Ruhnke: I mean, it was kind of like that, you know? Like, we were this little, almost, like, fight club across agencies because we were - we couldn't - we were arguing about the answer to this one question, this one question. And we, fortunately - but it was delightful for me because we fortunately had the backing from respective management, analytic management in different agencies, to say, you know, go forward with this analytic procedure. This was before the whole Iraq WMD and structured analytic techniques, but it was basically management backing for us to take the time, take the time you need, and apply a structured analytic technique and see if you can make any progress. And that was just fantastic. And we convinced ourselves then jointly - we came to agreement that we really didn't know enough to answer the question. And so what we needed to do was to stimulate collection. And it was like a, you know, mystery hunt.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, I find your career and the types of things that you've done so interesting. And I guess just to bring it back to the table-top games, is there a way to incorporate into them these precipitating moments that make the cup run over - you know, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the shot heard around the world developed, you know, a whole variety of different games across different historical contexts. Thinking across all of them was - did you ever think to yourself, I need to try to weave into these games these, like, events that can, you know, shift the paradigm or that can lead to a rupture and a completely different situation developing?
Volko Ruhnke: I mean, the hope - yes, the hope is that you get those kinds of effects organically from the model you've built in a - let's say in a board game. How does this happen? How do we have, you know, an assassination somewhere in some corner of Europe and a conflagration in which millions of people are killed over the next four years, you know? How does that happen mechanically? Because understanding that is part of understanding how complex adaptive systems work. They have in them phenomena like ripple effects and reinforcing feedback loops or dampening loops. They have stable and unstable equilibria. These are all characteristics of these systems, right? And what we hope is that the games show you those things without saying, OK, well, here is going to be - this card is going to, you know, by some, you know, force majeure is going to change everything. This card - you play this card and it changes everything. That's really not very illuminating. What's illuminating is there's some little balance somewhere on the game board. There's some little contest, and the outcome of that starts a chain reaction of some kind, let's say. Or there's some small piece - if it's a war game, there's some small piece of territory that in and of itself is not very significant but, because it's the, you know, juncture of the balance that's going to tip everything one or the other, both sides are pouring lots of different forces in. And it just consumes all these resources out of proportion to the initial stimulus, the initial stakes, if you will. Those are the kinds of effects in games that I think make them fascinating - right? - as models. And so that's what I'm hoping for players to see - that they have, perhaps even without knowing it until they look back - they've participated in that. They've - oh, you know, I was just - I let myself get caught up in this cycle, you know? And in the end, it didn't produce at all the result that I thought it would at the beginning. But that's the way humanity is.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Is it true that you won the world championship in tabletop games or wargaming or suchlike? That's what I read online. Is that true?
Volko Ruhnke: (Laughter) Well, yes, sort of. So there's...
Andrew Hammond: Don't be shy.
Volko Ruhnke: So there is a - yeah. I mean, I - OK. I won't be shy. I've won lots of things. You know, I have tens of fans around the world, as I like to say. So there is a wargaming, a board gaming and once previously principally wargaming board gaming convention called the World Board Game Championships. That's what they're called. I don't know why they're called that. But they happen - you know, they happen in Pennsylvania now. And they're very tournament-oriented. And so if you go and play in a game in a tournament and you win, you know, first prize, then you won the World Board Gaming Championship (ph) in playing that game. So, yes, I've gone to such conventions and won such games.
Volko Ruhnke: What I am quite proud of is that I've gotten the critical recognition as well as the popular following for several of my game designs. So in board wargaming in particular, which is, you know, a tiny niche corner of the board gaming industry, which is a tiny corner of the overall gaming industry, absolutely massively dwarfed by computer games as an industry - but for board wargaming, one of - you know, one of the premier, if not the premier, award is called the Charles S. Roberts Award, and it's named after the founder of American board wargaming.
Volko Ruhnke: So I have won a number of Charles S. Roberts Awards, which are administrated popularity contests. But then that's great because it's a popular endeavor. It's a hobbyist audience. And so we try to be to be popular with our game. So that - and I've won on a board game reference and community site called Board Game Geek. So they have awards called the Golden Geek, so I'm very proud to say I've won two Golden Geeks.
Andrew Hammond: That's awesome. Can listeners buy all of your games somewhere? Are some of them purely for - you know, purely for internal consumption at the CIA? Or are they all commercially available?
Volko Ruhnke: They're not all commercially available. But a lot of my games are expressly designed for hobbyists, and my publisher is GMT Games in California. So if you want to see which one of my games - and they're all - those games are all historical board games, right? They're all based in history and trying to - whether it's very recent history such as Labyrinth: The War On Terror or medieval history or ancient history or what have you. But if you go to gmtgames.com, you can search on my name, and you'll find my games there.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for your time. It's been wonderful speaking to you. I could speak for a lot longer, but I think we've got more than enough for the podcast.
Volko Ruhnke: Thank you, Andy. This was - it was a pleasure.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our web page, where you can find links to further resources, detailed shownotes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @IntlSpyCast, and share your favorite quotes and insights, or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @SpyHistorian. This show was brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, The International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.