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The CIA made a Magic: The Gathering-style card game for training agents, and we played it


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Last year during SXSW, the CIA revealed it designs elaborate tabletop games to train and test its employees and analysts. After receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, the CIA sent out censored information on three different games it uses with trainees — and thanks to Diegetic Games, an adapted version of one of them will soon be available to the public.

CIA: Collect it All is based off a card game described in the documents as “Collection Deck,” which was designed by CIA Senior Collection Analyst David Clopper. Its play style is roughly based on Magic: The Gathering, and demonstrates how different intelligence tactics can be used to address political, economic, and military crises — and how the system often manages to screw it all up. If you want a copy of your own, there’s a funded Kickstarter campaign for it that ends on Tuesday that charges $29 for a set of physical cards or $10 for a print-and-play version.

Developed by Techdirt and Diegetic Games, CIA: Collect It All fills in the redacted portions of the game documentation with original content. While the developers plan to tweak the game and add new rulesets before release, they showed The Verge an exclusive printable prototype of the changes they’ve made since the showing at SXSW. After playing the game with friends, I found it to be a fascinating look at a way the CIA trains its agents, even though it sometimes fell short of the pure entertainment value other rapid-fire card games can offer.

screen_shot_2018_05_21_at_12.05.46_pm.png A sample of Crisis cards. Image: Techdirt, Diegetic Games

The game revolves around addressing ripped-from-the-headlines political issues, especially in countries and territories that have fraught relationships with America, like Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia. Playing as a CIA analyst, you might face an Al-Shabaab attack in Kenya. Other times you might have to figure out how to deal with a Russian cryptocurrency program or India launching a missile project. There are 10 crises on the table at a time, and you and the other players have to choose which one you’d like to address first. Each crisis can take one to three intelligence technique cards to solve, and you earn the number of points listed when you successfully avert a crisis. The first person to win 10 points ends the game.

The techniques at your disposal are: geospatial intelligence, human intelligence (spies), measurement and signature intelligence, open-sourced intelligence, and signals intelligence. Once you select a strategy, the other players act as “the system” and try to throw roadblocks in your way using “Reality Check” cards with problems like “internal politics” or “red tape.” There are ways to rebuff them — if you don’t overplay your hand. Much of the game’s strategy revolves around where and how to deploy your limited resources; you need to use lots of techniques to get the most points (and fend off “the system”), but if you run out of cards, you’ll be vulnerable to other players who have strategically saved theirs until the end.

That’s why the winner of the multiple rounds I played wasn’t me or two other friends who had studied the game’s instructions intently, but my boyfriend who had seemingly wandered through the game paying little attention. Because of his uncommitted play style, we underestimated him and after the more aggressive players used up all their cards fighting each other, he quietly gathered up the points. One could argue that’s the behavior of a perfect agent, not drawing too much attention and working methodically and slowly to carry out the mission under everyone’s nose.

more_cards.png A sample of Reality Check cards. Image: Techdirt, Diegetic Games

Still, that might just be giving the game (and him) a little too much credit. Compared to other card games out there like Love Letter or even poker, CIA: Collect it All doesn’t feel like it has a lot of replay value, at least in the current prototype. The gameplay can become repetitive because while each crisis and technique may have different accompanying text, the basic way they function in the game is the same: a crisis card demands certain technique cards, and you play them or not.

There’s a lot of fascinating information about different intelligence-gathering methods on the technique cards, something that Clopper described as useful for the agents who trained with the game. “People would come up to me after [a session] and say, ‘David, I learned about something I didn’t know existed before. I think we can use this on a real intelligence problem I’m tracking,’” Clopper told Ars Technica at SXSW.

But the average non-CIA agent doesn’t need to read the cards in order to play — my game-winning boyfriend didn’t — so a lot of the world-building and storytelling that developers put into the game is easily lost or ignored. If you do take the time to read everything and immerse yourself in the world events they reference, you’ll gain a lot of insight into the inner workings of the CIA, even if it doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the game.

cards.png A sample of technique cards. Image: Techdirt and Diegetic Games

In a Reddit AMA, some users asked Techdirt’s CEO and founder Mike Masnick about the potential ethical concerns of making a commercial version of a game that was primarily designed by someone else. Masnick replied that he had given it a lot of thought, but felt that the concerns were mitigated by “the nature of the game, the public interest in the game, the lack of commercial interest from the developer side (and the fact that it was developed with public resources), and the fact that otherwise, there was little chance of the public getting to play it.”

Masnick tells The Verge that the game that’s set to be shipped out in November might get more cards, new rules — including an “alternative storytelling ruleset” — and a clearer set of instructions. “I want to emphasize that these are early versions,” he says. While the November date is tentative since it’s a Kickstarter, he plans to make the final version of Collect it All an even more compelling glimpse into the secretive work of the CIA — and one that you can play at home.

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