Hey guys, we've been at this for over two hours now, and need to head out to get some lunch. We'll all be checking back later, though to see if there are any more questions. Thanks for lots of great thought-provoking questions...

Hey everyone,

Last year the CIA announced that they use custom card and board games to train their recruits. Thanks to a set of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they recently declassified three of these games and released censored versions to the public. Since they’re created by federal government employees, they’re also in the public domain.

It turns out that the games are pretty fun, so we decided to take one - originally called “Collection Deck” - and adapt it so that anyone can play it. Our version is called “CIA: Collect It All” and is currently on Kickstarter here:


More information and backstory: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20180422/00263739686/cia-made-card-game-were-releasing-it.shtml

The originally released CIA documents: https://www.muckrock.com/foi/united-states-of-america-10/materials-for-the-game-collection-deck-35175/#file-162778

Our version has an updated visual design and we’ve tweaked to the game rules and cards to make them more fun. We’ve also filled in dozens of redacted cards that the CIA apparently deemed too secret for you to know about.

This project is a collaboration between the tech news blog Techdirt and the independent game design studio, Diegetic Games. Specifically, Mike Masnick and Leigh Beadon from Techdirt, and Randy Lubin from Diegetic Games. All three of us are here to answer questions, mainly about the game, FOIA and the public domain -- but, we know the drill -- about anything else as well.


Mike Masnick: https://twitter.com/mmasnick/status/996424039026442241

Randy Lubin: https://twitter.com/randylubin/status/996400165459132416

Leigh Beadon: https://twitter.com/leighbeadon/status/996449009232424962

Comments: 138 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

CAIRolyn98 karma

Have you considered submitting FOIA requests to extra government agencies to see if they also have secret games?

mmasnick80 karma

Hey! Yes, actually. I don't think a day has gone by when I haven't thought about what other agencies may have secret games. Of course, with this one, the CIA chose to reveal the existence of the games themselves at SXSW, which made it a lot easier. But once this campaign is over, I may shoot off some random FOIAs to random agencies. I mean, do you think the Copyright Office has internal games?

GreyICE3477 karma

No, but I bet the CDC does. Although they might be depressing.

mmasnick56 karma

Ugh. You're probably right. And, yes, it's probably depressing. Though, honestly, I bet the CDC guys just sit around and play Pandemic all the time. I know that's what I'd do if I worked there.

CAIRolyn3 karma

I bet the FBI and DOD does...


The DoD does for the Intelligence side.

Source: Used to instruct using them

mmasnick14 karma

BRB. Filing FOIA.

gumnos2 karma

If you learned that every federal agency had their own games, which agencies would top your list for "that game is next!" FOIA requests?

mmasnick6 karma

I would imagine that the FBI, NSA, ATF and DEA would probably have the craziest games... The State Department probably just plays Diplomacy and solitaire all day long. I get the feeling that the FCC would have the *worst* game.

csolisr32 karma

Under which license will this board game be released? It's not unusual to see derivatives of public domain works be copyrighted (Disney made an entire empire out of that business model)

mmasnick28 karma

Obviously, all of the underlying cards and rules of the game will be public domain. We intend to make sure that whatever copyrightable additions we've made to the game are released under an extremely permissive license or public domain dedication (which as I've explained on Techdirt in the past has its own hurdles and difficulties), but we haven't yet finalized what the official plan will be.

Solid_Dingo23 karma

To what extent are you changing the rules from the CIA ruleset to those in the final release? Would you consider including a copy of both to be playable for different 'feels' of game based on gameplay balance testing?

randylubin39 karma

We'll be tweaking the rules a little and adding clarifications, but the game should feel pretty similar to the original. The games original designer at the CIA, David Clopper, did a great job of designing, playtesting, and balancing it.

One big change is that we're removing the Manager Challenge cards that force players to defend why the tactics they're using would plausibly work. Those cards are perfect for a training game but less practical for casual players without an intelligence background.

We're also designing a storytelling variant that will be significantly different from the original game, but completely optional.

Hopeloma14 karma

Aw I want the Manager Challenge! Could you make it optional?

mmasnick7 karma

The thing is, you can easily institute a house rule on Manager's Challenges, allowing players to issue them even without cards. The game does play a bit awkwardly with the manager's challenges (trust us, we tried it) as following the original rules.

owlbearmanpig19 karma

Leaving aside the legal issues, what are the ethical concerns that arise when you sell a game someone else designed and keep all the money?

When we talk about why innovation can flourish without copyright, we often point to norms that govern the use of intellectual property within particular communities to meet their needs (e.g. comedians and joke plagiarism). What are the relevant norms for the board game community, and what did you do to follow them?

Clearly plagiarizing someone else's design and selling the result is not generally acceptable among board gamers - see the recent furor over the Nostromo board game.

Attribution obviously helps, but I don't think the Nostromo publishers would get more sympathy if they admitted to ripping off the designers they cloned. Did you talk to Clopper before publishing?

A big difference here from the Nostromo situation is that Clopper was paid to make the game for his day job. But many game designers design games or scenarios for particular organizations (I believe this includes Randy, though I apologize if I am mistaken). Is it generally OK to clone and sell a designer's work as long as the original was made for someone else? Does it matter that it was made for the government rather than a private group?

Would it be more of a problem to sell a clone of work by Volko Ruhnke (i.e. the other CIA game) since he is a major published designer who presumably makes a significant chunk of his income off board games?

Lastly, do you see a public interest in making the game available, and how does that change things?

I think these are genuinely tough issues, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

mmasnick19 karma

Hey. There's a lot to dig into and you raise lots of really good thoughtful questions. And I agree that there are all sorts of arenas, including games, cooking, comedians and magic where it's quite fascinating to watch the rather informal norms take precedence, even without any official intellectual property laws. I've written about all of that stuff in the past as well, and I continue to be fascinated by it.

In this particular case, we did not feel that there were significant ethical concerns, for reasons that I'll explain. I think in lots of other scenarios the ethical/moral (and even reputational) concerns are much bigger (including in the Nostromo example you give). Those involve competing commercial interests and accusations of one party showing the other party a game idea with the hope of working together on the design... failing to come to an agreement, and the other party running with the design and not even giving credit to the original. That's... very different.

In our case, we're working off of a declassified game created by the government, where the existing rules were released to the public, but without a commercial interest attached to it. And, given that in its currently released format, it's much more difficult for the average person to play, our effort is around making it possible for anyone to play this game. And, there does appear to be quite a lot of public interest in releasing this particular game, and thus we felt it made sense to make it, and do so in a manner that respects the original, but also respects the importance of the public domain itself.

Indeed, we've spent years advocating for a stronger and more widespread public domain, in the belief that it helps to generate new creative works as well -- and so we think there's an additional public interest in demonstrating that government-created works are in the public domain, and that it's good to be able to build new things off of those works. And, yes, that's also why it matters quite a bit that this game was developed by the government, using taxpayer funds, rather than a company.

As for Clopper, all I'll say is that we have been in touch with him but he is not involved or associated with the project. We did feel that it was the proper thing to do to reach out to him about our project, though, even if we don't officially need his permission.

Anyway, given all of the above, we didn't feel that there were any serious ethical/moral issues in us taking the game. Indeed, almost the opposite in this specific case, given 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, that it clearly leaned almost entirely to the side of "this is a good thing," and completely ethically justifiable. In most other situations involving copying the ideas of others, the ethical and moral questions do not come out in the same manner.

cbrian1311 karma

What were recruits trained to do using your card game?

randylubin15 karma

As far as we can tell, the CIA used the game to get recruits familiar with the various types of intelligence techniques and to think critically about how techniques might be assembled into a coherent strategy for understanding a crisis.

mmasnick23 karma

Adding to Randy's response a bit. While we don't know exactly how the CIA uses it (they're not necessarily that forthcoming about such things), having played the game a bunch, you definitely learn a lot about ways to collect intelligence and how to approach different issues around the globe where it would be useful for an agency like the CIA to have intelligence. While the game is fun, it's also quite educational. It's almost uncanny how when playing the game, I'll look at a situation on the board and think "oh yeah, that's probably *exactly* what is actually happening."

weakforce10 karma

I am kind of a fan of your style, Mike. The internet being what it is, you can kind of coast along and routinely enjoy the seriously well thought out works of others in a drive by fashion, a lot of the time. You guys figured out how to actually capture my attention, and get me to support that work with dollars. I can't thank you enough for the insights I have absorbed from Techdirt, and how you put yourselves out there in the line of fire routinely, as a matter of principle.

I don't mean to distract from the conversation in this thread, but can you tell me what I should be paying attention to right now, that I probably am not?

mmasnick10 karma

Hey, thanks! It's always nice to hear that someone appreciates your work. As for stuff to pay attention to... there's so much going on right now, it's hard to pick just one thing. But I'd say a few big things right now that aren't getting as much attention:

  1. Copyright in Europe. Everyone's focused on the GDPR, but we're like a month away from the EU possibly approving one of the worst copyright laws imaginable that will create a massive problem for the internet. (The GDPR is kinda messy too)
  2. Further plans to attack intermediary liability in the US. SESTA was successful, but the folks who planned it are not done. Expect many more attacks.
  3. Tech backlash. Some of it (much of it?) is well deserved, and I'm still holding out hope that it will drive people back towards the promise of a more distributed and open internet, but I worry that the backlash will lead to more power for silos and internet giants.

There are the obvious ones as well, such as net neutrality, but that's probably already on your radar.

kensal785 karma

So according to your kickstarter, Why did [Redacted]?

mmasnick4 karma

Because [redacted]. Unless of course [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] in which case [redacted] [redacted] [redacted].

trai_dep5 karma

Hi, Mike.

You're a personal hero of mine because you fight for press and digital freedom, and you're an amazing writer besides all of that. HERO!

I was wondering if you could comment on the lawsuit by that guy claiming he invented e-mail. He sued some journalists who pointed out how laughably absurd that was. The suit was funded by that noted proponent of a free press, fervent practitioner of radical transparency, and CEO/founder of totally wholesome, not-at-all scary-surveillance companies like Palantir, and totally not at all like a James Bond movie villain, Peter Thiel.

You said it best with, Guy Who Pretends He Invented Email Whines At Every Journalist For Writing Obit Of Guy Who Actually Helped Create Email.

1) Has Shiva Ayyadurai crawled back under his rock yet, and did he withdraw the lawsuits? Especially against TechDirt?

2) Are the kinds of jury-shopping, lawsuit-arbitraging, ideologically-motivated, press-attacking strategies by billionaires like Peter Thiel a scourge, a threat, or a menace? Is he continuing to do this, and what does it mean to online muckrakers such as yourself?

(If you like, you may pat me on the back for keeping my question as neutrally phrased as I did. I'm quite proud of the job I did.)


mmasnick6 karma

Hey. There's really not much I can say about the lawsuit as it remains an ongoing dispute. The case against us was dismissed on First Amendment grounds. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20170906/13431338159/case-dismissed-judge-throws-out-shiva-ayyadurais-defamation-lawsuit-against-techdirt.shtml Both sides have appealed aspects of that ruling and that appeal process is still ongoing. My only other comments on this and similar situations were made here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBsxGjjnRpk

gumnos3 karma

What would middle-school (or high-school) you say about this undertaking? Would younger-you have been excited at the prospect, confused, or something else?

mmasnick6 karma

I won't speak for the others, but I think younger me would have been ecstatic about this. Actually, a friend of mine from back then just reminded me on Facebook (after seeing a post about the game) that back in our junior high earth science class where we sat next to each other, that we had created a sort of CIA-like game because we were so bored by the lessons. He was asking if I owe him royalties... I don't even remember what that game was about but I do remember another friend once telling me he was scared I *would* actually end up in the CIA. I obviously ended up taking a very different path. But, sure, espionage/surveillance stuff has long fascinated me. I think back then I also used to read a ton of spy books (fiction and non-fiction). Who isn't interested in that kind of stuff?

rosspruden3 karma

In the game box, are you planning on doing anything special like Cards Against Humanity does, e.g., planting a secret code or some other thematically-related game-within-a-game? This particular game really calls out for something special along those lines, given its unique topic.

mmasnick8 karma

Also, if we *were* to plant a secret code or something like that do you really think we'd reveal it out here on the open internet for everyone to see it? I mean... that's not how the CIA would operate. ;)

rosspruden2 karma

I know Techdirt’s ethos is about openness, but have you considered doing a private (i.e., non-Kickstarter) mailing list just for backers of the project after it’s over? You could cultivate a stronger loyalty with fans if they know they’re the only ones on the list. Plus, the possibility for upsells for premium upgrades (maybe even leading to a subscription service a la Patreon?) could be lucrative later on.

mmasnick4 karma

At this point, our focus is on making the game as awesome as it can be. We're starting to have discussions about what else we can do, but the current focus is on the campaign and the game.

asterix15982 karma

Would you rather fight 1 horse-sized Ajit or 100 duck-sized Ajits?

mmasnick8 karma

Ah, the eternal question. Clearly, the answer is one horse-sized Ajit, because, really, who needs more of that guy?

bug_sniper1 karma

How many people do you need at the table to play it?

mmasnick1 karma

Hey. It's designed for 3 to 5 players and works great with that many. We've also found that it's playable with 2 players, even if not designed exactly for that. We're testing out a few small rule tweaks that might make the 2 player version more playable, but nothing's finalized on that yet. The original rules state that if you have more than 5, players should start to team up and work together.