New Internationalist

The War on Terror Boardgame

December 2008

Andy Tompkins and Andy Sheerin talked with Chris Richards

Sitting on the couch watching TV, you hear the news that your country is about to invade another. Horror and amazement mixes with frustration as you realize how absolutely powerless you are to stop it. ‘Hang on a minute,’ said Andy Sheerin to Andy Tomkins as they watched the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ‘Let’s make a game of it.’ And so War on Terror – The Boardgame was born.

Holding a mirror to the Middle East, the game is all about empire. You start with an empire, build it up through development, fight other empires; and liberate countries from the clutches of empire. Just as in the boardroom, the more oil you have on the board-game, the more money you make. The more money you make, the more countries you can develop and control. And if you don’t like the rate your empire is expanding, then you can always buy terrorists, or turn terrorists yourself.

People love the viciousness of it, say the two TerrorBulls: ‘Bill Gilman, a liberal leftie in the States, organized a War on Terror tournament. He says: “I’m a big fan of this game as it allows me to feel what George Bush feels in the war on terror – rewarding short-sighted policies by giving profits for oil and development even though these aims may help bring an empire down.”’ 

Spin the Axis of Evil to decide whose empire gets special privileges to terrorist tricks. That player then wears the black balaclava with the word EVIL sewn in red onto the forehead. ‘People buy the game just for the balaclava. Not the Kent police though. [In August this year they confiscated the board-game from protestors at a climate change camp.] The police said that it could be used to conceal your identity during a criminal act. Our balaclava actually labels the evil-doers. The police should thank us!’

Making a game of it: engaging in the War on Terror. Image:

The two Andys – friends from school who had run a web-site company together – invented and designed the game, and invited Tom Morgan-Jones into their TerrorBull team to help publish and illustrate it. So far, over 12,000 of the games have been sold. Whilst the main market is in North America and Europe, it is presently being sold in 38 countries from Iceland to Ireland. Then there’s the odd order from Iraq and Afghanistan, where some serving soldiers are playing the game in Afghanistan and Iraq, including battlefield trainer Major Tom Mouat: ‘It is part of my job to be on the look out for novel, insightful, informed and up-to-date simulations that could help in the training of British Soldiers. I have looked at ‘The War on Terror’ and can safely say that it is pretty useless for any sort of military training. It is, however, a damn good game.’

But its popularity has not hit Britain’s High Streets where the retailers have refused to take it. ‘The big one was Virgin MegaStores. We got onto the right person there straight away. He said: “It sounds brilliant. We’ve got our Christmas-stocking meeting in a couple of days. Can you send us a game and a power-point presentation?” He told us to include a bit about market share, but we didn’t even know what that was. Instead our power-point presentation had rapid-fire gunshots with Country Joe and the Fish singing [their song lampooning the Vietnam war] “ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.”’

And to the TerrorBulls great surprise, the Virgin MegaStores ordered 5,000 games. ‘They got the first 2,000 and distributed them to 230 stores. But in the first day, a managing director saw it, and cancelled the contract. We had borrowed money to get them made. We were stuck with 3,000 games. We hadn’t been paid for any of it. If it wasn’t for the very kind interference of an investor, we would have gone bankrupt.’

An eight month legal stoush followed, which ended with the TerrorBulls being paid in full. And the fate of the 3,000 games? ‘Since Virgin (now operating as Zavvi) had paid for the games, we thought it would be a nice gesture to hand out the games in front of their flagship store. There was a queue around the corner when we arrived. As we handed out 100, the crowd cheered: “Thanks Zavvi!”’

The TerrorBulls have three more games actively in development: ‘You really can use board games to explore very complex issues. They a fertile field for satirical ambitions.’

And good fun. But can they shift political debate and public understanding? Says Andy Sherrin: ‘The more important terrorism became, the more taboo it became to talk it about it critically. We wanted to challenge people’s opinion about what terrorism is. As soon as you are able to start talking about what defines terrorism and why terrorists do what they do, then that’s thought provoking – it reopens the ground for debate. Day to day there’s many more people who are becoming more savvy to the political rhetoric. That gives me hope.’

Available from the NI shops on-line from: Australia, UK, Canada, US

This column was published in the December 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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