Sunday 17 June 2012

Another brick in The Wall ...

Can life be played out on a board?

I remember The Game of Life as a child. That was fun. Monopoly can introduce children to the tough world of capitalism, maybe. But can you re-create the global tensions and ruthlessly violent and distrustful world of Cold-War era espionage on a board with a dice and a few counters?

The good people at Birmingham Games thought so.

The Wall is a board game from 1986, created to "commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall".

All around the side of the box are printed the names of men who will be forever linked with the Cold War: men like Philby, Blunt and Maclean on the British side, and Sharansky, Karpov and Daniloff on the Russian side.

None have anything to do with this game, despite its aim of being a recreation in stiff board of the heroism, duplicity and cover game that was spying on both sides of Berlin. That doesn't matter. What this game proves to be is a wonderfully evocative symbol of a time when the world was that bit more simpler.

Two sides: Russian and American. A Wall, dividing those two sides. One city, the focus of it all. Brave (foolish) men. These are in the DNA of this board game. The Cold War as a game. In real life, that particular game had globally fatal consequences.

But game it was: the 'players' had pieces - agents. There was a 'board' on which the game was played out - Berlin, and other global hot-spots. There were rules (not always followed). There were tasks and missions. And there was a finish. Supposedly. And a winner.

It seemed ripe for turning into a board game. How the game makers tried to do that is interesting, showing both the possibilities and the limitations of trying to fit the global battle between superpowers onto a 60cm square board.

The board itself has a wall running down the middle of it. A 2D wall. That's straight. Both sides of Berlin are similar, the roads on a grid system to compensate for easier game play. There is no Ku'damm. No Alex. Just a representation of the city.

There are, too, no familiar landmarks: one cannot exchange prisoners on the Glienickebrücke; nor look over the wall at Potsdamerplatz. What players moved towards instead are embassies, special weapons bases, safe houses and decoding areas. All the motifs of the spying game are there.

The basic 'moves' of spying are also open to the players: there are coloured boxes on the board called 'assassination points', 'agent eliminated' and 'border patrol'. Each player - Agent - is represented by a plastic tube with a cap on the top - blue for Allies, Red for Soviets - into which secrets are put. The aim - and here life imitates art - is to track and expose a double agent amongst the other players, while simultaneously reaching the embassy of the enemy and ending the game.

The parallels with real spy-craft are necessarily limited: few spies ever received their orders by turning over a small two-inch long card marked "Top Secret". However there is danger. Or, at least, a series of red danger squares when the player is required to roll the danger dice, from which six actions are possible. Roll one? 'Shoot to kill - remove any of your enemy's agents from the board'. In that respect, there are parallels with the real thing.

There is, too, on the board a 'Checkpoint Charlie' though it lacks any of the dramatic presence as a conduit between East and West of the real thing.

This board game follows the familiar format of all board games: board, token, dice, moves, secrets instructions and chases, all dependent upon a big heap of randomness. Maybe, then, it's not that far off what reality was back then in Berlin?

The Wall is a great find, a throwback to a time when espionage and Berlin were front and centre of the news papers and nightly bulletins.

As a game, it's fun but has limitations; as a piece of Cold War ephemera, it's very collectable.

1 comment:

  1. that's really interesting! i'd never heard of this. something to play at a C.O.B.R.A.S. summit :)

    -Jason (Spy Vibe)