The Hideout: why board games matter

Rab Florence on reinventing the rulebook every time you play.

In Umberto Eco's brilliant Foucault's Pendulum, we watch as characters play with global conspiracy theory and occultism as a satirical, intellectual game. This game leads the characters down a dark path, but we understand completely why that path is worth following. Games are important. They are important when we're children, and then we forget how important they are for a while as we chase adult pleasures. Then we recognise that those too were games, of a sort, and having won and lost and won and lost we return to more obvious and literal games. Ones we can play on our TVs and place on our tables. Ones that hurt less when we fail.

Increasingly, for people of my generation, the games we are playing are on tables. When I started playing board games regularly about five years ago, it seemed that no-one else in the country was doing it. I'd just finished an exhausting and stressful TV show that saw me reviewing one or more video games every episode, and those video games had all merged into one violent, brown, ugly whole. I was completely and utterly numbed by them. I'd had enough. I wanted to play a different kind of game. After hunting down all the great board games of my youth (Space Hulk, HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest) I flung myself into an online community to find out what board games were out there right now. There was no flesh and blood person I could speak to about board games at that point. I had to type words at strangers in Baltimore or Ontario or Berlin. I had to seek out little points of light, distant illuminated tables, wherever I could find them. The scene, over here in the UK at least, was as good as dead.

But that's all changed. And I think I know why.

The saviour of video games, over the last few years, has been the growth of the indie sector. Those little points of digital light have grown and massed into something bright and warming. We see innovation on a weekly basis. There's always something new, and usually that something new has something new within it. These games, from tiny teams of creators, even make us question what games are. While the big-budget blockbusters remain risk-averse and repetitive, the indie sector zigs and zags and experiments with the form.

When you've played computer and video games for 30 years, as I have, the indie sector's vigour is an essential thing. It keeps us from getting jaded. It's starting to steal headlines too, simply because quality is difficult to ignore. There are no big marketing budgets or PR flim-flam in indie gaming – it's just become embarrassing for major gaming news sources to not talk about what's happening. The indie sector never really went away, but these days it feels like it's “in”, like it's maybe the only part of the industry that genuinely matters. Only ten years ago we would talk about how the “bedroom coder” was a thing of the past. We were wrong. We just hadn't tired enough of the living room entertainment yet to start checking in all those bedrooms. Just like in MTV Cribs, the bedroom is where the magic happens.

It's the magic of innovation that leads us to board games. I've spoken many times before about the emotional benefits of board games. Spending time with people you love, playing at a table, communicating? That's all essential stuff in this age of social networking. But I think the main reason why so many video gamers have started board gaming is that it feels like board games are part of the whole indie movement. Look, almost every board game is an indie game. Most board games are created by one person, and that one person is trying to come up with new ideas, or new spins on old ones. When you have a question about some element of the game, you can often just ask the designer. He'll be on Twitter or something, probably, and will be happy to have you pestering him about a rule clarification. The creator is a human being, not some corporate machine. The indie sector, in video gaming and board gaming, is full of people who are doing what they do for the love of play. Are they making fortunes? No. They're just people like us, who know that games are important. They're the types who understand characters like Eco's imperilled Foucault's Pendulum trio. They would follow that path with them, with us, because hey, this is fun. Games are worth it, whatever the cost.

For children, it's never just about “Will we play today?” It's about “What will we play today?” It's about being stimulated intellectually, and revelling in the creativity of the games they invent. Children rarely play the same game two days in a row. They don't spend entire summers as the same bald, grunting space marine, shooting his way through waves of endlessly re-spawning enemies. They don't spend every single day fighting over who gets to be the main nameless soldier dude in that helicopter full of nameless soldier dudes who are about to land in that nameless Middle Eastern country again. They tweak their games up, change them and introduce new mechanics. It might seem odd to say that your 6-year-olds are creating new game mechanics when they're out in your back garden, but it's true. The minute they ask for a password to the secret hideout, a new mechanic is in the rulebook.

And that's just the thing. Board games, and indie video games, are always changing the password to the hideout. And it's exactly why you should want in.

Archipelago, one of many hugely inventive board games released in the last five years. Photograph: Ludically

Robert Florence is a writer and comedian, and the co-creator of Consolvania and the BBC's Burnistoun. He writes a weekly column on board gaming for Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge