Here’s What Happened When Three CIA Officers Played Homeland: The Game

The terrorists won.

Saul and Carrie CIA Game.
Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland.

Photo by David Bloomer/Showtime

The series Homeland concludes its fifth season on Sunday night, following Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison as she yet again navigates a treacherous world of CIA intrigue, ruthless terrorists, and severe mental health issues. But despite the show’s success, a wise man once noted: The real money is in the merchandising.

Which brings us to Homeland: The Game, a board game created by Gale Force Nine.

Yes, you too can try your luck at stopping terrorists from blowing up half the world while simultaneously indulging in bureaucratic knife-fights from the comfort of your own living room.

You can also wallow in a very particular brand of post-9/11 paranoia: After all, “Terrorist threats against the United States,” the rulebook’s first lines warn, “are omnipresent and unrelenting. Despite the vast resources of the US government, the world is filled with organizations plotting to bring the United States to her knees.” Wow.

As former employees of the CIA, we were curious to see if Homeland: The Game would match CIA: The 40-Hour-a-Week Job. We recruited another former colleague and arranged a secret midday rendezvous at a previously arranged location. The three of us—two from the directorate of intelligence and one from the directorate of operations—bought sandwiches and lattes and prepared to save the world from terrorism. Believe it or not, there were places where the game and real life lined up.

A bewildering language and new rules to learn. Homeland: The Game consists of card-based scenarios and other hidden threats that advance up a board; players are CIA analysts who can either try to stop a particular threat or help execute it. Based on the number of cards played for or against a particular scenario, the attack either succeeds or is neutralized, adding overall points. If the terrorist or agency meter fills up, then the game ends.

At least, that’s how we think the game is played. We may have nearly two decades of intelligence experience among us—including time spent working on counterterrorism issues both in the field and back at Langley—but we spent more than an hour trying to make heads or tails of the game’s rules and components. There are six different types of playing cards to master, two different figurines, four different tokens that added up to … something. The cards use terminology we used in our former careers—assets, threat analysis, official reprimands—but they meant different things here than in real life.

That’s also putting aside larger issues that grated on us, such as, “Why do players play the role of CIA analysts when Carrie and her crew are all case officers?” or “Why are all my wiretaps warrantless? What’s wrong with using completely legal wiretaps?” Just as in working at the agency, there are byzantine rules in the game to follow and unclear means to advance.

Everyone has his or her own agenda. This struck each of us as the most true-to-life part of the game. We were competing against one another, and the key to the game is to keep your “true agenda” hidden, since everyone is trying to advance his or her career. This is probably closer to life than the game’s creators ever intended.

There are three types of players: loyal agents (oddly, loyalty in this game leads to becoming CIA director. Nice work, Directors Robert Gates and John Brennan!); political opportunists, who want political clout (rewarded with … yes, a seat in Congress! Congrats, Porter Goss); or a terrorist mole, looking to bring down the whole system.

Coincidentally, the three of us each had one of those competing roles, although we didn’t reveal our motivations until the end. Aki was a loyal agent, trying in earnest to stop plots from coming to fruition. Alex was out for political clout, trading in favors in hopes of getting that perch on Capitol Hill. Player No. 3 (who wished to remain anonymous) was the terrorist mole, purposely—but secretly—advancing plots to harm U.S. national security.

Failures aren’t failures. They’re opportunities. Players cannot prevent threats. Threats appear on the board with every new round, and players can only respond. But even if a terrorist plot succeeds and something explodes, players can nonetheless collect “political clout” tokens.

So many things generate political clout. The interagency cooperation card wins political clout (although this critical bureaucratic process counts very little toward stopping a plot). The rendition card generates clout. Oh, and if you play the sniper team insertion card … lots of clout.

Human assets are often unreliable. Even though we were playing the role of analysts, we each started with one field agent to run. Soon enough, we lost them all. Two were “exposed”: one after a break-in at an overseas station; the other perished for mysterious reasons. Another vanished when a plot advanced. Were these U.S. government employees killed in the service of their country? Did they quit in frustration? No one knows.

We treated all our fallen colleagues, blue figurines molded with one hand gripping a pistol and the other one holding a cellphone—nay, a classified Iridium satphone with a direct uplink to Headquarters—with the dignity they deserved by tossing them back into a Ziploc bag.

This left us with only soldiers to deploy. Thus, like in real life, we had very little intelligence collection from the field and had to rely on military resources, much like the CIA does today in certain hotspots around the globe. To some extent, that was fine, since the game requires a soldier to call in a drone strike.

Did we mention players could call in drone strikes? Yes, sort of, although none of us pulled it off successfully. But according to the rules, “Calling in a Drone Strike allows you to wipe a threat completely off the board, without having to resolve it normally.” If only this rule applied in real life, too.

Terrorists carry off successful attacks sometimes. In our playing of Homeland: The Game, the terrorists won. Overwhelmingly. We failed to stop sniper attacks in Frankfurt, hijackings in Cairo, and riots in Kuala Lumpur. We dropped the ball on car bombing campaigns, overseas station burglaries, and market square attacks. In Homeland: The Game, we were terrible agents.

In our feeble defense, we were able to neutralize a dirty bomb in Auckland, New Zealand, with a winning combination of interagency cooperation, search warrants, a full background check, and one rendition flight. It takes a village.

Would we recommend Homeland: The Game? Generally, yes, although the long lead-up time to learn the game’s ins and outs made us almost call it quits before we even got started. We decided to start playing without really understanding the rules or following the directions. Once we got over that, it was quite enjoyable.

One final note: After examining the fine print of the website, we noticed the company is owned by Battlefront Group Co. out of New Zealand. But when you type in, it redirects you to Wasn’t that the name of ISIS’ hourlong movie from last year? 

Oh, heavens. Did we just abet a global terrorist organization by playing its game? We probably should’ve consulted our wall-covering link charts that we all have in our homes and followed the advice on the game’s box cover: Trust no one.