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Subject: An Interview with Volko Ruhnke on Labyrinth rss

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Stephen Aslett

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In last year's Jack Vasel Memorial Fund auction, one of the items up for bid was an offer by boardgames journalist Owen Duffy (of The Guardian newspaper) to write an article on any boardgaming topic chosen by the winner.

I happened to be that winner and asked Mr. Duffy to write about Labyrinth. He interviewed designer Volko Ruhnke and provided me with a transcript of that interview. I thought it'd be a shame for Mr. Duffy to cut it up to use for parts of a broader article. I also thought it'd be a shame to leave it unpublished for no one but me to read.

So, here is that interview in its entirety. If you're a fan of Labyrinth (or Volko's designs in general), I'm sure you'll find it interesting. Enjoy.

I usually always start interviews by asking for a bit of background information, but I’m guessing in your line of work there’s some stuff you can’t really discuss!

Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got into gaming?

I started playing games in 6th grade so, aged 10 or 11. That was the mid-1970s, during the classic “golden age” of wargaming. Avalon Hill and SPI were the big companies, so I started with Avalon Hill Games and went from there. That’s really the tradition I come out of - the very classic combat results table, terrain effects chart, movement factors on the counters and all that.

What was the wargaming community like back then?

Wargaming of course has grown. It’s called the golden age because in those days wargame companies were able to print these historical and often times very lengthy and difficult to implement titles in five- and six-figure print runs, and if you were into playing games there wasn’t a lot of competition. Of course Dungeons & Dragons came up in the same era, and that started to draw people away from those games and towards fantasy roleplaying.

In those days I was in high school and then college, and it was a niche. It was an oddball thing, but it was easy enough to find other kids who had collections of these games. And one advantage was that because there wasn’t as wide a range of options then as there is now is that you could readily agree what you were going to play at any given time.

Of course what we didn’t have then was the internet and its fabulous capability to find the one other person on the planet who’s interested in what you are, and that’s enabled every niche hobby, board wargames included, to just surge and recover, because in the 80s and the early 90s, it was dying.

It was dying? Why do you think that was?

There was competition from sexy new forms like video games, roleplaying fantasy games - which really mushroomed after Dungeons & Dragons introduced the genre and to some degree collectible card games coming along in the 90s. And the ability of game companies to make a lot of money selling moulded plastic, so you got the miniatures, which had always been there in the historical context, but then the fantasy miniatures came along as well.

So there was so much competition that young folks could go into, and historical wargamers tended to be the older white guys who would eventually die out, and that seemed to be the future of the hobby. Then through the internet, there was a community called ConSim List, which is still active as the web site ConSimWorld, which allowed these old guys to find each other across the world and bring in new people, and now with board gaming itself being a thriving, growing global community, that tide just lifts all boats, because some of those games are historical games in the old tradition, or games like mine which attempt to bridge the tribes within the board game community.

So now we see within all board gaming, including board wargaming, old people, young people, men, women, all walks of life. It’s just a wonderful, healthy recovery that I don’t think anyone expected in the 80s and 90s. Companies were going under and we all thought that when we were no longer here, these kinds of games would just die off.

Well, that didn’t happen.

What made you want to make a game about The War on Terror?

That idea came out of a conversation with Gene Billingsley, the president of GMT Games, at ConSim Expo in Tempe, Arizona in May 2009. We had just had a conversation about the war in Iraq, and he had an idea that if I could design an “intelligent” game, as he put it, on the topic of the struggle with jihadism and extremism, that it would do very well. I think he had in mind not just hobby gaming, but the defense and security consumer. He’s done a lot with the US Air Force and things like that in gaming.

So in effect it was a commission from GMT Games to do it. I don’t think I’d have chosen to do it myself, because to me it would have seemed too much like work, and I play games to escape. But when Gene Billingsley tells you something, you pay attention. And so my thoughts were that as a mechanical basis, the starting point ought to be Twilight Struggle. What would Twilight Struggle look like if it were covering 2004 to 2009?

My sense at the time was that this was an ideological struggle, and it was the current consuming, organizing struggle in the world between ideologies - religious extremism and secularism as expressed in the liberal West. So if Twilight Struggle could provide a simplified model of the ideological struggle during the Cold War, than that kind of model ought to be able to do the same for the current one.

The second thought I had was that of influence being a central mechanic in Twilight Struggle. [The War on Terror] wasn’t really a struggle of influence of superpowers over smaller states. The struggle was over governance. The US administration at the time, and still today to a degree, had as a central concept that if we could help reform governance in Muslim countries, that would be the ultimate solution to starving out extremism. By defeating tyranny, you would starve out extremism and that would be an end to the problem.

And for the Islamists, you have the idea that they’re trying to bring “true” Islamic governance. It’s not just that they want people to believe certain things, it’s that they’re fighting to have people governed by “true Islam” as the Jihadists saw it.

So the main stakes between the players would be governance between different regions of the world. And then Gene added: “Oh, and can you make it Solitaire friendly? If you’re up to that?” It was a bit of a challenge.
There’s an audience of players out there who prefer to play alone, or who couldn’t find an opponent. But he was also concerned that no one would want to play as the terrorists. You had to allow players to play as the other side, the anti-Jihadist US-led coalition. So I agreed to try it.

When you were first designing Labyrinth, were there any games in particular you drew on for inspiration?

Yeah, I think inevitably I was drawing on my only previously-published standalone design, which was Wilderness War, so I was certainly drawing on that experience on some level. And then I think I did have a draft game I had done, not for publication, but it had to do with terrorists trying to use weapons of mass destruction, trying to develop those capabilities and deliver them. So I had some mechanisms that I lifted from that and put into Labyrinth. But I think the heart of the game was taking Twilight Struggle as a starting point and asking what it would mean in the War on Terror.

Were there any mechanisms you liked that had to be thrown out of the final design? Or any last-minute additions that you felt made the game better?

I’d hate to think that I wasn’t cutting away, because it’s so essential to the process of design. So what got left on the cutting room floor?

I think I consolidated countries. I started out with more spaces on the map, but we found that since I was starting in the beginning to have something as clean and accessible as Twilight Struggle - and I don’t think Labyrinth is quite that - but what happened in development was more in the opposite direction, which is more that the model was too simple. We needed to add things. And the big addition that I didn’t start out with was that the jihadist cells could be sleepers, or could be active. The reason for that was that it was just unrealistically easy for US forces to pop these terrorists, so playtesters told us: “You’ve got to do something that can keep these cells hidden.”

So first we played around with the idea of having a little “hidden” area in each country, and you could slide these cubes back and forth. And then finally I decided we’d have a cylinder with a symbol on one side so you could flip it back and forth, so if the symbol was visible and it was active, you could kill it.

The other aspect that Gene Billingsley said needed to be in there and that we didn’t have enough of was the role of targeting jihadist leadership. So several events came in to help cover that, including the way which we covered the Bin Laden event card, which had written into it the possibility that Bin Laden would be taken down, which actually happened a few months after the game was issued.

I guess you can claim credit for that. You gave them the idea.

(Laughs) - Reality imitates art.

Some people have criticized the game for the ways in which it depicts the U.S. and Islamist sides. They take issue with the idea of a unified Jihadist player trying to topple governments to create Islamist regimes or the US's money and influence being the principal force that creates "good governance" in the Middle East or causes European attitudes in the War on Terror to shift. Was it your intention to model both sides as Bin Laden's view of Jihad and neoconservatism's view of American foreign policy in order to obliquely criticize both extremes?

Yes, sort of! Not because I’m trying to necessarily shoot at anything, but because I think I was consciously trying to generate conversations like that.

But I had no choice in a way. Here’s a design challenge: you’re modeling a conflict, and you’re trying to model that conflict plausibly. You have to give the actors - the players - historical incentives otherwise they don’t behave historically.

So if you say that you, in effect, are Bin Laden, then you have to give the player Bin Laden’s perceptions of how the world works. Or if I say that you’re the US administration trying to fight al Qaeda, you’re not going to act in the way the US administration acted in that period if you don’t have incentives in the game that are like the world as the US administration saw it at that time.

But on the other hand, if you look back and say: I don’t think those perceptions of the world at that time are accurate, or complete, or plausible, I think Bin Laden had a twisted view of the world, or I think neoconservatism had some assumptions in it that turned out not to operate very effectively, then what am I supposed to do with that as a designer? I don’t think there’s an optimal solution.

So I did take the approach that I wasn’t going to have the players forced by some iron-clad rule to flail about in a world that’s not going to respond to the actions they take. Instead I’m going to cast them in these roles. I’m going to give you the idea as al Qaeda that you can have these cells go around and do terror attacks and attract funding, and eventually your jihad will evolve into a revolution that claims actual territory and builds a caliphate. That’s an idea that may have seemed outlandish, until you have the rise of Islamic State. That’s how Bin Laden thought events would play out.

Or there was the idea that if you pull off a huge attack in the US homeland, the US will just pull out of the Middle East and go home. I don’t know that that’s realistic either.

So in the game, the Jihadist player can build enough strength to establish Islamist rule - and by that I mean the version of Islamist rule that al Qaeda was after - you can do that and establish a caliphate that crosses national borders and win. Or you can build weapon of mass destruction capability and set off a bad enough attack in the United States that you win that way.

That didn’t mean that I believed in 2009 that either of those were very plausible outcomes, but I needed the Jihadist player to believe those and to reach for those, so they’re in the game.

And it’s the same thing in terms of what the US administration’s strategy was. It had tactics which included hardening itself as a target, disrupting cells and reaching out to zap leaders.

But at the heart of their strategy on a global scale was the idea that we can, through various means hard and soft, reform governance from the outside in the Islamic world, and that’s our way to victory. So in the game you can do that rather more easily than history has shown anyone can do that.

And in the game events sometimes play out rather differently from history, and sometimes, well, just yesterday on Twitter I saw someone saying that they’d played the game in 2012 and the Islamists won by establishing a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. That was two years before the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State.

And I also point out in regard to the term neoconservatism - the Obama administration, if you read its open security strategy and strategy against terrorism, it had the same core idea. Yes, we need to take on al Qaeda as an organization, yes we need to take on their leadership, but we also need to take on their ideology, and that means we have to concern ourselves with the relevance of that ideology in governance, particularly in the Muslim world. It’s a continuation of the same strategy, but with the tactics and the mix of hard and soft power - which is another fundamental concept in Labyrinth - being different.

So my reaction to the criticism is that I’m delighted by it because it’s exactly the kind of reflection I wanted. There’s no readily accessible tabletop game that’s going to capture the full understanding of the conflict.

Well, people have tried to do it in 500,000-word hardback books and not quite managed it.

(Laughs) Yeah. So there are absolutely massive oversimplifications in Labyrinth . But the point is that people say: ok, let’s critique that ourselves and use that to compare it to the way that the world worked then and works today.

Second, I think if you look at what happened with regard to the subsequent administration’s counterterrorism strategy, how we think radicalization plays now, and particularly the phenomenon of the Islamic State and its transnational caliphate, I think that Labyrinth’s simple models stand up quite well. And now we have Trevor Bender’s excellent expansion, Awakening, which brings in new elements that the original design really underplays, and that’s the internal dynamics in Muslim-majority countries, the awakening, the ability of people there to stimulate their own change, and the connection of that to civil war, further space for the jihadists and the ability of Islamic State to establish a caliphate.

So in response to the critique I point out that Trevor does not undo Labyrinth’s model, he adds a number of expansions and refinements to it, and you get a continuing storyboard that can play out and represent history from 2001 to now in quite an accurate way.

I was going to ask whether Labyrinth has an intentional message behind it, but it sounds as though you were much more interested in fostering a conversation.

I hope so. I don’t think I’m trying to convince you of anything, if that’s what “message” means. I do think that there has been a global struggle and there are ideological components. There are premises in the game that I find defensible and I hope that when people reflect on those, that that’s part of the direction they go in.

The issue that you raised that jihadists are represented by a single player - I wanted to design a two-player game, so I had to go with that. But the jihadists in the model don’t respond as well as the US and western coalition forces. As the US player you can send your troops wherever you like, and they go. As the Jihadist player you can order your cells, and most of the time you’re rolling dice to see whether they respond to you. So right away there’s a very fundamental difference between the two. The idea that jihadism is a disparate movement is in there. However I do think it’s defensible that it is a movement.

So what I’m hoping is that when people play the game and say: “Well, it’s a bit simplified because you have this one mastermind moving these terror cells and not local extremists reacting to local grievances,” they will have in mind a more refined view of their own than is in the game about how jihadism operates in different places within itself.

But within the general parameters of the game, there is a movement. There are ideological fellow travellers within jihadism, and when they fight each other, as all geopolitical movements have components that fight each other, they are in general trying to press governance in the same direction. And it’s a direction that’s directly against western secularism.

What is your personal view on how the "War on Terror" will play out under the Trump administration? I understand if you have to draw a line on expressing political statements.

Well I don’t, because I’m giving my personal view. That’s the only sort of ground rule, that I’m only speaking for myself as a citizen of the world.
And the other reason it’s easy to answer that question is that I really don’t have a clue. I don’t know right now, I couldn’t describe to you what is a coherent US counter-jihadist strategy. I don’t know how to categorize it. And it may just be that we’re too early on. That’s a major component. If you were to build a model of the war on terror today, you’d have to stand on some kind of framework of how the US will proceed, and I just don’t know.

When you have a change in the administration, particularly when you have a man who could fairly be described as an unconventional, outlying figure in a position of power, how does that affect the intelligence community? Is there a huge immediate impact, or is there an underlying momentum that continues to some degree regardless of who’s in power?

I think the way you pose that question virtually answers itself. If you think about what large organizations do, there’s intellectual work there, and there’s leadership at the top. There’s maybe stockholders for a company, or a board of directors or something like that.

Every organization, every collection of human beings trying to go in one direction, is made up of overlapping but nonidentical perspectives, of overlapping but nonidentical incentives and so forth. And so how could it be otherwise than if in a government there is a new person at the very top, that there is a momentum in all the people under that government that make up those intellectual endeavors, whatever they are? That tries to bring that government’s interests forward? It seems unavoidable that the answer to your question is yes.

Where do you personally rank Labyrinth among your designs?

I think I’m learning as I go as a designer. I think the later COIN designs are better than the early COIN designs, and I think the COIN series shows greater education as a designer than do Labyrinth and Wilderness War. So that’s my conceit that I’m getting better as I go through trial and error, and Labyrinth was one of the earlier games in that series. So that’s maybe an answer to that.

In terms of player response, it’s hard to compare anything else I’ve done to Labyrinth. Labyrinth does I think stand out in a couple of ways. One is in the volume and seriousness of the reflection, of the model in the game that we’ve been talking about.

I mean that’s just precious to me, to have folks compare the game to real world recent history or current affairs of such consequence - very serious issues. To have the game be part of a conversation in our own board game community, there’s been some of that with the COIN series, and historical arguments, but not as widespread and not over issues as consequential for so many of us as the nature and prospect of Islamist extremism and how it affects us in the west.

It’s also very nice for me to see a game that I made almost a decade ago still getting enough attention to generate things like this interview, that’s wonderful.

I’d imagine it could be quite emotionally affecting for people to play a game about a conflict they might personally have served in, or where they have loved ones actively involved. Do you need to have a level of emotional sensitivity when you’re designing a game like this? Have you had any responses from people who have either served themselves or have had family involved in the conflicts?

I have, and also about some of the COIN series titles, A Distant Plain about Afghanistan, for example. And it’s usually a very positive response. I’ve found that almost universally, folks involved in these matters understand that games are a medium for examination of any kinds of ideas. And just as with any other medium would oversimplify, or take certain perspectives, or potentially get things wrong.

That would be true with a book or a movie or a TV show. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have books or movies or TV shows about very serious matters. And I think that most service members who have served in Afghanistan and encounter my games, as far as I know they’re just happy to have these topics in front of an audience through various media. It doesn’t necessarily mean they think that I got things right, but that’s just not possible.

So as a designer do I have to be emotionally sensitive to the recency of the topic, or the searing nature of the fact that it affects people’s lives in sometimes terrible ways? I absolutely do.

I go back to Gene’s original commission to me - the very first thing he asked was if I could do an “intelligent” game on this topic. And my premise is that if I am trying as an educated observer to provide a plausible model of recent history, and if that’s what “intelligent” means, then that is inherently respectful. I’m not trying to romanticize, I’m not trying to make anything frivolous. Games can be trivial, but I’m hoping that Labyrinth isn’t trivial. It’s a simplification of a very complex affair, but I hope that through its attempt at plausibility, to examine what are the relationships here, what do we think is real and not real, that it’s inherently serious and therefore respectful.

That doesn’t mean it’s not fun. I love historical documentaries. For me, watching them is fun. If they’re about warfare or the plague or something, it doesn’t mean I find war and the plague to be fun. It’s fun for me to examine history and to try to understand it. That’s what I think historical simulation games are, and what I hope Labyrinth is.

So for the people who are affected by these affairs directly, it’s saying: here is a piece of media that’s trying to grasp what’s happening and what you’re going through.

Something that strikes me about the game is that it seems quite easy for the US side to enact regime change, but very difficult to maintain control afterwards. Do you think that’s something the Bush and Blair administrations understood in the run-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?


I don’t think there can be any dispute there. My personal view of the history is that the intentions were good. I’m not a big fan of the idea that we were just going there for oil or something like that. I think the motivations behind Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were very noble ones. But I don’t see how we could say the challenges ahead were anticipated. I don’t know that that’s a defensible position either.
So the game had to have in it the options for regime change, of course, and the difficulties that could be encountered. And yet, for the US player, it has to be tempting enough to do it, but difficult enough to manage the way forward.

That was a design challenge, and I’m very proud of what comes out of that, because you play games of Labyrinth with lots of regime change, and some with none.

An aspect of regime change and the difficulties that followed that I’m not sure were fully understood by the public at the time the game came out, and I was hoping to stimulate thought on, is the fact that it’s not necessarily the case that a foreign power coming into a region will always have a great deal of difficulty, or that a foreign-based counterinsurgency will always fail. Another danger of our reading of recent history is that we say: “That was inevitable, that was always going to happen.” So in Labyrinth you can actually have the counterinsurgency that follows the invasion succeed - sometimes even quickly.

So in the game I’m leveraging the dynamics between the two players as opponents. If the US player does a regime change somewhere and the Jihadist doesn’t react and put resources into taking advantage of the situation the US player is now in, then the risk is that the regime change will succeed, and quickly. So the main mechanics that make the US player have to struggle with the result of regime change depend on the Jihadist player reacting to that and deciding to take advantage of that opportunity, and therefore committing resources to it.

So on the one side you have the idea that regime change operations are just going to feed the grievances of the enemy and soak up the resources of the coalition and are just a mistake. But on the other side is the idea of the flypaper argument, which was a popular one in the US administration at the time, which was that we’re going to have to fight these people somewhere - we may as well draw them into a place where we have lots of firepower and fight them there.

So how that plays out in the model, and it’s an emergent behavior I’m very happy with, is that the US player can do a regime change, and that sucks in both sides to focus their effort on that place, wherever it is. It’s not just a sink of resources for the US player but for the Jihadist player as well.

That’s interesting, because after the recent attacks in places like Paris and London there have been various observers suggesting that the reason we’re seeing these attacks in Europe is that IS no longer has the capability to fight effectively in Middle Eastern theaters.

And there isn’t a pat answer. It’s complicated and complex, so it’s a great topic for gameplay.

There’s the concern that as the Islamic State fails, the flow of extremists will reverse. A big part of the Islamic State’s idea was to have people come there and build the caliphate, and that’s what was happening. If folks who believe that, who have the idea that true Islam must fight the West, if those people go to Syria and Iraq then that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Paris. But now if we have a success of powers fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, what do those people do? They probably go and fight somewhere else.

I get the impression that Labyrinth gives quite a “high-level” representation of the War on Terror, but your COIN series takes a closer, more detailed look at specific conflicts. How does that difference affect your design process?

That’s a good summary of the trajectory into the COIN series. There were many, many reasons I wanted to start with Colombia and look at counterinsurgency at the national level rather than the global level, as in Labyrinth.

One of Labyrinth’s premises - and it’s one that has been challenged - is that the war on terror is fundamentally insurgency and counterinsurgency at a global level. That’s baked into the design of Labyrinth. And there’s the criticism that you cast two players in that role, and that’s a damaging simplification. So I wanted to go from there and not be so constrained by the two-player model.

I was inspired by Joe Miranda’s six-player Battle for Baghdad, and I thought six players fighting it out in the streets of Baghdad, and they all have different victory conditions, that was so much fun. I didn’t think I could pull that off, but I thought I could do four.

It’s multiplayer, which has its own design challenges for that to work well, and all four players have their own unique objectives. They have to all watch each other and their progress. I wanted to do it as a multi-party contest.

There’s an Australian writer on insurgency called David Kilcullen who’s written that all insurgencies are multi-party conflicts and have to be understood that way. Four players is a simplification for Colombia, but it’s less of a simplification than two players for the global war on terror.

And at the national level I think it’s just more accessible to express and to think about the context and to explore insurgency and counterinsurgency than it is at the global level.

I’m curious to know how many people in the intelligence field play these kinds of games. Do you think they’re beneficial to folks in your line of work?

I think quite a few. As you might expect, northern Virginia’s an active area for board wargaming, and it’s not just intelligence, it’s folks in international affairs in general, and not just Americans. My neighborhood is kind of blessed in that way, and that’s as you might expect, because they’re people being paid to think about how the world works. They tend to be naturally drawn to media that examine that question, to historical inquiry, to searching for analogies for the modern world and so on. So to be interested in games that depict that is unsurprising, and that includes board wargames.

I’m a very fervent enthusiast for the idea that playing games that are about consequential topics is helpful to us all. It’s helpful in sparking the kinds of conversations that Labyrinth has sparked on BoardGameGeek, for example. It’s helpful in sharing, comparing, and mutually refining our mental models, our understanding, our own useful simplifications of very complex human affairs. So it should be no surprise that games that are about something, as opposed to abstract games, are very attractive endeavor to so many of us as boardgamers.

And why do we like that? Because it’s fun to learn. It’s fun to see how a designer thinks things work. What does a designer think is important to include in a game about trade in the Caribbean? Or running a warehouse in medieval Germany? Or fighting the war in Vietnam? Because that designer needs to have a model of that in their head, and to decide what is significant to put in their game. And that game represents someone’s view of a human activity - probably very complex in real life.

And how fun to experience that! Not just to read what someone thinks, but to pull the levers and poke the buttons and climb inside an idea and running it around for a while. And how helpful is that? Because we’re trying to understand each other on this planet, so it has to be helpful for us to experience one another’s views through models that play out on the tabletop. That’s true for intelligence analysts and for brokers and for teachers and it’s true for neighbors. It’s true for human beings.

Let’s say you could make world leaders play a particular set of games, which ones do you think you’d choose?

That’s a fun question. Pandemic might be a good start. Right away it gets you in the context of all having special abilities to deal with problems that threaten all of us. It’s about how we maximize each of our talents and harness resources together, and that’s going to help us improve our planet. That’s not a bad start.

I read a story once where medical students played Pandemic , and they weren’t board gamers, but they played Pandemic and the world was destroyed and we all died. But they played again the following Friday and they had learned.

And I just think in a fantasy world, if you could get foreign leaders on opposite sides of a conflict or a division to sit down and play a game that somebody else had designed about that topic, and you used that game to stimulate their conversations about their assumptions about how things work, what’s realistic or not, and what their objectives are, and they would probably have a lot of criticism for how their own role was portrayed in the game, but it would get so many issues that are probably sources of mutual misunderstanding out on the table very quickly, it would be a fantastic exercise if it was able to happen. It’s a fun idea!

Thanks Volko, it’s been really interesting. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
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Didier Renard
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Interesting read, thanks for sharing!
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O.Shane Balloun
United States
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Cascade Games Convention: Bellingham, Washington's premier tabletop board game playing event
Outstanding read. Thank you for selecting Labyrinth as your interview-topic qua auction prize.
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The black wind howls... One among you will shortly perish...
Great interview, thanks for sharing (and for donating to JVMF).
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Second in a one horse race
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Cardboard rocks. It's just not the same on iOS.
You know that question: "Who would you like to have over for dinner?", where people pick Einstein, Kant, Nash etc.? I think I'd pick Volko.

Game design is awash with clever people, but even taking that into account, Volko comes across as an extreme outlier on the bell curve.
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