A few days prior to March 20, 2003, Andy Tompkins and Andrew Sheerin were sat on a sofa, dejectedly watching Newsnight. Dubya had issued his ‘leave Iraq’ ultimatum to Saddam. Invasion was pretty much inevitable. Frustrated, angry, and slightly drunk, that was the moment that they hit upon their plan for the ultimate act of subversion, the perfect satire, a slap in the face to the powers that be. “By the end of the night, we pretty much knew it would be called ‘War on Terror: The Boardgame’ and that it would have an Axis of Evil spinner,” recalls Andrew.

Such was the beginning of TerrorBull Games. The two Andys, web designers and friends since childhood, began brainstorming rules and mechanics, and recruited Tom Morgan-Jones, an illustrator and satirist, to design the game’s artwork. They had no previous experience of boardgames (other than the occasional bout of Christmas Risk) or design, but they perceived this as an advantage, describing their debut as “the sort of game that would never get made if we knew anything about board games”. And they’ve enjoyed plenty of hassle for their troubles.

War on Terror: The Boardgame requires its players to “wage war on the most dangerous abstract noun known to man”, encouraging them to fight for “truth, justice and a decent slice of oil-rich land”. Wielding banknotes from the “World Bank of Capitalism”, each empire attempts to ‘liberate’ the nations of their rivals. All the while they funnel money to terrorists, who are extremely useful for destabilising opponents, until it emerges that other empires can fund and control your little partisans. The whole setup is out-and-proud leftie, and behind its black comedy, the guys rage with pent-up anti-establishment anger. “It’s the insanity, the stupidity, the absurdity of it all,” replies Andy when I ask about their motivations. “We wanted to touch that nerve and get people around a table talking.”

And touch a nerve they did. Andrew Lansley MP sternly intoned that “someone has gone too far”. The Cambridge News ran a front page story, and the Sun denounced the game’s gleeful, messy imagery as “sick”. From there the ball began rolling. UK tabloids exploded with predictably outraged denunciations of the game, decrying it as ‘exploitative’ and ‘insensitive’, before phoning up survivors of terrorist attacks to tell them about it and ask them what they thought. Jacqui Putnam, a prominent 7/7 survivor, told the Daily Mail that it was “inappropriate”, and Rachel North took the time to write to the makers to describe her fury. But the TerrorBull boys faced more than just angry individuals. Their website features a ‘Coalition of the Unwilling’ page, chronicling their history of back-and-forth with nervous stockists and furious toy fairs. Borders Cambridge was amongst the stores who reneged on pledges to stock the game, (but have since changed course, and, according to the TerrorBull boys, are now enjoying decent sales).

It’s a reaction that wasn’t entirely unanticipated. When I ask if they ever wondered about whether or not it’s legitimate to criticise their game as tasteless, Andy admits that from the start, “We knew there’d be a ‘you can’t do that’ element, but if we were dead boring and not having fun, people wouldn’t be asking that question.” Andrew concurs. “Those who are offended are genuine, but context and intention are everything. We wanted people to take another look at the whole thing.” The trio look back on themselves as having been slightly naive now, confessing that they never realised that national media would cherry-pick quotes to suit their preferred controversy. The penny dropped after a tense BBC segment, in which Andy was going to be interviewed with a 7/7 survivor. At the last minute, the producer informed him that the man actually liked some of the points that their game raised, but that this didn’t really suit the ‘shock’ angle that the Beeb was seeking.

Controversy aside, TerrorBull has enjoyed as much praise as it has condemnation. Numerous outlets, the BBC included, have now reversed course applauding their bleak satire. Most pleasingly for the boys, some of their heroes have stepped forward to commend them. Journalist John Pilger described the game as truth “through the fog of an often collusive and compliant media”. The Oslo Peace Museum and Amnesty International do a roaring trade on their websites. One Amazon review reports that “the first time I played this game I laughed so hard I soiled myself”. Noam Chomsky’s grandson likes playing with the Axis Balaclava, with ‘EVIL’ stitched into the forehead. The positive reactions made for a welcome relief. “Being called ‘sick’ solidly for two weeks does get you down a bit”, muses Andrew.

Reinvigorated after the head-rush of two weeks’ solid controversy, the TerrorBull boys prepared to invest their experience and refreshed zeal into whichever unspeakable controversy should next raise its head. Come summer, their second game ‘Crunch: The Game for Utter Bankers’ was in stores. As finance CEOs, players must cultivate ‘trust’ in order to shore up the value of their crumbling banks and secure the biggest bail-out/retirement fund possible. Naturally, cheating in all its forms is compulsory.

A smaller, cheaper card game, it has courted considerably less controversy than its predecessor. This, Andy quips, is “largely due to the size of the box.” The boys are as sceptical about economic recovery as they are about neo-con foreign policy, and they’re not too keen on the financial system at all. “What just happened in the last 12 months, you don’t just come out of,” insists Tom. “It’s not just a few bad apples. A system that rewards greed with profit will just get out of control on those terms.”

When I ask about their next project, the boys are tight-lipped, referring to it only as ‘the difficult third album’, but they assure me that “whatever we choose, it’ll be unique.” Will they be seeking to touch that tender nerve again? Probably. On balance, War on Terror was a gamble that paid off, and TerrorBull still can’t quite believe the range of reactions that it elicited. Tom recounts a trip to the German Historical Museum in Berlin. “We’re used to having it out on the table and messing about with it. Inside the museum it was glassed off, and people were staring at it really seriously.” Andrew smiles. “After everything that’s happened, I look at what this game has done, and I think to myself ‘that’s fucking nuts’.”

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