International espionage is often described as a game. But one Russian company has taken the analogy literally, creating a board game based on an international incident that has strained relations between Russia and Britain.
A vicious diplomatic spat began last year when two senior members of Russia’s intelligence agency, GRU, were accused of poisoning former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury.
The Skripals survived the attack, but in the months that followed, a British woman died from exposure to Novichok found in a discarded perfume bottle. The EU levied sanctions on some Russian citizens, and there were televised interventions by both Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Now, Igroland, a toy company based in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, has released a board game called “Our Guys in Salisbury,” which begins Moscow and ends in Salisbury with figures in Hazmat suits.
The game, which sold out soon after it was released in retail stores and online, also features an illustration of a spray bottle bearing a green skull and cross bones, as well as pictures of the faces of two men resembling the suspected GRU attackers, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – names British authorities say are aliases.
One of the game’s creators, Mikhail Bober, told CNN that the company decided to make the game as “joke to show that we treat this in Russia with irony … because we don’t see any proof” that Petrov and Boshirov were responsible for the attack, he said.
Bober said players have to “move in pairs in the game” and visit various cities. The “entire route was like a bridge of friendship between Moscow and Europe,” he added.
Nonetheless, the cities featured in the game include Geneva, Tel Aviv, London and Minsk, which online collective Bellingcat said the suspected GRU agents visited before arriving in Salisbury.
Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were poisoned with Novichok on March 4. Months later, June Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, a couple living near Salisbury, were also poisoned. Sturgess died on July 8 as a result of her exposure.
Petrov and Boshirov told the Kremlin-backed RT network in September that the purpose of their 6,000-mile, three-day trip from Moscow to Salisbury was to visit the “wonderful town” and its fine cathedral with its 404-foot spire and famous clock, the “first of its kind anywhere in the world.”
British authorities insist the men are agents of the GRU. But in the RT interview, the men insisted Petrov and Boshirov were their real names, and that they were businessmen in the fitness industry, selling supplements and advising on nutrition.
Many locals in Salisbury were unamused by the board game’s release. The city’s former mayor, Jo Broom, told the BBC the game felt like “a kick in the teeth.”
Bober insists that the company did not mean to cause offense, “because, after all, something happened there, people suffered.”
He added that Russians have also been offended by the negative portrayal of Russia in Western media and popular culture. “We travel around the world and we see what they show about us, what they say about us, and, as a result, people begin to think that way. So, in order to support our compatriots, we created this board game.”
Despite the controversy, all 5,000 copies of the game printed in December last year have been sold. It “sold out immediately – now I think there will be a lot of new orders,” Bober said.
According to a Bellingcat report, which CNN has not been able to confirm independently, Alexander Petrov’s real name is Alexander Mishkin, 39, and he is a doctor who works for the GRU.
Bellingcat alleges Mishkin traveled to the UK under the name Alexander Petrov with Ruslan Boshirov, whom they identified as GRU Col. Anatoliy Chepiga.
Russia has repeatedly dismissed claims that its intelligence unit was involved in the attack, saying no evidence has been provided.