Game Name: Labyrinth – The War on Terror 2001-?
Publisher: GMT Games
Designer: Volko Ruhnke
Artists: Donal Hegarty, Rodger B. MacGowan, Leland Myrick, Volko Ruhnke, Mark Simonitch
Genre: Card driven historical game of the U.S. fight against Islamist terrorism
Players: One or two players (Solitaire Rules Included)
Ages: 14+ (This is simply my recommendation)
Playing time: Three hours or more
Let me begin the review by stating that designer Volko Ruhnke and the gang at GMT had their hands full when the decision was made to go ahead with Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?. Here we have a game simulation of events which are not only fresh in our collective memories but even many which have yet to come to pass. Not only would that normally be tricky to pull off successfully but add into the mix that one of the antagonists is a side that many reading this review would not feel comfortable taking the reigns of and you can see that there was a lot of risk putting this game together and I applaud all those involved for getting Labyrinth to print.
I can happily say that, for those who possess a mature world view, Labyrinth is not only a fascinating game but a tremendous experience which can lead to a lot of discussion between the players once they leave the table. That’s not something that can easily be said about most games. Ruhnke walks a very fine tightrope where the overall goals of the U.S. and the Islamic Jihadists are clearly presented without resorting to propaganda or bias. What is the goal of the Extremists? What is their “win” scenario? How can the U.S. accomplish their goals? How can they bring an end to “The War on Terror?”
Labyrinth’s central premise, according to designer Ruhnke, is “that the ‘War on Terror’ is really about governance of the Muslim world: that competent, accountable government will offer Islamic populations the future they desire and thereby drain extremism of its energy. That jihadism roots in the abysmal quality of governance in many Muslim countries. And that global jihadists seek to take advantage of that poor governance to spur Muslim populations to opt for their vision of Islamic rule.”
As usual the components are top notch – that seems to be a redundant statement lately with the games coming from GMT – as can be expected. Once again we have a nice big board on which plenty of info is right there at the players’ fingertips. And I say a big board because it lays out at 22”x33” so don’t expect to playing Labyrinth on your coffee table and still have room to maneuver. The counters are well done as are the wooden blocks and cylinders used to track U.S. troop deployment and Jihadist cells. The cards which drive the action are also presented nicely. Set up is fairly easy, although many of the counters that will be utilized later should be sorted off to the side of the map taking up a bit more space.
In the box are the rule book and a play book as well. The play book will be essential because there’s a lot to get your head around in Labyrinth. I will point out that it seemed as if I had to dig around a bit more to find what I was looking for (something that normally doesn’t happen to me with a GMT release) and the detailed playthough in the play book helped quite a lot.
Seemingly, as with just about any card driven wargame these days (especially those coming from GMT) there will immediately be comparisons to Twilight Struggle. I’ll have to say that many of those comparisons will probably come from folks who haven’t actually sat down with Labyrinth and sank their teeth into the meat of this title. Both games do share some mechanical and graphical similarities such as cards containing events to be played or used for operations points, the look of the game boards to some extent and the concept of influencing countries. At the end of the day though Labyrinth and Twilight Struggle are completely different beasts!
Let’s look at the game itself…
The End of the World as We Know It – The map breaks down into various boxes representing either countries or groups of smaller like minded countries. These countries are then divided into two categories – Muslim and Non-Muslim countries. Countries notated as Muslim have a varying Governance value. This value is an unknown at the beginning of the game as it’s not determined for the country until the US player places troops there, the Jihadist player moves cells there, or an event card calls for a test of governance. This governance has a range of Good, Fair, Poor and Islamist Rule. Better Governance works in favor of the U.S. and the opposite goes for the Jihadists. These Muslim countries will also be determined if they are a U.S. ally, neutral, or an adversary. Governance and Alignment determine what each side can or cannot due within that country’s borders. Muslim countries can also be either Sunni or Sunni-Shia Mixed. Iran is handled a bit differently than other countries, although it is a Muslim state. Iran is enough of an influence throughout the region so it has a unique classification as far as the game plays – set to Fair Governance and without an alignment track.
The Non-Muslim countries also have Governance values, but they will never change and the worst setting can only be Fair. The Non- Muslim countries do have what is known as Posture that is either Hard (more of a military response to the Jihadists) or Soft (looking to take a diplomatic route) which will factor into the equation; if the U.S. finds it’s Posture opposite of the majority of Non-Muslim countries, for the most part, it will be harder slogging. Non-Muslim Posture will have numerous effects on the U.S. depending upon the differential between itself and the rest of the “West.” The U.S. player can attempt to change the Posture of both non-Muslim countries and of the United States itself, but the later is time consuming and extremely expensive.
There are also three other conditions, shown on the board which will come into play. The first is U.S. Prestige, that can change at the turn of a card. The higher the U.S.’s Prestige, the easier it will be to improve the Governance of Muslim countries. If Prestige drops low enough, the Jihadist can pull off a win just by having a set number of countries with very poor Governance. The second factor is U.S. Troop Deployment. The design decision was made that the more boots on the ground, the fewer cards the U.S. player will have in hand each turn; if there are five troops tokens deployed, the U.S. player draws nine cards, while six to ten deployed brings it down to eight, and any more than ten (the U.S. may deploy up to fifteen troop tokens) drops it down to only seven cards drawn per turn. The third factor is Jihadist Funding. This acts similar to U.S. deployment but as the opposite. The higher the Jihadist funding level, more cells will be available for them to place on the board. Max funding is nine with funding between seven and nine, all cells can be recruited (up to the maximum of fifteen) and allowing for nine cards to be drawn, with four to six allowing ten cells (and eight cards), and one to three only allowing five cells and seven cards. Many actions and events will affect Prestige and Funding, but the U.S. is normally in the driver’s seat as far as the number of troops which can be deployed.
Mission Accomplished! – Winning the game mainly boils down to Muslim countries either having Good governance (a win for the U.S.) or ruled by Islamic regimes (the goal for the Jihadists). Islamist countries also have the benefit of automatically allowing the Jihadists to undertake any action using OPs – normally Jihadist cells have to roll a die to succeed in most actions. Woe to the U.S. if a country with WMDs falls into Jihadist hands because one of the automatic win conditions, for the Jihadist player, is to successfully launch a plot with WMDs in the United States.
There are there instant victory conditions for the U.S. over the course of a game – roughly they break down into Economic, Political, or Military. Each Muslim country has a Resource value of one to three, be it from oil or other means. The U.S. automatically wins economically if there are twelve or more Resources located in countries with a Good Governance level. At least fifteen Muslim countries with either Fair or Good Governance becomes a political victory in which the influence of the Jihadists has been neutralized. If there are no Jihadist cells located on the map, a military victory is scored for Uncle Sam.
The Jihadists also have three paths to instant victory. If six Resources are under Islamist Rule, with at least two of those countries being adjacent, the Jihadist player scores an economic win. If U.S. Prestige drops to one and at least fifteen Muslim countries have either Poor Governance or are under Islamic Rule, a political victory is scored, as the Jihadists have destabilized the region and shown the U.S. to be ineffective. Instead of a military victory for the Jihadists, they can pull off an instant win if they are able to effectively resolve a WMD Terror Plot inside U.S. borders.
If there are no instant win situations that arise, points are tallied at the end of the game to determine the victor.
Hearts and Minds – Gameplay is card-driven with players using their cards in hand to either play the event stated on it on use the card’s Operational Value to take actions. The Events could benefit the U.S., some the Jihadists while others are neutral and be beneficial (or not) to either side. If you play a card for the OPs and the card has an Event for the opposing side, in most cases, it is triggered. Each card has an OPs Value between one and three, allowing play of actions.
There is no turn track in Labyrith and players decide on the length of game by deciding on whether they will play though the deck once, twice or three times. There are four scenarios included in the game which can begin in 2001, 2002, 2003 or even an alternative history scenario that follows on the events of 9/11 with Al Gore as the President of the United States.
As already mentioned, each Muslim country has a Governance level and that level is assigned a value. Good is a value of one, Fair is a value of two and Poor is a value of three. For the U.S. player to take an action in a country, they need to play a card with an OP value at least that of the country’s Governance level making it much easier for U.S. operations in countries with a Good Governance. The Jihadist player, on the other hand, can use any card to play actions regardless of the Governance. The difference for the Jihadist gets a number of actions equal to the OP value of the card. These actions, however, are never guaranteed. For every action they need to roll a six-sided die. If the number rolled is equal to or less than the Governance level of the target country, the action is successful. If the roll is over the Governance level, the action fails and the OP is spent. Whereas it’s easier for the U.S. to operate in countries with Good Governance the exact opposite is true for the Jihadist player.
Each side in Labyrinth goes about their actions in very different ways.
Let’s Roll! – The U.S. operations mesh together nicely. In some ways, playing the U.S. is easier than the Jihadists and in others much harder. The biggest drawback for the U.S. player is that they may only play one card for one action; the Jihadist player uses each OP for individual actions. Both sides can commit cards to a Reserve, allowing them to play three point OP actions, although not as effectively as normal. Unlike Twilight Struggle (and most card driven wargames) each side plays two cards at a time. This design aspect allows for combinations to be played and less of a see-saw feeling of what’s going on. This can also lead a poor U.S. strategy to a devastatingly out of control spiral.
As well as playing events, the U.S. has the following Actions:
The War of Ideas is used to improve Governance/Alignment or Posture. This is one of the rare times that the U.S. player has to roll a die for success. The higher the U.S. Prestige the better! If you just miss the roll to improve Governance, at least an Aid marker is placed that improves the next attempt. Aid markers can be tricky though because they can help trigger Jihadist events.
Deploy allows Troop tokens to be removed from the Troop track, or those already on the board, to be moved to an allied Muslim country. The Troops can also be used effect a Regime Change ifUS Posture is Hard and a three value OP card is played. Once a country is in Regime Change, it becomes a literal Jihadist cell factory with all recruiting automatically succeeding. Regime change also ties down U.S. Troops because they may not leave until the country’s Governance becomes Good (the regime has changed) and there must always be five more Troop tokens than cells in the country. Changing regimes is about as difficult as Jihadists bringing about Islamic rule to a country and can be a very costly and time consuming without assured success.
Disrupt actions allow for Sleeper Cells to be flipped to Active, or the removal of Active cells. The action can be performed in any non-Muslim country, in any country where you have troops are deployed, or in an Allied Muslim. This action makes it very difficult for the Jihadist player to get much cooking in Non-Muslim countries.
Alert requires the play of a three OP card and allows for an active Plot on the board to be removed. Once WMD are in play, this is a critical action in order to prevent a WMD Plot being successfully carried out within the U.S.
Remember that the more Troops deployed, fewer cards will be made available to the U.S. player each turn. The term used in this regard is Overstretch and it can severely limit U.S. options. It must be said that there are times when the situation in a particular country can be so dire that there is no other choice for the U.S.
Reassesment of the U.S. policy allows the Posture to be changed from Hard to Soft or vice versa. This requires an entire phase (the two cards played) and two three value OP cards. Posture can also change due to Plots taking place in the U.S. or from Event resolution.
The U.S. Government is Unjust, Criminal and Tyrannical – Jihadists have a much different path to achieving victory than the U.S. It must be noted that actions by the Jihadist require a die roll in order to succeed (unless performed in an Islamic country) and each OP is used as a die roll for a single action. For example, if a three OP card is played the Jihadist then has three dice to roll for one action. These dice may not be broken up over more than one action. A roll of the Governance value for the target country indicates success, otherwise the action fails.
The Jihadist player has the ability to play Events as well as the following actions:
Recruit is straightforward – taking cell tokens from the Funding Track and placing them on the map. Cells can either be Sleepers (which are more difficult to be removed by the U.S.) or Active. Whenever cells are recruited or travel, they become Sleepers. Recruiting in a country under Islamist rule or under Regime Change is automatic, and some non-Muslim countries have a higher recruiting value than the Governance; Spain is a prime example . Recruiting can never be higher than the Funding Track marker is in, so a drop in funding can be a serious issue for the Jihadist. More cells (up to the limit of fifteen) can be placed due to the results of an Event.
Travel gets the cells from one country to. Travel to adjacent countries automatically succeeds, while travel to a more distant country requires a die roll. If the roll is failed the cell is returned to the Funding Track. Travelling allows an Active cell to become a sleeper and many times travel is simply taken to flip a cell to its Sleeper state.
Plot terror attacks used in various ways depending upon the country the Plot is hatched. Plots can be used to change posture in non-Muslim countries, lower U.S. Prestige in countries with Troops, and cause the deterioration of Governance values in Muslim countries. Plots require either an Active cell per die rolled in that country, or a Sleeper cell flipped to Active, making them more vulnerable in most cases. Plots can be attempted anywhere. Plots are also a good way for the Jihadist to bury a U.S. event in their hand; the first card they play toward a plot is placed in the “1st Plot” box and the event is then ignored.
Jihad is used to foment Islamic revolution and can allow for the creation of Islamist governments. This is a difficult action to pull off and is on the same level as the U.S. Regime Change. There are two types of Jihad: Minor and Major. A Minor Jihad can lower a country’s Governance down to Poor and that’s the extent of its result. Once a Minor Jihad succeeds, the Jihadist needs to have five more cells in the target country than there are troops, and then roll two successes in one roll for a Major Jihad to take place. If one of the rolls fails on the first attempt the country becomes a Besieged Regime and will only require one success in the future. This is along the same lines as Aid markers for the U.S. and any failed rolls will remove the cell back to the Funding Track.
In my mind, Labyrinth is certainly a more difficult game than Twilight Struggle to learn (and surely way more so than say Washington’s War) mostly because each side plays so much differently. Not that their associated strategies are different (which they are) but the actual mechanics for each opponent vary quite a bit; with most games learning to play one side can easily equate to easily taking on the role of the other. Normally, outside of realizing what the strengths and weaknesses or the best strategy to be employed may be, games play similarly regardless of who a player represents. This isn’t really the case for Labyrinth though. That’s not to say that there is a whole new learning curve involved if you tackle either side but you can’t just change hats and jump right back in. This observation shouldn’t keep anyone from playing the game though and I’ve added my thoughts just as an aside.
Playing as the U.S. seems to have a more stable strategic thread as that player can tend to make longer term plans than the Jihadist. Opposing the U.S. finds the Jihadist player looking for “chinks in the armor” by exploiting any openings and taking advantage of any opportunity that can arise so there can be a lot of juggling going on; an aspect that I find quite believable. If someone is introducing Labyrinth to a new player, the veteran most certainly wants the role of the Jihadist mainly because not only does it appear as if the U.S. is easier to learn but, let’s be honest, most people playing for the first time could have a serious problem taking on the role of Islamic extremists.
I believe the reaction to Labyrinth is going to breakdown into two camps: those who will refuse to play the game because of the subject matter and the, certainly understandable, refusal to take on the role of the Islamic Jihadists and those who will be able to disassociate themselves enough in order to bring Labyrinth to the table for a two player game. In one respect Volko Ruhnke and GMT have addressed the former group by including very detailed solitaire rules in which the solo player takes on the role of the U.S. I’ll be very honest and say that I haven’t kicked the tires on the solitaire version yet, outside of reading the rules. I’ll guess including the solitaire inclusion was no doubt a conscious decision in order to get the game to print as only presenting the two player game would have cut into sales.
Before I end the review, I have to take a moment to tip my cap to Volko Ruhnke, Joel Toppen and the rest of the folks at GMT. Here we have a simulation of a conflict that is not only began in the very near past but is currently playing out across our newspaper front pages almost every day. To present this theme in a way that leaves politics (there are advantages and disadvantages associated with either a Soft or Hard Posture) as well as ideology at the door is a tremendous achievement. That’s not to say there isn’t an understandable bias to the game – how could there not be? – but the overall goals and end results each side is looking to attain is straightforward and realistic.
Labyrinth – outside of a few very minor quibbles I have with the game such as the U.S. and Jihadist actions only being present on each player’s aid card and not on both, a seemingly stronger U.S. narrative, and a touch of confusion involving the rules layout – may be one of the pinnacle moments in wargaming. This is a fantastic game!
I’ll end by saying that I’m not sure if a game can be important, as in “important” in the great scheme of things since we are talking about a game of course. I obviously know board games are used as learning tools and to teach. If we’re looking at a game as a way to learn something, and not just as simply entertainment, Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001 – ? is a tremendous achievement! When talking about Islamic extremists, the comedian Bill Maher once said, “They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.” Now I can’t say playing Labyrinth will provide us with any of the true motivation of the Jihadists and their hated of the West but the game can most definitely open a lot of eyes as to what lays behind the headlines while laying out the real aims for both combatants in this War on Terror.