Labyrinth: The War on Terror – Boardgame Review
Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001–?. Boardgame. GMT Games. Volko Ruhnke. $60.00.
Passed Inspection: Very different strategies required depending on which side you play.
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve; very complex rules for solitaire play.
It is always tough when the moves you make while trying to outfox your opponent are blocked, reversed or out-maneuvered. It is even tougher when the opponent, sitting quietly beside you, is a flow chart. No matter what path I took as the valiant United States, in its quest to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism, the solo-play “AI” opponent (in the form of an intricate flow chart and random location roll table) managed to find some way to keep me under pressure. For every plot I blocked, another was hatched, for every active cell I squashed, two sleeper cells popped up in a key location, as I failed to win hearts and minds in the war of ideology, Muslim states switched to Islamic Rule. This was my solo play experience with Labyrinth: The War on Terror (hereafter L:WoT), the newest boardgame released by the well-known wargame publisher GMT Games. L:WoT is a relatively accurate representation of the tactical issues of fighting (or supporting, in the case of the Jihadist player) the new “brushfire” war against terrorism of the 21st Century. No matter if you are playing with the complex solo rules or against a live opponent, you will likely experience the same thrill of making a well-executed plan followed by the frustration of watching that plan undone, often with disastrous consequences.
Mechanically, L:WoT is a card-driven, area-control game on a map of Europe, North-Africa, the Middle East and parts of Southern Asia and Indonesia. This should come as no surprise, as L:WoT uses the same core system as Twilight Struggle, GMT Games’s critically acclaimed boardgame simulating the Cold War ideological struggle between the United States and the USSR. L:WoT’s intellectual heritage from Twilight Struggle (hereafter TS) is a double-edged sword. Fans of TS will immediately be comfortable with the faction-oriented cards, the back and forth responsive style of play, and the die-driven tests for determining the success or failure of operations. But because TS is heralded as such a masterpiece of elegant, yet complex gameplay with a myriad of viable strategies and a unique balance of forward planning, tension, and surprise, the many fans of TS have high expectations for L:WoT. So how does L:WoT compare to its very lauded ancestor? In short, L:WoT is a very different game, one that takes some of the successful mechanics of TS and does interesting and innovative things, but not always as well as TS.
Operation: Enduring Freedom
While I consider L:WoT a “wargame” for its emphasis on proper deployment of resources within a conflict and overarching strategy focused on small conflicts to win a larger war, L:WoT is not a traditional hex and army style game. L:WoT is primarily focused on controlling an area ideologically and using countries as ways to build prestige and expand a network of like-aligned states. One side plays as the United States and the other fanatical Islamic Jihadists. The goal is to either improve or degrade the government levels of a group of Middle-Eastern nations enough to claim a certain level of “resources” by having governments in these nations that are either “Good” for the United States or “Islamist Regimes” for the Jihadists. To do this, each side, starting with the Jihadists, plays two cards from their hand and decides how these cards will be played. What makes both TS and L:WoT so interesting is that each card has three different aspects that will affect how the card can be played. First, every card has an affiliation, either US, Jihadist, or Non-Aligned. Second, each card has a historically-based “event” on it that can be played for certain effects. Third, each card is assigned a number of 1, 2, or 3 that determines how many “operations points” the card is worth. So, for example, the Saddam Captured card is a US affiliated event, worth 2 operations points with an event that adds to US prestige, place a +1 bonus Aid maker in Iraq, and block the playing of the Saddam card in future turns. If a player plays a card aligned with their own faction, they have to choose if he or she wants to play it and activate the event, or play the card for the operations value to take certain actions on the board (such as deploy troops, recruit sleeper cells, improve a government, etc.). The cards are dealt out randomly, and this can lead to turns being a real “feast or famine” when a player is dealt a hand full of opponent aligned cards that must be carefully managed. Thankfully, many card events have pre-requisites, and so some opponent-aligned cards will simply fizzle if their pre-requisites are not met (but they still offer the use of their operations points).
Because the sides have different methods for interacting with the board, different strategies are required for the US player versus the Jihadist player. For example, for the US to carry out an operation, the player must play a card that is equal to or higher than the government level of the country it targets – thus a country with Good-1 level government can be targeted with a 1,2 or 3, while a Poor-3 governed country requires a 3 operations card. This means that the US is relatively limited in its scope, and can only affect one country at a time with its operations (as the number on the card is an action cost, rather than a number of actions that can be taken). The Jihadist’s operations are the opposite; the number played is the number of actions that can be taken – as long as all these action are of the same type (thus a 3 operations card will allow for three recruiting actions, three travel actions, or three attempted terrorist plots, but not a combination of these actions). It is far easier for the Jihadist faction spread around the map, making the Jihadists difficult to pin-down, and able to hatch multiple plans in the same move. Unlike the US, which can largely affect any nation with its operations, most of the Jihadist’s operations require the presence of a Jihadist cell in target countries – so blocking or destroying cells cuts off Jihadist influence over a country.
In addition to the 2-player game, L:WoT contains elaborate rules for a solo-play variant that offers a much more challenging experience than the typical wargamer solo-play solution of simply playing both sides. The solo game put the player in the role of the United States only, and the actions of the Jihadist player are decided by a large flow chart that evaluates the random card pulled for the Jihadist and tells the player what action the Jihadists will take. This style of Boolean “AI” is actually more sophisticated than it sounds, and a number of contingencies are built into the flow charts. While the flow chart will likely not be anyone’s preferred method of play, it is an acceptable stand in when a second player is unavailable – a pretty good feat for a game that relies so much on forward-thinking strategy.
Mission Accomplished (?)
Unfortunately, L:WoT is not without its failings, which are serious enough to make L:WoT difficult to recommend to beginners, those unfamiliar with this style of card-driven area control games, or gamers looking for the TS-killer (because L:WoT will not deliver in this regard). The first major problem is that Labyrinth is aptly named – the rules are complicated to the point of being obtuse and inaccessible. The dual-factions offer two very different gaming experiences, but they also mean there are two distinct rule-sets to learn, each with intricate rules, very specific and important ways of executing actions or turns, and a pile of modifiers and rules exceptions. I was often forced to consult the manual (which I also found a little lacking in its layout) more times than I wanted. While it’s likely a FAQ has been created to clarify some rules, it ought not to be needed; the manual should have been written more clearly to start with.
Unfortunately, the solo rules are even more marred by the byzantine complexity of the rules. The flow charts, being complex enough to offer a challenging and somewhat flexible AI opponent, are also somewhat difficult to follow. In solo play, the player is not only called on to know the intricate rules of the side they are playing, but also the rules of the AI side. Repeated plays will certainly lessen this problem, but the flow charts themselves are overly vague. So, if the learning curve for the two player game is steep, plan for the learning curve of the solo game to be twice as steep as you have to learn both sets of rules for operations (US and Jihadists) and figure out how to properly implement the flow charts.
In the inevitable comparison to TS, L:WoT has a much higher learning curve and is far more difficult to gauge what each player should initially be doing. Like a Faberge egg, this is a system within a system and there are exceptions and small (yet important) rules at each level, like where troops can be deployed, how cells are recruited, what effect does a US’s War of Ideas operation have versus Jihadist’s Jihads and Major Jihads. Some actions leave a modifying chit in a country when failed, but only on certain rolls, others leave them when they succeed. While much of the confusion over the minutia would clear up after repeated plays – there is something inaccessible about L:WoT at the start.
L:WoT ends when either a victory condition is met or the deck is emptied a pre-determined number of times (more re-shuffles equals a longer game), so there isn’t that feeling of pressure from the clock, which was present in TS, and gone are “eras” and adding cards to match the time period. This means that, unless the Jihadists win by carrying out a nuclear plot in the US, there is not that same climatic ending that comes from a well-played scoring card (also not in L:WoT) or from the fruition of a protracted plan to dominate Europe. L:WoT is, like TS, a long game, around 3-4 hours or more if one of the players is particularly prone to analysis paralysis (and the TS-based games are some of the worst inducers of AP).
Something that also left me with some niggling doubts and disappointments, particularly in comparison to earlier card-driven, area control games was that the events on L:WoT‘s cards had too many pre-requisites. In TS, for example, holding an opponent’s event card presented tough choices as nearly any time it was played it would activate a harmful event. In L:WoT most of the events require very specific things to be present on the board (such as the previous play of an event, or troops in a certain locale like Iraq) or the event will not activate. This means that players can often play an opponent’s card for the operations, but not run the risk of triggering the event. While not true of every event, some of the tension of holding a particularly nasty event and the need to find some way to mitigate or avoid the damage caused by that event, which was an integral and fun part of TS, is not as much of a factor in L:WoT.
Lastly, L:WoT inherits some weaknesses from the TS system despite its heavily modified rules. As I mentioned before, L:WoT is both card and dice driven, and because the cards have affiliations for one side or the other, turns can be fairly asymmetrical. The luck factor of the draw deck coupled with the luck factor of dice rules might frustrate some gamers, since there are times when one player may find himself in a position to play all eight of his cards in a devastating blow, and the opponent, through bad luck, might not have much action in the same round. If you are comfortable with this mechanic in TS, however, you will not find anything different in L:WoT, so this is less of a factor for those who know and like these types of games.
It would be remiss if I did not say something about the content. The game is based on real events, only recently passed (last 10 years) or still happening today. The subject matter can be a relatively contentious topic, and one player will be taking the reins of a side devoted to terrorist attacks against civilian forces. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are center stage in L:WoT and these are both emotional topics and represent real-life events where young men and women died while serving their country. Some people might find playing a game based on such recent events distasteful, while others might be offended by the political or religious stances displayed in the game. In my opinion, the treatment of radical Islam is fair, and is balanced with images of positive and peaceful Islam in opposition to the Jihadists. Conflicts are not often shown, and there are not too many cards specifically referencing the wars mentioned, although carrying out the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are natural actions that will be taken in the course of gameplay. There are several cards on sensitive topics, such as Abu Ghraib, GITMO, and Osama Bin Ladin. Be warned, L:WoT is sure to spark up a conversation and is likely to spark up emotions in players in a way that TS, being based on a struggle 50-20 years past, does not.
In summary, I cannot unreservedly recommend Labyrinth: The War on Terror. While it does follow, in many ways, Twilight Struggle’s winning formula, there is an added layer of complexity that removes some of the elegance of the system and some fundamental card play changes lessen the dynamic tug-of-war and tense balance of its predecessor. The neat aspect of having two vastly different sides to play expands strategic concerns and lends longevity to the game, but also increases the learning curve and leads to some of the most convoluted rules I have encountered in a boardgame. However, for fans of this style of game, who think they will enjoy the theme (and the game is heavily steeped in theme) and are not afraid to put time into overcoming the rules will find an excellent companion, but not successor, to Twilight Struggle.
Solitaire Suitability: 2; has dedicated solo rules and is completely solo ready, but these rules are complicated and somewhat difficult to follow.
About the Author:
Christopher Beck is a PhD candidate in Medieval History, studying Mediterranean seafaring, trade, and civic governance. Beck is a long time board and video gamer since the days the Atari was new and is an avid fan of role-playing, grand strategy, science fiction and most anything Lovecraft. His boardgame collection now takes up its own room, much to his wife’s chagrin. Favorite boardgame publishers include Fantasy Flight, Flying Frog Productions, and the now long lost Avalon Hill. His current project is reading the Necronomicon in Latin.