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Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?» Forums » Reviews

Subject: [Roger's Reviews] Labyrinth: A Choice of Enemies rss

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Labyrinth
A game for 1-2 players designed by Volko Ruhnke


"Terrorism is an abstract concept with no real essence; no single definition can capture its many forms; there are common elements in many definitions – the meaning of terrorism derives from the victims or targets." – Alex Schmid

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Roger's Reviews. I've been playing board games since I was a wee lad and wargames for over thirty years. I'm a fan of card driven games and include Twilight Struggle and Unhappy King Charles! among my favorites in that genre.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-?? is a strategic level game about the attempt of extremist organizations attempting to impose Islamic rule in the Middle East.

Components

This game comes in the standard sized GMT box, and the box is packed full. The mounted map is plenty sturdy and the colour scheme is easy on the eye and functional. A single thick countersheet, with a mix of the larger rounded corner style counters seen in Twilight Struggle and the more standard 1/2" size contains all the core informational markers required for the game. A bag with tan cubes representing (primarily but not exclusively) US troops and black cylinders with green foil stamped crescent moon and star on one end representing the jihadist cells completes the core pieces needed to play. The game also comes with three black and one tan dice, rules, a play book and player handouts.

All the components. Photo courtesy and used with permission of Ron Chavez (ronster0).

Naturally, as a card driven game, it comes with cards, 120 in total.


Cards and sample bits. Photo courtesy and used with permission of Ron Chavez (ronster0).


Rules & Game Play

The rule book is well laid out and well written, but careful reading is required. The map focuses mostly the Middle East, but has the rest of the world in connected boxes. Each Middle Eastern country has a resource value, a depiction of which brand of Islam it follows (Sunni or Shia, with Iran being its own special case) and the rest of the world is abstracted as either being "soft" or "hard" line (the determination of this is made at the time someone actually deploys there, or via card play).

It uses a shared deck and in the same manner as Twilight Struggle, if you play an opponent's event, it triggers; whether it happens before or after you use the ops is up to you. Where Labyrinth diverges from most card driven games is that the two sides use their operations points for completely different activities; this is how it achieves its asymmetry. This is not an entirely new concept; for example, in Here I Stand each power can use operations for their special purpose, but even so, there is a pool of actions in common to everyone. Not so in Labyrinth.

Here, the US player uses operations points for:
- War of Ideas (to improve alignment or governance in Muslim countries, or to gain prestige and help with the Great War on Terror Relations track)
- Disrupt (to remove cells from countries)
- Alert (to remove a plot)
- Deploy (to move troops from anywhere to anywhere, including drawing down from the troop reserves on the board). Related actions are to do a Regime Change (a special deploy action) or a Withdrawal from a Regime Change country.
- Reassessment (a costly double 3-op card play to try to change US posture from Hard Soft)

The Afghanistan quagmire

Meanwhile, the Jihadist player uses operations points for:
- Recruitment (placing cells in countries around the world)
- Travel (migrating a recruited cell from one country to another)
- Plot (try to place a terrorist plot in a country, and if you can get a WMD into the US...)
- Minor Jihad (worsen governance)
- Major Jihad (establish Islamist rule)

Plots in the Philippines

There are three (four if you include the alternate history version of the "Let's Roll" scenario which posits that where Al Gore wins the recount in Florida in 2000) scenarios in the game: the "Let's Roll" scenario that follows directly on the heels of the 9/11 attacks in the United Sates; "Anaconda" set in 2002 after the Taliban have fallen but Osama bin Laden has escaped; and "Mission Accomplished?" set in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq as the backdrop.

When players set up the game, they need to agree on whether they will go through the discard deck once, twice, or even three times before the game is over. The scenario notes recommend going at least two decks for the final scenario.

Given the oppositional uses for operations points, there are also different victory conditions.

US victory is achieved by: having at least 12 resources at "good" governance (each country has a resource value), having at least 15 countries at fair or good governance, or there being no cells in any countries.

Jihadist victory is achieved by: having 6 resources at Islamist Rule (including 2 adjacent countries), US prestige at 1 and at least 15 countries at poor or Islamist rule, or successfully getting an unblocked WMD plot in the United States.

There are also end game victory conditions that trigger once you've gone through the deck the agreed upon number of times.

Once play is underway, the game has an interesting dynamic because of the asymmetry. The joint event deck means opponent events will happen fairly regularly, but I didn't feel the same kind of apprehensive tension about letting my opponents events occur on the board as I do in other games such as Twilight Struggle or 1989. As the US player in particular, I felt a certain level of indifference to cells expanding across the board. As the Jihadist player, I didn't really care about US troop movements. It was almost as if we were ships passing in the night, or perhaps more aptly, battleships and small fishing boats. Nothing to see here, moving along quietly now...

A note about solitaire play: the pre-programmed instructions the Jihadists follow makes for a challenging game, but there were times where I would look at a card, the instructions according to the flowchart, and then the board and think that there were better options available. Once you get a hang of the game, you might want to occasionally stray from the script and do what seems more "logical" for the Jihadist side. On the flip side, I wish there were a similar flowchart for the US so one could play the Jihadists solo. I note that his is not out of any sinister motive to derive Schadenfreude with the delivery of a WMD to the United States, but rather because it feels to me that the Jihadist player has more interesting choices to make than the US player.

Conclusions
The core problem with Labyrinth is its strategic scope. The scope perforce homogenizes all the various (and highly heterogeneous) Jihadist (and I guess broadly speaking all terrorist) groups into one nebulous-but-unified entity. The direct consequence is the nuances of the situation on the ground are lost in a manner which do not ring true with me. One has only to look to Hamas and Hezbollah and the power politics at play between those two organizations; they're both enemies of Israel, but the enemy of their enemy is not necessarily considered their friend.

Hamas and Hezbollah are both considered terrorist organizations by the United States (and others), but their focus is relatively localized compared to al-Qaeda's stated intent to form a new Islamic caliphate by eliminating foreign influence from the Middle East. A related issue is the notion of the Jihadist player using ops to have a cell travel; one could ship a cell directly from Afghanistan to the USA (with a lucky die roll helping things along), but conceptually I find it difficult to understand why a "generic" cell in Indonesia, say, or even the Philippines would want to travel to Spain (unless it was for a vacation with the ETA, a Basque separatist group).

The coarse granularity of governance is another issue. It's good, fair, or poor, and then either allied, neutral, or an adversary (which is the only time it can become an Islamist State). Any local flavor is lost in the shuffle. The US can engage in regime change, but in game terms it's s blunt instrument that loses any nuance. A regime change to what exactly? An imposed dictator or a genuine attempt to allow democracy? The real record on US foreign policy in the Middle East doesn't speak well to the ultimate outcome of regime change efforts, but the game doesn't really capture this, nor does it address tacit support of oppressive regimes that are nonetheless friendly to the US. I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.

This is perhaps one of the more difficult reviews I've had to write, not from a game and mechanics perspective, but from the theme. In most conflict simulations, it's easy to look at the goals for each side and figure out which strategies you might want to pursue. I found Labyrinth much harder to figure out in that respect. I'm not sold on the idea that getting a WMD into the US wins me the game as the Jihadist - quite the contrary, I think it would be a pyrrhic victory at best.

[editorial footnote: I found Laurence Freedman's book A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East valuable for providing context. I highly recommend it]
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Ziggi W
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Good review,
I tend to look at the solo script as behaving similarly to how jihadists would behave, ie. loosely coordinated but each cell still following it's own goals. I also look at cell travel not only as a group of jihadists traveling from Afghanistan to the US but also as a mixture of actual physical travel thru various media and as the travel of a jihadist philosophy/idea thru to a dormant group within the US which then decides to become a cell.

I also agree with you about having a jihadist solo option, again not to US bash but to actually try to understand how the 'enemy' thinks.
On a similar note, I'm frankly disappointed in GMT for not including both options, to prevent an uproar. IMHO the real jihadists have already won a small victory against the west when on account of their actions we choose to push down a basic tenet of the west, freedom of speech.
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Sgt Oblat
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>but rather because it feels to me that the Jihadist player has more interesting choices to make than the US player.

Indeed as the side most interested in stability it has the more predictable pattern of behaviour making much easier to model.

But I have discussed this sort of thing has come up with GMT before - their answer is always that it's marketing.
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Larry Carter
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Very nice review. I really like reviews where the reviewer includes pictures I think it really helps the reader.

I agree that a USABot for playing solo as the Jihadist would great. It would provide not only more playing options but also give you a chance to refine your tactics on both sides of the table.


leroy43 wrote:
This is perhaps one of the more difficult reviews I've had to write, not from a game and mechanics perspective, but from the theme. In most conflict simulations, it's easy to look at the goals for each side and figure out which strategies you might want to pursue. I found Labyrinth much harder to figure out in that respect. I'm not sold on the idea that getting a WMD into the US wins me the game as the Jihadist - quite the contrary, I think it would be a pyrrhic victory at best.


I don't think of Labyrinth as a simulation. It is far too abstract for that. I do agree with your points in that regard but they don't impact the game for me. Perhaps I'm more comfortable with the abstraction, I'm not sure. I do have a hard time determining viable strategies but I've chalked that up to a combination of limited play thus far and a decent number of plausible options in any given situation. Not to mention the flow can change in a moment upsetting any long term strategy you may have devised. But I do find the point you make very intriguing and I think I will pay more attention to that as time goes on.
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Andrew Prizzi
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A well written review.

I will take issue with a few things in this paragraph:

Quote:
The coarse granularity of governance is another issue. It's good, fair, or poor, and then either allied, neutral, or an adversary (which is the only time it can become an Islamist State). Any local flavor is lost in the shuffle. The US can engage in regime change, but in game terms it's s blunt instrument that loses any nuance. A regime change to what exactly? An imposed dictator or a genuine attempt to allow democracy? The real record on US foreign policy in the Middle East doesn't speak well to the ultimate outcome of regime change efforts, but the game doesn't really capture this, nor does it address tacit support of oppressive regimes that are nonetheless friendly to the US. I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.


Being an adversary is not required to become an Islamist State. An adversary, neutral, or ally could all become an islamist state. Once they become one- THEN they will become an adversary if not one already.

On the mixed record of regime change governments, I think the game captures it very well. In the last game I played I regime changed Pakistan and succesfully got it Good/Ally. Later on it became Good/Neutral then Good/Adversary and was a Poor/Adversary by game's end.

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Ronster Zero
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Great review and those are some great pics
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ronster0 wrote:
Great review and those are some great pics
I had a great source!
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prizziap wrote:
Being an adversary is not required to become an Islamist State. An adversary, neutral, or ally could all become an islamist state. Once they become one- THEN they will become an adversary if not one already.

You are of course correct on that point.

This also strikes me as moderately problematic - I don't see why it's necessarily so that a country becoming an Islamist republic must de facto become an adversary unless this is a foreign policy choice, but the game doesn't get into that level of detail.
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KD7SVH wrote:


I don't think of Labyrinth as a simulation. It is far too abstract for that. I do agree with your points in that regard but they don't impact the game for me.

Well said. Me neither.
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leroy43 wrote:
This also strikes me as moderately problematic - I don't see why it's necessarily so that a country becoming an Islamist republic must de facto become an adversary unless this is a foreign policy choice, but the game doesn't get into that level of detail.


I think you're thinking about the definition of "Adversary" too literally, without considering game mechanics. In game terms, if IR could be an Ally, then troops would be able to deploy there without doing a Regime Change, and I think that's even more strange.

If IR was Neutral, it wouldn't really make a difference anyways (except, possibly, for some cardplay). The US still can't do much there unless they Regime Change.

I suppose they could have added "IR ally" and "IR Adversary" as two separate categories, with different rules, but then the games becomes more complex. The designer has to draw the line somewhere.

For almost every problem people have with the game, I think that either (1) they're looking for too much detail or focus, given the simplicity of the game system, and/or (2) they're thinking too literally, and/or (3) they haven't played the game much.

Not saying you're doing (1) or (3), Leroy. :)
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coffee demon wrote:
For almost every problem people have with the game, I think that either (1) they're looking for too much detail or focus, given the simplicity of the game system, and/or (2) they're thinking too literally, and/or (3) they haven't played the game much.

I'm definitely being too literal about some parts.
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Andrew Prizzi
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It's worth noting that an IR has to be an adversary- but only initially. You can have an IR neutral and even an IR ally under rare circumstances.
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This is the best review of this game I read so far. thumbsup

Theme aside, how would you rate this game?
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Nice review. On the question of the Jihadist "monolith," I certainly would enjoy a game that modeled Islamist groups with more "granularity," as you put it. But that doesn't mean I don't also enjoy Labyrinth. The designer concedes that he's simplified the "Jihadists", and I think it was a reasonable design decision: it helps keep an already-complex game playable. Besides, some of the "granularity" is reflected, at least as a matter of flavor, in Events. Me, I just imagine Hizbollah when I see Lebanese governance tip toward Islamism; I imagine the Muslim Brotherhood when I see similar developments in Egypt; etc. It works for me.

Anyway, thanks for posting.
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Quote:
Naturally, as a card driven game, it comes with cards, 110 in total.


Actually there are 120 cards in the game.

-Joel
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Oh, and an official Solitaire variant which allows you to play the Jihadists against the US is being worked on. Thanks for the review!

-Joel
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Gorgoneion wrote:
This is the best review of this game I read so far. thumbsup

Thank you for the kind words.

Quote:
Theme aside, how would you rate this game?

To go on a tangent, Labyrinth reminds me of Hearts and Minds: Vietnam 1965-1975, which has some similar principles. For example, the dove/hawk track there is akin to the US Prestige track here, you can use ops points to get reserves (albeit you conserve them in H&M), and the scenarios are flexible (Labyrinth = how many iterations of the deck, H&M = how many and which years you want to play).

Playing H&M, I have a solid sense about the capabilities of both the NVA and the US. In Labyrinth, my sense of that isn't as strong.

Here's an example. In Labyrinth, I can recruit a cell in Afghanistan (ok), and then I can send it to Spain (ok), and then that cell in Spain can generate a plot (ok).

Now, when I am doing that, I am making up in my head who these guys in the cell are, why they're in Spain, and why they're setting up a plot there (and perhaps even imagining what the plot is and what resources they have in hand). In short, I am creating the suspension of disbelief.

In H&M, I know that my NVA units have these assets, where they are, how they're deployed, and where I think I can best use them against the US forces. I feel the game is creating the suspension of disbelief and speaking for myself, that makes me feel more invested in the outcome.

This long winded response is to get to your question of how I rate the game.

- I do like the theme (it's what attracted me to the game in the first place)
- it's modern/topical (I'm currently very interested in more modern conflict games and am enjoying the discussions in the Andean Abyss playtest group)
- it's card driven (I'm a fan of the genre)
- it's well designed (always a plus)
- but I don't quite get sucked into the narrative of the game like I do with say Twilight Struggle, Unhappy King Charles, Hearts & Minds, Combat Commander, EastFront, and a few other favorites.

So, if the last point isn't as important to you as it is to me, I highly and unreservedly recommend the game. If the last is important to you, then I recommend it with the caveats I've noted both above and in my review.
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joel_m_toppen wrote:
Oh, and an official Solitaire variant which allows you to play the Jihadists against the US is being worked on. Thanks for the review!


That's great news! Will it be in a future issue of C3i and/or made available via download?
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joel_m_toppen wrote:
Oh, and an official Solitaire variant which allows you to play the Jihadists against the US is being worked on. Thanks for the review!

-Joel


Awesome! Thanks for the news Joel.
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Quote:
Will it be in a future issue of C3i and/or made available via download?


To be determined. It might be a standalone product. A LOT of work goes into making something like this... In the end, that'll be up to GMT and Volko how it will be made available.

-Joel
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Volko Ruhnke
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I'd say up to GMT more than me.

Thanks for the review, Roger!

Quote:
I don't see why it's necessarily so that a country becoming an Islamist republic must de facto become an adversary

Major Jihad to "Islamist Rule" in the game represents a revolution by hard-core Salafist jihadists dedicated to the notion, among other things, that the Muslim world's apostate regimes are buttressed by the United States, who is the leader of the Dar al-Harb ("House of War") and therefore must be opposed and even, if possible, destroyed. In other words, the Islamist Rule regime is run by followers of al-Qa`ida's ideology.

"Adversary" represents a government generally opposed to the United States, particularly in regard to the struggle against Jihadism. Therefore, a newly minted Islamist Rule country is always an Adversary.

Regarding simplification of jihadism into one side in the game, much has been said about that elsewhere. There is abstraction and over-simplification in LABYRINTH, you bet. It's a 2-player game, so there have to be 2 roles. But the game also portrays discordance and divisions among jihadists (in forced event triggers, for example, the failure of plots, etc.). And there is indeed such a thing as a global jihadist movement, to a degree underestimated by some on BGG, fwiw.

HAMAS and Hizballah, mentioned above, are entirely different kettles of fish, both in real life and in the game. Jihadist cell pieces and the jihadist player do not represent either of these movements. Note, for example, that the Hizballah and HAMAS events in the game are Unassociated.

Regarding travel, believe it or not, jihadists really do travel from country to country, sometimes even great distances, because (for example) they have particular targets (or particular jihads) in mind. It's a little hard for me to address this point, because I don't understand exactly why cell travel in the game fails to suspend disbelief. I can cite real world examples if that would help.

Glad that there is enough interest to justify putting together and testing the US AI!

Best regards, Volko
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Ziggi W
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Volko wrote:


Glad that there is enough interest to justify putting together and testing the US AI!

Best regards, Volko


I'd pay money for that, great game Volko, I'm glad a company finally undertook to produce a game that address this conflict in an objective manner (ie. no sugarcoating)
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Played this for the first time on Thursday with Roger. For the most part it just didn't resonate with me. There are a few things really stuck out:

1) The entire game has a very "neo-con" feel in it's view of a) that all jihadists want the same thing (chaos and disruption in the Middle East...a paraphrase of the rulebook intro) and, for the most part, the view from Washington focuses on government overthrow as a generally acceptable method of dealing with the War on Terror. I don't know whether this is intentional because it's a game that begins in 2001 under the Bush admin or if there's another reason for this.

2) The Iraq factor. This is one area where the Hawk view doesn't really come through...unless I'm missing something. Because how would the US be able to invade Iraq because a) (unless I misunderstood the rules) you can't overthrow Saddam without there being Islamist Rule and b) you can't have US troops in Iraq without them becoming an ally. Neither case, I would argue, is particularly realistic. And given the number of Iraq-focused cards this seems to be an issue.

3) Another thing I'd bring up here is the political and economic aspects of the war on terror...yes European aspects are handled in the cards, but for me, I could really see this as being a perfect multiplayer game with 4 or even 5 sides involved - US, Europe, Al Qaeda, and maybe a couple of other terrorist organizations. This would allow for the European perspective to be represented more effectively - rather than having individual countries flip from hard to soft based on a simple die roll.

4) Last thing for now - a lot of dice rolling compared to a CDG like TS. And a lot of fairly important things controlled by the simple roll of dice. Not sure I like that.

So that's it for now. i'm not claiming expert status by any means...these are just first impressions.
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jonocop wrote:

2) The Iraq factor. This is one area where the Hawk view doesn't really come through...unless I'm missing something. Because how would the US be able to invade Iraq because a) (unless I misunderstood the rules) you can't overthrow Saddam without there being Islamist Rule and b) you can't have US troops in Iraq without them becoming an ally. Neither case, I would argue, is particularly realistic. And given the number of Iraq-focused cards this seems to be an issue.


There is an event that if played, allows the US to invade Iraq even if Iraq isn't under islamist rule. WMD card, I believe.
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wifwendell wrote:
jonocop wrote:

2) The Iraq factor. This is one area where the Hawk view doesn't really come through...unless I'm missing something. Because how would the US be able to invade Iraq because a) (unless I misunderstood the rules) you can't overthrow Saddam without there being Islamist Rule and b) you can't have US troops in Iraq without them becoming an ally. Neither case, I would argue, is particularly realistic. And given the number of Iraq-focused cards this seems to be an issue.


There is an event that if played, allows the US to invade Iraq even if Iraq isn't under islamist rule. WMD card, I believe.


Seems strange that you are left with a path of "alternate history" UNLESS this card shows up. Usually games would err on the side of too much history rather than too little. More importantly, this would seem to sweep under the rug the underlying belief in Washington at the time that invading Iraq was necessary (if not essential)...WMDs and yellowcake uranium were essentially the sell-job to the UN. I would have thought a more interesting approach would have been to allow a Regime Change in Iraq without Islamist Rule but with a hit to prestige (essentially bump it down to a 2 or 3) and possibly a drastic increase in jihadist cells in the region - maybe two in Iraq and then a choice of two more that could be placed in adjoining countries. The card would let you do it without the prestige hit.
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