Insights and Impressions: Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?

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Game Information

Designer: Volko Ruhnke
Artist: Donal Hegarty, Rodger B. MacGowan, Leland Myrick, Volko Ruhnke, Mark Simonitch
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 1-2
Playtime: 180

From the box:

2001: The “American Century” had closed with a single Cold War superpower standing and a pause in conflict that some at the time dubbed “The End of History”. It wasn’t.

In the Middle East and South Asia, an Islamic revival was underway. Resentments bred in part of US support for the regions’ anti-Soviet tyrannies soon erupted into a new struggle against the West. Wealthy Saudi fanatic Usama bin Ladin issued a declaration of holy war against America in 1996 and then fired the first shots with spectacular terrorist attacks on US targets in East Africa in 1998 and the Arab Peninsula in 2000.

Bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda organization plotted securely under the protection of the Taliban, a fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan born of the anti-Soviet “Bear Trap” of the 1980s. By 2001, al-Qaeda had set in motion even more devastating strikes — this time within the US Homeland — that Bin Ladin hoped would light off a global Muslim uprising. Uprising or not, the Western response to those September 11th attacks would reshape international affairs from London to Jakarta and from Moscow to Dar es Salaam.

Labyrinth takes 1 or 2 players inside the Islamist jihad and the global war on terror. With broad scope, ease of play, and a never-ending variety of event combinations similar to GMT’s highly popular Twilight Struggle, Labyrinth portrays not only the US efforts to counter extremists’ use of terrorist tactics but the wider ideological struggle — guerrilla warfare, regime change, democratization, and much more.

From the award-winning designer of Wilderness War and later Andean Abyss, Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Fire in the Lake, Labyrinth combines an emphasis on game play with multifaceted simulation spanning recent history and near future. In the 2-player game, one player takes the role of jihadists seeking to exploit world events and Islamic donations to spread fundamentalist rule over the Muslim world. The other player as the United States must neutralize terrorist cells while encouraging Muslim democratic reform to cut off extremism at its roots. With the game’s solitaire system, a single player as the US takes on ascending levels of challenge in defeating al-Qaeda and its allies.

The jihadists must operate in a hostile environment — staying below the authorities’ radar while plotting terrorist attacks and building for the Muslim revolution. Will Iran’s Shia mullahs help or hinder the Sunni jihadists? Will the gradual spread of Islamist rule bring final victory — or will it be a sudden strike at the United States with an Islamic weapon of mass destruction?

The United States has the full weight of its military force and diplomacy at the ready — but it can’t be everywhere: will technological and material superiority be enough? US forces can invade and topple Islamist regimes, but how will the Muslim “street” react? And if quagmire results, how will the US find its way out?

Labyrinth features distinct operational options for each side that capture the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, while the event cards that drive its action pose a maze of political, religious, military, and economic issues. In the parallel wars of bombs and ideas, coordinated international effort is key — but terrorist opportunities to disrupt Western unity are many. The Towers have fallen, but the global struggle has only just begun. “Let’s roll!”

In the interest of catching up on posts, this one might end up with a little more brevity than my standard fare in posts. I’ve got a backlog of writing about twenty games deep, and this one I’ve danced around writing for a while. See, I busted this out for a solo play a few months ago to get my first experience with this highly-regarded CDG. I am a pretty big fan of the CDG mechanic as a whole, and enjoy the struggle of figuring out how to maximize the use of your cards even when some of them give a benefit to your opponent. I even had an AI Flowchart experience months earlier with Pendragon, which I loved to pieces, so that aspect didn’t really intimidate me.

No, the reticence I felt was more about the modern warfare setting than anything else. As you might recall, my comfort zone is very much in the pre-gunpowder eras of history. So while I knew this game was likely to be good with how well-liked it is in the community, I was still unsure going into the play whether or not the game would be right for me. And once I got about two full rounds into the game, the pace picked up significantly as I started to understand a little better both how to operate the Jihad AI and how to make my own short-term plans (although the long-term still eluded me, leading to my downfall since it was far too late to correct course once it clicked).

And ultimately, I did enjoy the game. I had a good time, a lot of fun, and would probably play it solo again in the future (much like Pendragon). However, it isn’t high on my replay list right now because I want to play it against a live opponent first (and maybe I should consider the digital version, right?) to get a better feel for and understanding of the game as a whole entity. Much like my first plays of Twilight Struggle and Peloponnesian War last year, I felt like a complete fish out of water when the game began. I still don’t think I did a good job of understanding how to effectively and efficiently accomplish what I would need to do in order to win. Because there was no point in time where I felt like I was doing more than just treading water and pulling levers to see what would happen if I did something.

Like Twilight Struggle, this is going to be a game that rewards repeat plays.

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Insight #1: One pass is all you get

There’s a bit of relief to know that you’re not always going to be forced to play the Jihadist cards clogging up your hand. One of them can be tossed at the end of the round without being played, which I did every round with what I felt was either the most dangerous card event, or the one that had the worst cost-to-benefit ratio from my impression. While it always sucks looking at a hand that is predominantly the other faction and trying to figure out how you’re going to make lemonade out of those sour lemons, there’s at least a little respite to be found in the game.

Insight #2: Flow, flow, flow

Can we all agree that flowchart AI’s are the bane of all existence? No? Okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration. I get it, these allow a better simulation of a human opponent but that comes with a cost in terms of the time and energy spent between player turns. When over half your time in the game is spent on deciphering what the AI is going to do, it risks alienating a solo player from the game and making them want to pack it up and do something else. Of course, any alternatives would sacrifice the chance for smarter plays out of the opponent – but even when following this chart there are times when it isn’t making the best plays it could in that situation. Whether you love the flowcharts or hate them, be prepared to dedicate plenty of time and energy getting through the Jihadist cards and their turn. I know for me, this was the most challenging thing of the experience for those first few turns – I simply couldn’t tell if I was properly reading what they should do.

Insight #3: Timing is everything

One of the coolest aspects of this particular CDG is the play of two cards per turn rather than one. This opens the door to create some really interesting and powerful combos for the savvy player, and at the very least can be used to flip the board state in some location to your favor – or strengthening a key position that might be under threat. However, the other side of this coin is that things CAN go really, really wrong if you try to slow play something important. Just because you have a long-term plan of how to use that entire hand of cards does not mean those last few cards will be able to get used for what you initially intended. This requires a fine balancing act of trying to make sure you can do what you need to, but maybe not so early that your opponent has the tools they need to counter, or take advantage of, what you are doing.

Insight #4: Be prepared to pivot

I was feeling good about my grasp of the game around the midway point. I had some momentum, had shifted my first two countries to Good status, and had the opponent on the ropes for funding. And then it all fell to ash. My prestige was instantly dropped down to 1, and everything I was vying to accomplish became so much more challenging. I had no clue how to fix it, and it became a deep hole I had to dig out from, much to my dismay. All of that traction disappeared, and I went from feeling like I was getting it to struggling to discover how to pivot my approach. I’m still not convinced that I landed upon a solution. This might sound like I am bitter – in the moment I probably was – but it just shows how much depth there is to the system. I need to learn how to make those abrupt changes in approach, and how to best take advantage of that alteration. It didn’t seem intuitive at the time, but I have some better ideas with the gift of hindsight.

Insight #5: Don’t be afraid to read up or watch some basic strategies

Going with the above, I think coming in with more than just a quick read of the rulebook might have helped immensely. This is a very loved game, and there are a lot of great articles and videos out there from those with more experience. I learned the same thing with Twilight Struggle afterwards – there are resources to help shorten that learning curve of the game and let you feel more active than reactive in the process of learning the game. My guess is that there’s a multitude of them linked on the GMT main page for Labyrinth, too…

Wrap-Up

This game was one of my first purchases of a more modern historical game for my collection, mainly because of its reputation for both solitaire and 2-player gaming. Many people who enjoy the game REALLY seem to enjoy it, and I can definitely understand why after my first play of the game. It has a lot to offer, and there’s the refreshing puzzle each round of how to make the cards you are given do what you want them to accomplish. Unfortunately, I am not great at that aspect yet, as I didn’t know anything about the deck composition going in so I had no idea what was in there – nor could I properly weigh the benefits of using the US cards for their event vs. using them for the points needed to do other tasks. It is all a great big balancing act, one that rewards those who play it often enough to know and understand those situational decisions (as well as in general how to do things like boost prestige when it gets low, or how to capitalize on shifting from a Hard posture to a Soft and vice versa). There’s so much more game to explore in here, without even considering the additional expansions, that I can see this having a lot of time on the table if it jives enough in the next few plays.

Until then, though, I’ll be tracking down some articles from C3i, watching some YouTube videos, and just trying to immerse myself in ways to be better at playing this game in the future. Hopefully, in the process, I’ll learn how to better navigate this game, which will lead me to improving my Twilight Struggle game, which in turn will also help me to get better at COIN games when I get to take my next plunge into one of those. So when I get tired of playing with the Roman Empire, or romping around Medieval Europe, I know those Jihadists will be ready and waiting to challenge me yet again in Labyrinth.

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