Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Labyrinth

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ?. GMT Games, 2010. Game designer: Volko Ruhnke. Game developer: Joel Toppen. $60.00

Before proceeding, I should note that I’m credited as one of this game’s playtesters. In fact, I was involved too late to have any input into the rules, and only offered a few comments on some of the card descriptions—hopefully, minimal enough involvement to  leave my objectivity intact in the review that follows.

Game Contents and Play

Labyrinth is a card-driven boardgame that depicts the post-2001 struggle between the United States and various radical Islamist jihadist groups. Designed for two players, it also has extensive rules to allow for easy solitaire play. Various scenarios are provided (starting immediately after the events of 9/11, shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or with US intervention in Iraq), and the game can be played in “standard,” “tournament,” or “campaign” versions that provide games of between two and five hours or so. The high-quality contents included a mounted map of the world (or, at least, the parts of it represented in the game), wooden markers for jihadist cells and US troops, game counters, dice, rules and player aids, and the nicely illustrated deck of game cards.

The game system is somewhat similar to that of the Cold War boardgame Twilight Struggle, also published by GMT Games. In Labyrinth, the jihadist player recruits cells, travels from country to country, plots terrorist attacks (including those potentially involving weapons of mass destruction), and conducts operations designed to weaken and even overthrow Muslim governments. The US, for its part, conducts “war of ideas” operations intended to influence the alignment or governance of Muslim and other countries, deploys troops (and can even overthrow Islamist governments), disrupts jihadist cells and cadres, and mounts terror alerts designed to block plots-in-progress. The cards have various operations values assigned that enable these various activities. The cards also trigger historical events ranging from the Patriot Act to Somali Pirates to UN nation-building efforts that might affect US prestige, the positions or status of countries, jihadist cells/plots/funding, and other aspects of the game. (For a more detailed account of game mechanics, see the excellent review by Jeff McAleer at The Gaming Gang.)

The rules are straight-forward enough for an experienced gamer, although could be a little better organized in places. The player aids could also more effectively summarize key information on the requirements and effects of the various operations (although alternative versions designed by players have started to appear already on BoardGameGeek).

There are a variety of ways in which victory can be achieved. The US player can win instantly if s/he manages to shift a certain number of Muslim countries with a certain level of resources into “good governance,” if fifteen of the eighteen Muslim countries in the game have “fair” governance or better, or if all jihadist cells are eliminated. The jihadist player can win instantly if a certain number of countries with a certain level of resources fall under Islamist rule, if US prestige is low and fifteen Muslim countries have “poor” governance or are Islamist, or if a successful WMD plot is undertaken in the US. Otherwise, the winner is determined by the balance of resources controlled by Muslim governments with “good” governance versus those controlled by Islamist regimes at the end of the game. As game designer Volko Ruhnke notes in the design notes:

A particular design challenge with Labyrinth’s topic is that it straddles history recorded only recently and history yet to be made. What do the Islamists want—what is their “win” ? What does US victory look like? How will the contest end?

The game’s response to these questions—and its central premise—is that the “War on Terror” is really about governance of the Muslim world: that competent, accountable government will offer Islamic populations the future that 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 version of Islamist rule. Labyrinth’s victory conditions, the way it tracks the status of countries in the conflict, and its core mechanics—jihadist operations in particular—seek to portray that premise.

In our first review game, the US intervened to overthrow the Taliban, and enjoyed surprising thereafter success in suppressing jihadist cells and stabilizing the new Afghan government. However, intervention also spurred Islamist recruitment, with the jihadists establish a new center of operations in the Red Sea area. The Somali government (such as it is) was almost overthrown, and only rescued by the deployment of US troops. The Yemeni government was overthrown by al-Qa’ida affiliates, but the new Islamist regime was toppled in turn by even more US intervention. US special forces and drone strikes whittled down some jihadist cells. Meanwhile, aid and reform efforts brought improvements in governance to a number of Muslim countries, finally resulting in a long-term US victory.

The second review game started with the US already in Afghanistan, battling the Taliban insurgency. To Washington’s horror, a string of jihadist successes led to the Islamist overthrow of the Pakistani government. While this was overturned by US troops, several Pakistani nuclear weapons went missing. Even as overstretched US forces fought to stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan, and an increasingly unstable Indonesia, Washington also devoted growing resources to detecting and preventing terrorist plots. A planned nuclear attack against US facilities in Pakistan was blocked. WMD plots in France and the UK were also defeated. At the very end of the game, however, the jihadists obtained a virulent strain of the Marburg virus from a former Soviet bioweapons lab in Central Asia, and unleashed it against the US mainland—winning an automatic victory.

As both game summaries suggest, the course of recent and future history offered by Labyrinth is even more interventionist, violent, and spectacular than has been the real course of the post-9/11 “long war”. The game certainly addresses many of the so-called “low probability, high impact” threats that keep Western security officials awake at night, weaving these seamlessly into gameplay that also heavily emphasizes aid and diplomacy. The result isn’t entirely realistic, but it is enjoyable,  exciting, and engaging.

Instructional Potential

Labyrinth could certainly be integrated into university-level courses on post-9/11 security policy, insurgency, and counter-terrorism. Through playing the game, students could learn about the very real trade-offs that policy-makers face. Should resources be allocated to military action, to immediate counter-terrorism efforts, or to aid and diplomacy intended to address social and political environments that nourish radical jihadism in the longer term? What are the costs of adopting American courses of action that are out of synch with perceptions among allies or in the Western world? How might US domestic politics, events in other countries, and US  prestige and moral standing affect the prospects for strategic success? There also insights into radical Islamist movements to be gained, although these are perhaps more limited given that the jihadist “player” represents what in reality are a disparate array of groups with different aims, leaderships, and modes of action. Certainly the game highlights well such things as the demonstrative effects of terrorism; the difficulties of intervention, regime-change, and counterinsurgency; the ways in which violence can obstruct development; and the dangers posed by failed and failing states.

In suggesting that the game offers potential insights if used in an instructional setting, however, there are several important caveats that should be emphasized.

First, this is a sensitive topic. Students with differing ideological, ethnic, religious, or other viewpoints may perceive the game’s various portrayals in very different ways, not all of them positive. Students might well be outraged at “gaming” terrorism, violence, and repression. Students who have lost family or friends in the violence of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere might well find the game utterly offensive. (I, for example, lost two friends and colleagues in a terrorist attack depicted in one of the event cards—and while seeing it in a game didn’t bother me, it certainly might bother others.)

Second, while the game designer has worked hard to provide fair and objective descriptions of actors, events, and processes, there is certainly a considerable amount of simplification involved of various complex aspects of politics and religion. A course instructor would want to emphasize where the game has not (and could not) given detailed treatment of these complexities, and perhaps even use it as a launching pad for examining these topics in far more detail that Labyrinth would allow. A course instructor might also want to explore how the political, military, aid, and policy processes in the game differ from their real-life counterpart.

The final caveat, as seemingly with all of our boardgame reviews at PaxSims, concerns whether non-gaming students will easily be able to grasp the rules. I suspect most wouldn’t, and indeed would soon find themselves frustrated trying to work out how to play. The problem isn’t that the game is extremely complex (indeed, GMT Games rates it as medium-low complexity) or that the rules are opaque (they’re adequate), but rather that games like these aren’t intended for two neophytes to pick up and simply start playing. Rather, they work best with at least one experienced gamer helping to tutor the less experienced. In a classroom setting, therefore, one might best use the game for team play, with a proficient facilitator helping each team to understand its gameplay options. Using the game in this way could have the additional benefit of creating internal policy debates among participants as to threats, opportunities, priorities, and where best to focus scarce resources.

Concluding Thoughts

While the rules and player aids could be a little more effective, and while I could quibble about some of the politics and descriptions, it should be said that Labyrinth is an excellent game. I enjoyed playing it a great deal, and I heartily recommend it for gamers interested in the contemporary issues and era that it explores. Taking into account the caveats noted above—and with particular attention devoted to explaining, contextualizing, and facilitating it in the classroom—I also think it could also be used in some interesting and useful ways in some instructional settings.

UPDATE: Tom Grant has an excellent (and very critical) review of Labyrinth at the blog I’ve Been Diced, which has spurred a long thread of subsequent comments at BoardGameGeek. Most of his objections focus on the way in which complex political processes have been both conceptualized and rendered in the game, and—without changing any of my own views expressed above—I agree with him on many of these. That being said, I would suggest that :

  • From a gaming perspective, fitting a global strategic campaign into a two hour playable boardgame made much of this inevitable. Plus it’s a fun game, dammit.
  • The game’s focus on the stability of fragile regimes, terrorist plots, perceived global Islamist conspiracies, and “low probability, high impact” threats like WMD terrorist does reflect views that are quite commonly found in the security, intelligence, and diplomatic communities.
  • From an instructional perspective, the shortcomings in the game’s portrayal of various processes provides useful “teachable moments”—reinforcing my caveats above about properly briefing, debriefing, and contextualizing the game with students.

UPDATE 2: It occurred to me after writing this review, in the context of discussion of it at BoardGameGeek, that the card-driven nature of Labyrinth lends itself particularly well to modification. This in turn has potential instructional value too.

Feel that the game poorly models the underlying dynamics of Islamist grievance, counter-terrorism, or counter-insurgency? Simply design an additional or replacement card that addresses what you think is missing: the localized nature of many Islamist grievances, factionalism, the rentier use of oil revenues to secure domestic political support, bureaucratic politics within and between US government agencies, the negative impact of drone attacks on public opinion, or whatever. In the classroom, students who have played through the game might well be asked to suggest what cards they would design, and what game effects these would have—an assignment that would encourage them to prioritize their analytical concerns and think about how to model this without requiring that they design an entire political-military simulation from scratch.

One response to “Review: Labyrinth

  1. Ooops 29/12/2010 at 6:51 pm

    Very nice review. I played my first game yesterday, and it differed from your because it was won by the US, almost exclusively through the “war of ideas”. Troops deployment were really, really limited (never reaching the “war” state”).

    I agree with all your other comments, though.

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