Seeing as I’ve been ranting on about card-driven games on a regular basis for some time now it should come as no surprise to anyone if I repeat that Twilight Struggle is my favourite game. But I feel the need to restate it anyway just in case someone should stumble across this piece as a stand-alone and doesn’t have any knowledge of all the other stuff I’ve written. So sorry if I’m starting to sound like a mechanical parrot, but there we go and frankly, it’s such a great game that the sentiment bears repeating. But anyway, ever since become addicted to that game I’ve been wondering why more designers haven’t been building on the new paradigm it set up in card-driven games. Finally someone stepped up to the plate with Labyrinth: The War on Terror. The publishers, GMT, were kind enough to send me a review copy so I could find out for myself how well it managed to fill the boots of its mighty predecessor.
But I have to start out by saying that comparing the two games is actually very unfair, and I’m going to try not to do it again. You see Labyrinth takes the older game merely as a starting point. As in most card-driven games play proceeds by players playing cards which are stamped with an operations value or an event keyed to one side or the other and picking whether they want to spend the operations points doing stuff or to implement the events’ effects. Labyrinth keeps it’s predecessors innovation of having enemy events go off if you choose to play the card for operations, and frankly builds something almost entirely new from there. Mechanically it’s a startlingly innovative game that showcases yet again just how open ended the basic card-driven concept is and how much creativity a clever designer can still bring to the genre.
As it’s full name suggests Labyrinth is a game about the US war against Islamic terrorism. It’s a bold subject for a game to tackle and Labyrinth pulls no punches: the first time I set off a “terror plot” when playing as the Islamists, which equates to bombs going off and scores of innocents dying, I actually felt physically queasy, the first time I can recall a game having that effect. There has been a lot written about the political underpinnings of this game and I don’t want to spend a lot of time deconstructing them in this review. But I have to say that in the playbook the designer clearly states the political beliefs that form the basis of his design choices in the game and so whether you think Labyrinth is a good real-world simulation or not is almost irrelevant: it conforms reasonably well to the beliefs stated in the playbook and that’s the yardstick by which it should be measured. Personally, I don’t think it makes a great real-world simulation and I don’t care: it offers a suggestion of the balancing act between hard and soft force required to successfully combat terrorism and that’s enough. Everyone knows that Twilight Struggle is built to model a totally discredited political theory (last comparison, I promise) but no-one complains about it being a poor simulation because the designers stated up-front what they were doing, and the same should apply here. And for those who think the subject matter is too ghastly to be represented in a game, well, once you’ve applied the same logic to every other war game every published then I’ll agree. But for now I don’t see that the fact this game represents recent shocking and horrific events makes it more or less suitable for the game treatment than a historical conflict full of shocking and horrific events.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, on with the review. As you might expect of a game that portrays the modern warfare struggles of the world’s richest and most powerful nation against the guerrilla and terrorist tactics of a poorly organised and disparate group of third world fanatics, the asymmetry in the game is vast. Not only do the two sides do things differently, as in some other war games, in this game the two sides do completely different things. The US can deploy troops, use them to flush out terrorist cells or overturn adversarial regimes, bombard countries with “soft power” propaganda and diplomacy and so on. The terrorists on the other hand focus on recruiting, travelling, plotting atrocities and, their main focus, building sufficient support in a country to overthrow the government and install an Islamist state in its place.
This asymmetry is re-enforced through the mechanics using a tremendously clever bit of design that highlights the differences the two sides face in pulling off successful operations whilst keeping the rules overhead to a minimum. Each country in Labyrinth has a number to represent it’s quality of governance and the rule of law, from 1 (good, a functional modern democracy) to 3 (poor, a corrupt dictatorship). For the US to conduct operations in a country it just needs to spend a number of operations points equal to this number and most operations succeed automatically. For the terrorists on the other hand this number is a success value: they get to roll a number of dice equal to the operations spent and have to get equal or less than the governance to succeed. This neatly represents the power of the US, the importance of the quality of local governance and the uncertainty facing any potential terrorist operations.
However, this mechanic is not without its downside. In spite of offering a wealth of strategic decisions Labyrinth feels like an incredibly chaotic game at times and it took me a while to pinpoint why that was. After all the terrorist player does roll a lot of dice during the game and that usually means that luck evens out over the course of play. The problem, I think, is that the game attaches very high rewards to very lucky rolls. The US win condition is based on how many countries it can get to level 1 on the governance scale, so although terrorists operating in a level 1 country only have a one-in-six chance of success, if they do roll lucky on an operation and manage to degrade that country to level 2 the rewards are truly massive. At a stroke they’ve reduce the US ability to win, made it more likely that they themselves will be able to prosper in that country whilst simultaneously making it harder for the US to claw back the situation. Similarly the one operation the US needs to roll a dice for - the “war of ideas” - is also the only tool it has to improve that governance level. Getting a country from level 2 to level 1 requires (before modifiers) a six. And whilst the modifiers are very important it also hugely rewards lucky rolls because again, it makes it harder for the terrorists whilst making it easier for the US to retain control in that country. Worst of all, both sides can attempt last-ditch dice rolls on poor odds late in the game and the result can sometimes totally determine the victor. In my opinion this is the biggest black mark against the game: in my plays so far I’ve seen this sort of thing happen too many times to feel entirely comfortable with it in what is, after all, at three hours or so a relatively long and demanding game.
On the other hand one can’t help but to admire the way in which the various elements of the game are brilliantly and tightly integrated into a seamless whole. I’m not sure I can recall another game in which everything is so interdependent on everything else. Indeed so closely bound are the game mechanics that it’s hard for me to give an example without degrading this review into a rules summary. But since I mentioned US war of ideas modifiers in the previous paragraph, let’s start there. That die roll - which is key to US success, remember - is gets two modifiers. One is from US “prestige” which indicates how favourably it is seen by the Muslim world and the other is “global” which depends how many non-Muslim countries agree with current US foreign policy on whether to be “hard” or “soft” on terrorists. Aside from events, raising prestige means using US power to protect Muslims from militants plotting terror attacks in their own countries, and being able to do this means being allied with Muslim states which in turn depends on having a decent prestige. These sorts of circular mechanics are everywhere, and the game manages to model a lot of facets of the struggle outside military and political considerations: the terrorists also need to keep an adequate supply of funding and the US needs to balance troop deployments with operational constraints with failure to do either meaning less cards per turn to play. Actual numbers of terrorist cells and troops are also limited, meaning resource management can become a real pain for both sides as the game progresses. Strategically it can be massively complex and demanding.
In terms of cards Labyrinth offers yet another innovation: player play two cards in sequence before his opponent gets to become the active player and play two cards of his own. The stated aim of this mechanic is to allow card combinations to play a greater role in strategy and it works extremely well. It also has the perhaps intentional side effect of making the game very suitable for play-by-email because it speeds up turnover between players .The game offers a startlingly large array of different events for both sides given that it’s only trying to portray ten years of recent history. Perhaps inevitably given the short time span and political complexity of the events it’s trying to portray a lot of these events have fairly in-depth prerequisites to be met before the event can be triggered. In a fair number of cards the prerequisites are detailed enough to make planning for them to happen nigh on impossible and as a result these events hardly ever seem to happen. These two things combine to create a situation where hand management in this game is much, much easier than it is in many other card-driven games: being forced to implement an enemy event that you really don’t want to see happen is a relatively uncommon occurrence in Labyrinth. I have mixed feelings about this because whilst I really enjoy the hand management aspect of card-driven games, I have to allow that coming up with combinations where you play a card that will (hopefully) nullify the conditions for the event on the second card to occur does offer some real opportunities for creative play.
It should perhaps go without saying that all this asymmetry, tightly integrated mechanics and huge variety in event effects comes with a cost in terms of rules overhead. The rulebook isn’t long but it isn’t terribly well written either and I, for one, found it very confusing. The fact that most things happen in the game affect more than one aspect of the game state makes it very hard to remember exactly what achieves what end and the game is quite hard to learn as a result. The playbook offers a concession to this problem in that it has a section dedicated to spelling out exactly what sort of operations each side should be considering in order to achieve particular ends and that certainly helps, but you’re still looking at a game that requires two, maybe even three sessions before everything falls into place. And given the problem with sudden and dramatic swings of fortune sometimes determining the winner, not everyone is going to want to dedicate that much time to it.
One potential solution is to play the solo variant offered in the rules which sees the player take command of the US whilst the terrorists follow a scripted AI flowchart. It’s actually a very poor solution because the AI routines are complex, some rules are played differently and it really requires a very good understanding of the game mechanics before you start. But the solo game is surprisingly engaging. Using a detailed flowchart to determine enemy plays makes it a highly dynamic experience and actually captures some of the feel of playing an unpredictable, real-life opponent whilst still offering the player the chance to make strategic decisions that “game” the AI for maximum impact. When I first tried it I was a little worried that the fact the Islamist player can be replicated by a flowchart meant that that side would have too many obvious strategic choices to make during a two-player game but this isn’t the case: the AI actually isn’t that good and is offered a variety of helping hands such as getting both the operations and the event from unaligned cards in order to create a level playing field. The one downside of playing the solo game is just play time. Unusually, because you have to read through a multi-step chart for each terrorist card play, solo play actually takes longer to complete than two player!
Labyrinth is a bold and daring game both in its implementation and its subject matter and in spite of an unreliable mechanic that results in a few too many games being won by lucky dice rolls, it deserves recognition for this. There are precious few games that engage not only our strategic muscles but our moral ones as well and in doing so Labyrinth has joined that select group of games that manage to step outside the huge barriers that are set up by the constraints of what you can achieve with little more than cards and dice into the wider social arena where the game becomes a reflection of the personalities and beliefs of the players themselves.