We love Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? by GMT Games. The game is a 2 player asymmetrical Card Driven Game (CDG) that pits the mighty and powerful United States military and all of its antiterrorist agencies against the Jihadists whose sole goal is to spread terror, sow the seeds of deceit and ultimately destroy Western civilization. Now before you think I am an authority on the game, I have played six times, 5 as the US and only once as the Jihadist. With the US, I am 3-2 and am 0-1 as the Jihadist. So I know how to play the game mechanically and generally understand what it is that I am trying to do as the US player but not so much with the Jihadist. I have though watched my opponent Alexander skillfully play the Jihadist and generally understand what he is trying to do. In fact, Alexander is somewhat of a master at the tactics needed to be employed by the Jihadist and he often states before he plays, “…And for my next trick!” I always laugh because it is like magic how he will try to twist and manipulate me into doing what he wants. In this post I’d like to share some of my observations and thoughts on how to win with the US.
The game plays out with cards that are drawn from a communal deck that contain events that are faction aligned (or neutral) and are used either for a printed event or OPs values. Playing an opposing factions card triggers the event, which is something that is unavoidable but that must be managed throughout the game so that the damage is mitigated as much as possible. Each side is given an amount of cards each turn based upon certain conditions that are tracked on the game board including Jihadist Funding and Troops. The Jihadist player is continually trying to place plots that will erode the Prestige level of the US, making it harder for them to wage their War of Ideas to change local Governance of countries but also to keep their Funding Level high to allow an imbalance in the number of cards each side has to allow a free play of a card that will be unopposed by the US.
There are 120 cards included in the deck and it is impossible to memorize or keep track of what cards have been played or are still in the deck. But you must be aware of the cards (47 US, 48 Jihadist & 25 Neutral) as they are what drives the game and allows you to take various actions. There are certain cards as the US player that you must know. Before we take a look at a few cards ahead of my strategy suggestions, I did want to provide you with the following makeup of the cards themselves:
As you can see from the table, the Jihadists have the overall card advantage as they have 1 more total aligned card (47 for the US vs. 48 Jihadist) but where their true advantage lies is that they have 7% more Ops points on their faction cards than the US. At initial glance, this might not seem to be much of an advantage but over a full game consisting of 3 decks, it will add up and you will feel the difference. The Jihadists also have more total 3 Ops value cards (16 for the US vs. 20 Jihadist) and a higher percentage of their overall cards are 3 Ops with 41.6% as compared to only 34.0% for the US. These advantages cannot be overlooked and require the US player to be diligent and careful about how they play their hand of cards (more on this later). Now that we have delved a little into the statistics of the cards, lets take a look at a few cards the US player must know and avoid at all costs. Well, you can’t really avoid them but you must be prepared for and if you have in your hand, must be cautious about how and when they are used to minimize the negative damage.
The Jihadist Cards
Clean Operatives – 3 Op Jihadist card
You must keep your eye out for this card as it is literally the most deadly card that can be brought to bear against the US, but not in the way you might expect. It becomes even more deadly and worrisome if by chance the Jihadists have captured the WMD stockpiles in Pakistan, Russia or Central Asia. It allows the Jihadist to move two cells automatically into the United States, without having to roll. This means you now have major problems as those cells, if the Jihadist player has access to WMDs, can setup for a kill scenario where they can place a nuke on US soil and automatically end the game. This card puts serious pressure on the US player and will immediately change their plans when played. Even if the Jihadist doesn’t have WMDs, this card will change their plan and cause them to have to use cards in ways they didn’t plan to. That is true power as affecting what the other player is trying to do can change the course of the game!
Martyrdom Operation – 3 Ops Jihadist card
If this card is played shortly following the use of Clean Operatives, it can be the nightmare scenario that almost creates a no-win situation for the US player. If the US has allowed cells into the United States and has not been preparing their hand to deal with WMDs and Terror Plots (remember that the US player must play a 3 Op card to remove a Terror Plot), they are destined to lose (more on this later). The power of this card is that you only need one active cell to lay two plot markers, where normally you have to activate a cell (or have an already active cell) and then make a roll based on the level of Governance in that country. In the case of the United States, those rolls are difficult as it will only work on a roll of 1. So this card takes that barrier and throws it right out the window and literally changes the rules of the game to allow a very powerful play. You must be mindful of this card and always be ready to address it. To make matters worse, there are a total of three of these cards in the deck so they are going to come up in the Jihadist player’s hand eventually.
Quagmire – 3 Ops Jihadist card
This card can be used to great effect by your opponent to pave the way for an unopposed play turn for the Jihadist as well as causing significant pain and impediment of the US player’s options. If you as the US player lose two cards you most likely will have 2-3 cards less than your opponent and could be set up to be unable to react at all to the Jihadists plays at the end of the round causing a Terror Plot or two to go off providing needed funding boost for your enemy as well as reducing your prestige that you have fought so hard to gain. Also the discarded cards, if Jihadist events, will go off and cause even more damage to the US. And the most painful part is the change in the US posture to Soft. This can throw you completely out of whack making War of Ideas rolls nearly impossible and keep you bogged down in Regime changes limiting your flexibility to respond appropriately to the Jihadist plays. This card sucks and has caused me many problems in our plays.
The US Cards
Now that we have examined several cards you must be wary of, let’s talk about a few that you must get your hands on or at least keep your opponent worried that you have.
NEST – 1 Op US card
Omniscience is a power that would make our lives easier as we would know everything that is going to occur before it happens. Just as that would be powerful in real life, in the game if the US player has played NEST and has the ability to know if plots placed by the Jihadist player in the United States will end the game or not (because they are WMDs), that is powerful. While this card will not help you in being able to get rid of any face-up discovered WMD plots on US soil (you will still need to play 3 Ops cards to do that), I think this card is still very important; but it becomes absolutely vital, in my humble opinion, if the Jihadist player has acquired WMDs. A side note, it is also absolutely deflating when you can see what is coming at you and know you are about to lose, but in looking at your hand have no 3 Ops cards available to help get rid of the problem! I know how it feels as I have had that scenario in the game before.
CTR – 1 Ops US card
This card blocks the play of three particularly nasty Jihadist cards that make getting the WMDs in Russia and Central Asia easier for your enemy. The three cards that it blocks are HEU, Loose Nuke and Kazahk Strain. The conditions for the Jihadist to be able to play these three cards is that they must have a cell in Russia or Central Asia so be alert of this fact and utilize cards such as Predators or Special Forces to eliminate that lone cell sitting there simply waiting for the opportunity to play one of these cards to pick up a WMD. The US player really should also work hard to try to meet the conditions in order to be able to place a CTR marker in Central Asia as well, as this card then doubles up the protection offered. This will require that Central Asia is at least an Ally or Neutral, so waging the War of Ideas in this country is never a bad idea when you are looking for beneficial long range things to do early in the game.
Safer Now – 3 Ops US card
In the continual battle to get the US Prestige to a positive position that grants a +1 or +2 roll bonus on War of Ideas rolls, this card is one of the few cards that grant an automatic Prestige increase and its a whopping +3 at that. It also gives the added benefit of allowing the US to select the Posture of one other country. This Posture change could be critical in shifting an out of balance GWOT Relations position back to an advantageous position for the US Player. The one terrible downside to the card though is that it does require that you roll for US posture, which could throw you from a position of strength to one of weakness as you might be out of line with the rest of the world on the GWOT. Remember that this roll is stacked against you (depending on your position) as Soft will come up on a roll of 1-4 while Hard will only come up on a 5-6. But the silver lining is you can then set the posture of one non-US country if you are out of whack as mentioned above.
Sistani – 3 Ops US Card & UN Nation Building – 2 Ops US Card
One of the more difficult aspects for the US player is changing the Governance Level of countries, especially during Regime Changes, to go from Fair to Good. Getting to Good is the requirement to end the Regime Change and becomes so difficult because going from Fair to Good requires a roll of success on a 5-6 but the act of going to Good applies a -1 DRM. So, you really have to roll a 6 for success, which for me is always a challenge. So, any available cards that can change the Governance Level automatically without a roll are like finding gold. For example, Sistani is a great card for the US as it allows you to improve the Governance by 1 level without a roll! This card can automatically end your Regime Change and allow you to move to the next fire to stamp out. Also, UN Nation Building is a great card as well because it allows you to place an Aid marker (which gives a +1 DRM to Governance rolls) and also allows a free War of Ideas roll where you ignore any GWOT penalty. Powerful! I have used these cards several times to get me out of a bad situation that has bogged down.
Thank you for sticking with me through that discussion of the Event Cards and how each can be beneficial to a good US strategy. I now want to change the focus to take a look at some tactical ideas that the US player must be focused on during play to do well and ultimately to come out victorious in the War on Terror.
Battle for Prestige
The method by which the US mainly wages the War on Terror in Labyrinth is not with brute power and the deployment of Troops but by waging a War of Ideas. This War of Ideas is performed by rolling dice to attempt to improve the Governance level of countries or shift them from Neutral to Ally. The process involves the inclusion of various DRMs including bonuses from High (+1) or Very High (+2) Prestige, from an Adjacent Good Ally (+1 maximum) or +1 for each Aid Marker. There are also negative DRMs that can be included in the process such as the dreaded -1 Attempting shift to Good or GWOT Relations Penalty of up to -3. I want to address the latter in this section. The battle for good prestige is a continual effort and must be focused on by the US player for any real chance at success. If you ever get GWOT Relations Penalties to your rolls or negative DRMs from low Prestige, you will find yourself unable to do anything and soon will realize that you are losing…badly! Your Prestige can increase in several ways, including through Event Cards, but more practically from your Disrupt Operations. Each time you Disrupt in a country using Troops, you will gain a +1 Prestige. This should be your focus in the early going as you try to build up your Prestige. You will immediately have this opportunity in Afghanistan as this country starts the game under Islamist Rule. You will want to Deploy Troops from the Troops Track to Afghanistan and with your 2nd play that turn, do a Disrupt before they can get away from you! This will give you a +1 Prestige and will put you on the track to gaining a great advantage in the War of Ideas.
Balance GWOT Relations: Remember Hard > Soft, but Sometimes Equilibrium is Better (Hard = Soft)
While having the GWOT Relations maxed out at 3 Hard when you are in the Hard standing is awesome, as it will give you a +1 Prestige at the end of every round, I would recommend taking a more even handed approach to this Track. It is very important for the US to be Hard; as if they are Soft, they will be unable to use the Regime Change Operation and will be unable to change Islamist Rule countries back to Allies or even to have them reach Fair or Good status. Also, it is important to remember that one of the Jihadist win conditions is to have at least 6 Resources at Islamist Rule, of which at least 2 must be adjacent. So if you are unable to do Regime Change, they will simply continue to gain countries under Islamist Rule and ultimately win. My recommendation would be to focus on keeping it even or at least only at +1 toward Hard on the GWOT Relations Track. This will allow you to retain some flexibility if you are forced to change to Soft due to a Jihadist Event. Believe me, it is much easier to recover 1 or 2 spots (by changing 1 or 2 countries from Hard to Soft or vice versa) on that Track than having to throw a hail Mary pass to come all the way back from being down. Remember that when you are on the other side of GWOT from the world, you will incur – DRMs to your War of Ideas rolls, which can also be a deal breaker for the US as they will be unable to change the Governance Level of countries to their favor.
Focus on Resource Points (Adjacent)
In the game, each country has a Resource value that is listed in the upper left hand corner of their box. These numbers range from 1-3 and offer benefit to each side as each side can win the game by accumulating a preset amount of these resource points under their control. If at any time the US has 12 Resources at Good Governance, it is an Instant Win and if at any time the Jihadist player has 6 Resources at Islamist Rule, including at least 2 adjacent, they reach an Instant Win. This is an issue that must concern the US player as it is really not too difficult to get 6 Resources adjacent that are under Islamist Rule (I didn’t say easy either). In our plays, we have seen this attempted typically in the regions around the oil producing countries including Iraq, Gulf States Saudi Arabia, Pakistan as well as Indonesia. The US player should be concerned mostly about Pakistan due to the Pakistani Arsenal of WMDs but also should be concerned as it offers a gateway to bridge the adjacency requirement for Indonesia (3 Resources) and Gulf States (3 Resources). My suggestion is to never allow 2 countries to be under Islamic Rule that are adjacent. Do everything that you can to prevent this from happening and if it ever does, throw all of your other plans in the trash and get one of those 2 back immediately. Easier said than done but something you must be aware of.
Establish Cluster of Fair/Good Countries in Oil States
As we continue to discuss Instant Win conditions, I want to take a look at one of my greatest and most important strategies, that of clustering Fair and Good Allied countries together. I will always try from the get go to establish a group of 3-4 adjacent countries to Fair and then ultimately to Good. One of the major reasons for this strategy is the +1 Adjacent Ally bonus DRM for War of Ideas rolls. As mentioned previously, it is very hard to go from Fair to Good as you will need to roll a modified 5 or 6 on one die and will be fighting the -1 DRM from Attempting a Shift to Good. Plus for the Jihadist to do anything in Fair or Good countries, they will have to roll 1-2 on their dice, which is significantly more difficult than having to roll 3 or less. This drops their percentage chance of success from a 50% to only 33%. I’ll take 1 out of 3 anytime over 1 out of 2! I usually like to start focusing on the Gulf States as if it turns to Good, it has the greatest utility for offering that +1 DRM to the most countries as it is directly adjacent to 3 countries. Saudi Arabia is also a good choice but I usually try for Gulf States, mainly because it is adjacent to the all important Pakistan and that damnable Pakistani Arsenal full of WMDs. Secondly, gaining 12 Good countries is not impossible and also offers the US player their best chance at an Instant Win, with their 2nd best coming from eliminating all cells from the board!
Plan Out each Hand of Cards to Mitigate Damage from Jihadist Events/Maximize Utility from US/Unassociated Events
This strategy tip is an easy one to try to implement. As you first start to examine your hand of newly drawn cards each round, you should first ask yourself “What do I need to accomplish this turn? and “What would I like to accomplish this turn?”. Then simply peruse your cards identifying those that can help you in both of those identified goals. I like to then look at the Jihadist Event cards in my hand and determine which ones don’t have their conditions to set off the Event met on the board at the moment. If the condition could possibly change, I prioritize that card to play first as I don’t want that Event to go off for my opponent. I also then make sure I don’t have any of my events that have conditions that could change as well and I will prioritize those to play next, after I have culled the Jihadist events.
I literally line the cards up in my approved play order, from right to left, so that I don’t get distracted or sidetracked. If there is anything that can happen in this game, you will get distracted by what the Jihadist player is doing and sometimes quickly react without thinking, ruining your carefully laid plan. This approach has kept me organized, on task and most importantly in a position where I am able to minimize the negative damage from my opponent’s Events while simultaneously maximizing my own benefit.
Focus on Reducing Jihadist Funding Level
One of the most important things that the US player should worry about is the Funding Level of the Jihadist player. The Funding Level will regularly change for the Jihadist and he has several tools to make that happen, including Event cards but also Terror Plots. You also must remember that at the end of each round, the Funding Level will decrease by 1 so plan accordingly. What I mean by plan is if he is 2 spots above the next lowest Funding Level, you might want to change your plans (I know I preached about how you shouldn’t do this earlier but…) and play an Event that will lower that by 1 so that the natural decrease at the end of the round will take him to the next lower level thereby stealing a card from him!
The Funding Level determines the number of cards the Jihadist player will draw but more importantly, it will determine the cells that he has access to in order to carry out Recruit Operations. In the picture below, you will notice that the Funding Level is at 3 and you will also notice that he has no cells available in the 1-3 box as they have all been deployed (remember they deploy from the boxes located to the left of the Jihadist Funding marker). Please don’t misunderstand this point as you will most likely fail at this part of the strategy and will very rarely get the Funding Level in the lowest box but you must focus on it in order to keep the pressure on to require the Jihadist to use cards to improve their funding rather than doing Operations such as Recruit, Travel or placing Plots.
You generally never want to have two Regime Changes occurring at the same time as you will most likely be into Overstretch, which is where the US player will have no available Troops on the Track and will receive only 7 cards per round. As mentioned earlier, I have played this game 6 times and never have been in Overstretch. The reason for my resistance to do this is that you will most likely at least have 1 fewer card than your Jihadist opponent and could have as many as 2 cards fewer. Remember that you will draw less cards per round the more Troops you have deployed (9 cards at Low Intensity, 8 cards at War and only 7 cards in Overstretch). This is bad because it will leave at least one round at the end of the turn where you will have no cards left to respond with to at least 1 but maybe 2 of the Jihadists plays. This could be a great opportunity for the Jihadist player to get a Terror Plot down that will increase their funding or in the worst case scenario, place a WMD in the United States which is an Instant Win condition for them. There also are several Jihadist cards that refer to the US being in Overstretch, so if you allow that you will open up several more Events that can be played and will not be minimizing the damage but aiding the Jihadist in doing damage to you. I know it might be tempting to get into Overstretch but my recommendation is do not do it.
Protect WMD Stashes
This must be a very high priority for the US player and can be accomplished in several ways. First, always be aware of the number of cells that are located in Pakistan, Russia or in Central Asia. This is simple to do as you just need to watch the board. I always get very nervous when at least 2 cells are there, but don’t concern myself much with less than that. Secondly, when a cell does pop up in one of the two areas I begin thinking about how I can get rid of that cell. There are several cards in the deck that I have already mentioned, including Special Forces and Predator, that can allow you to remove one of those cells from the board. These cards should be used in this way only. This won’t be too much of a sacrifice as they are only 1 and 2 Op cards and are not really that good for much else. Enhanced Measures can also be used to Disrupt sleeper cells in these areas as well so use that to be able to get them out in the open for the kill.
I also like to at least attempt to improve the Alignment or Governance of Pakistan as this will protect the WMDs also. It starts as a Poor Neutral so with a 3 Ops card and a roll of 3 or less (a 50/50 chance), you can move that to an Ally and then either continue to try to improve the Governance or move some troops in as this will require him to have more cells in order pull off a Major Jihad (remember he must have 5 more cells than Troops present to perform a Major Jihad). I can assure you that being able to get 7 or 8 cells in one country is very difficult for the Jihadist (but not impossible), partly due to Funding Level concerns but also because this is “putting their eggs in one basket” and if it doesn’t work, they will be set back and find it difficult to recover. Also remember that as Governance improves, it becomes more and more difficult for the Jihadist to make their required rolls for Recruit, Travel and Plots so getting Pakistan to at least Fair 2 will make that more difficult (going from a roll of 3 or less which is 50/50 to a roll required of 2 or less or 33% chance).
When WMDs are In the Open, Prepare Your Hand with Two 3 Ops Cards (Utilize Reserves)
While it is difficult at best to protect the stockpiles of WMDs in Pakistan, Russia or Central Asia, it is imperative that you prepare to defend yourself once they are in the open. Other than trying like crazy to prevent cells from entering the United States, even this cannot be totally prevented due to some of the cards that we have already discussed such as Clean Operatives, you do have some tools to use to try and combat this threat.
Anytime there are WMDs in possession of the Jihadist player, I always use my first card of the round to place Reserves. This is done by discarding a 1 or 2 Ops card (but be careful as the Jihadist Event will still go off) to increase your available Reserves on the Reserves Track. Discarding a 1 Op card gives you one Reserve and discarding a 2 Op card gives you 2 Reserves. You will need to do this immediately, unless of course you have multiple 3 Ops cards in your hand already, in which case you can potentially skip this step. But, it is important for you to make sure you have at least two 3 Ops cards in hand or have available Reserves to turn the cards you have into two 3 Ops cards. This is truly the only way you have of preventing disaster and preventing the release of WMDs on American soil leading to an Instant Win for your opponent.
Thank you for bearing with me as I have outlined some of the strategy and tactics that I have come to use in playing as the US player in Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? by GMT Games. I have grown to love this game and enjoy our plays thoroughly. More so than any other wargame I have played, this game is extremely difficult for both sides, can be one of the more frustrating games to play due to its reliance on dice rolling and card drawing and is one of the more difficult to develop a consistently winning strategy. The reasons for this are many but if you remember the points I have shared, focus on building your Prestige, reducing the Jihadist Funding and protecting those WMDs, you will win more than you lose. Good luck! If you are interested, Alexander wrote a great review of the game here.