Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? by GMT Games is one of my favourite wargames of all time. It’s a pretty unique, and also seemingly polarizing game. I recently spoke with a former serviceman and he said that he had little impetus to play the game because he didn’t like to mix work and pleasure. It was a pretty enlightening exchange, and brought another layer of reality to what is already a very visceral game.
When GMT announced an expansion to the game it was met with great anticipation, but a small part of me initially thought: Why? Labyrinth is such a tight game that I felt it needed nothing extra. It was one of those games that was designed to perfection before release (something that is, sadly, less and less common these days in the board gaming world). The more I pondered on it, and the more updates I read about what the expansion entailed, however, the more apparent it became that if any game needed an expansion it had to be Labyrinth. Not because of any rules imbalances, but because the nature of the conflict, and the situations in many of the countries depicted has changed drastically over the course of the decade depicted in Labyrinth.
Labyrinth: The Awakening, 2010-?
The Awakening refers to the ‘Arab Spring’, a broad term that describes the series of political unrest, civil wars, demonstrations, and everything in between that were sparked as a result of the suicide of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Bouazizi, later named as The Times person of 2011, set himself on fire as a demonstration against government harrassment, as well as having his wares seized. The resulting unrest caused a regime change in Tunisia, as well as four other countries and sparking unrest and protests in many others.
All of this, on a macro scale is modelled in Labyrinth: The Awakening, and how these constant fluxuations affected the War on Terror. So, what’s all of the new stuff? Firstly, there’s an entirely new deck of cards. A few of the cards from the base game have been reproduced with altered text to reflect the new rules, but 95% of the cards are brand new. As a CDG, the cards are the heart of the game, so they alter the feel the of the game and how things play out wildly, but more on that later. Secondly, there’s a few new counter types that represent The Awakening or Reaction. These counters represent the overall leaning of the populace of each country affected. As one side gains the upper hand the countries will start to change alignment and governance of their own volition, without the need for any attempted dice rolls by either side. Thirdly, the game comes with two entirely new countries – Mali and Nigeria – as well as overlays for the board that change Syria and Iran, both of which can gain WMD capabilities.
Civil War markers represent active fighting between a nations warring populace. In these instances, Reaction and Awakening markers are converted into Jihadist cells, and opposing milita units. These militia units are new blue wooden pieces that, whilst weaker than US troops, help to stymie Jihadist efforts in a country. The final new component are the Caliphate markers. The Jihadist player can establish a Caliphate, which can potentially stretch across multiple countries. This Caliphate takes advantage of instability to spread influence and block the play of certain US aligned cards.
The Arab Spring
I’m in no way an expert on this topic, but I found myself pouring over articles and news reports as I was reading the rules. There’s a lot of designer notes contained in the rulebook (thanks for that GMT), and most of the cards are in such recent memory that we’re all very familiar with the ins and outs of them. That being said, whilst I’m aware of many of the individual events, I wanted a deeper knowledge of how all of these events linked together and how they had shaped the political geography of the Middle East and North Africa and the continued War on Terror. Everything I read was eye opening and at times inspiring as people fought corruption and tyranny in many forms and through diverse means, many of which included no fighting at all.
Most of this ground work being done is represented through the Awakening and Reaction markers in the game.
These have positive or negative numbers on them, and at the end of each hand there’s a brand new Polarization Phase. During this phase the difference between the numbers of Awakening and Reaction markers is determined and if there’s a net of 1, 0 or -1 then nothing will happen that round. But as countries start to swing one way or the other, gaining either a +/- 2, then that factions momentum will build, adding another of the like token to the country. If a country starts the Polarization phase with a net +/- 3 then the country’s Alignment will shift one box toward either Ally or Adversary respectively. Once Alignment can no longer shift, the Governance will improve or degrade into Good/Islamist rule.
A few things to note; this means that it’s possible to have a country come under Islamist Rule without having to perform a Major Jihad (the only method available in the base game). It also eliminates the need for the US to roll on the War of Ideas table with that painful -1 modifier going from Fair to Good Governance. What a change, if of course, you can get that +/- 3 action going.
Grant and I discussed this new addition to the game, at first we were worried it was just another book-keeping aspect to account for that would take away from the meat of the game, but in reality this part of the game developed organically through many of the events on cards and grew exponentially more potent through each Polarization Phase. If you could get a could footing in a country, you knew that if the opposition did nothing then it would swing to your side eventually. This made it so that the opponent had to act, or suffer, and as such was yet another way to put pressure on your opponent and distract them from what they wanted to be doing. And if there’s one thing you want to do in Labyrinth, it’s keep your enemy off-kilter and play the game on your terms.
Ironically enough, The Awakening actually gives the game an even greater likeness to Twilight Struggle. Placing those markers and reacting to markers placed felt very much like the influence you play during the Cold War. It’s only a sub-game in Labyrinth, but it’s really cool, and as an auxiliary mechanism to influence countries I really liked it. The fact that you can put some in and then forget about it, as the ‘populace on the ground’ do the rest of the leg work for you means that the game doesn’t bog down in the Awakening. It’s always an addition to the main game, and isn’t so all-important that you’re just playing TS with troops and cells on the board.
I wanted to play this game historically, in order to see how well (not that I could judge that with any authority) the game modelled the Arab Spring. We set up the Arab Spring scenario which seeds the deck in such a way that it plays out with a lot of Awakening and Reaction markers played in the first half of the game, and then a lot of Civil War affecting cards in the second half of the deck. I would highly recommend this scenario – as does the rulebook – for a first play through, just to experience the Arab Springs. It was very rewarding. In fact, I wish I could retro fit the base game to seed the deck into a slightly more chronological fashion. If someone has already done that, please, let me know!
2010 was an entirely different world than 2001, from a political standpoint at least. The game’s initial set up reflects this. There are a few Awakening markers present, to get the ball rolling historically, but the biggest changes are first; the Jihadist funding being at 5, which represents the damage done by Coalition forces to the Jihadist resource network, and second; US Posture and Prestige. The US starts with a Soft Posture, whilst the World has a net Hard posture, resulting in a GWOT penalty from the get-go. On top of that US Prestige is lower than in the base game to start off with, representing war weariness as the conflicts in the Middle East have dragged on and lives have been lost to the seemingly endless conflict. The US, felt quite hamstrung at first from a tactical standpoint as they couldn’t perform regime changes until cards were sacrificed in order to change Posture. You’ll understand why this is important after checking out our US Strategy article, which now will most definitely need some tweaks.
Just remember, this is a modern, and very politically themed/charged game, and as much as the designer’s ideologies and opinions are inherent in the games mechanics, Labyrinth itself doesn’t condem one side of the political spectrum or the other. I know people get offended at this game, because, let’s be honest here, it’s pretty heavy handed with it’s politics, but I urge you not to let that stand between you and an excellent mechanical game.
The cards in The Awakening are wildly different from the base game. Many of the events we are not far removed from. Malala, the Boston Marathon, Facebook, and even Charlie Hebdo, are all present in the deck. This game felt a little more ‘real’ to me, in that sense because I lived through all of these events as an adult with a much greater awareness of the bigger picture, so to speak. The cards were visceral, and with the deck seeding it felt much more like an historical simulation, which I very much enjoyed.
Should I Get This Expansion?
If you own the base game, and enjoy it on any level, then absolutely you should get the expansion if you haven’t already. The historical scenario tells a real story, and I would recommend it for that alone. On top of that you get new, updated, and from first looks, much improved bots for solitaire play. Did I mention that there are bots for both sides now? Did I mention that the bots are reverse compatible with the base game? For this alone, it’s worth the list price in my opinion. But, again, the new components and cards are just so different that I can hardly call this an expansion. I consider this a whole new game. Which, for the price, is totally worth it.
I love Labyrinth, The War On Terror and I love Labyrinth, The Awakening. They’re two seperate beasts, which provide almost entirely different challenges to their respective players. I learned a lot, which is something I look for in a game, as well as providing an excellent, and even deeper tactical and strategic challenge.