With the release of the May Monthly Update from GMT Games, I came to know of the existence of another expansion for one of my all time favorite wargames Labyrinth. I immediately knew that I just had to talk with Trevor Bender to get the lowdown on Labyrinth: The Forever War, 2015-?.
Grant: First off Trevor please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Trevor: Professionally I am a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) supporting Navy contracts in San Diego. I have a two-hour commute, which means I need to be fast and efficient in my game design and other pursuits. I have been married for 28 years and am a father of four, and recently enjoyed the good news of having a granddaughter join the family! My outdoor pursuits include Cycling, Backpacking and Swimming. I am an active volunteer for my church and for Boy Scouts of America (BSA), where I serve as an Assistant Council Commissioner (ACC) for the San Diego Imperial Council (SDIC). In addition to time spent with my family and my volunteer work, the thing that brings me the greatest joy is winning tournaments at the World Boardgame Championships (WBC)! 😉
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Trevor: A middle school friend of mine introduced me to PanzerBlitz when I was eleven years old. I have been hooked on simulation games and have enjoyed creating my own “home” designs ever since! My first professional experience in design was in writing variant articles for The GENERAL and designing scenarios for Ed Beach’s Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (GCACW). In the Fall of 2014, I had the good opportunity to meet Volko Rhunke at the GMT weekend at the Warehouse event and in just a couple minutes told him how we could use the Labyrinth system to depict the Arab Spring (2010 – 2012) in the Middle East. He encouraged me to run with the idea, which resulted in my publication of Labyrinth: The Awakening two years later. My greatest joy in design is hearing players say something like, “this scenario really makes me feel like I am there”!
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Trevor: Be as realistic as possible. For me, portraying the events accurately comes before any kind of design symmetry considerations.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about design? What do you do really well?
Trevor: My strength is in taking other’s designs and then creating scenarios or variants for them. In fact, my Twitter handle (@GameChangerII) was created with that interest in mind! The advantage of this type of design is that the core systems and map are already in place, so one simply needs to organize how the forces appear or add simple rules to change the game into something new and different. Game owners like this as for a modest investment in a magazine or expansion, they can double the value of a game purchase they made years ago and enjoy playing it in a different manner to explore something new using an engine they are already familiar with. I also enjoy the study of Counterfactual History and have written several articles for C3i Magazine describing various “what-ifs” of history that players can explore.
Grant: How did you get involved in Labyrinth and how did the opportunity to design The Awakening expansion come about?
Trevor: I mentioned above the chance encounter I had with Volko up at GMT. A week later I sent him a one page description of my design idea for what we were calling Laby II at the time. This synopsis was essentially in a P500 format, and he continued to give me the green light to press forward. More details on my two year design process can be found in the Designers Notes in Labyrinth: The Awakening and in C3i Magazine Nr29. To be sure, I had a lot of design anxiety that either GMT would not like it, or it would be “broken” or unbalanced in some way and that my hundreds of hours invested in it would not pan out, but none of those fears materialized. In fact The Awakening was universally praised as not just a card deck expansion, but a new game that added new subsystems, such as Awakening and Reaction markers that modify other game operations and Civil War, which models the collapse of a country at the macro level.
Additionally, there is a Polarization phase at the end of each turn, similar to a scoring card in Twilight Struggle, where a census is conducted in each Muslim country, and if one side is ahead in Awakening or Reaction markers, that country will move closer to that side’s ideology, forcing the opponent to react or fall behind.
Grant: How did that lead you to design The Forever War Expansion?
Trevor: The event card deck for Labyrinth covered 2001 through 2009, while Awakening essentiality covered the next five years. Shortly after publication of Awakening, I realized that we had created a design based on current events, which meant that as the clock continued to tick and new actions transpired in the Middle East and globally, there was the opportunity for a new expansion to model these developments using the Labyrinth game system. I started creating the deck for the third game in 2016 and have been in design mode ever since. Labyrinth: The Forever War will use the same rules as the previous two games in the series, and cover the next five years (2015 – ?).
Grant: What was it like working with Volko Ruhnke? What lessons have you learned from him?
Trevor: Volko is an amazingly humble designer! I so much appreciated how he listened to my ideas in the first instance, and then gave feedback on the design throughout the process. He also knew when to step back and let my ideas and creativity take the game to a new area. I have found the same in working with Gene Billingsley, Mark Simonitch, Roger MacGowan and others, all of them gave me the freedom I needed to express my views on the design and to create the mechanics needed to explore those topics.
I would also be remiss if I did not thank Harold Buchanan for his inspiration and support; my design of The Awakening was essentially 9 months behind his design of Liberty or Death (the 4th COIN Series Game), and as we both live in San Diego, I was able to pick his brain on the process for a new designer working with GMT and what comes next.
Grant: What is The Forever War Expansion about? What made you want to design this next expansion?
Trevor: The Forever War explores the resolution of the Civil Wars that continued in Syria, Yemen and Libya following the Arab Spring, and then the change that Donald Trump stamped on US Foreign Policy after his election. As such, it adds in other elements outside of the Middle East, such as the talks with North Korea and the Trade War with China, as these impact the ability of the US to remain fully engaged in the Middle East.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the title and what do you think it means?
Trevor: The Forever War is inspired by the US commitment to Afghanistan, which has been the longest US military commitment to war to date. As the first action in the US Global War on Terror (GWOT), Afghanistan may be the last to be fully resolved, though positive signs for peace are coming out of the current rounds of discussions on power sharing and an end of conflict with the Taliban.
Grant: What themes from real world events have shaped the design?
Trevor: There are several themes that we want to give treatment to in The Forever War and the following are covered as event cards or special rules.
o Growth and then Collapse of the physical Islamic State Caliphate
o Increased Iranian/Saudi Arabian Rivalry and Proxy War
o Government Repression of Expression (Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.)
o Increased Women’s Rights Activism across the region
o Increased Russian and other International involvement in the Middle East
o Incredible violence outside the Middle East from ISIL and others across Europe, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere
o Impact of President Donald Trump and his personality on US Foreign Policy
o Continued activity of African Jihadists
o Plight of International Refugees
o Emerging Main-Power Rivalry between the US, Russia, China, EU and the UK
o US ceding some degree of autonomy in portions of the globe in exchange for greater regional security
Grant: What challenges have you encountered with the design and how have you overcome them?
Trevor: The greatest challenge has been trying to model a multi-faction conflict, such as the Syrian Civil War, in a two player game focused on global political-military affairs. The only way to solve this design dilemma has been through simplification and abstraction, in other words, designing how to represent these affects in this two-player game on the GWOT. I am still struggling with how to represent the long term impact of the Russian intervention in Syria, which arguably made the state stronger against terrorism (moving towards Good Governance), but were diametrically opposed to US interests.
Grant: The expansion contains 120 new Event cards. How do you go about coming up with this amount of new cards?
Trevor: The 120 card deck size is a time mechanism in Labyrinth, so all expansions will have exactly this number of cards in them, as when the deck runs-out, the game is immediately scored. In the design process I keep an excel spreadsheet to capture my ideas for possible event cards, then when I hear a newsworthy item on the radio or read it on-line, I capture it in my list and then think about how to portray that in the game. This process just requires a little bit of my time each week but results in a product that others have described as a game whose events are “ripped from today’s headlines!”
I recently posted an article on Inside GMT Games that goes into great length about the process of designing an event card and your readers might be interested in that at: http://www.insidegmt.com/2019/06/labyrinth-the-forever-war-challenges-in-designing-a-simulation-game-based-on-current-events/
Grant: How do you balance cards? How much attention do you give to the values of each card?
Trevor: That is a great question! I try to make the events as accurate as possible in game terms to what really occurred, then build the overall deck and play it dozens of times myself in Alpha testing, then with others in Beta testing, to see that there is overall balance and that real world events or logical excursions from them are portrayed accurately.
The OPs values are a representation of the amount of resources a nation would use to enact that effect in real-life, and also a mechanism of play balance–as in Twilight Struggle, if you play your opponent’s card for OPs they get to enact the event.
Grant: Is there a mathematical formula or complex computer program you use to aid in this process?
Trevor: No, it’s more of an art form then forcing the design to look like what has come out before. For example, in The Forever War there are more 1 OPs cards than in previous games, and that is because the pace of operations has really declined with the collapse of ISIL, and the US focus elsewhere, and we needed to model that in some way, and more 1 OPs cards achieves the objective and creates new puzzles requiring players to adapt their style of play to the new situation.
Grant: How do you go about finding the text and title for the cards? How long does this usually take and how many ideas do you have to come up with to get to 120 cards?
Trevor: This is my favorite part of the design process, as there is so much opportunity for creativity in coming up with the card titles and the flavor text commentary under each title. Usually I design a card or two a week, sometimes none at all, so over the five years of creating the next expansion, it does not take much time at all over the length of the project.
Grant: Please share examples of three cards with us and provide their background and strategy for each side.
Trevor: Three cards come to mind as both pivotal and unique to this design: Trump Tweets – There are three copies of this card in the deck, each with a different tweet but the same event effect, which is a random element that may benefit the US or the Jihadist player. The design intent is obvious as is the commentary on Trumps chaotic leadership style! BUT, the play of this card is necessary to allow the play of about 10 other events in the deck, so it will see a lot if use.
Qatari Crisis – This event represents the engagement of Iran on the Arabian Peninsula, and makes Iran directly adjacent to Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (and vice versa), with all of the implications that this has for achieving Jihadist victory conditions.
US China Trade War – This non-Middle East card has potential long-term consequences in the number of cards the US player draws in future turns, depending on how the trade talks go as represented abstractly through US and China posture.
Grant: What major rules changes are included in the expansion?
Trevor: When compared with The Awakening there are not as many rules changes, so this expansion is a little easier to jump right in and play. There are new rules covering Iran, WMD starting locations, and of course the event cards introduce new elements that have not been seen before, including changes in country adjacency. This change will be very easy to model as a dynamic map in the Playdek online version that will come out as a Labyrinth “in-game” purchase after Labyrinth is released electronically by them later this year.
Grant: Are there new Country Mats in the expansion?
Trevor: There are no new Country Mats in The Forever War, though the ones from The Awakening for Mali, Nigeria, Syria and Iran will continue to be used.
Grant: Why is Nigeria so central to the new expansion and what role does it play?
Trevor: Nigeria was added in along with Mali during the production of The Awakening and continues to have a role in The Forever War. Nigeria is a lesser theme in The Forever War expansion though, as Boko Haram had largely played its hand in the time-frame covered by The Awakening.
Grant: Why is there a need for new Cells for the Jihadist player and how does this happen? What does this model from the War on Terror over the past 5 years?
Trevor: The five new Cells were added during The Awakening expansion, largely to show the larger forces involved when Jihadists elements adopted conventional warfare techniques in the Civil Wars going on in both Syria and Iraq after the declaration of the Caliphate. These are opposed by the addition of blue cylinders, which represent Militia elements that are taking on the brunt of the fighting as the US scales back its commitments overtime.
Grant: What new cards cause Civil War or Regime change? How does a player retrieve these important cards if discarded?
Trevor: There are several cards in both The Awakening and The Forever War that can place a nation into Civil War if the conditions are right. Your second question is insightful as both The Awakening and The Forever War are designed to be played as a single deck game, which means cards in the discard pile become increasingly important as one gets closer to the end of the draw pile. These discarded cards can be retrieved through the play of Oil Price Spike and related cards, and any card that causes Civil War can be drawn by the Agitators card.
Grant: What scenarios are included in the game? What new challenges do these scenarios present?
Trevor: There are two main scenarios, The Fall of ISIL, and Trump Takes Command. In the former, we start with ISIL as it begins its denouement in Syria and Iraq. The Trump Scenario is the designated tournament scenario, and pits the US directly against Iran as the primary adversary; Iran starts at Islamist Rule and has 1 WMD already in possession, but the US is making great strides in other areas and it’s a race to see who can win first!
Grant: What scenarios can be added to the original and first expansion for a massive 360 event card game? Are there special rules that govern this scenario
Trevor: Yes, all three decks can be added together to make a truly large game. The game decks can be played sequentially, or they can all be shuffled together to give an Alternative History Campaign Game. Special rules govern when The Awakening rules and charts come into play. Also, in order to allow for a longer simulation, players can mutually agree that the winner is the player who achieves the most number of their three victory conditions (play does not stop after achieving the fist Victory Condition…play on!). Additionally, there is the 2007 Surge scenario that came out in C3i Magazine Nr31, and uses 40 cards from Labyrinth and 40 cards from The Awakening, and serves as a transition game for players that want to ease into the first expansion. I will be designing a similar 2015 scenario to play the same function for combining half of the decks each for The Awakening and The Forever War.
Grant: What do you hope players will experience with the new expansion? Will it feel like Labyrinth or is it different enough to be a new experience?
Trevor: The Awakening had a much different feel than Labyrinth, and played faster too, with most players liking the changes. The Forever War will not introduce as many changes, but the deck is entirely new and play-testers have said that it feels and plays differently than the other two games.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Trevor: Two things, first that nearly every game goes down to the buzzer like two basketball teams trying to find a path towards victory with decreasing time remaining. Second, I really like how the system with 360 cards now lends itself to making a near unlimited number of scenarios simply by calling out which cards are to be in play and where the starting locations are.
Grant: What is next for Trevor Bender
Trevor: Immediately next is finishing my design on the Syrian Civil War, which we put on the backburner to focus on The Forever War. This will be an up to six-player COIN game focused on the action in Syria and Iraq from 2012 – 2017, and with significant interactions by the international forces that intervened in the conflict.
The map covers all of Syria, Iraq, and the key adjacent spaces. Jason Carr has been my developer on the project. We just need to complete the event deck and iron out a few more rules, and then we will be ready to start Beta Test. A unique initiative segment will allow each faction to be active at some level every turn, while posturing for the on-deck card. Also, it’s possible for a Rebel faction to become a Government faction (and vice versa), if they take over a significant amount of territory.
Other game design ideas that capture my attention are an expansion of Ukraine ’43 that portrays the Soviet counter-offensive on the north side of the Kursk bulge, and a simulation of the Vietnam War at the complexity level of Washington’s War. I will also continue my Counterfactual History variants, with an analysis of how a Japanese Navy victory at the Battle of Midway might have impacted the rest of the war next, and then a study of how the Battle of the Bulge could have gone differently if the Germans had led with their tanks on day 1 instead of their infantry.
Thanks to The Players’ Aid for inviting me to share some ideas on the topics above…you guys provide a real service to our hobby!
Thank you for your time in answering my questions on the upcoming expansion. We really loved your work on The Awakening and really look forward to what changes The Forever War will bring us.
If you are interested in Labyrinth: The Forever War, 2015-?, you can pre-order a copy from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-769-labyrinth-the-forever-war-2015.aspx