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Posted on Aug 10, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

When the digital pen becomes as mighty as the sword. GMT Games ‘Labyrinth: The Forever War 2015 – ?’. Board Game Review.

When the digital pen becomes as mighty as the sword. GMT Games ‘Labyrinth: The Forever War 2015 – ?’. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Labyrinth: The Forever War: 2015 -? Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Trevor Bender. Price $28.00

Passed inspection: The new rules and cards update the game to the present.

Failed basic: This is an expansion to the Labyrinth base game. It requires ownership of both the ‘Labyrinth’ base game and the ‘Awakening’ expansion. There is not a unified rulebook for all expansions. With the rules spread over the core game and now two supplements, it can be a little awkward looking up a specific rule.

In 2010, GMT Games released a new board game, ‘Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?’.  Designed by Volko Ruhnke, ‘Labyrinth’ (or L1), is a two-player game depicting the recent and at the time ongoing events of the modern conflict between the United States and the groups promoting the adoption and spread of an Islamist state. Labyrinth did well enough that five years later an expansion (Labyrinth: Awakening: 2010- ?, or L2) was produced to update the game, add new event cards and add mechanics that captured the recent wave of democratic uprisings (and conservative reactions) that swept across the Islamic world.  Five years later GMT’s dropped the latest update to the game – ‘Labyrinth: The Forever War, 2015 – ?’ (henceforth ‘L3: The Forever War’).

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In some ways, ‘L3: The Forever War’ is a game that needs no introduction as we’ve all been living through it for the past two decades. The core struggle of the game is one between the United States striving to build a network of stable, democratic (or at least sympathetic) Muslim countries while the jihadist player seeks to either create a viable regional Islamist regime or successfully strike the United States with a weapon of mass destruction.  Game play in Labyrinth can be summed up by paraphrasing a quote from the Provisional IRA to the British government “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.” That same strategy permeates the Islamist faction’s approach to the game. To win, they only have to get lucky once.

With ‘L3: The Forever War’ designer Trevor Bender has produced a new deck of 120 event cards and a handful of new rules that are designed to capture and reflect the tone and character of the historical period starting in 2015. It’s a welcome update to the core Labyrinth game.

As is common with many of GMT’s expansion kits, ‘L3: The Forever War’ ships in a clear plastic zip-lock bag. The plan seems to be you’ll store these additional components in the game box of the original Labyrinth game.

‘Labyrinth, The Forever War: 2015 – ?’, delivers the following components;

  • Combined rules of play and playbook booklet
  • 120 new event cards
  • 3 new card stock reference cards that drive the bots and contain updated tables
  • 13 new counters – 16 events, three of which are printed on double sided counters

The update combined rules of play and playbook is a soft cover, 32-page saddle stitched booklet. The actual additional rules of play comprise just two of those pages. Scenarios take up another five pages. Eighteen pages are devoted to providing background on each of the event cards.   The back page of the playbook, titled ‘Labyrinth Rules of Thumb (Updated) is a handy guide to several of the rules and card text that are often used. It’s helpful enough that if you have table space, adding a quick reference photocopy to your set of players aid cards is a good idea. If space is an issue, just remember that the list is available on the back of the booklet. 

The new event cards are the heart of the updated game. These follow the standard GMT format for a card driven game. Each card has an operations point value and an event. The events are split between those favoring each faction, along with a good number of ‘neutral’ events playable by either side. The real value here is that the events are drawn from historical events that have occurred since 2015.

The reference cards for solitaire play do a great job of laying out the decision tree for each faction. Each bot is laid out in a flow chart with a series of decision gates that lead to implementing a specific action. These flow charts are nicely done and usually create a believable outcome, though it may occasionally not align with what you think the bot should have done. (But then, you often get the same thing with a live opponent, right?)

Thirteen new counters exist to support the new card events. These counters follow the same format as counters from the base game and expansion. Three of them are double-sided while the remaining counters are not.  

What makes ‘L3: The Forever War’ different from the base game and the earlier Awakening expansion? Let’s start with the changing global landscape has resulted in an evolving environment in which the war on terror continues to be waged. Trevor Bender has distilled the past few years into some new mechanics and a new deck of event cards.  Reading through the event cards, I was reminded in a way, of Moore’s Law. As the speed of computing increased dramatically and the cost of devices plunged, we’ve entered the time of a global digital society firmly enmeshed in social media (I mean, you are reading this through some type of digital device, right?).

While ‘Labyrinth: The Awakening 2010 – ?’ introduced rules to model the influence of early social media as a tool to win hearts and minds and as an agent of change, ‘L3: The Forever War’ ramps that up with a series of cards that capture the pivotal impact of a world saturated in social media, including rules for ‘Trump Tweets’ and Russian cyberwarfare strategies.

The expansion yields a game that is still closely related to the original Labyrinth. The general structure of the game turn is unchanged as are the victory conditions. The US player is still focused on rooting out Islamist radicalism while promoting the growth and spread of ‘good governance’ across governments in the Muslim sphere of influence. The Islamist player remains focused on spreading their brand of Islamist governance, with an emphasis on achieving a critical mass of countries that will help ensure their success. Alternatively, the Islamist player may choose a path that involves a successful attack on the United States with a weapon on mass destruction.

The expansion of the digital social media dimension is another way to influence US prestige and Islamist funding. While it still plays a role in mobilizing opinion across the Islamist world, it’s not nearly as effective at inciting populations as is depicted in the previous L2: Awakening expansion. This is an example of the game’s concept of ‘the new normal’ where what was once new, novel and different has been subsumed and normalized as just ‘how things are today’. It might have been a revolutionary concept a ten years ago, but each faction has reacted and developed countermeasures that bring the situation back to a status quo.

The game still does a nice job of describing asymmetrical warfare. The US is a superpower with extensive military resources and a global network of partners. It’s great at executing on conventional military goals like implementing regime change, but then comes the quagmire of the continued commitment of troops to engage in nation building, or prop up your man against a wave of Islamist cells. Beyond kinetic force, the US can also leverage the robust intelligence and law enforcement capabilities of western states and partners around the globe.

On the flip side, the Islamist will struggle to recruit enough cells to achieve Islamist rule in countries. But when they do – boom! It tends to pull down US intervention on their heads and negate the effort spent establishing the regime. It takes a balanced approach of terror attacks and direct action to successfully reach their goal.

While Labyrinth is clearly a wargame, both it’s card driven design and somewhat abstract approach make it an approachable choice for gamers new to the hobby. If you can’t get four players together for one of GMT’s COIN games, Labyrinth does a good job of filling that space for two, or even just one player.

The game takes an interesting approach to the role of Israel as it relates to the GWOT conflict. While Israel is depicted as a dimension in the game having both a spatial component and a political state, it’s not central to the narrative of the game. Several cards can involve actions by Israel as well as its neighbors acting on Israel. However, these events are presented within the context of its impact on the broader US-Islamist conflict. For a game featuring the war on terror and the Islamist world, it’s feels a bit odd at how marginal Israel is within the content of Labyrinth. Conducting a terror attack on Israel does not seem to trigger a ferocious response from Israel that many might expect. The shadow war waged in Syria between Israel and Iran basically falls through the cracks as being ‘out of scope’ to the primary conflict in the game. Israel becomes just another setting for events and not one of the key dimensions within the global Islamist agenda. This lack of agency and independence of action feels a bit off as events show that the Israeli government has had no reservations about acting in its perceived best interest, regardless of how that impacts the broader US – Islamist conflict.

The Forever War’s event cards are drawn from events of the past five years. There was a lot of events from which to choose and one thematic thread running through the supplement is the rise of a more active Saudi Arabia. Cards cover events such as ‘MbS’ the Khashoggi murder, intervention in Qatar and Yemen and the competition with Turkey. These cards give Saudi Arabia the feel of being a prominent player in the game, yet as event cards still reduce Saudi Arabia to the role of a bit player with no real sense of agency or independence. In a way this is the other side of the coin as to how Israel is depicted.

Partly this stems from the design decisions that shape the game – it’s ultimately a game focused on the United States and a shadowy confederation of Islamist groups. The world, be it as nation states or international organizations are reduced to being supporting actors in this narrative, represented through abstract tracks or events defined on cards.

The Forever War arrives with four (4) new scenarios and an updated campaign game covering the conflict from its beginning. The ‘historical’ scenarios cover the fall of ISIL, as well as the conflict once Donald Trump takes office as President of the United States.

The counterfactual scenarios include one in which Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election. There’s also a bonus scenario that was originally published in C3i magazine and included for those players that don’t subscribe to the magazine.

The scenarios give you a good range of starting points for the game narrative. Given the central role of the event cards, it’s unlikely that two games will play out the same way.

Getting the game on the table is easy. The set-up instructions are clearly written and easy to follow. But how does playing the game ‘feel’? Is it engaging? Is it enjoyable? To a degree that depends on which faction of the game you are playing as well as your assessment of the conflict. It’s very modernity

For the US player the game often feels like a never-ending game of ‘wack a mole’. If the IR player can keep the pressure on by implementing terror plots and recruiting, they’ll retain the initiative and dictate the pace of the game. If the US can rein in Islamist players strategy, they can focus on building that network of allies across the Islamist world. Col. John Boyd would recognize the core dilemma that each player faces. To control the pace of the game, they need to get inside each other’s decision cycles so they can cause their opponent to deal with the unexpected, add some more chaos to mask their true intentions and then execute their strategy bringing them to victory.

The Forever War expansion retains the classic feel of Labyrinth. The random, hidden nature of the game means your best plans may fall apart due to an unexpected event card. But it’s not all luck as it takes careful planning to position cells, obtain the WMD and execute the attack when the US is – hopefully for the IR player – short on the resources to maintain a vigilant defense.

The game provides a lens through which view the events of the past few years. That lens is useful as a way to gain new perspectives and have the players reevaluate their perceptions of the world and the United States ongoing global war on terror. Yes, it’s a board game, but like a good historical board game, it makes good use of is opportunity to educate the players of the geopolitical events of the past five years.

An engaging feature of the Labyrinth game and expansions is the ability to explore some of the what ifs that could have resulted from different outcomes in US elections. Forever War gives you the opportunity to play out the effects a Hillary Clinton presidency might have had on the war on terror. I found it illuminating that in order to wage an effective campaign, US posture had to be rapidly realigned to a more aggressive posture. After a few rounds of cards, who was in the White House was less important that formulating an effective strategy to achieve victory.

An important feature to many board gamers is a games suitability for solitaire play. Well good news, everyone! While Labyrinth is primarily designed as a two-player game, a lot of time was spent by Adam Zahm and team creating processes for a solitaire game. The game does include rules and processes for automating not just one side but either side in the game. This gives you the opportunity to play as either the US player or as the Islamist player.

Do the bot’s work? That’s a big ‘heck yeah!’. In fact, the bots work so well that you can have an enjoyable game pitting the bot for each side against each other. This is actually a great way to learn how each of the ‘bots function on each side. Bot play is a little bit different than having a live opponent as the bot’s do not implement an opposing event on cards they expend for operations.

The bots do a good job of simulating the performance of each side. The flow charts give a clear, logical structure to the bot’s decisioning making, though there are times when I might have recommended a different course of action. The bot’s are complex enough that you’ll have to work to find a strategy that exploits the bots weaknesses. Even if you do find those weak spots, the nature of the event cards and game play will impede you from totally capitalizing on any perceived weak spots in the bots decision making process. 

The subtitle of this game ‘The Forever War’ can’t help but evoke some comparison with Joseph Haldeman’s novel of the same name. While the subjects are very different, the title of the game evokes some of the themes from the novel regarding the pointless nature of a conflict prolonged by a vague concept of victory and a stubborn refusal by the participants to achieve a meaningful end to the conflict. The game does a good job of reminding us that unilateral declares of victory by either side are unlikely to reflect a true end of the conflict. The update does pull back the ‘veil of history’ and give the game an immediacy that some players may find uncomfortable. If you’ve avoided playing Labyrinth for that reason, the expansion is not going to change your point of view. 

The Forever War expansion provides a needed update to keep the core game relevant. Labyrinth is one of the few games on the market today that attempts to grapple with the modern geo-political world we live in. This can be useful, as the game provides a lens through which to view the impact of recent events on the participants in the war on terror. The two-player nature of the game might suggest that you get a set of binary observations. But, the way in which the international community is integrated into the game provides additional insights into how Russia, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the EU and India are both impacted by the continuing war on terror as well as participate in shaping the responses of the US and Islamic revolution to their own goals.

Leveraging the existing Labyrinth product is an excellent way for current owners of the game to squeeze more value out of their original game and expansion. If you’ve already spent the time to acquire and learn Labyrinth, adding the Forever War to the game is a solid choice that will bring additional hours of game play to your table, as well as helping your understanding of our complex modern world. If you’ve never played Labyrinth before and have an interest in gaming the modern war of terror – The Forever War gives you a chance to jump into the game using the most recent events and rules.

Armchair General Score: 94 %

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Forever War components
struggle for Algeria
marawi city
Trump Tweet event
US loses the game

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