I was 17 on a free period in my school library. The television in the corner had BBC News 24 on silent as it always did. Slowly, people put down their books and began to gather around the picture of smoke puthering from a skyscraper on the other side of the Atlantic. The librarian, usually adverse to the slightest whisper, turned up the volume on the television. We weren’t sure what we were watching. Then the second plane flew into the second tower. My memory wants to say there were gasps, screams and someone fainted, but I’m pretty certain we just watched in silence. More engrossed than panicked. By the time I got home that afternoon, both towers had collapsed.
The September 11th terrorist attack on The World Trade Centre does not feel like it happened almost 20 years ago. Its ramifications, via the ongoing Global War on Terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous other terror attacks have been the rumbling backdrop to my adult life. The shockwaves are still being felt in the far-right populism it has birthed, the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of Islamic State and the uneasy and changeable alliances forged and broken in the Middle East.
Because of this contemporaneity, because the deaths are not yet ‘just statistics’, I approached Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001 -? with caution. Is a board game the right place to explore attitudes and feelings to an ongoing international conflict? Can a war game, no less, remain sensitive to the differing political, social and emotional perspectives on such a fraught subject? Can such a game be judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ separate to these considerations? I will return to these bigger questions surrounding Labyrinth but first, a quick overview of the game itself.
The game draws its base mechanisms from its GMT games stablemate, Twilight Struggle. As in Twilight Struggle, players are dealt a hand of cards which they will play over the course of a turn. Cards can be played for operations (action points) or events, in order to place influence or disrupt opposing influence on a global map centred on North Africa and the Middle East. Playing cards with your opponent’s events causes them to trigger, meaning the game is about timing, tactics and learning to play through a bad hand with minimum damage.
Different to Twilight Struggle, is the wildly asymmetrical nature of the deck, actions available to players and victory goals. This is a welcome and thematic change. The US, for instance, need to wipe out all terrorist cells or create stability and good governance in the Middle East. The jihadists, as the game calls them, aim to create a caliphate or unleash a WMD on US soil. The two sides do feel balanced, which is a massive achievement of design, given the vastly differing goals and actions each has.
There are some problems, though. There is a heavy reliance on dice rolling that sometimes means a whole turn (or turns) of preparation are junked on a bad roll. This is frustrating, to say the least. It can also lead to situations where the game becomes strongly unbalanced in a way that doesn’t feel thematic. In some games one side can suddenly fall so far behind it can be hard to recover just because of bad luck with the dice. While you can take actions to improve the chance of success on dice rolls, sometimes you do all you can and still fail. It could be argued this accurately represents the chaos of global politics and war. It could also be argued it’s a problem with design.
So where does this leave us? Labyrinth, is an engrossing 2 player game, despite the lucky element of the dice rolling. It also has a strong and challenging solo mode that works, rare for this sort of game. However, is it ethical to create a game out of material that is still raw in the mind of players? Does viewing the graphic news reports of the last two years through the prism of a game make light of them in a way that is unacceptable and unpalatable?
The simple answer is; it could.
These questions are in my mind every time I sit down to play Labyrinth. But, I find, the game provides the space to play through them, to try to make sense of them and the history of the time I live in. Perhaps, in a way only a game could.
Admittedly, there is some one-sidedness in tone, as would be expected from any game produced by and for a western audience. However, the game allows you room to test and try different approaches to the War on Terror (soft diplomacy or hard militaristic methods). Not in a glib – what if? – way. In a way that forces you to confront the difficult choices individuals, societies and governments make when they feel threatened. The simplifications and abstractions of real experienced horrors are part of what the reflection the game prompts.
Good or Bad?
True, this game is not for everyone. Some players would never feel comfortable ‘role-playing’ Al-Qaeda. Some would never feel comfortable ‘supporting’ a US foreign policy they see as disastrous. This is understandable. People respond to tragedy and trauma differently and I think it is important that we remain open to different ways of processing. Labyrinth approaches its topic sensitively enough to allow you to be a fully active and critical participant. It does not impose itself politically and succeeds because of this. I may be making too much of what is, after all, just a game. But for me, given the subject matter and its proximity, Labyrinth needed to be more than ‘just a game’, and thankfully it is. Credit to Volko Ruhne, what could have been bombastic and offensive, is more quiet, more reflective.