Labyrinth: The War on Terror 4th Printing

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2001: The century had closed with a single Cold-War superpower standing and a pause in conflict that some at the time dubbed ‘The End of History’. It wasn’t. In the Middle East and South Asia, an I…
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  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Large, engrossing head-to-head
  • Great solo mode
  • Asymmetric gameplay

Might Not Like

  • Contemporary setting
  • Dice rolling
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2001: The “American Century” had closed with a single Cold War superpower standing and a pause in conflict that some at the time dubbed “The End of History”. It wasn’t.
In the Middle East and South Asia, an Islamic revival was underway. Resentments bred in part of US support for the regions’ anti-Soviet tyrannies soon erupted into a new struggle against the West. Wealthy Saudi fanatic Usama bin Ladin issued a declaration of holy war against America in 1996 and then fired the first shots with spectacular terrorist attacks on US targets in East Africa in 1998 and the Arab Peninsula in 2000.

Bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda organization plotted securely under the protection of the Taliban, a fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan born of the anti-Soviet “Bear Trap” of the 1980s. By 2001, al-Qaeda had set in motion even more devastating strikes — this time within the US Homeland — that Bin Ladin hoped would light off a global Muslim uprising. Uprising or not, the Western response to those September 11th attacks would reshape international affairs from London to Jakarta and from Moscow to Dar es Salaam.

Labyrinth takes 1 or 2 players inside the Islamist jihad and the global war on terror. With broad scope, ease of play, and a never-ending variety of event combinations similar to GMT’s highly popular Twilight Struggle, Labyrinth portrays not only the US efforts to counter extremists’ use of terrorist tactics but the wider ideological struggle — guerrilla warfare, regime change, democratization, and much more.

From the award-winning designer of Wilderness War and later Andean Abyss, Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Fire in the Lake, Labyrinth combines an emphasis on game play with multifaceted simulation spanning recent history and near future. In the 2-player game, one player takes the role of jihadists seeking to exploit world events and Islamic donations to spread fundamentalist rule over the Muslim world. The other player as the United States must neutralize terrorist cells while encouraging Muslim democratic reform to cut off extremism at its roots. With the game’s solitaire system, a single player as the US takes on ascending levels of challenge in defeating al-Qaeda and its allies.

The jihadists must operate in a hostile environment — staying below the authorities’ radar while plotting terrorist attacks and building for the Muslim revolution. Will Iran’s Shia mullahs help or hinder the Sunni jihadists? Will the gradual spread of Islamist rule bring final victory — or will it be a sudden strike at the United States with an Islamic weapon of mass destruction?

The United States has the full weight of its military force and diplomacy at the ready — but it can’t be everywhere: will technological and material superiority be enough? US forces can invade and topple Islamist regimes, but how will the Muslim “street” react? And if quagmire results, how will the US find its way out?

Labyrinth features distinct operational options for each side that capture the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, while the event cards that drive its action pose a maze of political, religious, military, and economic issues. In the parallel wars of bombs and ideas, coordinated international effort is key — but terrorist opportunities to disrupt Western unity are many. The Towers have fallen, but the global struggle has only just begun.

“Let’s roll!”

War on Terror Feature Taken from Board Game Geek

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.

War on Terror Body


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.

Lucky Duck

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.

War on Terror Body 1


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.

War on Terror Body 2

Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Large, engrossing head-to-head
  • Great solo mode
  • Asymmetric gameplay

Might not like

  • Contemporary setting
  • Dice rolling