Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is That A Minotaur In Your Labyrinth, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?

In what we in the west term as "Greek" mythology, the Labyrinth was a maze in the dungeons of King Minos of Crete's palace. He sent prisoners there he wished to dispose of, as the Labyrinth was also the lair of the famous Minotaur, a bull-headed (literally) warrior of incredible strength and cunning who also liked an occasional meal of Hero on the Half Shell. The term has come to mean a situation where there is no clear way out and no sense of where one is in terms of progress toward that goal.

Labyrinth: The War On Terror 2001-? is in the late throes of being sent to preorders, and is probably available in stores and online as you read this. If there were ever an appropriate use of the term, it is applicable to the War On Terror, perhaps the most expensive and bungled national effort in the history of the world. The US alone will spend a trillion dollars in Iraq alone, a country that has never been tied to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a country that had no effective nuclear development program, a country where, even seven and a half years later, we have been unable to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. A war that Colin Powell staked his reputation on when he presented such myths as fait accompli to the United Nations.

Now you can see if you can do better.

The entire gaming community seems to have had a massive wet dream over Twilight Struggle, which will mistakenly be claimed as an ancestor to Labyrinth. I was not one of those people - I felt that the way the cards fell out was far too important in determining who would win the game, and let's just pretend that the scoring card mechanism was never there. TS's claim to ancestry of Lab is, fortunately, restircted to heavily abstracted military conflicts and a focus on essentially being an area control game, but with some big differences. While it's a little early for me to start evaluating the game as a whole, I do have some thoughts on how successful it is and whether it will be the game that knocks TS off of it's perch as wargame/euro/strategy crossover king.

The game pits the US against the Jihadists, and the two sides are very different both in what their goals are, but also in how they get there. Like TS, the cards that drive the game have an OPs number and an event, and if you play a card for OPs but your opponent's event is on it they get to execute the event. There are also "unassociated" events that both sides can play for the event. However, how each side plays their OPs and what they play for are very different things, which I will explain after describing the various axes of victory that you have to contend with.

First off, the map. Like TS, the map consists of a variety of boxes representing various countries or groups of countries (Central Asia, the Gulf States, etc). These are divided into two subtypes - Muslim and Non-Muslim countries. Muslim countries have a varying Governance value which is not revealed (via a die roll) until something happens in that country - the US places troops there or the Jihadist travels cells there, or an event calls for a "test". Governance ranges from Good to Fair to Poor to Islamist Rule, and also has an axis of Ally (to the US), Neutral, or Adversary. Governance and Alignment determine operational flexibility in various ways, and is different for both sides. Muslim countries can also be either Sunni or Sunni-Shia Mixed. Iran, though a Muslim country in the real world, is enough of a power broker that it is classed as unique in game terms, and it has a set governance of Fair and no alignment track.

The Non-Muslim countries have Governance values, but they are set in stone for the game, and get no worse than Fair. However, they do have Posture that is either Hard or Soft. This is an unfortunate Freudian simile, and there will be frequent and loud exhortations and lamentations when a country initially goes Hard (or Soft) as I'm sure you're imagining right at this very moment. I'm not sure how else the designer/developer could have put this, but to be honest I'm not complaining. The main function of a country being Hard or Soft will have various effects on the US depending upon the differential between the two and whether or not it maps to the US being in the same condition. The US can attempt to change the Posture of both non-Muslim countries and itself, although to do the latter is very expensive.

There are three other game conditions that affect play. The first is US Prestige, which is a fickle mistress at best. The higher the US's Prestige, the easier it is to improve Governance. If it's low enough, the Jihadist can win just by having a lot of Muslim countries with very poor Governance. The second is Troop Deployment for the US. The more troops the US puts on the ground, the fewer cards they get. Up to five troops on the board, and you get nine cards, while six to ten gets you eight cards, and more than that gets you only seven cards drawn per turn. The third condition is Jihadist Funding, which is similar but works in the opposite direction. The higher the funding, the more cells you have available to put on the board, with a max of 9 down to 7 allowing all cells to be recruited, with 6-4 only allowing 10 cells, and 3-1 only allowing 5. Various factors will affect Prestige and Funding, but the US always has the choice of how many troops are on the board, at least most of the time.

Winning the game hinges on getting a certain number of Muslim countries to have Good governance (for the US) or Islamist (for the Jihadists). Islamist countries also have the benefit of automatically allowing the Jihadists to undertake any action using OPs for that country, and if they take over a country with WMDs the game gets much more difficult for the US, as launching a Plot that has WMDs in the US wins the game for the Jihadists immediately. The victory conditions are arguably the most convoluted part of the game, but if you remember the above concept (extremes of Governance are good for one side or the other) your path through the Labyrinth will be a lot clearer.

So how does each side get where they are going? Let's start with the Jihadists. They have the following tools to use: Recruiting, Travelling, Jihads, Plots, and of course Events (which don't use OPs, they use the Jihadist and Unassociated card events). All of these other than events generally require that the Jihadist roll dice to determine the success or failure of the operation based on the OPs number of the card played, so if a 3 OPs card is played the Jihadist would have three dice to roll for one activity. You can't use one die for Travelling and the others for Recruiting, they all have to be used on the same activity. If you roll the Governance value for the target country, you succeed, otherwise you fail. Good Governance requires a 1, Fair a 2 or less, Poor a 3 or less, and Islamist is an automatic success.

Recruiting is pretty simple - moving cells from the Funding Track to the map. Cells can either be Sleepers (harder to remove, better for the Jihadist) or Active. Whenever cells are recruited or travel, they become Sleepers. Recruiting in a country under Islamist rule or under Regime Change is automatic, and some non-Muslim countries have a higher REC value than the Governance (for example, Spain has Good Governance, but the Jihadists can recruit on a 2 or less rather than a 1). You can never recruit beyond the box that the Funding Track marker is in, so having your funding drop can be a real problem for the Jihadist. However, you are still allowed to place cells beyond this limit if they are placed by event. You can attempt to recruit one cell per OPs number.

Travelling gets the cells from one country to another and converts them from Active to Sleeper. You can travel to adjacent countries, which automatically succeeds, or you can try to get them to a more distant country, but if you fail the cell goes back to the Funding Track. Thus, trying to get a cell into the US is a risky proposition until you get them into the Philippines, Canada, the UK, or the "Shengen" countries, which is the European Union (which are all considered to be an amalgam of countries all in the same virtual location but with different boxes). You can also travel within a country simply to flip a cell to it's Sleeper side. A common opening for the Jihadist is to recruit in an Islamist country, then start to move the cells out to both adjacent and good target countries.

Plots are used to various effect depending upon the country involved, usually to change posture in non-Muslim countries, lower Prestige in countries with troops, and lower Governance values in Muslim countries. Once the Jihadists gain WMDs, their effect can become much more dangerous. Plots require either an Active cell per die rolled in that country, or a Sleeper cell flipped to Active, which makes them more vulnerable in some countries. Plots can be attempted anywhere. Plots are also a way for the Jihadist to "dump" a US event in their hand - the first card they play for a plot with a US event is placed in the "1st Plot" box and the event is ignored. Think of this as the equivalent of the Space Race in TS, and the only way the Jihadist has to dump a US event.

Jihads are the tool that allows for the creation of Islamist governments, but it's hard to do. First, there are two types of Jihad, Major and Minor. The best that a Minor Jihad can do is lower the Governance down to Poor. Once that's been accomplished, the Jihadist needs to have five more cells in the target country than there are troops, and then roll two successes in one roll. Failures remove cells to the funding track, so it can be a lot of work to get the numbers in place for a Major Jihad, but at the same time if you fail the attempt the first time the country becomes a Besieged Regime and will only require one success in the future. Converting countries to Islamist is the main goal of the Jihadist, and the main counter-effort of the US in this game. Jihads may only be attempted in Muslim countries except Iran.

You can see the general path of the Jihadist at this point. Raise funding to allow Recruitment of cells, Travel those cells to other countries where they can Plot or declare Jihad with the intent of making the US's job harder or hopefully creating Islamist governments.

The US side has a complimentary set of operations it engages in. In some ways, it's job is both easier and harder. The biggest hurdle for the US is that they can only play a card for OPs to do one thing - no spreading out of OPs over various countries. To play a card for OPs, the number must be as large as the Governance value, so to do something in a Poor country the US must play a 3 card. Fortunately, both sides can commit cards to Reserves, which essentially "bank" 1-2 OPs for a future card play that turn, so even if you get no 3 OPs cards you can still operate in Poor countries (although hobbled to some extent). The US has the following options: War of Ideas, Disrupt, Alert, and Deploy, as well as using it's own and unassociated events.

The War of Ideas is used to improve Governance/Alignment or Posture, and this is where the US has to roll for success rather than simply taking an action, unlike the Jihadist's operations. In order to be successful with a WoI roll, you want to have good US Prestige, and you want there to be as few countries as possible with the opposite Posture as the US, with the optimal number being an even split between Hard and Soft or in your favor. Getting a country from Fair to Good is difficult. I'm fairly sure that Alignment plays a role, but I don't have the game available at this particular time. If you just miss hitting the target number to improve the Governance, you instead place an Aid marker that will improve your odds for the next time, with a max of one per country at a given time. Aid will enable a lot of Jihadist events, however, so you don't want a bunch of them sitting on the table at any given time.

Disrupt operations simply flip Sleeper Cells to Active, or remove Active cells. This operation can be done in any non-Muslim country, in any country where you have troops (where it is more effective) or in a Muslim Allied country (which makes Alignment important). This is why it is so difficult for the Jihadist to get things going in a non-Muslim country, such as getting WMD plots going in the US, as any card will allow the US player to simply flip or remove cells with any OPs card play, combined with the difficulty of running OPs there for the Jihadist.

Alert requires a 3 card, but will remove an active Plot on the board and is essential for the US to use once the Jihadist gets a plot going in the US. Because WMDs are difficult for the Jihadists to get, finding these in the US before they go off is critical once WMDs hit the board.

Finally, you can deploy troops from the Troop track or on the board to an allied Muslim country, or you can use them to effect Regime Change if you play a 3 card and your posture is Hard. Once a country is in Regime Change, it becomes a breeding ground for more cells (auto Recruit in that country), and you cannot move troops out of the country unless you leave at least five more than the number of cells in that country. The net effect is to tie your troops down, and it's impractical to do this in more than one country at a time. To effect Regime change, you have to move six or more troops to the country, and you only have 15 to work with, and once you use more than ten you are down to drawing only seven cards a turn. The only way to get a country *out* of Regime Change is to convert it to Good Governance. That last task is about as hard as it is for the Jihadists to get a country to become Islamist, and is the main US goal. It is possible to withdraw troops from a Regime Change country, but it requires the US to have a Soft Posture and should only be undertaken in the most dire of situations (an Islamist government in Indonesia, for example, with no Patriot Act limiting the "adjacency" of the US to the Philippines would be a good example).

In game terms, the US spent quite a bit of time with troops tied down in both Iraq and Afghanistan and became Overstretched. I think this is about as non-political a way of explaining the situation as I've seen, and the designer/developer are to be congratulated for their work in keeping this about history rather than ideology.

As such, the US game plan is to gain a Hard posture, raise US Prestige while changing the Posture of non-Muslim nations to the same position they are in through the War of Ideas, effect Regime Change in Islamist countries through Troop Deployment, use Disruption to remove cells around the world to prevent Governance from decaying, and use the War of Ideas to improve the governance of Muslim countries, eventually to Good.

One last note: each country has a Resource value, which helps determine how many countries the Jihadist needs to become Islamist to win, six points total. Oil rich countries like the Gulf States have a Resource value of 3, while Afghanistan has a Resource value of 1. I have to wonder if the recently released report that Afghanistan actually has quite a bit of valuable resources was incorporated into the game. Whether or not the Bush administration was aware of it's resource value at the time is a very good question, but I suppose most people are relatively unaware of this factor and it won't affect their enjoyment of the game regardless.

Here's the biggest twist in this game from TS: Each side plays *two* cards in a row, starting with the Jihadist. After both sides play cards, any unblocked plots on the board are executed, with the results based on the type of country the plot is in. This allows players to do a lot of things - play two cards in a row for WoI, for example, the first hoping for at least the placement of Aid. You could also play one card for it's Reserves value, then get a second card in to take it to a 3 OPs to allow for an Alert or Regime Change operation, in effect using two 1/2 OPs cards with a combined value of 3 or more as a single 3 OPs card. For the Jihadist, they could use Travel to get enough cells in a country to attempt a Major Jihad. And, because Plots take effect after the US card play, a Plot in the US can distract the US player to generate enough OPs to remove the Alert marker when they really needed to be doing something else. This is another clever evolution in CDG design that I really like, and it speeds up play.

Lab has no scoring cards. Yay! Too many games of TS went straight down the tubes with a hand of two or three scoring cards combined with your opponent playing Red Scare/Purge and effectively shutting you down for a turn. In fact, there is no turn track in the game. Instead, you and your partner decide how long you want to play based on getting through the deck a certain number of times. From my experience, I would imagine that each deck pass would last between 2-3 hours depending upon experience, possibly less but certainly more for your first play through. When there aren't enough cards to flush out the next hand and you've played through that many decks, the game is over.

I should also mention that the game will play very quickly online, as there are no response cards in the entire game. Your opponent does their thing, then you do yours. No waiting for the other player to tell you that they will or won't play a card in response. While I like that ability in other games, at the same time how nice to be able to know who is doing what, especially in a pbem game.

There's quite a lot to like in this game. The asymmetry of the two sides (which will require more of a learning curve, fortunately the game comes with a truly excellent tutorial/example of play from Joel Toppen), the components are mostly excellent and very beefy (the board is on ultra-heavy cardstock similar to Successors), and the rules and card text are crystal clear. I guess that's to be expected from Ruhnke and Winslow, who last brought us Wilderness War, perhaps the only CDG ever published without card errata and very little errata in the ruleset. I spoke with them just after WW came out (in fact, my copy was the first production copy Volko had seen when it was released at WBC), and Rob Winslow wasn't sure he'd ever develop a game again. I think I speak for the entire hobby when I say "Thank you, Rob, we're glad you're back!" And the same goes for Volko for having quite a bit of imagination when it comes to bringing new mechanisms and asymmetric play to CDGs.

Now for the nits.

First off, the event tokens are a bit of a pain to work with. Some have events on both sides, and unless you know which ones block which other ones, it can be hard to find the right chit side for a "marked" event. On top of that, there is no way to know what the event does unless you keep the card out on the table if it has a lasting effect (as opposed to a blocking effect, which is on the chit). You have to keep the card on the table to know, which is fine if the card is to be removed, but if it isn't then you just have to remember or note it on a piece of paper. For a game that can be played almost without reading the rules from the excellent play aids and the tutorial, this seems like a swing and a miss.

Second, the play aids are per side only. As such, the Jihadist has to ask to see the US play aid to know what their operation choices are. The cards are definitely large enough, being 11"x17" unfolded, but half of the aids are devoted to the flowcharts for the solitaire game. I would have preferred to have seen the tables on the board that are on both sheets (War of Ideas, the various Test tables for Governance, Posture, and Prestige) and replace them with the other side's Operations. Once these playaids go online, or by simply photocopying, you can get them, although then that's another piece of paper to deal with.

Third, the solitaire game seems very interesting, but there will be a very steep entrance cost as not only do you need to figure out what operation the Jihadist is going to do, but where they will do it, and often in multiple places. I spent about 40 minutes per turn trying to decipher this, as it's sometimes not as clear as I'd like (for example, each box in where a cell will travel to is used once then skipped in the future for that card play). There is a very good example of play for the solo game, but expect your first game or three to take a *very* long time. I would also have preferred that Joel had chosen a single deck game with no "advanced" nerfs for the US, which make it a poor choice for continuing on with play after finishing the first turn.

Finally, I'm not sure that I'm a big fan of the thick board. Not because I don't like the board, it's very nice and lays quite flat on the table. However, there are more than a few problems with it - it takes up half the box, so sleeved cards need four bags to get them all in the box; it can't be placed in a poster frame like a paper or even thick cardstock map, and it's more susceptible to warpage. There is no question in my mind that this choice was made because of the hue and cry coming from Eurogamers who picked up and enjoy TS about how the components were terrible. By wargame standards, of course, the components were pretty much par for the course, but Eurogamers want wooden blocks, mounted boards, and thick counters. These are all in the box for Labyrinth, and I'm sure it will sell well with Eurogamers, but it's a very different game and I'm not sure that it will see the same kind of acceptance as TS got. Lab is a much more involved game that will require a higher level of play than TS, and I hope that GMT isn't making a mistake by marketing it to a broader audience. However, given their success with Dominant Species (a *very* heavy Euro/strategy game that has sold out within a month of going out to *preorders*), who am I to tell them their business? Actually, if Lab does get accepted by a larger audience than GMT typically sells to, it could start to interest these gamers in other wargames, and as a player who doesn't discriminate based on the type of game (as, unfortunately, many wargamers seem to do) but rather on the quality of the game, I'm all for it.

At this point, I have the two tutorial games, a continuation of the solitaire game, and most of a one-deck two player game under my belt, not really enough for me to make more than a few blanket conclusions. I really can't say if the luck of the draw will be the downfall of this game as it can be in TS, despite no scoring cards to mess things up. I also can't say if the game can generate enough momentum for one side or the other such that the victor becomes deterministic too early in the game, assuming equal levels of experience on both sides of the board.

I will say that I'm very pleased with the design and the development of the game, that the learning tools to get you into the game are excellent, that the game itself is very engaging (and I assume that once the flowcharts are internalized that the solitaire game will do the same), and that it's nice to finally get to play a game on a truly contemporary topic that manages to avoid partisan leanings one way or the other while still acknowledging the history (the Axis of Evil speech, for example, although no Mission Accomplished card in this game either!)

I'll end by giving the caveat that this is not a trivial game to learn and play well. The Jihadist must stretch the US capacity to engage, and more than one Islamist government and/or regime change operation at a time will quickly show just how brittle the US capability is, as history has so aptly shown us. In game terms, Afghanistan is *still* in a Regime Change state nearly eight years after we began operations there, and despite the political rhetoric we are still doing it in Iraq. That we have not had to deal with another Islamist state to date is a very good thing in terms of US security, but it's not like the US has won this war - far from it.

My initial impression is that this is the two-player game that I hoped Twilight Struggle would be and wasn't. I only hope that those who would balk at playing the side of an active enemy of the US (see the kerfuffle over a Call of Duty game that allows you play Taliban fighers) can get past themselves and realize that more or less every wargame set in the 20th Century or later, and quite a few in earlier eras, means someone is playing the side of an enemy of the US. Heck, even ACW games will have Americans in all likelihood playing a side that they still hold a grudge against, and that conflict was 150 years ago. Much better to look at this as a historical study that allows you to get a better sense of at the very least the tactics that both sides use without too much concern for the reasons for the conflict. If nothing else, there's every chance that playing the Jihadists will give Americans more reason to try to see the conflict from both sides and understand not only Muslim mores but that there are as many different takes within the Muslim community toward their own culture as there are within America for our own culture. Neither are anywhere near as homogenous as they are made out to be by the pundits and masters of opinion, and breaking down that fallacy, were it all this game ever accomplished, would be a very worthy achievement.


Greg W said...

Hey I thought the U.S. had poor governance during that time period! Anyway, where this game would fall short of TS for me is the theme. The era in TS is fascinating while the era in WoT is still just depressing. On the other hand I've never been able to play TS enough to get past the tit for tat stage and that just seemed boring. Also, my opponents always screwed something up and accidentally cased Defcon 0 so we'd scrap the game only a few turns in.

Greg W said...

Which I believe was always an application of Cooley's second law...

Dug said...

I even *invoke* Cooley's Second Law (which says that no matter how carefully you explain a game, someone will miss a critical rule. That can include the explainer!) when teaching this game, repeat over and over that there are cards that, if they give your opponent OPs, can lose you the game. They all look extremely confused when they actually make the play that does that very thing.

Now, if you stuck in business interests in the WoT into Labyrinth, which is almost certainly closer to the main motivation for many of the choices at least the US has made, then it would be depressing. I find it a little refreshing, if delusional, to pretend that all of this was actually about a clash of culture. It may have started that way, but then turned into the usual political mess almost immediately, largely because there was money to be made in the long term if we could pick an oil-rich country near the major producers that we could treat as a puppet. So far, that hasn't worked out at all and instead we spent a lot of the US treasury.

Like I say, the game kind of ignores all of that. There's really no reason to invade a country like Iraq if the Islamists aren't going after it, and in "real" history they didn't, so in the vast majority of games the US won't be nearly that stupid. There'll always be someone, though...

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