Playing Alone #1 – Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?

In a moment of recent weakness (i.e. my third child had just been born, I hadn’t slept in three days and I was walking past my FLGS on the way to the train station) I picked up a copy of GMT Games’ Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?. Why? Well, apart from being attracted by the unwieldy, punctuation-strewn title (henceforth abbreviated to LWOT), I knew it was well regarded on BoardGameGeek and it was a close cousin to “the best game ever”, Twilight Struggle, but with a solitaire system built into the game. Perfect.

It’s a card-driven game, somewhere in the no-man’s land between wargames and… well, everything else, really. It’s not what I’d call a wargame as such, but it is a game of conflict between two opposing sides, roughly simulating an actual war of sorts. And thus LWOT has courted a little controversy for two main reasons:

  1. It’s based on a current, ongoing conflict, with many of the cards representing real people (living or dead), recent events or things you don’t really want to have to think about while playing a game. For example, one of the cards represents the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Too soon? Maybe for some.
  2. In the two-player game, one player controls the US while the other controls the global jihadist movement. Yes, you get to be a terrorist. Not a cartoony, balaclava-wearing terrorist, but a setting-off-WMDs-in-Israel and overthrowing-the-Somalian-government terrorist. It’s a bit… dark.

However, the second point there brings up my favourite thing about LWOT: it’s completely asymmetrical. The US player has certain actions they can take with the operational value of their cards (disrupting terrorist cells, deploying troops to allied Muslim countries, conducting a War of Ideas, etc.), which are almost entirely automatically successful once they’ve played a card of high enough value. The Jihadist player has an entirely different set of actions (recruit terrorist cells, carry out jihad in countries with cells, set up bomb plots), which require a die roll for success every single time. The upshot of this is that the Jihadist can carry out operations all over the world, regardless of their cards, but the operations are prone to failure, while the US can only play where they have strong enough cards, but the operations work nearly all the time. It’s a neat touch that simulates the difference between a covert network of sparsely funded terrorist cells and the military and political might of the US.

The other nice little touch in LWOT is that the turns flow thus: (1) Jihadist plays two cards; (2) US plays two cards; (3) unblocked terror plots are resolved. The fact you play two cards means you can line up some nice combos to get things done more effectively than if you were playing just one card each time. You can also save up operational points value in “Reserves”, ready for use later in the turn, so if you don’t have the 3 points needed to play in a country with Poor governance, you can play a 2-value card into Reserves and then a 1-value card, clearing out the Reserves for a total of 3.

I couldn't bear to show you the whole flowchart. Here's a nice tan die instead.

I couldn’t bear to show you the whole flowchart. Here’s a nice tan die instead.

In the solo rules, the player controls the US while the Jihadist actions are controlled by a blind hand of cards and a flowchart. It takes a bit of getting used to (the flowchart being a little arcane the first few times you use it), but the process is greatly enhanced by some enterprising soul having written some Python code to fully automate the Jihadist AI process for you. Not only does it make all the flowchart decisions for you, but it saves the complete game-state when you quit the programme, meaning you can play part of a game, pack up, then fire up the code, type “status” and just follow the list to set everything back out again. This is a major boon, given that LWOT can take a good three hours, even when you know what you’re doing. And I don’t.

So, having played through the 2-player tutorial in the “Playbook” and had a learning game with the solo rules (losing horribly in the process), I sat down over a few evenings to see if I could defeat the global jihadist movement…

Note: The rest of this blog post is a long and detailed report. You have been warned! If you don’t know the game, it might be handy to see the board – there’s a very good, clear image here.

Scenario: “Let’s Roll!”

Round 1 – 2001

A lucky US draw for the first round – nine cards, mainly with US-associated events on them, and all the Jihadist-associated events were unplayable at the time and likely to remain so. (When using a card for its operational points value (OPS), if the card features an event associated with your opponent, that event must also be played out if possible. This can be devastating.) However, the Jihadist started out with 3 OPS of recruitment, putting three fresh sleeper cells in Afghanistan (on top of the four already present), followed by the FATA event in Pakistan. This leaves me unable to disrupt cells in Pakistan unless the country is in a state of US-enforced regime change. A very bad start for me in that region.

Afghanistan awash with sleeper cells, with FATA active in Pakistan. If the Jihadist AI can get a foothold in Pakistan and take it down to Islamist Rule, they'll get the WMDs in that yellow box and be able to do me severe damage. A bad start!

Afghanistan awash with black sleeper cells, with FATA active in Pakistan. If the Jihadist AI can get a foothold in Pakistan and take it down to Islamist Rule, they’ll get the WMDs in that yellow box and be able to do me severe damage. A bad start!

In a bit of a Pakistan panic, I played both of my two cards for their OPS value on War of Ideas in Pakistan. This is the only major US operation that needs die rolls (success on a 5 or 6 after modifiers), and I was extremely lucky both times, bringing Pakistan’s alignment first from Neutral to Ally, and then its governance from Fair to Good. The better the governance in a country, the harder it is for the Jihadist to carry out operations there, so this felt like a major gain.

And then the Jihadist AI immediately carried out a minor jihad in Pakistan and hit lucky on the die roll (success only on a 1), which took it down to Fair again. At least its follow-up attempted terror plot roll failed. Another lucky US War of Ideas roll in the Gulf States brought it up to Good, which is handy in such an oil-rich country (high resources in a country helps me towards victory if it’s under Good governance), but the luck ran out with another War of Ideas roll in Pakistan, remaining at Fair. A couple of failed Jihadist rolls later, the US luck was back in action in Saudi Arabia, taking it to Fair governance. That was an expensive move, having used Reserves and taken two cards to get to the 3 OPS necessary for an operation in an initially Poor country, but it paid off. The +1 modifier from the neighbouring Gulf States at Good was very handy.

The Jihadist AI suddenly turned evil, using the Martyrdom Operation card to put two Terror Plots into Israel. With no US cards left that could get me to the 3 OPS necessary to “Alert” and remove a Plot, I knew they’d have to just go boom. The second Jihadist card – Clean Operatives – travelled two sleeper cells from Afghanistan to the US. From bad to worse – one of the Jihadist’s victory conditions is to set off a WMD attack in the US, and having cells there is the first step towards that goal. My response was to use a 1-OPS card to disrupt the two cells in the US, flipping them from sleeper to active, and then another 1-OPS to disrupt them again, removing them entirely. A reasonable result, but a Cadre marker was left behind, making it possible for the Jihadist to recruit there easily in future. The outstanding Plots in Israel had to be resolved, but they served simply to reset the Jihadist Funding back to its maximum level of 9. Not such a bad result.

The final Jihadist card of 2001 used its OPS value to “Radicalize”, which is an operation unavailable in the two-player game. This placed one sleeper cell in Kenya/Tanzania (which was found to have a Soft posture towards the Global War on Terror, leaving the world on balance between Hard and Soft) and made one cell travel from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Round 2 – 2002

With US Prestige at 5 (giving no bonus or penalty to War of Ideas rolls in Muslim countries) and the world hovering on the edge of a globally Soft posture while the US was on Hard, things were starting to look a little difficult. Jihadist Funding was still high at 8, but at least the US didn’t have many of its troops (tan cubes) deployed onto the board, so both sides were drawing nine cards each.

The first Jihadist card took Pakistan down to Poor governance (yielding an audible gulp from me), radicalized a cell into Somalia and moved one from Afghanistan to the Gulf States. The second card was Hambali, planting a Terror Plot in Pakistan! Being an event associated with neither Jihadist nor US, there was then an attempt at jihad in the Gulf States (thankfully failed, sending the cell back to the Jihadist Funding Track), followed by a cell placed in Germany (tested at Soft posture, taking the world to 1 Soft, now opposed to the US Hard stance – this opposition in posture means penalties on War of Ideas rolls in Muslim countries) and another cell travelling from Afghanistan to the Gulf States. Phew. Quite an active Jihadist phase.

I played Uyghur Jihad for 1 OPS in order to disrupt the cell in the Gulf States, flipping it to its active side and boosting US Prestige up to 6 because of the two troops present in the country. The playable Jihadist event on the card meant that China was tested as Soft, pushing the world down to 2 Soft. I then played Ansar al-Islam for its War of Ideas OPS value in Germany – jackpot! A lucky roll flipped Germany to Hard posture, bringing the world up to even between Hard and Soft, and boosting US Prestige to 7. Back on track. But the unblocked plot in Pakistan pushed Jihadist Funding up to 9 again.

The next Jihadist phase saw the play of Adam Gadahn, which uses the OPS value of the next card played to recruit cells in the US with an increased chance of success. Luckily, both rolls failed and that used up the two Jihadist cards, so it felt like the LWOT equivalent of playing the “One Quiet Night” card in Pandemic. A successful War of Ideas by the US saw Pakistan improve to Fair governance, but a follow-up to Good failed – the -1 die modifier for improvement to Good can be a real kicker. The Jihadist followed up this minor success by playing Zawahiri, pushing my Prestige down to 4, just on the edge of causing me problems. The next Jihadist card was US Election, which is automatically played regardless of operations. While three more sleeper cells slipped into Afghanistan, the US flipped to Soft posture and Prestige increased to 5. Not a bad result, given that it’s easier to keep the rest of the world Soft than Hard, although Soft US posture makes Regime Change operations impossible.

My next turn saw a War of Ideas improving Saudi Arabia from Fair to Good governance, giving me a total of 6 resources in Good countries – halfway to victory! Another attempt to improve Pakistan failed. The Jihadist played Schengen Visas, testing Eastern Europe as Soft (improving my position in relation to the world posture) and placing a cell there and in Germany. This was fine by me, because any plots placed by cells in Schengen countries can lead to a serious increase in world Soft-ness, which would further improve my position. Another three sleeper cells arrived in Afghanistan, leading me to think I should have played GTMO (preventing Jihadist recruit operations) earlier in the round. Oh well.

A few terrorist cells in the EU aren't anything to worry about right now. I hope.

A few terrorist cells in the EU aren’t anything to worry about right now. I hope.

I finally managed to get Pakistan to Good governance, bringing Good resources up to 8. An attempted War of Ideas in Lebanon failed, remaining at Poor Neutral. The Jihadist rounded off 2002 by playing Regional al-Qaeda, placing cells into Sudan and Indonesia/Malaysia, testing both at Poor Neutral. As I was holding just one card, I had the option of discarding it instead of playing it – I did indeed discard, as it was Abu Sayyaf, and I didn’t want the hassle of Jihadist cells turning up in the Philippines.

My Axis of Awesome in the East. All that lovely oil...

My Axis of Awesome in the East. All that lovely oil…

Round 3 – 2003

Having taken a day’s break, I returned to finish things off. US Prestige at 4 was worrying (one point above getting die penalties on War of Ideas), but the world’s Soft posture was handily aligned with my own, so any War of Ideas operations in non-Muslim countries were more likely to improve both my posture-position and my Prestige. It felt like it wouldn’t take too much effort to get to the 12 Good resources needed for victory.

The Jihadist AI started by playing Darfur, bringing Sudan down to Poor Adversary and Besieged Regime status, meaning it would be easier to convert to Islamist Rule with a major jihad. Hmmm. One to keep an eye on. Two cells failed their travel rolls, so returned to the funding track, but one moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan automatically. An attempted minor jihad in Pakistan failed. I followed with two consecutive War of Ideas operations in Indonesia/Malaysia, bringing it to Fair Ally – nearly there, with its precious 3 resources. The Jihadist played Wahhabism next, adding a theoretical 1 to their Funding track, but it was already maxed out at 9, so it was a wasted card. The next Jihadist play was a 3-OPS US-associated card, meaning three attempts at plotting. All three rolls failed, meaning cells in Kenya/Tanzania, China and Eastern Europe went from sleeper to active, making them easier to remove by disruption.

I spent my next two cards on War of Ideas in Indonesia/Malaysia. A failure… followed by a success! Another Good Ally took the total of Good resources to 11.


The Jihadist play of Al-Anbar placed a cell into Iraq and limited disruption of cells in Iraq and Syria. An attempted jihad in Indonesia/Malaysia failed, so the single cell there was removed, leaving the country feeling safe for now. I then played 1 OPS into Reserves, followed by a 2-OPS card to make a total of 3 OPS for War of Ideas in Lebanon. The die roll just failed, meaning Aid was placed into Lebanon (giving +1 to future War of Ideas rolls), but the 2-OPS card just played was Hariri Killed, pushing Syria down to Poor Adversary. All these Adversary alignments might make things difficult, because War of Ideas can’t be used to improve an Adversary country.

A Jihadist plot attempt in Kenya/Tanzania failed, but a plot in China succeeded, placing a random Terror Plot marker there. Another three cells moved into Afghanistan and then it was my turn to respond. I didn’t want the chance of the plot flipping China to Hard posture (which would push the world to 1 Hard, opposed to my Soft US posture), so I had to eliminate the plot. That would cost 3 OPS, which I didn’t have in a single card. I had to play 1 OPS into Reserves again, followed by a 2-OPS card, giving me the 3 OPS required to take the Alert operation. The Chinese plot was removed, but I’d taken my whole action phase to do it. At least it was cleared.

But no. The next Jihadist card used its single 1 OPS to successfully place a plot in China again. Dammit. I only had a single 2-OPS card left, so the plot would have to go undefended. Even worse, it was a Jihadist-associated card with a nasty event (Gaza War), so I discarded it. The unblocked plot went off in China, leaving the Jihadist Funding at its maximum 9… but flipping the Chinese posture – against the odds – to Hard. Nuts.

The Beijing Bomb goes off. Note the snazzy crescent/star symbol to denote the active side of the cell.

The Beijing Bomb goes off, causing China to Harden. Note the snazzy crescent/star symbol to denote the active side of the cell.

Round 4 – 2004

With Afghanistan still under Islamist Rule (no way was I going to commit six troop cubes for a Regime Change, even if I had Hard US posture), US Prestige dropped to 3 at the end of 2003, into the Low Prestige range giving -1 to War of Ideas rolls in Muslim countries. With the world at 1 Hard against my Soft US, improving governance in Muslim countries was going to be tough, so my number one priority was to get the world back to Soft again, and hopefully improve my Prestige in the process.

The Jihadist AI began the year by playing Homegrown, which should place a cell in the UK, but with no cells available for recruitment it was radicalization instead. One cell moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and one Terror Plot marker was automatically placed in Lebanon. The second card led to 1 OPS of radicalization as well, so there was another plot placed into Lebanon. I couldn’t really afford to deal with both plots, so I’d just have to leave them to go off. A successful post-plot roll couldn’t worsen governance (already at Poor), but it would remove the Aid marker there. I played a 1-OPS card to roll War of Ideas in Germany, successfully changing the country to Soft, moving the world to 1 Soft and improving US Prestige to 4, out of the penalty region. That was a major result. A War of Ideas in Somalia failed, leaving it at Poor Neutral.

So to the resolution of the Lebanese plots… which turned out to be levels 3 and 2, the two worst available plots! Five dice were rolled, and all failed, leaving my precious Aid marker intact. Incredibly lucky. It might be wise to take my operations back to Lebanon soon to make good use of that Aid. The Jihadist followed my little victory by devastating my overall position. The Taliban card caused 3 OPS of radicalization. One cell moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, while the governance in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States both dropped automatically to Fair, instantly removing 6 of my valuable Good resources. It was going to take a bit of work to get that back. As a small commiseration, a plot attempt in Kenya/Tanzania failed.

At this point, I had lots of 2-OPS Jihadist-associated cards with unplayable conditions (Pirates, Kazakh Strain, Loose Nuke…), so I needed to use them before conditions worsened and their events became playable. I used two for War of Ideas in the Gulf States, both attempts failing. The Jihadist followed up by failing plot attempts in Kenya/Tanzania, then Germany and Kenya/Tanzania (again). My next action phase was much more successful, using War of Ideas to bring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States back to Good governance, leaving me in the position I was a few turns ago. Phew.

The Jihadist attempted jihad (as jihadists are wont to do) in Pakistan, but both rolls failed, sending both cells present back to the funding track. This was good news, with Pakistan looking much safer in its Good-ness. The second Jihadist card was Martyrdom Operation, this time played in Germany. The sleeper there was removed (leaving an active cell) and replaced with two plots. This was potentially bad news, because a plot going off in a Schengen country (most of the EU) means that posture gets tested in two other countries as well. I could do with eliminating at least one of the plots. To counter this situation, I played Jihadist Videos, taking the Jihadist event first, before using the OPS value. France was found to be Hard, bringing the world’s Hard/Soft posture to even, while Central Asia tested as Poor Neutral. Cadre markers were added to both, and to Indonesia/Malaysia. Using the 3 OPS from that card, I removed a German plot. I didn’t have another 3-OPS card to remove the other plot, so I disrupted in Germany instead, removing the active cell from there.

Resolving the bomb in Berlin, Jihadist Funding stayed at 9 (where it had been pretty much the whole game anyway), Germany flipped to Hard, but France flipped to Soft and Italy tested as Soft, bringing the whole world to 1 Soft. That’s quite the result for a supposedly negative event. The final Jihadist card of the year recruited three fresh new sleeper cells to Afghanistan, bringing the total there to seven. I played my final card (Kosovo) for its event, taking Prestige up to 5 and making Serbia Hard (world now even).

Round 5 – 2005

Now well past halfway through the deck (and this was a single-deck game, not an optional longer two- or three-deck game), it was time to strike the killer blow. Luckily, the weapon was handed to me in the card draw – Oil Price Spike. This card increases by 1 the resource value of any country with the “oil” symbol, for one round; for me, that meant a boost of 3 (1 each from Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Indonesia/Malaysia), giving instant victory with a total of 14 Good resources – 2 more than needed for the win. I just had to make it through the Jihadist action phase without losing any resources.

The first Jihadist card was Martyrdom Operation (the third occurrence in one game), placing two plots into Eastern Europe. That wouldn’t be a problem if I could win after the next card… which was a US-associated 3-OPS card, which meant two cells successfully recruited to Sudan, followed by one travelling from Afghanistan to Sudan. The Jihadist was clearly gearing up for major jihad in Sudan, to turn it to Islamist rule, but I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I played Oil Price Spike, meaning the Sudanese Islamist Revolution never happened, and the bomb plots in Eastern Europe never went off. The US was victorious!

The board at the end of the game. Terrorist cells everywhere, but good governance where it matters most – the oil-rich countries. Made me feel quite cynical, actually...

The board at the end of the game. Terrorist cells and enemy governments everywhere, but good governance where it matters most – the oil-rich countries. Made me feel quite cynical, actually…

Thoughts after my glorious victory… Well, I really enjoyed it. It’s certainly a little odd for me to play a game so deeply entrenched in current affairs and war, but it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever played. The inclusion of several scenarios – based on various phases of the real-life “war on terror” – and varying difficulty levels should give the game extensive replayability, and there’s still the proper two-player game to explore.

If I can find a willing opponent, that is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *