In this series, we’ll be taking a look back at the most influential game of each year of the past decade starting with Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? from 2010. The last decade saw a true resurgence of wargaming that some have called a second golden-age. While I think that designation probably falls into the late 2000’s, there’s simply no denying the breadth of incredible wargaming titles from the last decade.
Labyrinth was designed by Volko Ruhnke and released in 2010 by GMT Games. It was instantly a hot topic for wargamers. It seemed, on the surface, like a retread of the incredibly popular Twilight Struggle. Upon closer inspection, however, any notion of this game being a 21st century descendent of the Cold War focused Twilight Struggle flew out the window. The game focused on the conditions of the War on Terror giving gamers a petri-dish to understand how terror cells grow, spread, and influence larger global events from thousands of miles apart.
The game was almost instantly a success in terms of sales and interest in the topic was definitely high. Within a few weeks of publication Labyrinth had entered the top 300 boardgames on BoardGameGeek.
The initial response, though positive, did have some questions raised about the content and its simulation value. (SOURCE: https://bgg.cc/thread/585823/how-fairly-does-it-reflect-conflict-islamic-extrem) These discussions were largely born out of a reaction to topical material that was recent enough not to be fully understood. It makes sense and, in hindsight, seems inevitable.
The heart of many debates had to do with the notion of “good governance” and what that meant. Volko Ruhnke, the designer, responded in his typical even-headed manner explaining that “Second, as to the US side’s objective of good governance, that is express US strategy (read, for example, senior CT official John Brennan). That objective is not out of the goodness of US official hearts, but rather out of US strategic interest in undoing the basis of extremism.”
This debate, seemed to occur on a number of topics again and again, and with Volko, at times, entering the fray to logically and soundly respond to well-meaning but false narrative critiques of the game or system. The audacity to carry out a game with such a complicated ethical and world-view dependent narrative was brave to the say the least.
The game did prove it’s detractors wrong as time went on though and highlighted the significant influence of both Pakistan and Indonesia as havens for terror that have far-reaching terror implications. Rarely do games presage real-world events, but when they do it’s a testament to the expertise and deft understanding of fluid situations. Consequently, Labyrinth did win a massive audience through the careful stewardship through an early rocky period by both GMT Games, Joel Toppen, and Volko Ruhnke.
It’s clear, in hindsight, that this game is the most important conflict simulation of 2010. Cataloging the ways in which it has been influential goes beyond the subsequent two expansions and its central role in framing the Counter Insurgency (COIN) system that Ruhnke also designed.
Labyrinth’s crowning achievement is proving that well-considered and humane treatments of contemporary conflicts have an important place in the hobby. I’m not entirely certain that prior to Labyrinth there were many games that fit this bill. Certainly Herman’s Gulf Strike and Karp’s Vietnam 1965-1975 come to mind, but few widely consumed projects beyond this seem to do so with the same level of care and thought-provoking gameplay.
Ultimately, the system proved so successful that multiple print runs and fan-generated interest lead to expansions that cover the “?” duration of the Global War On Terror that continues a decade later. The question that deserves to be recognized and answered by Labyrinth is whether conflict simulations serve as an effective means of education on emotionally charged contemporary topics. The answer, at least to me is a resounding yes.
The other aspect of Labyrinth, as a result, is that companies have subsequently tackled ethically complicated topics as gaming topics. Whether that is This Guilty Land from Hollandspiele, A Distant Plain from GMT Games, or even games like An Infamous Traffic or John Company both from designer Cole Wehrle. It is irrelevant whether Labyrinth was a direct inspiration for these titles. It is relevant that the game was successful and that it marked the tipping point in the hobby when games like this could get published and be well-received.
Labyrinth is the singularly best game to both start the decade and to represent 2010 for all these reasons. If you’ve not had the pleasure of playing this game, I cannot recommend it enough!