Playing the Present: Gaming Egypt with GMT’s Labyrinth
There is a story that circulates among wargamers about a German Kriegspiel being played out at a command post somewhere in France in 1944, when reports of an Allied attack along the lines of what was being simulated in the game began arriving at the headquarters. The general staff ordered the game to continue, updated with realtime information from the front. What happens, then, when we play not the past but our present, with a game timely and topical enough to encompass the rapidly unfolding events in Egypt and the Middle East?
Labyrinth, subtitled “The War on Terror, 2001 – ?” is a board wargame released by GMT Games this past December. One player is the United States, the other the “Jihadists.” Both sides have several ways to win, but in general the Jihadists are trying to establish an Islamic Caliphate, while the US is attempting to temper Islamic extremism by promoting “good governance” throughout the Middle East and Asia. The Jihadists can also win with a successful WMD attack in the United States (this is rather difficult to pull off in game terms) and the US can alternately win by eliminating every last Jihadist “cell” on the board (about equally difficult). Each turn represents a year of calendar time. As in the successful GMT title Twilight Struggle on which it is loosely based, the actual game play is driven by hands of cards, dealt from a custom 120-card deck, each of which presents each player with various current or conjectural events (“Benazir Bhutto” or “Danish Cartoons” or “Loose Nuke”) and/or Operations, which might include (for the US) “War of Ideas” or “Disrupting” terror cells or (for the Jihadist) “Plots,” “Recruitment,” and attempts to destabilize individual countries. Finding one’s way through the complex decision trees each hand of cards will present each turn, anticipating consequences and chain reactions and moves and counter-moves, all the while never knowing what your opponent has in store is the game’s “labyrinth.”
Labyrinth is not the first board game to tackle global terrorism—predecessors includes both Lightning War on Terror (by all accounts rather dumb) and the bitingly satiric War on Terror (by all accounts rather smart)—but it is the first game of which I’m aware, either tabletop or computer, that attempts to present an earnest geopolitical model of the post-9/11 world. It is far more comprehensive in this regard than, say, the self-described “toy world” of Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th, and has nothing at all in common with shooter dreck like Six Days in Fallujah. The game’s potential as a teaching tool has already been explored (I highly recommend Rex Brynen’s post as a complement to this one). That said, Labyrinth has also been subjected to intense scrutiny within the wargaming player community, both pre- and post-release. Objections have run the gamut from reflection about the appropriateness of a “game” whose point of departure is the destruction of the World Trade Center and which features card events for Predator strikes, Renditions, Enhanced Measures, Amerithrax, and Martyrdom operations, to more nuanced critiques of the game’s actual geopolitical model, its worldview and interpretation of what “the war on terror” actually means. Designer Volko Ruhnke, an international relations analyst who previously crafted a well-received game on the French and Indian War, has publicly stated that he views Labyrinth as a “conversation starter,” and in this regard it has certainly succeeded. In the long run, whether it is just fodder for the grognard’s voracious appetite for new product and the sometimes morbid taste for novelty that accompanies it remains to be seen.
Labyrinth does try. Although the back of the box description is marred by a tasteless pun on “let’s roll” (as in dice, as well as the jingoist refrain poached from Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer), the game generally manifests a reasonable awareness of the complexities and sensitivities of its subject. The rulebook immediately goes out of its way to differentiate “Jihadists” from “the world’s many millions of peaceful, devout Muslims.” The cover of the rulebook, instead of the Predator drones or Apache helicopters one might expect from a wargame, shows a US soldier, weapon slung, squatting alongside an Arab male in tribal garb, the two of them conversing. In fact, playing Labyrinth can feel curiously antiseptic, partly accounted for by the mental energy required to work through each turn, processing as many contingencies and counter-moves as it is possible to predict, but also because the violence remains mostly abstracted. Yes, the Jihadists can acquire WMDs and set them off, but their precise nature—nuclear, biological, chemical—is never specified. Yes, the Jihadist can “Plot,” but the nature of the plots is left to the imagination. Similarly, the US player removes cells from the board through a process the game identifies only as “Disruption.” Most dramatically, the US can attempt “Regime Change” by deploying troops to a hostile nation, but even here there is no actual combat in any sense recognizable from a traditional wargame. (The US “troops” are merely undifferentiated wooden blocks, and the Jihadist cells are equally homogenous black cylinders with a green-stamped star and crescent on one end to distinguish active from sleeper.) So players looking to have their Special Forces kick in doors in Kandahar—or send a suicide bomber into a crowded marketplace—will have to look elsewhere for their entertainments.
The game board is centered on Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Asia. Some three dozen countries are represented, and the heart of the game is tracking and attempting to influence individual states’ global posture through a dual matrix that expresses both the country’s alignment with respect to the US (Ally, Neutral, or Adversary), and its current state of governance, which can range from “Good” through “Fair,” “Poor,” and finally “Islamist Rule.” (More on that in a bit.) Much game play revolves around attempts to influence and alter these alignments, the US primarily through a mechanic known as “War of Ideas” that abstracts monetary aid, propaganda, and diplomatic pressure, and the Jihadist through a combination of “Plots” to lower US Prestige and major and minor “Jihads” to destabilize a regime and cause its governance to falter, first to “Poor” and then to “Islamist.” In game terms then, Saudi Arabia starts as an Ally of the US with Poor governance, while Iraq begins (in 2001) as an Adversary of the US with Poor governance. Pakistan is Neutral but enjoys Fair governance and Afghanistan is under Islamist Rule, and so on. Playing Labyrinth demands that a player juggle a mental model of these constantly shifting nation-state alignments—especially important since the game enables a kind of Cold War domino effect whereby promoting good governance in one country makes it easier to foster the same in its neighbor. (Ditto for the forces of extremism.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but one line of critique argues that the game is thus a neo-con wet dream. The US player has the capacity to attempt to influence the governance of any Muslim country on the board, and it’s a toss of the dice as to whether or not they succeed. Most tellingly, the game’s model fails to account for an “Islamist” state whose interests aren’t inimical to the US, nor does it account (much) for changes in governance that are not instigated via the long arm of US policy-making.
Egypt itself, like many countries on the board, starts a game of Labyrinth “untested,” meaning neither player knows its precise alignment, determined by die roll at the moment the country first comes into play. As a Muslim state, it will always either begin with Poor governance (2/3 of the time) or Fair governance (the remaining 1/3); likewise, the default opening posture of untested Muslim nations is always Neutral with regard to the US. In game terms, Egypt is identified as a Sunni Muslim nation, a distinction which primarily impacts the play of various card events. The only card event to center on Egypt is for Al-Azhar university in Cairo, a “bastion of Islamic moderation” as the card text has it, which will “test” Egypt as per above and immediately trigger a drop in the Jihadist’s level of funding, a key game mechanic that impacts the number of cells they can have in play as well as the number of cards in their hand. Most importantly, Egypt is worth three “Resource” points, the primary variable in the scoring of the game. Thus Egypt, while removed from what is often the game’s initial locus of activities (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf States) is a potentially valuable ally for the US and a tempting target for the Jihadist to attempt installing Islamist Rule.
And here, perhaps, is where the game’s model begins to really creak and strain, for despite all of its nuances in its other aspects, Labyrinth really gives us no tools with which to understand recent events in Tunisia or the kind of headlines coming out of Cairo right now. Again in game terms, the Egypt of a week ago is probably best understood as a nation with Poor governance, and Neutral in posture to the US. Its “poor” governance, though, clearly does not mean that it is but a step away from Islamist Rule (which is as the game would have it), and US aid to the country (totaling some $1.5 billion per annum) is with the end of propping up the Mubarak regime (in its present state of Poor governance), rather than moving the country towards Good governance (which would presumably entail the ousting of Mubarak). In short, for all of its twisty little passages, Labyrinth is, in the end, irreducibly bipolar, as its lineage in its parent game, Twilight Struggle, with its Cold War antagonists, suggests. The “Arab street” about which one hears so much on CNN is without any real agency here, nor do the rest of the world’s nations seek to exercise their sovereign will, as regimes rise and fall on the machinations of the US administration or the sinister “plotting” of Jihadists.
Does that mean that Labyrinth is really just a house of cards, a gussied up game of Risk with a thin veneer of topicality slathered on top? I don’t think that tells the whole story either. As one online poster put it in the thick of a recent thread, “the very fact that we can have a reasonable discussion about Egypt in game terms – an event that’s happening AFTER the game was designed – is testimony to something.” It is, again, the first civilian (i.e., non-classified) attempt of which I’m aware to seriously attempt to model the current global situation as a playable simulation in any medium, and that alone makes it noteworthy, a game that should be explored by anyone interested in the current state of the game maker’s art. At the level of its actual play it is often engaging and immersive, and the rules systems appear balanced and well-tested. Despite its many aspects that call out for critical scrutiny, I believe Labyrinth has been good for strategy gaming, demonstrating the vitality of board games for exploring material that big-budget computer games can’t or won’t touch.
But Labyrinth must finally be understood not as the world or our world but as a possible world, one in which key precepts of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” actually function as intended. (While the game does not incorporate any events explicitly tied to Obama’s presidency, its always-on-target Predator strikes certainly mean that the current administration is not exempt from implication in the system’s more fantastical elements. The designer has also mentioned the possibility of an “Obama deck” as an expansion for the game.) Labyrinth gives us a world in which invading Afghanistan and shutting down the breeding ground for extremism is a strategy that actually pays off, and the establishment of “good governance” in Iraq increases the chances for the same in, say, neighboring Syria. Yet it is also a world in which the Islamic Caliphate may take shape through a process that begins with a few isolated cells (cadres) hatching plots to destabilize governments and create the conditions for “Jihad” or the overthrow of the ruling regime and its replacement with an Islamist State—which can then become an active base for the destabilization of its neighbors. In that sense too it is a fantasy, one that would gratify Bin Laden as much as any hack at the Heritage Foundation.
This is not, in the end, a particularly likable world; yet it explains why the game’s cover imagery prominently features not only a combat infantryman on patrol but also a chess knight, that Cold War icon of old who operates not from within the maze but atop a different kind of game board, a rectilinear grid where each square is only ever one unchanging color. For all of its bold topicality then, the primary register for play of Labyrinth may be nostalgia.