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Two Vastly Different Tabletop Games’ Takes on the ‘War on Terror’

by Michael Barnes (10/10/12).

The evocative, simple cover artwork for Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?

With the passing of another year since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, and in light of recent Islamic unrest in the Middle East, culminating in violence against Americans, I’ve been thinking once again about the so-called War on Terror. At this stage, the War on Terror has defined a generation as much as the Cold War did.

Of course, there are plentiful movies, novels, comic books, songs and video games that have communicated and tackled some of the complex issues this abstract conflict has precipitated, but there have only been a few successful attempts to bring them to the tabletop. Although these are recent games and aren’t particularly rare, collectible or valuable, I think they’re important. They demonstrate the value of game playing in expressing our culture and the times in which they are created—as all art should.

First and foremost is a game published by GMT Games and designed by a foreign policy analyst. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? makes a statement in its title, with a question mark terminating the date range depicted in the game. But more specifically, the game is rare in that it presents a very specific, very focused opinion on the nature of U.S. foreign policy in terms of dealing, negotiating and fighting with Islamic extremism and its effects, particularly on developing nations and those with “bad” governance. The political and economic effects of sending in the troops when the War of Ideas fails at the diplomatic table are a major factor for the U.S. player. The Jihadist player has to contend with extremely limited, hard-to-manage forces spread thin.

As Afghanistan falls to the Jihadists, the brown cubes represent U.S. troops. Yikes.

It’s a card-driven game, with players using cards to activate on-board resources and perform actions. The cards also provide an incredible wealth of images and narrative that tell the story of the War on Terror. Almost everything you could think of connected to this subject was represented in some way. Tora Bora. The Anthrax scare. Zaqawri. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The threat of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into Jihadist hands. Those Danish cartoons that ignited a firestorm of Muslim anger. “Let’s Roll.” Saddam Hussein found in the bottom of a spider hole, haggard and cornered at last. The game also includes copious notes and an appendix listing every card and their background.

This is not a valuable or rare game as of this writing—you can find it for about $35 pretty easily—but its value is in giving game players a unique, participatory insight into the War on Terror, how it was (and is being) fought, and a snapshot of the geopolitical situation of the past decade. I’d like to think that in time that it will become a quaint relic of this era. In years to come it could become more valuable as a reminder of these events, personalities and situations.

War on Terror: It’s like a political cartoon you can play.

On a much, much less serious note, War on Terror is the editorial cartoon to Labyrinth’s somber treatment of the subject matter. It’s a 2006 publication produced in the United Kingdom by TerrorBull Games. It stirred up a bit of controversy over there, leading to investigation of the game and its publishers and bannings in some areas. It’s unfortunate that not everyone got the joke, but it may be a case of “too soon.”

An example of one of the cards and the kind of humor in the game.

Each player takes on the abstract role of a world leader. The goal is to liberate the world from terrorism. The catch is that doing so may mean that your empire switches sides and becomes terrorist itself, and the goal then becomes to liberate the world from its governing empires. It’s a Risk-style game of territorial control, with regions producing oil as a resource. Effectively, the whole game is about fighting over all, funding terrorists to interfere with your opponents, and then winding up fighting the same terrorists that you funded. Usually, the game winds up with the Empires bankrupt and the terrorists running amok if the ostensible “good guys” don’t work together. The game clearly has a political message.

It’s very lighthearted, despite the heavy implications of the subject matter. The game comes with an actual balaclava with the word EVIL embroidered on it, because one player is dubbed the Evil Empire and they’ve got to wear it while they’re Evil. It comes with a notepad so you can pass secret messages, plotting and scheming with your allies to achieve certain goals. All of the above, coupled with cartoon artwork and some rather cunningly subtle and not-so-subtle jokes about the subject matter place this game squarely in the realm of satire

War on Terror was hard to come by in the U.S. when it was first available, with import copies selling upwards of $60. It’s since been made domestically available and is in print so, again, it’s not a particularly collectible or rare item. But again, its value is really as a sort of time capsule of our era. Not only that, I think it’s important that it has a lighter touch and laughs a little at the concept of a War on Terror, pointing out its absurdity and its possible no-win outcome.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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