Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: Labyrinth

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, Twilight Struggle is one of my all-time favorite board games, though it sadly does not get as much play as I would like. Also, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, I lived in the Philadelphia area, so the proximity of the attacks was significant in the way it was portrayed on our media, though fortunately, I have not had any direct losses due to the attacks. Also, I am an anti-war, Green Party, hard-core liberal quasi-wonk, though my family is rather conservative and not just by using me as a barometer.


The Overview:


The box cover. Subdued artwork that really says a lot.



Contents of the box. 



Labyrinth: The War on Terror is a modern strategy wargame that also covers a vast political game as well. The game is playable as either a two-player game or solitaire. In the two-player game, one player controls the United States while the other controls less defined Islamist Jihadists in a very asymmetrical conflict. In the solitaire game, the player controls the United States against the Jihadists, which are controlled by an AI flowchart.

The game is for 1-2 players. The two player game takes about 90 minutes to play through the deck one time once players are familiar with the decks. However, the game's length can be modified to play through the deck one, two or three times. Each subsequent play through the deck adds about 60 minutes to the play time. All of this can be cut short by one side reaching one of their "auto-win" conditions. I find that the solitaire game takes a little longer, but that is shortening up as the flowchart becomes more and more familiar to me.

The game set-up allows players to choose one of four different starting set-ups, each representing a different era in the US's war on terror. What will probably be the most common set-up is "Let's Roll", which is set post-9/11 with the world's views less set as they watch to see what the US's response to the attacks will be. However, other set-ups include a post-Operation Enduring Freedom scenario and a post-Operation Iraqi Freedom scenario, in which the world's views on terrorism are a bit more firmly set. There is also an alternate history set-up in which Al Gore won the 2000 election and the set-up is the same as the "Let's Roll" set-up, but with the US taking a different starting stance on Global Terrorism.

Usually I try to get into the rules with greater depth, but I'm going to be a little more general with the rules descriptions.

The map is set-up with both Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries being important in the game. Muslim countries can be set in one of three alignments from the US's perspective. They can be Allied, Neutral or Adversaries. The US can only deploy Troops into Allied countries, so if they wish to attack or counter Jihadist Cells in that location, they need to be allied with them first. Muslim countries also have their Governance set, again from the US perspective, they can be Good, Fair or Poor. These settings, more or less, describe the stability of the country's governing and their ability to combat terrorism on their own. So, even if a country is Adversarial to the US, it is still in their interest for them to have a Good level of Governance, since it deters terrorism. Non-Muslim countries are tested throughout the game for their stance on terrorism: it can be either Soft or Hard. If the majority of the world's views on terrorism oppose that of the United States, then the US incurs a penalty whenever they try to influence other governments.

Play is card-driven, and players can either use their hand of cards to either enact the event on it or use the cards "Ops" value to take actions. Some cards have Events that benefit the US, some the Jihadists and others that are neutral and could be either beneficial or baneful to either. If you play a card for the Ops and the card has an Event for the opposing side, it is triggered and is resolved anyhow. Each card has an Ops Value of 1-3, and by using that card the player can take an action.

Now, here is one of the genius points of the game for creating balanced asymmetry; the Governance level of each Muslim country is assigned a value. Good is a value of 1, Fair is a value of 2 and Poor is a value of 3. For the US player to take an action in a country, they need to play a card of a value worth at least that of the Governance level; so to take an action in a Good Governance country, the US must play a card worth at least 1 Op, but to play one in a Poor Governance country, they must play one worth 3 Ops. This makes it easier for the US to operate in countries with a Good Governance. For the Jihadist player to take an action in a country, they may spend any value Ops card for their action. That lets them take a number of actions equal to their value. For example, a 1 Op card lets them try to recruit one Cell and a 3 Op card lets them try to recruit up to 3 Cells. However, the actions of the Jihadist are not guaranteed. For every action they take in a country, they need to roll a six-sided die. If the number rolled is equal to or less than the Governance level of the target country, the action is successful. If it is over the Governance level, it is failed and the Ops point is still spent. This means that it is harder for the Jihadist to succeed in countries with a Good level (needing to roll a 1 on the die), but a bit easier to operate in countries with a Governance of Poor (needing a 3 or less).

There is also another Governance level, which is Islamist Rule. Countries under Islamist Rule always are considered Adversaries to the US. Ops spent by the Jihadist in a country under Islamist Rule always succeed without having to roll the die. The US cannot take any actions in countries under Islamist Rule other than a Regime Change, which is essentially sending in a large number of US Troops to put in a US sympathetic government. However, this can be a risky tactic for the US, since it tends to bog down troops and often the conflict there until the US can get a strong government in place, bogs down US resources and actions.

There are three ways that the US can get an instant win during the course of a game, which are roughly an economic victory, a political victory or a military victory. Each Muslim country has a Resource value of 1-3, which loosely represents the values of the country, from culture to oil reserves. For the "economic win", the US gets an instant win if there are 12 or more Resources in Muslim countries that have a Good Governance level. For the "political win", the US gets an instant win if at least 15 Muslim countries are either Fair or Good Governance; this represents that the region has stabilized enough to effectively impair the Jihadists operations. The "military victory" allows for an instant win if at any point in the game, there are 0 Jihadist Cells on the board.

The Jihadists also have 3 victory conditions. Their "economic win" requires them to have at least 6 Resources in countries under Islamist Rule, and at least 2 of those countries must be adjacent. The "political win" for the Jihadist occurs if the US Prestige is at 1 and at least 15 Muslim countries are either of Poor Governance or under Islamist Rule, essentially showing that the region is so destabilized while the view of the US is so poor worldwide, that the US become ineffectual in the region. Instead of a direct military victory for the Jihadists, they get an instant win if they are able to resolve a WMD Terror Plot inside of the US.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: The game has a number of similarities to Twilight Struggle. The most obvious is the Op Cards with each side's events on them, and playing a card with the opponent's event on it triggers the event. However, in Labyrinth, the card play is not directly alternating. Instead of taking turns playing cards, the Jihadist will play 2 cards, then the US will play 2 cards and the alternating works in this fashion. This allows for a few nice card combinations to take place. Plus, it allows you to play a card with your opponent's event on it, then immediately play another card to try to "damage control" the event before your opponent gets to go. This means that drawing a hand full of your opponents cards is still bad, but not necessarily as devastating as it can sometimes be in TS. Personally, I think that this strengthens the card-driven mechanic of the game greatly.

The region map created with point-to-point connections also holds a strong TS feel to it. However, unlike in TS, you are not using the map to illustrate a domino theory of ideas, but using the map to show where US Troops and Jihadist Cells physically are. Jihadists can move a cell to an adjacent country without having to roll to see if they succeed, but they can also try to move their cells to any country with their action (but need to roll against the country's Governance to see if they succeed). This actually abstracts the map much less than in Twilight Struggle, whose map has always been a very physical geographic representation for cultural influence. For example, I would have thought that if the UK fell under heavy Soviet influence, it would spread out differently than just to Canada, Norway, France and Benelux. However, the map in Labyrinth seems to work better in the sense that it is used to track physical troop location instead of just cultural influence and bias.


The Theme:

There is always a potential problem when real-world events are turned into games. Besides offending some (and there are plenty of boardgamers who love to get offended), the historical accuracy is always something up for debate, especially because any game will infuse a level of "what if", because otherwise, there is no game: it would be an exact repeat of history.

That being said, 9/11 is still fresh. Ground Zero is both a tourist destination and a mourning location. Firehouses in NYC still have shrines to members lost. Terror alerts and our government's ability to protect us from jihadists are still a part of our daily politics, while cultural center locations and burning of Qurans is still in our headlines for weeks on end. This is sensitive subject. And perhaps it takes a level of separation from the events even consider playing a "game" about it, let alone having "fun" while playing it, especially if you are playing the side of the Jihadists, trying to obtain WMDs to deploy as a terror plot in the United States. However, I have to say, that I am impressed and glad that there are people out there willing to try to make those games and also that there are people out there willing to play them.

What also impresses me about the game design is the lack of bias. I'm not saying that the United States and the Jihadists are both viewed through an equal moral lens in this game. They aren't. However, the lack of bias is in the politics of the US game. One can take a neo-con response to the Jihadists in the game and find the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy. One can also take a softer "left-wing" response to the Jihadists in the game and find a number of strengths and weaknesses in it.

The game isn't saying military is right and diplomacy is wrong. Nor is it saying that diplomacy is right and military is wrong. Instead, the game captures a great sense of the strengths and failings of both approaches.

The game also tells a great narrative, but I think that the narrative is better felt by the US player. The Jihadist tends to act on opportunity, which is, I suppose, a fair enough narrative there. But as the world turns soft on terrorism, a US with the hard stance may find diplomacy failing and their world image deteriorating. Will the US try to salvage their face in the world? Or will they forego the political game and press on, despite being despised by the world? The events play out very well to create this narrative, but mostly the US Prestige and the world's view on terror do the best job in creating this story.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Part of this may be my age. The space race was won before I was born. I was just getting into politics as the narrative of Twilight Struggle is coming to an end. So the events, while known from history and reading, are not as personal to me. When I play TS, it feels less like a narrative that I am setting up with the game and more like a deep strategy game. Perhaps part of this is because of the domino theory influence that is being represented instead of physical troops and units, but at the same time, I think that some events in TS feel more like card play than narrative building plays. A lot of this may be because I did not live through the events.

Because of this, I feel the narrative of Labyrinth more. It is easier for me to imagine the events going on and their political ramifications on the world view and the US's reaction to it. That being said, however, I think that Twilight Struggle, even with less of a narrative, is more consistent with it. I feel the world theatre equaling when playing the US or the USSR. In Labyrinth, I feel the narrative much more as the US player than the Jihadist player. This may simply be because of my biases from living in the US though.



Learning the Game:

The game is written in typical wargame fashion of Rule 4.6.3.2 referring you to Rule 6.2.5. There is nothing wrong with that, but for some people, it is harder to comprehend rules written this way. However, the rules are actually extremely well-covered. There are a lot of rules questions on BGG, but if you look at them, most of the answers are just referring people to look up Rule X.Y.Z for the answer. So everything is there, but it seems like people have problems digesting all of it.

I can understand that, especially in the solitaire game. The flowchart is daunting and I'm still not always 100% that I've followed every action correctly. However, that is also because the flowchart AI in the solitaire game is surprisingly complex and effective, which makes for better solitaire play once a player understands it.

The only rules issues that I have really come from the placement of some of them. Perhaps I am not enough of a wargamer, but even with the laid out rules, I have trouble finding some stuff when needed. What to do at the end of the Turn, for example, seems unintuitively placed before the descriptions of what you actually do on your turn.

But these are minor quibbles. As I noted, everything is in there. I just don't like how some of it is laid out and placed.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Even though I played Twilight Struggle much earlier in my gaming career and had much less war game experience at the time, I found that to be the easier game to learn. At its core, Labyrinth is actually a simple game when it comes to mechanics, but the asymmetrical set up of the sides makes it a little more difficult to learn. In TS, I could play the US and immediately be ready to play the USSR in my next game. However, learning to playing the US does not really prepare you to play the Jihadists in Labyrinth. This isn't a big knock against it, however, since the asymmetry is fascinating and really makes the game play interesting. But it simply doubles what you need to comprehend to get the game.


The Components:


The map board for the game.



Counter sheet (front side) for the game. 




Close up of some of the components, including the US Troops (wooden cubes) and Jihadist Cells (black cylinders; Crescent side up is active, Crescent down is Sleeper).




Flow chart for the Jihadist in solo-play.




Game end board. 



The components of the game are excellent, especially for a GMT game. That isn't to say that GMT games usually have terrible components, but often they are not of this quality. The cards are also of a great stock and are thick and should not wear easily. Honestly, I have no complaints with the components at all. There is even a second book that gives a detailed walk-through for both the two-player game and the solitaire game, which is excellent and incredibly useful for learning the game.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: The quality of the components of the game are on par with the Deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle rather than the earlier printings.

Playing the Game:

Despite what are a few little hidden rules in the rules, once the game is understood and clicks, there is no longer a need to grab the rulebook in most games. For me, this happened in my second two-player game. The solitaire game still takes a bit more work, simply because of the flow chart, but even for that I am grabbing it less and less, knowing when to do certain actions.

I think playing the solitaire game first, however, was a problem for me. It actually made me feel a little less enthusiastic for the two-player game. The single player game seems to be mostly putting out metaphoric fires started by the Jihadist AI. It didn't feel like I had a berth of options to choose from, just one or two obvious ones.

However, that becomes much less the case in the two-player game. Options seem to free up and different strategies emerge. When teaching the game, I've always had the new player take the role of the US, since it seems to be the more straight-forward as far as apparent strategies for a new player. Plus, the Jihadist plays two cards first, so a new US player can afford to be more reactionary at first as they learn the game.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Despite the fact that there are three different victory conditions for each side, I still feel that Twilight Struggle seems to lay out a wider variety of options from turn to turn. I still feel so much more free to attack different strategies in TS. Labyrinth still has a lot of options, but often I just feel a little more tight than in TS. This may be because I've played so much TS that I know the game better at this point. However, I will say that Labyrinth tends to have less "see-saw" effect than TS. In TS, I may lay 2 Influence in Italy, only to then have my opponent follow up and lay 2 Influence in Italy, and this can go on all game. In Labyrinth, it seems easier to just move onto a different country where things are easier to succeed in or cost less Ops to stage actions in.

Scalability:

The game is playable either as a two-player game or through a solitaire game with the Jihadists being controlled through a flowchart AI. There really isn't much to say about scalability. I prefer the two-player game, but I will play the solitaire game from time to time. The AI is challenging enough, and even though the events it trigger may not always be the best play from a strategic point, it still creates a viable and realistic narrative.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: Twilight Struggle only supports two-players. However, there is much less discomfort in playing either the US or USSR in Twilight Struggle, while the 2-player in Labyrinth may cause some uncomfortability in playing Jihadists for some players.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she doesn't care for the game. It's completely not her style. She had indulged me a two-player learning game and then our next game I called early simply because I knew that she was not enjoying herself and was frustrated with the play. And, as I learned from playing Labyrinth, sometimes it is the best position to change your posture and withdraw early in hopes of salvaging diplomacy options for later in the evening.

Comparison to Twilight Struggle: My wife had a very tepid feeling towards Twilight Struggle. She would play it with me on occasion to humor me when I had gone too long in between plays against my standard TS-partner. However, after playing Labyrinth, she told me that she would much rather play Twilight Struggle. So, if nothing else, the game has bolstered her opinion of TS.


The Pros:

*The game creates a realistic and interesting narrative through the eyes of the US and their reactions to the world's posture.
*Asymmetrical game play is both balanced and creates for a very interesting and unique feel in play.
*The Governance level mechanic and how it effects play for both the US and Jihadists is really genius in creating a narrative for either side to operate in.
*Multiple victory paths that allow plays break from the "see-saw" Influence contests that may occur in Twilight Struggle.
*Politically neutral (as far as liberal or conservative bias is concerned).
*A challenging topic that really deserves accolades for not being fearful in its approach to the topic.
*Excellent components.
*Allows for solitaire play, which is still challenging and interesting.
*Innovates some of the card-driven mechanics, such as playing 2 consecutive cards, which allows for players to soften the worst of their opponents events (thus weakening the problem of bad card draws).


The Cons:

*Rule layout is a little unintuitive to sort through in some places.
*A number of small game effects that can come into play that are very easily missed or forgotten in early plays.
*Solitaire play complicates game play, which is a shame since it is how most games will probably be played their first time through (though it is still worth learning).
*While the game is politically neutral, it tells a narrative from the US perspective. For some people, that may turn them off to the game as the premise of the game "justifies" the US reaction to 9/11 by only allowing certain actions in the game. For example, pulling out of the Middle East and cutting off funding to Israel is not a game option. I think that those purchasing the game, however, will be of the mindset that the available actions are fine, especially in a "game setting".
*The US perspective of the game makes the narrative favor story-telling from the US side. I don't feel the narrative nearly as strongly playing the Jihadists.
*Some people will not be comfortable playing as Jihadists, considering the real-life counterparts to the actions that are represented in the game (such as performing terror plots, especially if they control WMDs).
*Despite the strengths of the game and its approach on everything, some will simply feel too close to subject matter to be comfortable with the game.


Overall:

Labyrinth is not just a great game, but it is also an important game. It can easily be played simply as a strategy game, but considering how strong the narrative can be, it can also be used as a teaching game. The game does a great job of showing how sending in US Troops to enforce a "regime change" can bog down US resources and limit their actions in the rest of the world. It also does a great job of showing how remaining too soft risks a spread of radicalized influence throughout the Muslim world with little options to fully combat it. I'm glad to see a subject like this tackled by a game that takes it seriously. The mechanics are well thought out and really provide an excellent example of asymmetrical balance that is very challenging and never loses its narrative or feeling.

The obvious question is: Will Labyrinth be the game to take over Twilight Struggle's lofty mantle for strategy gamers? I don't know. It improves on a lot of TS's mechanics and set up and also tells a stronger narrative. However, the game doesn't have quite the flexibility that TS has. Labyrinth is not a flash in the pan, and it will definitely be a strong contender against TS and will probably win over a number of players who believe that the mechanics have been improved. But at the same time, it will probably suffer from a theme that some may feel is still "too soon" to be comfortable and those who will balk at having to play Jihadists.

My own view is that mechanically, this game is superior to Twilight Struggle. However, TS provides more flexibility in strategy. I think at the end of the day, after the newness of Labyrinth wears off, I'll still grab TS just slightly more than Labyrinth. However, if you add in solitaire plays of Labyrinth, they'll probably come up closer to even.


9/10

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