This has been quite a year for GMT and myself. After a long break from the hobby, I was reintroduced to gaming again by Dominant Species, mentioned to me by a biology professor no less. Returning to BGG to read up on the game, and to catch up on any great games I may have missed due to my long departure I also stumbled upon Twilight Struggle. An epic strategy game set in the cold war between the United States and USSR. The cold war being a topic I rarely concerned myself with normally, I almost dismissed it, but a quick read of the rules, and a session with a friend of mine and I was hooked. After not having purchased a new game in years, now I had two new games, both from GMT. That's when I saw it, sitting on an end cap at my FLGS, looking strikingly like the box for Twilight Struggle sat Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?. "It's Twilight Struggle with a much more interesting theme to me!", I thought to myself... Off I went home with my brand new copy, eager to try it out.
It's difficult to review Labyrinth without drawing comparisons to Twilight Struggle. However, I want to try, so this will be the only place in the review I do so. Labyrinth and Twilight Struggle share the same core mechanic, and that is that they are both card driven games. Each side has cards associated with his side in the deck, and when an opponent plays your side's card he will have to play the event on the card as well as his normal action. That's about where the comparison's end for me. There are others, but taken as a whole the games are hardly similar and really shouldn't be compared in an unbiased review.
Labyrinth is a game that takes place during the current crisis of the United States and its allies' "war" on Islamist terrorist activities in the world. The US player is striving to control terrorist activities and impress upon the other nation's governments to take a strong posture against terrorism, as well as what I interpret to be influencing those Muslim countries with rich oil and other resources to become strong allies of the US, thus providing energy resources to the US and limiting terrorist activities within their borders as a result. The Jihadist player will take the role of radical Islamic extremists, attempting to weaken the governments of other countries and use the resources of those countries to fund the spread of their ideals.
A NOTE RE: THE CONTROVERSIAL NATURE OF THE GAME
I know there is some voiced concern over the controversial theme employed here. However, this is just a board game, simulating a real world struggle. In my opinion the designer has gone through enough lengths to give the game a more abstract feel to terrorist actions. Terrorist plots may lower US prestige, or lower a government's influence over its country, but plots are never specific (You will not see: place bomb on train, kill hundreds of civilians). Casualties to terrorist plots are never even implied, I've only had one squeamish opponent in this regard, and I explained to him that the terror plots are quite abstract, and are just as likely to be targeting an unmanned facility of strategic importance as they would be civilians. In the end it's just a game, and the controversy is really just imagined.
Opening the rather small box is a treat. All of the components are really top-notch. Inside you will find one counter sheet, 4 six sided dice (3 black, 1 tan), tons of cards (120?), 15 black wooden octagonal cell pieces. 15 tan wooden cubes for troops, a very large mounted board (8-folds), Full color rule book, Two full color player aids, and a full color Play Book with play examples for both 2-player and solo games.
Lets also not forget my favorite addition to games lately; included baggies for the components. Unlike other games however, I found this one actually came with enough baggies for what it contained and I didn't have to supplement them at all.
A small note, my cards were a little stuck together, like the printer packed them still wet. I was able to separate them and sleeve them and it's no longer a problem.
The gameplay of Labyrinth is very unique. Both sides have completely different actions to take. This can make the game a little daunting to learn but fits the theme very well. This is a very asymmetrical conflict and the gameplay reflects that very well.
At the start of each turn players will receive a hand of cards. The number of cards they receive may be 9,8, or 7. The US player will receive less cards as they commit troops around the Muslim world. Being at war, or overstretched will put a burden on US available actions. The size of the Jihadist hand is dictated by how well they are funded. Funding runs out over time, however they can solicit more donors if they are successful in certain terrorist activities.
Starting with the Jihadist player, each player will play TWO cards, in succession from their hand. This is a new addition to the card driven game design, and really nice, allowing for powerful combinations, or one extra card to negate the effects of a bad event you had to play the card before. Cards can be played for their operational value (to perform a standard action), or for the text written on the card. After each player has played two cards, any unblocked terror plots in the world are resolved. Terror plots increase funding, can worsen the governance of a country, and can possibly lower US prestige. The action round then returns to the Jihadist player to play two more cards.
Each player has an opportunity to get rid of one card per turn. The Jihadist player's first card used for a plot action does not have it's event used, even if it belongs to the US player. The US player may discard, hold, or play the last card in their hand each turn.
Governance and Posture
Muslim countries can have their governance level increased by the US player, or decreased by the Jihadist player. The range is from 1 to 4. 1 being Good governance, then to fair, poor, and finally Islamist Rule. A Non-Muslim country's governance is fixed and can never be changed... however their posture towards militant Islam can change, and is either soft or hard. Hard countries can disrupt terrorist activities much more quickly than those with soft posture.
At the start of the game some countries do not have a posture or governance until they are "Tested". This usually results in rolling a die to determine the starting governance/posture of the country. Countries are typically tested when an event tests them, or when a terror cell moves into a country that hasn't been tested yet.
In addition to the governance level, Muslim countries also have a stance with the US. They can be Allies, which allows troops to be moved in or stationed in the country. They can be neutral which blocks troops, but allows the US to still conduct operations there. Or they can be Adversaries, in which the US can do very little to influence the country.
The total sum of the Non-Muslim world's posture toward terrorism defines the world's stance on the Global War on Terror, referred as GWOT in the game. If there are more soft countries than hard, the world's posture is soft, and vice versa. If the world's posture, and the US posture are not the same this can result in significant penalties to US actions in the Muslim world.
The US also has a prestige value, which is used to reflect the world's views of the US' actions around the world. A very low prestige provides penalties to US actions in the Muslim world (die roll modifiers), where as a very high prestige provides welcome bonuses to US actions.
Use of Dice
Labyrinth is a dice heavy game. Just about every action the Jihadist side takes will require a die roll of some sort. Exceptions include moving cells to adjacent countries, and recruiting new cells in an Islamist Regime country. Jihadists never earn modifiers to their rolls, but they can make the roll target easier to achieve by lowering the governance of a Muslim country. In order for an action to succeed, the die roll must be less than or equal to the country's governance. Thus the weaker the government the more success the extremists will have conducting operations there. The US side does not roll dice quite as much, but must for their most important and most used action for increasing governance in a country. The US can receive die roll modifiers for their prestige and the GWOT value, as well as having Good governance countries adjacent to the country in question.
Another great addition to the card driven game design is the use of reserves. 1 or 2 operations points can be stored up in reserves, and then used later in combination with another card. This allows you to perform high op value operations with two lower cards, and is very useful. Both sides have this ability.
US Player Actions
On their turn, the US player can conduct a number of actions with their cards if they choose to use the operations points.
Disrupt: Removes or reveals terrorist cells in countries
Deploy: Moves troops from one country to another, or deploys them from the troops stock to a country.
Regime Change: The US may deploy a lot of troops to an Islamist Rule country to overthrow the current government and replace it with an allied government. This is a very powerful move by the US, but it does affect card counts in future rounds, and it is very difficult to get your troops out of a regime change country, thus bogging down the US player in the conflict for a while.
War of Ideas: This is the main action the US player will use, and it is used to change the posture of a Non-Muslim country, or to improve the governance of a Muslim country. An unmodified roll of 5 or 6 will increase the governance by one level, or shift it from Neutral to Ally. This action can't be used on an Adversary country.
Withdraw: The US can take the risky choice to withdraw troops early from a regime change country, but this will leave the country very vulnerable to future attack.
Alert: Play a 3 operations value card to stop a terrorist plot from resolving.
Jihadist Player Actions
Recruit: Recruit new cells in a country, if funding is high enough to support them.
Travel: Move cells around the map, cells can move from any location to another but that requires a risky die roll. The cell will be removed if the travel fails. Cells can always move to adjacent countries risk free.
Jihad: A risky move that if successful will lower governance in a country. If unsuccessful will kill the cells that attempted it. A larger version of this called Major Jihad, can be employed to change a poor governance country into an Islamist Regime.
Plot: Cells can place plots in a country, and if they are not Alerted, will be resolved. Resolved plots can lower governance, lower US prestige, and increase Jihadist funding. Failing to place a plot does not kill a cell, so this is generally a slower but safer choice than an all out Jihad.
The US player wins if all cells are removed from the board, they get countries worth at least 12 resource points to good governance, or at least 15 countries are good or fair governance.
The Jihadist player wins if a WMD plot is resolved in the US, they get countries worth at least 6 resource points to Islamist rule (And 2 IR countries are adjacent), or they get 15 countries to Poor/IR governance and the US prestige is 1.
As I mentioned earlier Labyrinth is a dice heavy game, and in most cases this is ok, as the rolls will even out over time. Some rolls can be devastating. Rolling US prestige comes to mind. Several times in a game you will have to roll prestige for the US. This can end up swinging US prestige + or - 4 or 5 points. Prestige can go up or down, but is more likely to go down. An early bad prestige roll can really take the US player out of the competition for several turns. For serious style tournament games this randomness has me nervous. When playing solo, the only time I have lost is due to early bad prestige rolls.
I've also had games come down to my last two cards. If I can roll a 5 or a 6 on two attempts, I will win the game, otherwise I won't. This doesn't bother me too much, but I know some gamers are turned off by heavy die rolls, and this game has them. Yes, there are a lot of strategic decisions to make, and their are modifiers to help the rolls, but almost every significant action in the game requires a roll at some point, and on an unlucky day even the most skilled player will not win.
That criticism out of the way, the rest of the game is fantastic. There is a lot of tension when you must let a plot go for the good of the rest of the world, or when you must commit to war even though it will be a long drawn out struggle. Player interaction is really good, I like that both players sit on the same side of the board. This gives a feeling of evenness.
I wanted to mention briefly about the solitaire version of the game that is included. The player will take the US side, and a flow chart handles the Jihadist side. In all this works very well, but like most solitaire games it's not deeply fulfilling. Like me, you may assume this will help you learn strategy, and the game rules, before and after you play real opponents. But it's not going to help as much as you think. The solo AI becomes predictable to the point that most of the flow chart becomes committed to memory. You will develop strategies to combat the flow chart that will have no bearing on game play vs. a human. A good example is keeping a country intentionally in regime change, as it distracts the AI from doing more important things, and you can continue to disrupt cells there for easy prestige. A human player would not be distracted for long and would exploit your weaknesses.
Components: 10/10 -- The best looking game from GMT so far, top notch everything. The play book is a nice and essential touch.
Theme: 10/10 -- Brilliant idea to allow players to play out a conflict that is still current to the world. I hope to someday pull this game off the shelf and explain to the grandkids what it was like back in 2010.
Gameplay: 8/10 -- Slightly too dice heavy for very high marks here. There are also rules included in the game I like to call tid-bits. These are small, often overlooked rules, that can cause significant problems if omitted. This game has several of them. When to place aid, remove aid, when prestige goes up/down etc.... The player aids included in the game are incredible and really help this problem a lot, but I have yet to play a game out of the 20 or so I've played where something wasn't missed.
Solo Gameplay: 6/10 -- A fun distraction, but even when artificially made more difficult by "bending" the rules a bit for the Solo variants, it still comes off as unfulfilling. I think the designer did a great job putting this idea together, and I don't want it to sound like a bad thing. Definitely count this as a strong plus to purchasing this game. Just don't go in assuming you won't ever need a real opponent, this game's true power comes from the 2-player experience.
Overall: 9/10 -- Another smash hit from GMT Games, and I couldn't be happier with my impulse decision to purchase it. Tension, player interaction, strong theme, it's all here and you shouldn't miss it. If you're a fan of card driven games, and can stomach a moderate level of rules, you should not hesitate to pick this one up.
- Last edited Sun Jan 2, 2011 5:57 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sun Jan 2, 2011 1:57 am
You have to, at least from a distance, look as if you know what you're doing, and I can manage that.
I am a fan of Twilight Struggle and continue to grow keen on it.
Great review about Labyrinth.
Thanks for a very comprehensive description of the game. I'm even more keen to try this one out, despite the dice-heavy (and rule-heavy) side to it.
I think you are correct in how prestige rolls usually damage the USA. Therefore it can be a strategy to force the US to make them. Say for example the card "GTMO," or "Tora Bora." Both make bad things happen to the terrorists, but a bad prestige roll can be a good trade off depending on the circumstances.
Also the US player who knows the plots in the US aren't WMDS may let them happen for a chance to change posture and possibly get a prestige benefit depending on luck.
...the US player who knows the plots in the US aren't WMDS may let them happen for a chance to change posture and possibly get a prestige benefit depending on luck.
A game feature just for you, conspiracy theorists!
By coincidence I played my first session today. Having played Twilight Struggle the theme is very similar but the mechanics are different enough to feel like a different game.
I had to leave before our game finished but I was playing the Jihadist and attempt to get a lot of countries to Poor governance. This can be difficult if the US player has high prestige and uses War of Ideas well.
You also have to watch your funding as I took some major hits to mine after a US Regime Change and was desperate to get off a successful plot to get my funding back.
All in all looking forward to another complete session.