Joe Bloggs
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Hello,

I write this review to state my thoughts on "Labyrinth," and hopefully encourage some people who have heard the concept but not played the game to give it a try. I will discuss some small detail of the strategies in this game, so having some familiarity with the concept of the rules will help with understanding the review. It also helps if you are familiar with the other popular GMT Games game Twilight Struggle, which I make repeated reference to throughout.

When I first heard the concept of Labyrinth, I had been playing Twilight Struggle for a few weeks. I fully enjoyed it and was searching for another card-driven game that would deliver the same sort of gameplay. However, when I heard GMT was publishing a game with similarities to Twilight Struggle based off of the War on Terror, I felt a sort of ambivalence. The concept of the game beginning on September 12, 2001; the sides split between the USA and the 'jihadists'; seeing cards such as "Iraqi WMD," and "US Patriot Act," struck me as taking on a subject that was too recent for players to be detached enough to engage objectively. Still, what interested me was that Labyrinth was designed in part for solitaire play. I had attempted solitaire Twilight Struggle on several occasions, and while it was 'interesting,' the game just wasn't built to be played that way. I ordered Labyrinth only to let it sit on the shelf for a few weeks.

When I finally got around to unboxing it, I realized this game was going to have a level of complexity to exceed TS. For example: TS has a card deck of about 110 cards, but they're not all put into play right away. You start with the 'early war' deck and then shuffle in the 'mid-war' and 'late war' decks when you reach those stages in the game. All the while you are removing cards from the game because they play their event once and then are taken out. Labyrinth has a huge deck of 120 cards, and all of them (except for certain cards removed for some scenarios) are used from the very start. To compensate for this monster stack, Labyrinth is divided into three different lengths. For a standard game, you stop playing the game when all cards have been dealt and there are no cards to be drawn when the situation demands one be drawn. For a tournament game, you reshuffle the discard deck once. For a campaign, you reshuffle it yet again. A standard game will take about 2-4 hours for two players, and 1-2 for a solo player. (Maybe 3-4 if the player is still learning the rules.)

I realized also very quickly that the game has a very tasteful and tactful handling of the subject matter. The rules are quick to point out that the 'jihadists' side only represent "violent Islamic extremist militants... and not [the world's] many millions of peaceful, devout Muslims." Only one card makes a direct reference to former President George W. Bush, and it's handled objectively. (I later deduced this is to increase the open-ended feel of the game setup, but more on that later.)

If you are a TS player and expecting a game similar to TS, you are only about half-right. Labyrinth has a similar 'look', and the game is played primarily through play of cards which function the same as TS cards. (That is, you play a card for the operation points or the event, and if you play an opponent's card, the event happens.) But other than this, and the concept of 'adjacency' between countries, they are completely different.

One thing that is apparent is that this is not the game for you if you don't favor a good measure of luck in your games. If you primarily enjoy playing games that forsake dice and almost all elements of chance, you will tire of Labyrinth quickly. While the US side can conduct a few operations that don't require a die roll, and they can produce circumstances to give themselves a bonus for better success, the jihadist player has to roll the dice whenever he tries to do anything. There are exceptions (such as recruiting new cells in an islamist country and traveling to adjacent countries), but there is no avoiding the dice.

Both sides have completely different playing styles. The jihadists are represented as 'cells', small elegant black octagon-cubes that travel across the map, frustrating the US player until either they are killed by the US player (disrupted, I should say), or they fail a certain operation and return to the 'spawning point'. The US has control of 'troops'. Light brown 'camouflage'-color cubes that are deployed strategically to stop the spread of jihadist influence. Unlike the cells, these can never be killed or forcibly removed by the jihadist player. They remain where they are put until moved by the US player for some reason. But unlike the jihadists, the troops don't so much represent the entire US side as they represent one aspect of US strategy.

Having said earlier that Labyrinth involves a bit of luck-based gaming, how well does it reward strategy? One thing I think this game does well is it does get you in the mindset of trying to think of how to 'conduct' the War on Terror. This is a little bit more fixed depending on what side you play. If you start as the United States in a standard game of the "Let's Roll" scenario (which is the most open-ended and the most often played), then your first strategic question is "When am I going to choose to invade Afghanistan?" If you choose to start the invasion without first gathering 'support' from other non-muslim nations, then even if you have a very strong set of cards, you will leave yourself very vulnerable. The important components of the US play is: prestige, GWOT support, having a good base of cards to conduct what you need to do, and finally board position. These aspects cannot be ignored, but maybe you can delay when they come into effect. Once I found myself playing as the US when the "Schroeder and Chirac," card came into play, turning France and Germany against me and making it impossible to complete my planned strategy without diverting my attention, possibly for an entire turn or two if my luck was bad. "Don't they know they're helping the terrorists?" I found myself thinking. Or say alternatively: you do build a strong support, invade Afghanistan, and then the jihadists hit you with a card which makes the US change from 'hard' to 'soft'. This is a completely new situation because all of your hard work has been flipped on to you and is now giving you a penalty. There are many ways to play out a situation like this (1. Spend cards to change back to 'hard'. 2. Try to do something else and wait for a chance to flip yourself back to 'hard' with an event. 3. Focus on shifting the world to your new alignment and proceeding from there.)

The jihadists are a little more open-ended. They start (at least in the Let's Roll scenario) with a base in Afghanistan, and must spread from there. Their strategy is less obvious. Do they attempt to control a large-resource country, threatening to gain enough victory points (called 'resources') for an automatic win, but also putting all of their eggs in one basket and giving an obvious target for the US to hit? Do they spread out and go for the smaller countries in hope they can bog the United States down in fighting for territory that ultimately will not break the game if either side gets a decisive victory, but will (hopefully) distract the US long enough to try something else? Or do they go for the instant win condition: setting off a WMD in the United States?

TS fans will relate to the cards right away. They mostly correspond to important events, legislation, factions in a certain struggle, or other tactics. One interesting addition is that there are several "jihadist leader" cards. These are played as unassociated events with different effects for each side. If the jihadists player plays them, they give the jihadists a modest bonus, the United States a small (or possibly large) inconvenience, and then they are put in the discard pile to be reshuffled in later. If the United States plays them, it gives the United States a (usually) strikingly large bonus, and/or takes out a sizable portion of jihadist funding, and then the card is removed permanently from the game, as if the leader has been 'caught'. To give a more definite example: Osama Bin Laden is represented as one of these cards. Being able to 'play' bin Laden and collect his bonus gives the United States one of the best boosts in the game, but it can only be done if special circumstances are met. Otherwise the card can only be played for operation points. This is a real difference in the feel from cards in TS. Even cards like "Nasser" or "Allende" didn't feel like you were actually controlling the destiny of that person, but rather that his/her role in history was being acted out.

One final note I will make about the gameplay and its capacity for strategy is that games can become very heated, and success or failure is never guaranteed. This is one feature I found a bit disheartening in Twilight Struggle. I cannot say how many times I have played as the USSR, battling the USA to the final scoring of the endgame, only to lose time and time again because the USA plays a killer card on his very last turn, shifting the game-board to a status where he is able to secure a win with no counter. While Labyrinth has its own 'killer cards', there is no all-consuming card that will undo the work of one side, and the capacity for one side to have a bigger hand than the other undoes the inherent superiority of playing the final card. Even the Bin Laden card only affects prestige and funding, which are both irrelevant to the actual score. (Note: There is an exception to this that the US can lose automatically if it falls to 1 prestige while 15 Muslim countries are at 'poor' status, but if this comes close to happening the US player is probably not going to win anyway.)

That covers the gameplay adequately I feel. How does Labyrinth look visually? Visual concerns were my only real criticism of Twilight Struggle. I did not care for the 'fake coffee stain' look over the board, though the rest of it was quite good. Labyrinth lacks this 'gritty' feel and keeps the board clean looking. It's vibrant and the charts are very easy to read. Labyrinth accomplished the same achievement of giving the board enough markers so that anyone who comes by and glances at the board and the state of the cards can tell exactly whose turn it is, exactly what has happened and how it might affect future gameplay, and how close the end-game is. Everything is very high-quality and a nice feature is that some markers are actually 'punched' with rounded edges, giving it a very professional feel.

There are only two criticisms I could make:

1. It is a little cumbersome to keep track of all the markers. Updating the card marker from "first jihadist card" to "second jihadist card," etc. is an action that can be easily skipped in solitaire play or between a particularly heated 2 player game, which can confuse even the most enthusiastic gamer if he's not keeping good track.
2. The board, when completely folded up, has the 'front' (the side with the map) facing outwards while the bottom unmarked side is covered. Why? It has always been my impression that boards like this should always be folded so that the bottom faces outward to protect against scruffs, scrapes, and possible stains. It might also cause a player to become confused when folding up the game board after play and accidentally rip it.

Both are small issues, so overall I grade this game visually as high.

The all-important question that cannot be ignored: is the game 'fun'?

Yes, yes it is fun. Once you get past the initial shock that you're fighting/controlling "the terrorists," and you realize the United States can't conquer their way to a win, you start uncovering all sorts of subtle nuances that make this game intriguing. I may have said this before but it bears repeating if I had: I enjoy Labyrinth more than most other games because it encompasses political aspects of the conflict and military aspects of the conflict in a way that they both feel important and necessary to the game. Most of the time if a war game tries to incorporate some political event (such as a game which simulates one general suddenly being replaced with another and changing some combat rules to illustrate this as a 'change in tactical style'), it feels tacked on and unnecessary. It's a small diversion (as you memorize new rules) at best, and upsets the game-flow at worst. Labyrinth manages to blend both war-strategy with political-strategy so it feels less like you're choosing one over the other and more like you choose one to benefit the other later. You can win the game militarily only to lose it politically, and vice-versa.

Another thing that makes the game fun and gives it a level of depth that some games can't reach is the emphasis on multiple scenarios. Yes, Let's Roll, the 2001 Scenario is by far the most played. The three other included variants provide a very different game. This is most apparent in the post-Iraq War scenario, which starts with the US player already committed to two military actions and the US must desperately try to regain good footing to complete a win (although it is far from being defeated). The other scenario which I think most radically changes the game experience is the "You Can Call Me Al," variant based off of an alternate history: "What if Al Gore was President when 9/11 happened?" A game setup that is achieved by setting up a normal game of 'Let's Roll', removing one card from the deck, and then flipping one token on the board. This does not sound like a huge change on paper, but if you play it out, it really is. The game also suggests players design their own scenarios and discuss why a game should begin at a certain state, and the map board and cards are open ended enough to do it.

I must add the disclaimer that all reviews are necessarily subjective, and one game that appeals to one gamer may frustrate another, but for what it's worth: I enjoy Labyrinth. It does everything it sets out to do well, and maintains its playability through repeated playing and analysis. It takes a few days of reading and going through the examples (using the included playbook and physically playing the game is recommended) but once you realize what all of the markers on the board are telling you, most rules can be easily referenced with the provided player-aid cards. A sublime experience from start to finish, and well worth its price tag in both concept and quality. I can't say with one hundred percent confidence that: "Everyone will enjoy this," but it is a well-designed, solid game.
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Alex H.
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Very good review with some excellent observations.
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Steve Bishop
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Great review thanks for taking the time to write this.

I can't wait to try out Labyrinth this weekend
 
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Stephen Shaw
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That was a very thoughtful write-up and review -- thank you.

I just wanted to offer the exact opposite opinion, for those who, like myself and the OP, love TS and thought Labyrinth would be another great card-driven global conflict game.

In my opinion, it isn't.

Playing as either side, IMHO, is much less dynamic than in TS. The OP states that there are "many ways" to deal with the situation of being out of alignment with the world posture -- this really isnt true. A card that flips your or your SCHENGEN compatriots' posture or allows you to flip yours is a rare event, and changing your US posture through two 3-cards is devastating -- so what are you doing? Alignment/posture rolls. What you do as the Americans all game, every game, with some exceptions, are alignment rolls. Again and again. You get lucky, or you dont. If your posture stays high, you win, if it doesnt (through yet another roll), you probably lose. If your opponent manages to get you out of sync with the non-muslim world posture with early card-play, you will certainly lose.

When the pressure is not on, you can concentrate on alignment rolls in opposition territory. When it is, you have to shore up your "own" allied territories. But you are rolling on the posture/alignment track, all of the time. And when your Prestige is low, and/or when you are out of posture synchrony with the non-muslim world, you will not succeed.

So what else do you do? Not much -- this is the way games are won or lost -- by alignment/posture rolls. You can overturn a muslim government -- that's fun for about 1/6 of a turn, but then your job is to turn it to a good governance through what? Alignment/posture rolls. You can use troops to root out growing terrorist presences in important countries (and in my opinion, if this didnt exist, there would be no game), but it happens with much less frequency than those damned rolls. Thwart a plot, or play a card -- but again, with some less frequency than A/P rolls.

I played it twice and traded it -- as the Americans both times, won once/lost once, and both times I would rather have watched reruns of bad television -- it was that banal. I know that I am WAY against the grain here with my thoughts, and I fully expect to get some flak -- but I feel as if, in a GMT community in whom I normally have great trust in opinion, I simply somehow managed to avoid drinking this kool aid.
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jay white
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I'm in my second game, and my opinion is halfway between the OP and Stephen Shaw's. I've not been drawn in by the game like I was with Twilight Struggle, but I'm going to give it a few more tries to see if it starts to feel more tense.

I think my big problem with the game is that you don't intuitively "feel" any kind of conflict on the board.

The game's mechanics rest on the theory that Islamic Extremism will go away if countries are well-governed. What this results in is a battle to move governance chits from Islamic Rule to Poor to Fair to Good. So when you look at the board, the only way to tell who is "winning" is by examining the victory point track (which has four chits on it), or by counting Governance. It's not easy to feel like you're winning just by glancing at the board.

Also, a tactical victory never really feels like a victory because all you're doing is moving a Governance counter. The language is also (necessarily) neutral and politically correct, which might have a negative affect on me as well: "My Regime Change made Sudan into a Fairly Governed Ally" sounds like something a government official would say at a press conference. No thrills there.

Contrast that with TS, where tension is visible at a glance: you see the Influence numbers climbing on a country, and the (single counter) VP track is comprehendable very quickly. Because this conflict took place a while ago, it's okay to use less politically correct and emotionally charged language: "That coup gives me Control of Italy." Sounds like something you'd hear in a Bourne Identity movie. A bit more flashy.

And obviously it's nothing like a traditional wargame, where a victory means retreats and lost units.

Don't write me off as a gamer who just can't wrap my head around it - I've played everything from Advanced Squad Leader to OCS to Napoleon's Triumph, and I pick them up quickly.

I'm just not feeling the tension in this game. Maybe I need to stop thinking about it as a wargame, and more like a Euro-game about modern politics.

I do think it's very carefully designed and beautiful looking. And I may very well retract my criticisms after a few more plays. But a first impression is important, too.
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Andrew Saunders
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bishuk wrote:
Great review thanks for taking the time to write this.

I can't wait to try out Labyrinth this weekend



See you about 4 ish Steve
 
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Kelly Fischer
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Awesome review, thanks for the effort.
 
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Volko Ruhnke
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Thanks for the reviews!

Hi Jay! I'D cetainly never write you off! You may be onto something regarding "government press conference" versus "Bourne Identity". I did try to use the lingo of the day....

Regards, vfr
 
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jay white
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Well, Volko, I must say my recent game vs. Jeff Newell is very tight from his US point of view. In the first 2-3 hands on a 3 deck "Lets Roll", I've put FATA in Pakistan, Bhuto assassinated, IR in Pakistan and Indonesia. An Oil Spike will win me the game. I just got an email from Jeff now, where I suspect he's thrown the rest of his troops into a Regime Change in Indonesia (the rest are in Afghanistan).

I don't know about myself, but I think Jeff is finding things pretty tense at the moment. :)

I do think your choice of words was a necessary one, though, considering that the conflict is ongoing, and is a fiery enough topic as it is.
 
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David Grim
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Thanks for the thoughtful review. Can't wait to get my hands on this one.
 
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Andy Daglish
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I wonder to what extent current events in Tunisia will damage Labyrinth's credibility? Twilight Struggle, an overly simplistic, broadbrush game set at the highest level -- with concomitant historical worth -- portrays "domino theory" gone mad, and yet now we have Arabists theorising about just this happening in the Arab world, and without American involvement.

I wonder what the situation will be by next Saturday? Presently a week can a long time in game design.
 
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aforandy wrote:
I wonder to what extent current events in Tunisia will damage Labyrinth's credibility? Twilight Struggle, an overly simplistic, broadbrush game set at the highest level -- with concomitant historical worth -- portrays "domino theory" gone mad, and yet now we have Arabists theorising about just this happening in the Arab world, and without American involvement.

I wonder what the situation will be by next Saturday? Presently a week can a long time in game design.


Seems like it fits well into the game, actually. Tunisia is making a Test: Poor or Fair country? It might take months / years before we know the answer.
 
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Wendell
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aforandy wrote:
I wonder to what extent current events in Tunisia will damage Labyrinth's credibility? Twilight Struggle, an overly simplistic, broadbrush game set at the highest level -- with concomitant historical worth -- portrays "domino theory" gone mad, and yet now we have Arabists theorising about just this happening in the Arab world, and without American involvement.


Remember how the "revolution" in Lebanon just a few years ago was going to change the Arab world?
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Volko Ruhnke
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Wait, did someone say that Labyrinth has credibility? Cool!
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coffee demon wrote:
Seems like it fits well into the game, actually. Tunisia is making a Test: Poor or Fair country? It might take months / years before we know the answer.


We might hope for "Good" given that the number of those capable of producing this result are rather more common today than they were in years past. "Poor" has been the order of the day since white rule ended, but now it is as if the country has played ten "3" cards all at once & by itself. What is remarkable is this rapidity of change, and the apparent inability of the old regime to do anything about it. The president, government and parliament have all fled abroad. Here of course the European influence is strong, and next up is Algeria, Libya and Egypt, each of which comes with its own idiosyncrasies.
 
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wifwendell wrote:
Remember how the "revolution" in Lebanon just a few years ago was going to change the Arab world?


no, which is the point.

Real revolutions are not measured in years, but in days and weeks, with the name of the month replacing the year-dates used for the rest of history.

Quote:
Wait, did someone say that Labyrinth has credibility? Cool!


they said it had it yesterday.
 
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jay white
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aforandy wrote:
coffee demon wrote:
Seems like it fits well into the game, actually. Tunisia is making a Test: Poor or Fair country? It might take months / years before we know the answer.


We might hope for "Good" given that the number of those capable of producing this result are rather more common today than they were in years past. "Poor" has been the order of the day since white rule ended, but now it is as if the country has played ten "3" cards all at once & by itself. What is remarkable is this rapidity of change, and the apparent inability of the old regime to do anything about it. The president, government and parliament have all fled abroad. Here of course the European influence is strong, and next up is Algeria, Libya and Egypt, each of which comes with its own idiosyncrasies.


Jeez, looks like I need to read some news. Sounds like this is more than I thought. I just read a few articles on Al-Jazeera, but I guess I didn't look closely enough.
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Volko Ruhnke
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Quote:
Quote:
Wait, did someone say that Labyrinth has credibility? Cool!

they said it had it yesterday.


Hey I'll take that and run! An expressed charge against the game's credibility has been that it's too easy to get Muslim countries to good governance, not that it happens too slowly. If there is any ripple effect to Tunisia, seems it would bear out the game's optimistic (I admit) mechanic of allowing well-governed allies of the West to help inspire reforms among neighbors (i.e., +1 to WoI for adjacent "Good Ally").

We'll see if Tunisia tumbles dominoes or not. I thought Wendell's comparison to Lebanon made sense.

[Edit: A randomly plucked "LATimes"] current headline judgment is:

Will revolt in Tunisia inspire others?
The ouster of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali emboldens protesters in other Arab countries, but — lacking a galvanizing event — there is doubt that Internet-fueled movements can seriously challenge entrenched regimes in the Middle East.

 
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Andy Daglish
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Volko wrote:
Hey I'll take that and run! An expressed charge against the game's credibility has been that it's too easy to get Muslim countries to good governance, not that it happens too slowly.


Real life seems to deny the game in both directions: firstly real change never seems to happen, although the nuclear Iranians are rocking their own boat in a manner unusual for revolutionaries, and then in Tunisia two months of entirely unremarkable unrest plummets into two days of general collapse [if people are having spirited political debates in bread queues, the secret police shouldn't shoot at them].

I found Labyrinth getting better the more I engaged with it, with the above point being the major shortcoming. Doing a future political game is a poisoned chalice, because if you get it right its luck you didn't deserve, and if you don't no one is surprised.

Quote:
If there is any ripple effect to Tunisia, seems it would bear out the game's optimistic (I admit) mechanic of allowing well-governed allies of the West to help inspire reforms among neighbors (i.e., +1 to WoI for adjacent "Good Ally").


these days they all have smartphones, so maybe we might do better than +1. Tunisia is a bit like Sicily's wayward cousin [where the army seems to be managing anarchy rather well]...

Quote:
but — lacking a galvanizing event —


...but Algeria and Egypt are far more unhappy, unstable & North African.
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Wendell
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aforandy wrote:
wifwendell wrote:
Remember how the "revolution" in Lebanon just a few years ago was going to change the Arab world?


no, which is the point.


Agreed. Chou En-Lai, when asked in the 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution (1789, for those who didn't get the memo), said "It is too soon to say."

That may be a bit exaggerated for effect, but yeah, no way that events in Tunisia can support or undermine anything about Labyrinth, yet. Be interesting to watch, though, and good luck to the Tunisians.
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David Gibbs
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Re: "Labyrinth," tore me away from my obsession with Twilight Struggle.
HeyJoe wrote:
Hello,

That covers the gameplay adequately I feel. How does Labyrinth look visually? Visual concerns were my only real criticism of Twilight Struggle. I did not care for the 'fake coffee stain' look over the board, though the rest of it was quite good.


I remember 1960: The Making of the President having the fake coffee stain look, but not Twilight Struggle -- but I have an early edition of the game, maybe a later edition changed this?
 
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John McLintock
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Oh, the irony!
I cannot help but find the title of Joe's review a touch ironic. My neighbour has recently become a big fan of Labyrinth, which is the first serious strategy boardgame he's ever played. He's very good at it too, and now he's greedily eyeing up my (as yet unplayed) Twlight Struggle set. So much so that I yesterday went out and upgraded to the Deluxe edition. He was positively agog.
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Bob T
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Re: "Labyrinth," tore me away from my obsession with Twilight Struggle.
Great review! Gonna read some more reviews before plunking down $60, but you really make me want this game.

Hope it's not "too soon" for some people to have a game about 9/11, Anthrax scare, and present-day military actions- but this whole terrible epoch we're living in is fascinating and I've been hoping for a strategy game that does it justice. (I used to play "Cold War" back in the latter days of the Cold War so it doesn't bother me)
 
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Volko Ruhnke
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Re: "Labyrinth," tore me away from my obsession with Twilight Struggle.
By the way, you can get the 2011 edition for rather less than $60 if you preorder it ahead of shipping in September. See gmtgames.com P500. -vfr
 
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Re: "Labyrinth," tore me away from my obsession with Twilight Struggle.
coffee demon wrote:
I'm in my second game, and my opinion is halfway between the OP and Stephen Shaw's. I've not been drawn in by the game like I was with Twilight Struggle, but I'm going to give it a few more tries to see if it starts to feel more tense.

I think my big problem with the game is that you don't intuitively "feel" any kind of conflict on the board.

The game's mechanics rest on the theory that Islamic Extremism will go away if countries are well-governed. What this results in is a battle to move governance chits from Islamic Rule to Poor to Fair to Good. So when you look at the board, the only way to tell who is "winning" is by examining the victory point track (which has four chits on it), or by counting Governance. It's not easy to feel like you're winning just by glancing at the board.

Also, a tactical victory never really feels like a victory because all you're doing is moving a Governance counter. The language is also (necessarily) neutral and politically correct, which might have a negative affect on me as well: "My Regime Change made Sudan into a Fairly Governed Ally" sounds like something a government official would say at a press conference. No thrills there.

Contrast that with TS, where tension is visible at a glance: you see the Influence numbers climbing on a country, and the (single counter) VP track is comprehendable very quickly. Because this conflict took place a while ago, it's okay to use less politically correct and emotionally charged language: "That coup gives me Control of Italy." Sounds like something you'd hear in a Bourne Identity movie. A bit more flashy.

And obviously it's nothing like a traditional wargame, where a victory means retreats and lost units.

Don't write me off as a gamer who just can't wrap my head around it - I've played everything from Advanced Squad Leader to OCS to Napoleon's Triumph, and I pick them up quickly.

I'm just not feeling the tension in this game. Maybe I need to stop thinking about it as a wargame, and more like a Euro-game about modern politics.

I do think it's very carefully designed and beautiful looking. And I may very well retract my criticisms after a few more plays. But a first impression is important, too.


Tried it twice, also using the Americans. This comment captures my exact feelings for the game. Will probably trade it as well.
 
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