Christian van Someren
Labyrinth: Re-Awakening a Modern Classic
I remember when Labyrinth was first released, I was turned off by the idea of a game about the heroic United States going off to save the world from the faceless evil in the Middle East.
My first impression of Labyrinth: The War on Terror
Well, that was my initial impression of Labyrinth in any case, and so I gave the game a pass.
A New Understanding
Fast forward to 2016 when I read about a new expansion for Labyrinth which attempts to cover the Arab Spring and subsequent civil wars. I was intrigued, perhaps it was time to give Labyrinth a second look. After reading through many reviews (specifically Tom Grant's review) and watching some gameplay videos, I came to understand more about this game.
Labyrinth does not attempt to make light of US and Jihadist actions in the Middle East, and it is neither a moral critique nor an endorsement of either side in this conflict. Instead, Labyrinth is an examination of historical events from the perspectives of two of the actors involved, and it tries to explain why these actors act in the way that they do. The game does not attempt to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, nor the use of terrorism as a weapon. Instead, Labyrinth tries to shows us why these events occur, and what impact they have had on the Middle East. Going further, Labyrinth also attempts to show how the Middle East would look today if events had occurred differently.
What the game actually plays like
Once I came to understand this distinction, I decided to purchase Labyrinth and give it a go, and I must admit, I was hooked. Is it a perfect simulation? No, it over-generalizes many aspects of conflict in the Middle East. Having said that, the game presents players with a dilemma on how to approach a “war on terror” (as the US) or an insurgent revolution (as the Jihadist), and it does so in an elegant, highly asymmetrical way which forces difficult decisions on every turn.
But we’re not here to talk about Labyrinth, what does Awakening add to the original title? Awakening attempts to take recent developments in the Middle East into account, from the Arab Spring to the resulting civil wars, and present them in the context of US involvement in the Middle East. It is an ambitious undertaking by a group of top-notch designers, but does Awakening succeed in its goals?
What You See Is What You Get?
But before we get to the review proper, you might be interested in learning what Awakening adds to the game.
1. New Bots
As a primarily solo gamer, the new bots in Awakening really intrigued me. Not only do you have an improved Jihadist bot, but you also get a new US bot. And the best part? They are both backwards compatible with the original Labyrinth.
The new Jihadist bot presents a more interesting challenge, and does not perform so many arbitrary actions as the original did. In addition, the Priority tables and special event card reference never leave you in any doubt as to what the bot will do each turn. On top of that, the new flowchart is presented on one easy-to-read page which is better laid out than the original.
A thing of elegance and beauty
The US bot is more complex, but most of that complexity is determining whether or not to Alert plots. Interestingly, the US bot will act differently depending on their current posture, but it is always responsive to player actions, making it an engaging opponent.
What a monstrosity!
If you play Labyrinth solo, these 2 bots alone are worth the price of admission. But that’s only the icing on the cake.
2. New Cards
120 new event cards taking into account the past 5 years of current events. These cards present new interesting decisions, and it is notable that many provide 3, 4, even 5 different options for players to choose from. In this way, you can almost always find a useful way to use the card’s event, making it even harder to decide which events to ditch for operations.
So many options!
3. New Scenarios
Of course, this game comes with many new scenarios, 7 to be exact, including a campaign game linking with the original Labyrinth scenarios and cards, and a quick scenario modelling the Syrian civil war. I have currently tried all but the Campaign scenario, and they all provide an interesting and unique challenge.
Scenario 6: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 2014
You also receive the titular Awakening and Reaction markers, which provide bonuses to War of Ideas and Jihad rolls, respectively. In addition, if you get enough of one type of marker in the country, the country may have its own revolution without you needing to do anything at all!
Tahrir Square in Egypt
5. New Countries
Awakening introduces 2 new countries and 2 updated countries. Mali is a new Muslim country in East Africa. Nigeria is a Poor Non-muslim country which can be flipped to Muslim if the Jihadist successfully plots there. Syria now has WMDs and is Shia mix. And Iran can now be flipped to a normal Muslim country by playing the Iranian elections event. So not only does Awakening add new mechanics, it also changes the board layout. I’ve found already that Africa sees a lot more action than it ever did in the original game, thanks to the new connections created by Nigeria and Mali.
New incentive to go into North Africa
6. Civil War
Of course, no game about the past few years of Middle Eastern history could ignore the brutal civil wars which have been fought. Civil wars act kind of like a regime change country, but at the end of each turn, the US and Jihadist forces fight each other in direct conflict and kill each other off. Civil wars present brutal situations, where you can pour in more troops or cells, but as the forces escalate, so too do the casualties. It is very difficult to deal with these situations, and as the US they are often times best avoided entirely. But if you leave no Troop presence in these countries, then they will surely become Islamist Rule. More dilemmas…
The fate of Syria rests in your hands
7. Local Forces
The US now has Militia, which it can use in place of Troops in non-Good, non-Islamist Rule countries. Militia are not as effective as Troops in fighting civil wars or disrupting cells, but they have the advantages of keeping your Troops Track status lower (allowing more card draws each turn) and you do not get a Prestige hit when Plots go off next to them. An interesting trade-off for the US, to say the least.
Militia in action!
8. The Caliphate
And speaking of trade-offs, the game also allows the opportunity for the formation of a Caliphate with a Jihadist army (a.k.a. ISIL). Gone are the days of undercover operations and hiding in the shadows, the Jihadist player can now take the fight directly against the US and their allies. Forming a Caliphate gives the Jihadist extra funding and Islamist Resources, but at the cost having all of their cells active all the time, making them easier for the US to target.
A new regime
9. New Rules
New Rule #1: The US gets +1 Prestige if they Alert or otherwise remove a WMD plot from play. I’m sure this won’t have a huge impact on gameplay, but it is nicely thematic and gives a bit more incentive for the US to reveal plots in Muslim countries.
New Rule #2: The Jihadist can only use each plot marker once per round. This small change means the Jihadist can only use Plot #3 once each round, making some interesting double think about which plots to place where and when. Again, a small change, but one that adds more decision-making to the game.
See that huge pile of plots on the round track? Needless to say, it was a pretty rough round for the US.
10. Optional Rules
The game also comes with 3 new optional rules. I haven’t tried these myself, but they sound interesting.
The first allows the US a one-time prestige boost for the cost of 1 good resource at the end of the game. Similarly, the Jihadist can get a one-time boost in funding for the cost of Islamist resource at the end of the game. This is a nice, simple idea, and helps either side claw its way back from a particularly rough round.
The second allows the US to attempt an Alert with a 1 or 2 Ops card. It’s not likely to succeed, but desperate times…
Finally, and most interesting, you have special rules chits for the bots. These are similar to the difficulty levels of the bot in the original game, but you randomly draw from a pool of 6 chits to give your opponent bot different abilities throughout the game. Seems like a nice way to create a challenging, dynamic opponent if you ever get bored with the bots as they are.
In case the game wasn't hard enough...
What does Awakening not do?
Despite all of the additions listed above, Awakening does not change the fundamental gameplay of Labyrinth. Sure you now have local populations and governments entering the fray, but these only affect gameplay insofar as they make it easier or harder for War of Ideas or Jihad operations. If you weren't a fan of the high level of abstraction in the original game, you won't find any significant changes here.
However, we should not consider these points to be a failure. If Awakening made such drastic changes, we would have a whole new game on our hands, one riddles with complexity and rules exceptions. Instead we have an expansion which adds to, but does not fundamentally change or make more difficult, the original design.
This expansion is something special. I’m not generally a big fan of expansions, as I find that they tend to add more complexity without really improving gameplay. While Awakening does do the former, all the added complexity is done with a clear purpose and integrates nicely into the original game’s flow.
New rules add new and interesting decisions, create new board situations and allow new strategies (e.g. the Jihadist can now go for all-out war, or stick with insurgency tactics). Africa has now opened up into a more viable target for both players. And the new cards add interesting choices and dynamic events. But perhaps most importantly, the new scenarios and game elements really do a nice job of portraying the Arab Spring and resulting civil wars across the Middle East.
When you buy Labyrinth: The Awakening, you’re not buying an expansion, you’re buying a brand new game that just happens to use Labyrinth’s map board. I can easily recommend this expansion to anyone who like Labyrinth, and even those who are interested in the theme. As an introductory solo wargame, Labyrinth + Awakening is also a gem – giving you the ability to play solo as either side in a total of 11 different scenarios.
In a game like this, theme is paramount. But with the right mindset, I think Labyrinth pulls off its theme brilliantly. Just remember that you are the US or Jihadist, not some neutral outsider looking to change history. You have to achieve your goals with the tools available to you, and Awakening gives you a larger toolbox to choose from.
Ponder the constant dilemmas, learn from this retelling of history, but most of all, enjoy this fantastic gaming experience.
A near win for the Jihadist with 4 Islamic Resources to the US's 8 Good Resources
I literally couldn't find a thing I disagreed with. It's as if I wrote the review myself - although mine would have been more along the lines "OMG THIS EXPANSION IS SICK!! GO BUY IT NOW"
Christian van Someren
Summer grasses / All that remains / Of soldiers' dreams. - Basho.
Great, detailed review.
This game is on its way to taking the top place in my heart for two-player grand strategy-level games.
Now, where's my microbadge?!
Chris -- really nice review, thanks. Now, I'll have to order this one.
Fantastic overview Chris! Thank you for the time you took playing the game and providing this excellent summary of the features of the Awakening Expansion to Labyrinth.
Great review, thank you!
If I understand it correctly, to play basic Lab solo against new bots I only needs new flowcharts and rulebook from Awakening, nothing else?
- Last edited Tue Dec 6, 2016 11:16 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Dec 6, 2016 10:38 am
Christian van Someren
If I understand it correctly, to play basic Lab solo against new boys I only needs new flowcharts and rulebook from Awakening, nothing else?
Yes, they also include a list of all the "special case" event cards from the base game and the special action the bots take when they come up.