Jesse Edelstein
United States
Beaverton
OR
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This review will focus on the solitaire experience provided by Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ? (which I will call WOT) and its recent expansion, Labyrinth: The Awakening, 2010 - ?. I found WOT by itself to be a good solitaire game, but solo play is improved significantly by Awakening, making for a replayable and very entertaining game.

WOT and Awakening

Labyrinth is about the "war on terror" starting with the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and continuing today. Like the fuzziness inherent in the real-life conflict, the scope of the game can be confusingly defined. Roughly, it is a contest for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world between a US player who seeks to promote good government and a jihadist player trying to flip countries to Islamist rule. In the various scenarios in WOT and Awakening, there is only one example of Islamist Rule (Afghanistan under the Taliban) and there are no examples of Good governance. To me this suggests that the Good-Islamist spectrum is not as important in the real world as it is in the Labyrinth model. But one can also think of Labyrinth as modeling the assumptions that many Americans made in the early 2000s. To the extent that the game is about the worldview held by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, it does a good job of modeling those perceptions.

This is a card-driven wargame in which players decide whether to use each card for the event printed on it or for operations to influence game state. Both sides have several ways to win, but they all basically require the US to use "War of Ideas" operations to improve Muslim countries' governance, or the jihadist to use operations to worsen governance. (The US win condition of eliminating all enemy cells is not available in solo play. The jihadist can win via WMD attack in solitaire, but this usually means getting a WMD-possessing country on their side first.) Nearly every jihadist operation requires a die roll to succeed, and US War of Ideas is also dice-based, so whichever side you pick you will be rolling a lot. So the "luckfest" complaints are sort of true, though I don't have a big problem with it.

Awakening, which covers the Arab Spring era (2010-present), adds a number of features which I found very welcome. In the expansion, Many events can place Awakening and Reaction markers. These represent local activism and can cause the political situation in each country to develop on its own over a series of turns and spread to other countries. This is a refreshing alternative to the WOT approach, where changes on the map are always due to intervention by the players. Another interesting mechanic is Civil Wars, which involve local Militia (and possibly US Troops) duking it out over several turns with jihadist cells. Again, this is a cool addition to WOT because it makes the map more dynamic over time while still allowing players to affect the outcome of these wars. I also think that the Awakening event cards are just more interesting thematically and mechanically than the set in WOT. Awakening is pretty inexpensive and adds lots of well thought-out features, so I think really anyone who has WOT would do well to pick it up.

Bots for both sides

In solitaire Labyrinth, the human player controls one side and an AI "bot" controls the other. The bot makes decisions based on a flowchart and additional rules for priorities and special cases. I found these flowcharts pretty easy to follow, but players new to solitaire wargames will definitely need some practice with them before they become easy to execute. There are also some significant mechanical changes in the rules bots must follow. Most importantly, their hand is just a stack of cards and they always play off the top. To compensate for that disadvantage, when a bot plays an enemy-associated event card the event does not fire as it would for a human. They get some other handicaps as well.

WOT only provides one bot, for the jihadist side. Awakening, on the other hand, provides a bot for both sides, and the Awakening bots can be used in WOT scenarios as well! This is great for solitaire gamers, since it allows playing either side. Compared to the WOT jihadist bot, the Awakening jihadist bot is a good deal smarter due to some wiser priorities, more specifics about what to do with events, and just more modern and thoughtful bot design. The Awakening US bot is a bit more complicated to control because it has a complex system for deciding whether to Alert (remove) terror plots or to just let them go off. It also plays well. Unlike the WOT jihadist bot, the bots in Awakening have no easily exploitable weaknesses, though a human still has the advantage of long-term planning. These bots are quite good overall, and really improve the solitaire experience over WOT's.

Starting options and variants

One thing that makes solo games good is a variety of options to fiddle with, and Labyrinth provides in this department. WOT has 4 starting scenarios which cover starting points in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Awakening provides 6 more scenarios from 2010 onward. You can also combine the two eras for a 2001-2015 campaign game -- first you'll go through 120 cards from WOT, then 120 from Awakening with the expansion rules introduced. I really like this campaign mode because it makes for a wide-ranging, dynamic game where many countries become wrapped up in the struggle.

There are also a bunch of options for bot difficulty. Each bot starts at level 0 difficulty and can be made tougher by adding levels up to 5, each one giving the bot a new advantage. Adding bot powers can make things a lot more challenging, to the point that I have yet to beat the Awakening bots at level 4 or 5. Beating them is definitely going to require some "gamey" tactics which aren't necessary at lower difficulty levels. There's also a variable difficulty option where the bots will add and remove capabilities based on certain developments in the game. Variable difficulty can feel pretty random but is an interesting way of playing, since your enemy can always get better or worse.

You can also change game length and difficulty on most scenarios by deciding whether to go through 1, 2, or 3 decks. I haven't found the 3-deck setup to be all that interesting with a bot opponent; generally the more reshuffles in the game, the more the human's long-range planning ability is rewarded. 2 decks feels like a natural length for a game, while a 1-deck setup is more of a sprint and the battle won't be taken to as many countries.

That solo feel

I can't comment much on how the game plays with two people, but honestly it feels like a solitaire design first and foremost. There's a lot of dice-based randomness in operations for both sides, which would seem (to me) more exasperating when you're playing against another human versus when you're just playing versus a bot. Especially with the additions from Awakening to make the game world feel more alive, playing solitaire feels natural. It doesn't take a lot of time to resolve your bot opponent's moves (compare to 4-player COIN games, where acting for 3 bots will take up the majority of your playtime) and you can agonize over your own decisions as much as you like. And while I theoretically know what the bots will do in any situation, the randomness of events and the butterfly effect make the bots more unpredictable opponents than you might expect. For instance, in my most recent game as the jihadist I was focusing heavily on flipping Pakistan and Afghanistan as a path to victory, but the bot tenaciously defended these countries, gravely threatening my position in the area.



I think of Labyrinth as kind of an evolutionary link between Twilight Struggle and the COIN series. Before playing it, I figured it would be too much like TS to make for a good solitaire experience. It's nice to be proved wrong, however! Once you add the expansion, Labyrinth is an interesting design that's worth it for the solo play alone.
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Łukasz
Poland
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jmedelstein wrote:
I think of Labyrinth as kind of an evolutionary link between Twilight Struggle and the COIN series.


That's a good one sentence review of what Labyrinth is--I couldn't phrase it better myself.

Thanks for the review; why I didn't consider playing it solo, but it coaxed me to give it a try nonetheless--being able to change difficulty level sounds particularly interesting.

 
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Andrew Wallwork
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Great review. First time I played I had no idea what I was doing and nearly gave up and sold it. But I stuck with it and once I learned how the game flowed and what the various strategies were (playing a human helped here) I enjoyed it immensely. It's one of my favourite games now. And finding the program that lets you run the bot on a computer makes it even better!
 
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