Shortly after playing Twilight Struggle, I found myself furiously searching through the internet to try and find other games in that style/weight category I could sink my teeth into. Grant was doing the same, and before we knew it our shelves started filling up with games like Wilderness War, Churchill, and Labyrinth. Labyrinth peaked my interest because it was both a game that seemed to share a lot in common with Twilight Struggle but tackled both a contemporary, and also (for me at least) a very under-represented conflict. I’d played a number of WWII games, and other historical settings, but nothing that was contemporary, nothing that I had personally had some experience in.
Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? was released in 2010, and covers the on going conflicts all over the world between The USA and Islamic Jihadists. So, right off the bat you have a topic that will not be for everyone’s tastes, which is completely understandable. This is an ongoing topic of great polarisation so I understand some people’s hesitation to get on board. I personally don’t have a problem with seperating myself from a game however, so I pounded through the rules and we got this one to the table quickly.
Labyrinth is a really intersting game from a mechanical standpoint. It’s a CDG and the cards function in a very similar way to the cards in Twilight Struggle, they are faction aligned (or neutral) and are used either for an event or OPs values. Playing an opposing factions card triggers the event in much the same way and there is a way for each side to ditch a single card each hand, akin to the space race. That’s about where the similarities end however. In hindsight, I am very glad about this; that it wasn’t just a reskin but an entirely different style of game.
Like TS the players draw cards from a common stack, but the big difference is that each player plays two cards, effectively taking two turns before the other can react. The Jihadist player always goes first with the US playing a reactionary game. This does mean that the Jihadist player needs to be most comfortable with the rules before playing, because each game is only as good as the Jihadist can make it. A predictable Jihadist will make it easy for the US to mop them up. Unlike TS however there is no ‘legacy’ to the draw deck. Where Twilight Stuggle adds more powerful cards to the deck as the early, mid and late war eras are played through; Labyrinth just has one monster stack. This means that whilst you can have an advantage knowing what cards there are in the deck, an experienced player will have a slightly smaller edge than in TS over a new player.
The factions in Labyrinth are completely A-Symmetrical. Unlike other games where factions within a game can break rules and create a-symmetry, Labyrinth provides two sides that use utterly different mechanics in order to acheive their entirely different victory conditions. At first I was leery of this fact, only because as a player you almost have to learn two different games in order to play both sides, but it works out extremely well, and which ever side you play first will give you an indication of the direction in which to utilize the other side.
At it’s heart Labyrinth is a cat-and-mouse game with the US as the cat and Jihadist player as mouse, trying to sew seeds of discontent and establishing Islamic Rule throughout the world. The US forces and abilities are extremely powerful, but bringing them to bear in many places and expeditiously is very difficult to do. It is incumbent upon the Jihadist player to try and spread the US out and get them bogged down in regime changes, as well as spending their high value cards to clean up terror plots instead of on working towards their own aims.
Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? is an interesting game when it comes to just how much it covers. When it was released in 2010, it included event cards all the way up until that year. Many of the events I recognized, but there were some that I didn’t. Either I didn’t pay attention or they weren’t widely covered by the media. In playing the game I’ve been made a aware of a few real events that I had to go and research just to understand a bit more about from a curiosity standpoint – the game also contains details about the events to shed light on each card as well.
It’s obvisouly a global game, but each play will feel very different (at least in my experience). Whilst you will probably always have some focus on Saudi Arabia and the surrounding oil producing nations, different parts of the board will become points of contention in different games. For example, even though the WMDs are in static spots on the board, the cards for those may not come up for a really long time so it can be very difficult to attempt to capture them as the Jihadists. In this way even elements of the game that don’t change from play to play aren’t guaranteed to affect each and every playthrough. Some things you will see similarities in, there will always be heavy unrest in and around Indonesia, and the US will find themselves on the brink of invading Iraq almost every game. All of this leads to a game which might have some similar core elements, but can have a wildly different narrative and is solely dependant on what and when the Jihadist player choses to do.
Where most wargames follow a historical retelling of sorts, Labyrinth is much looser in this regard. What I mean by that is if I’m playing something like Hundred Days 20, the game will follow a pretty specific pathway towards the victory conditions, and you can predict to a good extent what the enemy is at least trying to do. In Labyrinth the direction of the game is entirely set by the player and their hand of cards. With this in mind I’ve seen Labyrinth become a game with a heavy meta when playing with the same opponent over the course of a few games. This is a particularly appealing part of this game that I wasn’t expecting when I purchased it. Much like other lighter games like Coup, or Sheriff of Nottingham, where you ‘learn’ your opponents and then have to weed out their tells, or try to deduce double and triple bluffs, or predict what they think the unpredictable is; Labyrinth puts you at odds with the player as much as it does the opposing faction, or the draw deck. So much strategy and gamesmanship evolves out of this and it really brings an extra dynamic to the game and elevates it to the next level. This is one of the big reasons it’s a mainstay in my top 10 games, it just gets better the more you play it. There’s a lot of other wargames that do that, but to me Labyrinth is so player dependent that it really delivers in this department.
But it’s a three hour game!?
Actually, we played one game that lasted only 60 minutes, the US leveraged such a strong position early on and all the rolls went the US player’s way that the game was over before we were even close to a reshuffle. That being said for a ‘real’ game where there isn’t an early concession (it was a rare occurence, trust me) they can go on a bit. The good news is that you can decide your game length, you either reshuffle the deck twice, once or not at all, and you get done at the end of the draw deck. This means you can actually play a relatively short game, and it’s still very fullfilling.
Playing through the deck the full 3 times means you see everything a number of times and give you greater chances to utilize ALL of your factions events. There’s nothing worse than seeing your best cards discarded by the enemy knowing you will never see them again due to no reshuffles. So I would actually recommend at least a 2 deck game to get the best experience out of Labyrinth. A single deck game is just fine, and quick (not even close to 3 hours) but there’s less random draw mitigation, so just know that going in to it.
Look, Labyrinth is a fantastic game, it might not be for everyone’s palette but from a mechanical and exploratory standpoint the game is really good. Again, I’m good with the theme, but if it seems a bit heavy and dark at times, just try and set that aside and play the game for the game, because it’s extremely enjoyable.