The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Comparing Twilight Struggle & Labyrinth

Four Years ago (wow!) I got Twilight Struggle, played it ~8 times, and sold it. Now we have Labyrinth. I eventually summarized most of my posts on Twilight Struggle into one Geekthread, but my concerns were basically:

  1. The neutral events dominate … getting lots of neutral events seems superior than not (because your opponent will be forced to play your events for you, and decide between ops or events for his good events).
  2. The ‘granularity of luck’ on the space race. A few big rolls …
  3. Getting a handful of scoring cards hurt (doesn’t really apply in Labyrinth).

Basically, my concern was that you had a 3-hour game that was basically decided by a few deals of cards with the rest being details (Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but I felt that about half my games were decided by luck).

After my first play of Labyrinth, I had the same concerns, so now I’m going to address them in detail.

The Neutral Cards — as before, there are good cards to get and bad cards, and there are some cards for each side that having the opponent’s card is useful (or painful). But then you have Oil Price Spike, which lets you dig through the discard pile. There are two of these. Getting these are a big deal. In addition to getting a good card, you also get to ‘delay’ an impulse, which may be nice to get a string of uninterrupted plays (as the US) or more plays with the US only able to hold one card (as Jihadis). There are also 4-5 events that ‘reset’ a specific country.  Those can be important (and annoy me slightly because they can just take away a scoring country you spent time on). Then you have the ringleaders (Bin Laden, KSM, Hambali, Zarqawi, etc). They are all neutral and have huge effects (Hambali lets the US draw two cards and kill a cell versus letting the Jihadis play a plot. KSM removes all plots in Ally or non-muslim countries and draws the US player two cards, versus adding a plot for jihadis. So, assuming that the US player would hold it until it applied and play it, that’s a swing of 2 plots (one played vs one removed) and 2 cards. Saleh as the opening play means the difference between an Ally with aid and a Beseiged Adversary. (Adversarial regimes are a big deal, since the US typically can’t disrupt OR invade until after they fall).

The good news is that there are a fair number of these big swings, they should balance out. But if you get a mitt full of your opponents cards and they’ve got a mixed hand with neutrals, you could still be in trouble. As in Twilight Struggle, each side does have a way to mitigate.

The Granularity of Luck — Labyrinth has more rolls, and for the Jihadi there really aren’t that many. You roll lots of dice to jihad, plot, and recruit and some of them will need 1s and 2s. The Posture rolls for non-muslim countries are fairly random, but biased. War of Ideas rolls are big, but you’ll be making several a turn (as compared to one space-race a turn).

But the US Prestige rolls annoy me. I’m still peeved that (for the most part) they don’t take the action that caused them into account. Take invading Afghanistan — shouldn’t it matter whether Europe is militaristic or not? And sure the random 6 Prestige shift doesn’t happen often, but the game where it does you’ll remember it. (And the one US win so far occurred in a game with a +4 prestige shift due to invasion). It would have been easy to assign each roll as “Hard” or “Soft” and and have the world opinion influence it. (If the world is “Hard” then a leak that you wiretapped is probably going to be met with a shrug and some clucking. If the world is soft then people will care more). As it stands, I’m tempted to just house rule the prestige roll, but I’ll probably give it a few more games.

So, apart from the scoring cards, I feel that Labyrinth keeps Twilight Struggle’s flaws. It also has one other change — as a single large deck (instead of early/middle/late) there’s more elasticity of timing. If Patriot Act comes up first, that means that all the Sanction cards are active. If it comes up later, not so much. If you see Musharraf go by, both sides know that if they win Pakistan they can keep it. Etc. Abu Sayyaf opens the Phillipines to prestige loss. These are big events, but I think there are enough of them that it reduces the granularity of luck. (You make a few rolls, but the cards delay against you). This is also mitigated by the decision (of which I approve) to have ‘common’ events (like Predator, Martyrdom Operations, Sanctions, the Russian/Asian WMD trio,  etc) that occur multiple times.

Chris Farrel has commented on the ‘hardcoding’ of some events (like Iraqi WMDs, Saddam) that are keyed to a specific country. I agree that it kind of railroads the game, but that bothers me only in the abstract. I do agree with his comment that I’m not really sure that the two deck game would be much different than a 1 deck game (apart from length). In fact, most of our games haven’t gone much into the second deck anyway.

And that’s one reason why I’m still playing Labyrinth despite it’s flaws — the game seems consistently shorter than Twilight Struggle. We’re not quite at the deck per hour, but “deck-per-90 minutes” seems reasonable, and with a shorter game I’m willing to forgive more luck. Volko Ruhnke has stated that ending lopsided games was a design goal and I believe it. The game can snowball, which is much better than lingering.

Another reason is that the asymmetry fascinates me.

Finally, after my 4 games (and several solo outings), I’ve been able to point to luck, I’ve also been able to point to mistakes played on both sides. There is luck, but I’m not sure that it’s to blame for the outcome. Perhaps I’ll get to that point, but I’m not there yet. (Partially this is because I keep losing. I’m less likely to blame luck for my losses, because I can mentally go back and say “Ooh, I should have done this.” Sometimes I can see my opponent’s mistake, but unless I go and reconstruct their hand and pretend I didn’t know my hand it’s tough to be sure. And I’m too lazy to do that, most times). In my second game tonight I attacked the wrong space with a predator, which had cascading impact. In my solo game I ignored radicalization. Even if I write off my first game to the (huge) +4 prestige roll, I know there were several mistakes. But even if those didn’t matter, right now I’d say that maybe 25% of my games were luck-dominated, as compared to 40-50% for Twilight Struggle. When you consider that Labyrinth is shorter and more interesting, then you understand why I’m still playing it, despite the flaws. Of course I’ll revisit this depending on if I think I’ve misjudged the luck.



Written by taogaming

December 28, 2010 at 1:17 am

Posted in Specific Games

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