Monday, January 31, 2011

Labyrinth - A Solo Game Later

I posted an analysis of Labyrinth: The War On Terror 2001-? to this blog a couple of months ago, which I cross-posted to the 'Geek. It got picked up by GMT and CSW for their websites as well, and generated a fair amount of discussion but I think it was a pretty good introduction to the game's systems and how they interact. However, I'd had little practical experience with playing the game either two-player or solitaire.

This morning, I finished playing a three-deck solitaire game on VASSAL that I'd been working on for about a month, and while I played the game using the un-nerfed version, I feel that I got through the "what the hell do I do next" learning curve (especially wrt how to manage the AI) and feel like I have enough of a sense of the game to evaluate it as a solitaire game. Note that I still haven't really played the two-player game enough to have a good sense of how well it works, although I do feel I have enough of a sense as to how to play both sides so that I would enjoy a two-player game rather than just feel like I was slogging through the systems, either side.

The solo game has a decent enough AI, but after playing it's clear that in a board game version (as opposed to a PC AI, which can be much more complex and nuanced) that the player needs to be nerfed in some way so as to give the Jihadist AI a fighting chance and create a stimulating game. In the case of Labyrinth, the system does this in several ways - ignoring US events it plays out of hand, giving OPs *and* events for Unassociated events, and using a "Radicalization" process when there are leftover OPs for the AI. You can also ratchet up the difficulty by adding in up to four more nerfs, at least one of which is used in the extensive (and excellent) example of play that comes with the game. In my game, I played with no extra nerfs, which I think is the way to go.

The solitaire game is an excellent way to learn how the systems work, and I recommend that anyone interested in the game who has the time and space to play it solo do so before diving into a two-player game. The reason for this is that while there really aren't that many options in terms of specific actions that you can take for either side, at the same time the two sides play *very* differently, with different actions and different things to be concerned with, and many of those actions have their own nuances that you have to deal with. For example, knowing when to leave a Cadre behind when the last cell leaves a space and when not to, or getting used to what spaces on the board are legitimate for a given action. Even more importantly, you need to understand how the various actions work together to get you where you need to be to win. It's not a simple game by any stretch, even though the rules have lots of graphics and only really span around 8 pages once you get past the discussion of the components.

One drawback of starting with the solitaire game is that the player has the additional burden of needing to understand the subtleties of the flowchart that drives the Jihadist AI. For that reason, I strongly recommend you play a 3-Deck game for a few reasons. First, you will need the time to learn how to react to the Jihadist play and discover why the flowchart is set out as it is. Second, you need to learn how to *run* the AI. The flowchart is a marvel of compactness and conciseness once you understand just how much is involved once you take into the special cases for various event cards. Happily, it's pretty much all there. I used the US Operations card for the flowchart so that I could refer to the Jihadist Operations card, with very few rules lookups. This may be one of the best packaged play-aids I've ever seen in a wargame, it's extremely complete and gets the information to you in a very quick and effective way.

The good news is that by playing the three-deck game, by the time you get into the second pass you have internalized a lot of the concepts behind the AI so that while you will still refer to the flowchart, you will do so less and less and the game moves along very quickly (as it was intended to do). You will also know how to set up a complex sequence of events so as to get to where you need to be. Perhaps most importantly, you will also get to know the deck! A big part of mastering any CDG requires you to get to know the deck, and with games that divide the deck into parts that learning curve is relatively gentle. With this game, however, it's one deck of 110 cards. Fortunately, you will see all of them playing solitaire each time around, plus the deck will thin out to some extent as cards tend to be removed as the game progresses. By the third time around, you will know exactly what card you want to draw from the discards if you get the Oil Spike card.

Incidentally, I used v1.01 of the VASSAL module. There are some really nice touches to this module, including a specific module for solitaire play that has a discard pile for 3-OPs Jihadist event cards (very useful if the Jihadists draw Oil Spike). There are a few bugs, such as components not always going where you thought they would, specifically Cells going Offboard instead of to the Funding Track when using the pop-up menus. Fortunately, there are ways to get these things back if you don't notice them and Undo right away, and you learn what *not* to use. For the most part, however, it works quite well, especially if you have a two-screen setup on your desktop (one for the map, one for the draw piles). I set my second monitor up so that it had the card decks available - US hand on the top showing all cards (my screen allowed a large enough zoom so I could read text of 8 cards), Jihadist shrunk down so that it showed the two "current" cards in play, the deck management window with the draw pile (which shows the number of cards remaining, a very nice touch), discards, and Removed cards, and another window for the Jihadist 3OPs discards. There are also windows to show where the troops and cells are, as well as tracking for the various status markers such as Good/Fair, Poor/Islamist, and Soft/Hard countries. You can double-check these levels very quickly using these windows, and they are particularly welcome in this module. For this early of a module, it's very complete and well thought out.

So how did my three-deck, no extra nerfs, first time through game turn out? I used the standard scenario, which begins with the 9/11 attacks and an Islamist regime in Afghanistan. I went straight to Regime Change in Afghanistan, as I suspect many do, and stayed there through almost the entire game, as I suspect many do (as, in fact, the US *continues* to do). I had a scare during the second deck when the Sudan became Islamist (if there's one thing you want to avoid, it's Islamist countries - they make everything much harder when they are active), but got a fortuitous card draw that allowed me to get rid of it. Iraq and Somalia also came very close to going Islamist, but lucky die rolls prevented that from happening during Major Jihads. I should note here that one of the decision points for the AI is whether or not you can have a *successful* Major Jihad. Since a success requires *two* successful rolls, a 1 card cannot generate an attempt unless it's in a Besieged Regime.

Things started going right when I improved Turkey's governance to Good, although it is isolated enough that it's difficult to use it to improve your chances on the War of Ideas table. It was funny that Yemen ended up being the first Gulf State to give me a toehold in a practical region of the board. From there, first Saudi, then Jordan moved to Good Governance. Central Asia was Good for a short time, which gave me some hope for Afghanistan, but it didn't last long and it eventually became a target to return to Poor. I went back and forth with Afghanistan, but as long as it was the only Besieged Regime on the map it was a target for cells and as such you have to knock them back down before making WoI attempts. I did eventually get it to Good governance on the penultimate turn, but it required both Sistani and Mass Turnout on the same turn (achieved through a fortuitous Oil Spike card on the same turn) to switch it over in a single action phase. And then it went right back to Fair and stayed there, although travel drew the remaining cell out of the area.

Things were looking good toward the end of the third deck (and the end of the game). I was gaining some traction in Iraq and the Gulf States, there were hardly any cells in the game, Funding was low, and my Prestige had dug itself out of it's hole. I was *very* lucky that every US Election that came up resulted in the US staying Hard, which was also the prevailing state of a large majority of non-Muslim countries for most of the game. My GWOT penalty never went below 0 the entire game, giving me the chance to regain Prestige most turns while Funding was a constant issue for the Jihadists. In fact, I would say that getting Funding down to 1 in the solitaire game should be a primary focus. There will be plots you can't deal with that will drop your Prestige and raise Funding, and so the lower you can keep it, the easier a time you will have.

As it should in all fun solitaire games, the decision came in the final turn. Things were looking really good for the US - we were up to Fair in Iraq, the Gulf States, and Afghanistan, and I had seven points of resources in Good Countries. All I needed to do was to keep the love light shining in Iraq and the Gulf States and get those good WoI rolls. Having Good countries nearby is a huge statistical advantage, and another major strategy for the US in the game, and should be a secondary goal after keeping Funding down. It even counters a poor Prestige drm. I was a *little* nervous as I'd had a terrible hand in the penultimate turn, almost all ones but at least with no playable events for the Jihadists. I think there were three total turns that I didn't dump off a Jihadist card rather than take the OPs, almost all in the late game. With that much advantage on my side, I was able to get the necessary rolls by the second action phase, and hit 13 Good Resources to win the game. Which was good, because I never got close to the required numbers at the end of play with the first and second decks!

Clearly, a few things went my way in this game, especially at the end of the game. Having the Sudan suddenly rethink Islamism due to an event was H-U-G-E. Having two other Major Jihad's fail was also huge. Travel, surprisingly, derailed more threats than anything else, especially as they don't leave Cadres. That said, there are so many events that place cells that I found Funding was mostly useful for giving the Jihadist fewer card plays. I also had terrible card draws early, getting mostly Jihadist events that I had to play, while the Jihadist got the US events. There is no option to "level out" the event mix in the VASSAL module, but for those who feel they want a more even distribution this is probably a good choice if you are playing on the physical board. I'm happy to see this option and will probably use it when playing two-player. For the solitaire game, I felt it was not necessary, but YMMV.

I'll be honest - in the first deck I found managing the AI to be a huge chore when combined with trying to understand the subtleties of the game. Fortunately, I had gone through the two excellent examples of play first, so I had a fairly good grasp of the core rules going in. By the end of the first deck, though, I was wondering if this was going to be a game I'd enjoy solitaire, even using VASSAL. By the middle of the second deck everything was clicking and I spent *less* time playing the second and third decks combined than I did the first deck. I could average around six or seven hands per hour near the end, making this extremely playable in an evening, if not for a full 3 deck game.

While it's clear that there are only passing resemblances to Twilight Struggle (mostly concerning the complexity level and the forced use of playing your opponent's cards), I will say that I think this game is far superior to TS on almost every level. The game is not nearly as prone to wacky card plays (although they can, and did, happen to me in my game, to my benefit), and there is no scoring card mechanism, which I hold is the main issue with TS and my willingness to play and enjoy it. I really enjoyed Labyrinth once I got through the initial double learning-curve period, and I'm looking forward to giving it another try now that I feel I have the system down. I'm looking even more to playing it face-to-face or via a VASSAL pbem game (less interesting, mostly because it will take time and I tend to have a schedule where I'm busy in the evenings when most of my friends are free). The game is about as well-developed as I've seen, which I expect from the designer and now from the developer, Joel Toppen, who is now stuck with having to do this good a job on everything he develops from here on out!

The game still has the burden of being modeled on history that has not yet been written completely, history that has created incredible divisiveness in the US and abroad (my initial analysis even exposed some of that divisiveness in some of the initial responses). In fact, the solitaire game was developed because it was felt (correctly, I suspect) that there would be a sizable number of gamers that would refuse to play the Jihadist side, despite the fact that a very large number of the people shooting at us in both Iraq and Afghanistan were not, in fact, involved in Jihadist activities. I can understand that for many, especially the people who served in the military in those countries and others, this conflict is just too personal. That's unfortunate, because it's really a very good game and worth learning just to get another perspective on the history we are living through as I type.

For the solitaire version at least, I highly recommend this game.

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