Wednesday 31 October 2018

Review - Labyrinth: The Duel

Designed by Marco Teubner
Published by Ravensburger
For 2 players, aged 8 to 99 years, apparently

Labyrinth: The Duel

Is there anything more terrifying than being lost in a dark maze, where the walls are constantly shifting, and you never know which way to turn? Well... probably, yes. Probably lots of things. Spiders, clowns, spiders dressed as clowns. The list is almost endless. But the truth is, it's Halloween and I should be reviewing something suitably creepy such as Warhammer Underworlds: Nightvault right now. Unfortunately my photographs aren't ready, and that means you get stuck with a review of Labyrinth: The Duel which I'm ham-fistedly trying to cram into a spooky framework.

So, let's all just pretend this is a really creepy game and we'll say no more about it...



Here goes...

When I was young I had a recurring nightmare. I was a dot, travelling along a line. Frequently, the line would branch, and I would choose one of the paths. And at each junction, the noise of static would grow. It would grow and grow, until it was almost deafening. And then suddenly I would be at the end of the line, and I would realise with terrifying certainty that I had made some wrong choices in my route and I was in completely the wrong place.

Then I would wake up, with the sound of static in my ears.

Those were the worst dreams; the dreams that had a lasting impact on my life. They were the dreams I took as a warning.

These days, I analyze every choice in my life carefully. I don't ever want to hear that static and realise I'm not waking from a dream, and the path I've taken is the wrong one.

But I can't imagine I'm the only person to have had dreams like that. I think we all have that fear: The fear we're making the wrong choices, walking the wrong paths.

But what has this got to do with Labyrinth: The Duel?

Remember, this is all about ham-fisted cramming, and some extreme mental gymnastics. (I feel there's an actor and a bishop gag here somewhere, but I can't put my finger on it... as the actor said to the bishop.)

(Deep breath.)

The aMAZEing Labyrinth from Ravensburger is a fascinating game for up to four players in which each player is searching for objects in an ever-shifting maze. On your turn you push a piece of the maze into place, and this shunts a different piece out of the maze. The next player then pushes that piece into the maze, which pushes out something else. And so on.

It's like a microcosm of our everyday existences: Our struggles to forge the correct path, our efforts to balance what we need against what we can afford to give away, our endless endeavours to find everything we need on a checklist of treasures as we make decision after decision and battle against the changes we can't control.

It's elegant, simple, and works with players of all ages.

It's so perfect I hear static when I play. 

But success is a curse, and the original aMAZEing Labyrinth has spawned a franchise (yeah, the "F" word). There are now countless versions, including simple branded rethemes (Lord of the Rings, anyone?), and also versions that introduce new rules or completely new styles of play. One such iteration of the theme is Labyrinth: The Duel (which I'm going to call Duel from now on, because life's too short, and this introduction is way too long).

The box art from Labyrinth: The Duel, showing two wizards locked in battle.

Duel takes the basic premise of the shifting maze, but takes it in a new direction. The best way to describe it is to ask you to think back to when you were a kid and you went to a friend's birthday party. Do you remember those party bags you used to get? Piece of cake, a few sweets, and then a small sliding tile puzzle. You know the ones, with a 3x3 grid comprising eight tiles and one space that allows you to move the tiles around to create an image.

I bloody hated those things.

And that, unfortunately, is pretty much what Duel is.

The game is a head-to-head battle for two players, in which each player has a 4x4 board with 15 tiles on it depicting lengths of tunnel, leaving one space empty to slide them around. On each edge of the board there are images of treasure, which match images on a deck of cards.

One of the game boards from Labyrinth: The Duel, set up and ready to play.

To start the game, each player positions their 15 tiles within the grid following some simple guidelines, and then one player flips a card to show the starting treasure on which each player places his or her pawn. A second card shows the treasure the players must reach by moving the tiles around on their boards to create a continuous network of tunnels.

And then they're off... Because, yeah; this is a speed game.

Players scramble to slide tiles around, frantically building and breaking paths, until someone creates a route to the treasure, at which point play halts.

The successful player moves his or her pawn along the path to the treasure, takes the corresponding treasure card as a reward, and flips a new card. This continues until one player has accumulated eight treasure cards, or (if you're playing with me) someone decides this is one of the worst ways possible to spend time and looks for a better game. Like Russian Roulette.

Now, you may have picked up from a few subtle hints that I'm not a fan of this game. That's true enough. I think the game is fundamentally flawed and doesn't create a fun experience for the players. But before drilling into the negatives too much, let's look at the positives...

The tiles have nice artwork, which is free of clutter so it's very easy to tell quickly where your paths are going (essential for a game based on speed). Additionally, the tiles are sturdy cardboard pieces set into thick plastic frames, making them durable enough to withstand all the rapid shunting and pushing that occurs during a game. And the little gold-coloured plastic pawns are cute. Oh, and the game is incredibly easy to learn and teach. Most people are going to get to grips with what they need to do almost immediately, simply because most people have played this kind of sliding puzzle before.

A sample of the rules for Labyrinth: The Duel.



And yeah. I think that's about it for positives.

When it comes to negatives, I really only have two complaints. But they're so big, and so intrinsic to the design, I simply can't overlook them or derive any fun from playing the game.

The first, quite obviously, is this is basically a solitaire game. Each player has a board, and there's no way to screw with your opponent. You focus only on moving the tiles on your board as quickly as possible. In fact, it's such a solitaire experience, the game includes solo rules which don't change the way you play at all; they simply tell you to play against the clock to see how many treasures you can claim within a fixed time limit.

Now, I don't think every game needs to have in-your-face opposition; but I do feel like players should be operating within the same world. In Duel, both players cast their eyes down, focus solely on moving tiles on their own board, and don't even need to know what their opponent is up to. And because it's timed, you can't even talk to your opponent. All you can do is concentrate on the sliding tiles. 

When I get friends together to play games, I do so because I want to spend time with those people. The games facilitate a social engagement. They provide something to do, something to talk about, something to puzzle over, something to solve, and something to challenge us while we enjoy each other's company.

Duel is the exact opposite of what I look for in a game.

That, really, is enough to bury Duel; but there's another serious flaw in the design, and it's this flaw that drives a stake through the game's heart. As soon as one player has completed a route to the current treasure, gameplay stops. That player moves his or her pawn along the path to the treasure, and then draws the next treasure card, at which point play resumes. 

See the flaw?

The winner of each round has a distinct advantage because he or she already has a complete route leading from his or her current treasure space. It may only take sliding one or two tiles to rearrange the path to reach the next treasure. Meanwhile, the loser may still be floundering with a completely broken path.

An attractive arrangement of treasure cards from Labyrinth: The Duel.

It's a classic rich get richer design. Winning a round gives you a serious leg up for winning each and every future round. Of course, you aren't guaranteed a win just because you're ahead; the random draw of the treasures may fall perfectly for your opponent. But given the choice between having an assembled path leading from my current space or being completely stranded with no clear route off my current space... Well; it's not much of a choice, is it?

Now, I'm sure there are some people who will get a kick out of this game. There always is. Some people will enjoy the easy accessibility of the streamlined rules, allowing them to play this with gamers and non-gamers alike; and the pure contest element of the head-to-head implementation is going to appeal to people who enjoy throwing down a gauntlet. I'm sure there are even some people who like the cerebral challenge of these sliding tile puzzles. Although I've never met any of them.

So, sure. Some people may enjoy it. But frankly, this game is a shadow of it's predecessor. It's taken the premise of a much better game, and ripped it's soul out. What's left, is a hollow and empty thing that I simply can't recommend when you could go out and buy The aMAZEing Labyrinth and have a much more engaging, interactive experience with your family and friends.

A game of Labyrinth: The Duel in action.

In attempting to use the (amazing) aMAZEing Labyrinth as a springboard for designing a different style of sliding maze game, the designer has made a poor decision. He's taken a wrong turn, and lost his way. The result is a game in which two players sit with their eyes down in near-silent contemplation, endlessly changing and rearranging a maze of tiles while the clock's minute hand spins, inexorably cutting away at their lives like an executioners axe, stealing precious moments that could be used to actually enjoy the company of others.

As gaming experiences go, it's hard to think of anything scarier than that.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Labyrinth: The Duel isn't currently in production, but you may be able to find a copy in a charity store or on eBay. There are much better gaming experiences available from local game stores and online retailers. I recommend checking out those instead.

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