13 February 2017
A miniature David Bowie, a chance to sing Magic Dance and a beloved cult movie – can this cinematic spin-off live up to its source material?
It might not seem it given its cherished position three decades on, but Labyrinth was poorly received when it was first released in cinemas in 1986. On paper, it had all the elements of a surefire hit: a script penned by Monty Python member Terry Jones, direction by Muppets creator Jim Henson (and the presence of many of his Creature Shop creations), production by Star Wars mastermind George Lucas and the star power of cultural icon David Bowie (alongside the fast-rising Jennifer Connelly, still a teen at the time). Yet despite praise for its visual invention, surreal humour and imaginative set pieces, it was roundly dismissed by many critics for its seemingly subpar story and performances, only being redeemed and going on to earn its current cult status years later.
Somewhat fittingly, the first official board game adaptation of the movie, released to tie in with its 30th anniversary last year, is sure to divide the affections of players. Designed by Alessio Cavatore, the game pits four players in a co-operative race to get to Jareth’s castle and rescue baby Toby from the goblin king, in line with the film’s plot. A fifth player can technically play as Jareth, but is left with little to do but advance the goblin clock at the end of each round, pick between two card options for each encounter and roll the dice for opposing enemies – in short, don’t even bother (unless you enjoy boring a friend to death).
The board itself is nicely hand-illustrated, depicting Jareth’s castle at its centre and the various sections of the titular maze around it. Players roll to travel around the ring of spaces, and can choose to take their companions with them if they are on the same rectangle – but every character on the same square risks suffering an equal fate when cards are drawn.
The four characters – Sarah, Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Didymus (mounted on the dog, Ambrosius) – all have different stats for the three core attributes: speed, will and brawn. These are reflected in the rolling of differently-coloured dice, ranging from a D4 up to a D12, when various challenges are confronted – when multiple characters share a space, the highest-value dice of any of the characters is rolled. Failing a roll often means losing a willpower token, which doubles as health points. Losing all of your willpower results in that character returning to the Oubliette and missing an extra turn – a considerable setback given the need to win the game before the 13-hour goblin clock returns to its starting position. Willpower can also be expended to boost a dice check with the roll of a D20, which becomes critical when facing the tougher enemies later on
While the ability to roll different dice (you can also choose to roll lower-value dice if you want to move less far for any reason) mixes up the standard roll-and-movie formula a little, Labyrinth is still at heart a rather formulaic experience. Landing on a blank space means drawing a card from the Labyrinth deck, which has a single card removed at the beginning of the game to make each game ever-so-slightly different. This turns out to essentially be a meaningless step to introduce variety, as the vast majority of the cards simply involve taking a dice challenge or risk losing willpower.
Occasionally, a card will summon Jareth and his accompanying miniature to a space, but this again appears to be largely pointless, as the figure simply sits there and – with the exception of a few cards, none of which we actually experienced during our time with the game – has little impact on the gameplay at all. With a cynical eye, and given the presence of a transparent window in the game’s box, it appears that the miniature of David Bowie serves as little more than a selling point for the product.
Still, the idea of constructing a unique layout of cards and events as players progress around the board is interesting, as many of the cards remain in the playing area and repeat their actions when landed on again. Unfortunately, this is undermined by the removal of many cards when defeated via dice roll, often resulting in a final board layout that looks patchy and incomplete.
The cards themselves are of fine enough quality – most feature titles and picture stills referencing moments in the film – but, again, there is an overwhelming absence of any supplementary flavor text, leading most encounters to feel nearly identical and repetitious.
Occasionally a card offers something a little more interesting – the Magic Dance card requires memorising and recalling the lyrics to Bowie’s irresistible ditty (“What power? Power of voodoo! Who do? You do!”) – but these are far and few between. The board can also present a little more danger, as landing on the Bog of Eternal Stench risks ‘earning’ a Smells Bad token, which stops that character from potentially keeping up with their friends when travelling as a group.
Eventually, the gate to the goblin city is discovered and the centre of the board is accessed – this will be a number of turns in, as the deck is prepared with the gate at least 20 cards down. Once the gate is open, players fight through the goblin infantry, goblin cavalry, goblin artillery and Humongous in order – this means rolling until they fall. The standees for each mini-boss helps to lend some physicality to their presence on the board but, as they never move, it would’ve been just as easy to print their images on their fixed spaces. Finally, the player controlling Sarah takes on Jareth and must recall the incantation to save Toby – the rulebook suggests not allowing the use of the card outside of introductory games, so good luck with that.
While Labyrinth resembles its cinematic namesake in appearance, it lacks much of the charm and endearing wackiness that ultimately dragged the film out of a critical floundering and into the hearts of multiple generations of fans. There are attempts to spice up the conventional roll-and-move mechanics with the build-as-you-go board and final boss marathon showdown, but the game remains bereft of any of the joyous atmosphere and fun of the original film. In short: smell bad.
Labyrinth tries but ultimately fails to capture the invention and spirit of its movie inspiration. There’s little attempt to build atmosphere and the more interesting rules present among the rote roll-and-move foundations aren’t made prominent enough to rescue it from becoming a disappointing and – worse – just plain boring experience.
Publisher: River Horse
Time: 30+ minutes
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