It’s time for some Nostalgia again, and I, at least, cannot be much more nostalgic than this, because I want to show you one of the first games I played that deserved to be called “game” – as opposed to the then typical kids games, that went along the lines
- Role die
- Realise you are not actually making any decisions
- Badger parents for new game
Well, this was one of the first, or maybe the first, games that I have badgered for, and on a recent visit to my mother’s house I rediscovered it in a very small stack of old games that she kept and didn’t give away to other kids from the extended family. I’m talking about The aMAZEing Labyrinth, or Das verrückte Labyrinth, as it was called in Germany. Where the English title puts the MAZE in all capitals, the German title is an at least slightly clever pun – earning the game some bonus points already since puns are the highest form of poetry. “Verrückt”, on the one hand, is “crazy”in German, but it can be understood as “moved out of place”, from the verb “verrücken” – considering the game mechanics, it’s a really good title.
The aMAZEing Labyrinth is, to date, the oldest game we presented here at the Meople’s Magazine, It was released in 1986 – for those of you keeping track, that means it still has “Made in West Germany” printed on it – and made it to the Spiel des Jahres Jury’s Selection list that year. Nowadays, it would have a good shot at winning Kinderspiel des Jahres (Kid’s Game of the Year), but that award didn’t exist back then.
The goal of the game is to boldly descent into the Labyrinth and retrieve a bundle of things from there – treasures, spiders, ghosts, books, you name it, someone left it down there. A normal, unchanging labyrinth doesn’t usually make a very interesting game, but this labyrinth is anything but unchanging. The game board has 16 fixed pieces of the labyrinth in a 4×4 grid, and between them three horizontal and three vertical trenches. Before the game starts, these trenches are filled up with labyrinth tiles, which are the same as the 16 fixed pieces on the board, only they are not fixed.
When the game is set up, one of the labyrinth tiles remains unused. This is where the “verrücke” from the German title comes in, and where the game becomes a lot more fun that just finding random satanic paraphernalia in a labyrinth. When it’s your turn, the first thing you do is take the spare tile, and push it into one of the trenches at one end, pushing another tile out on the far end and making it the new spare tile. After you do that,you can move your Theseus-meeple as far as you want along an open corridor and try to pick up the item from your top treasure card. Your treasure cards are your shopping list for the game, and once you have all the items on your cards, you win.
Pushing one line of tiles in a labyrinth can make a bigger difference than you might imagine. Some corridors close, other’s open, parts of the labyrinth that were previously unconnected suddenly connect and open a route all the way to the other end of the board. The treasures on the movable tiles obviously move along with their tiles, and if all that is not enough, as an advances strategy you can push one of the meeples out of the labyrinth and they will reappear on the newly inserted tile. Doing that to yourself gives you the option to go to the other side of the board before even taking your move.
All this does of course sound pretty simple, but keep in mind that we’re talking about a kid’s game here. And as a kid, I remember that The aMAZEing Labyrinth was not a game I found incredibly difficult (that was Heimlich & Co, Spiel des Jahres of the same year – I didn’t learn the subtlety required to play that until I was 25) but challenging and interesting enough to play it over and over and over. I admit, I haven’t replayed the game since I’m maybe 13, but my mother assures me – and she is not usually one to sugar-coat things – that it’s quite painless to play with your kids, unlike some other games I used to love and later learned all the adults who played them with me despised. It doesn’t require much luck to win, but neither does it require you to play badly in order to let your kid win sometimes. The average 8 year old – the minimum age given on the package – will have no trouble beating you in a fair game, and most 6 year olds will easily be able to learn and play the game, except maybe the trick of pushing your own meeple of the board to make it come in on the other side.
So, maybe it’s just my distorted childhood memories that make me like the game even this much later? It’s possible, I suppose, but really I think there is more to it than that. After all, not so many games can boast to be still in production 24 years later. And while there is games that have spawned more variants and rethemes than The aMAZEing Labyrinth, the list of games that were developed from the original is very impressive for a kids game:
- There is various themes painted on the original game, including a Disney theme, a Spongebob theme and most likely a bunch of others.
- There is Master Labyrinth where all players compete for the same treasure at the same time, and which as it’s own themed Lord of the Rings version. Did any game not get one of those? Has anyone found “Ticket to Ride – Middle Earth” or “Settlers of Middle Catan” in their local game shop. If yes, please leave a comment, I’m curious.
- Junior Labyrinth comes with a smaller board and fewer items, for ages 4 and up.
- Secret Labyrinth uses the same basic idea on a maze of concentric circles and introduces a simple form of combat.
- Labyrinth the Card Game doesn’t involve any sliding of tiles but lets build the labyrinth by putting cards.
- Labyrinth Treasure Hunt is played simultaneously on one game board, Labyrinth: The Duel on individual boards for each player or solo.
- 3D Labyrinth is a plastic-molded variant for the still younger where whole sections of the labyrinth are moved around
…and more than likely I forgot a few. Anyway, designer Max Kobbert and publisher Ravensburger got a lot of mileage out of the simple yet efficient idea of sliding labyrinth puzzle games. Some of the newer versions may not have been strictly necessary, the idea of adding a combat system sounds to me like it happened after a session of D&D&D (Drugs & Dungeons & Dragons), but that doesn’t change that the original is a classic. It’s certainly not the game you want to play with only adults, even drunk adults, but if you have kids of the right age it’s a game they will remember fondly twenty-some years later.