Friday, 4 November 2016

Review - Lost Patrol

Published by Games Workshop
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult


The front cover artwork from Lost Patrol, which looks like genestealers in a mosh pit.


When did the world become so bitter?

When did we start finding it so much easier to mock than to admire? When did we start seeing the bad in every good, and making sure no good deed went unpunished?

I blame the Internet.

I blame the medium that gave everyone a voice while taking away their face.

You only have to look at the comments on any YouTube or Facebook video (and I recommend you don't) to see what I'm talking about. You see a video of a male nurse who staged a fake wedding with the young cancer patient he cared for, and someone calls him a paedophile. You see a video of a young girl searching for her crush at university, and someone calls her a whore. You see... You know what? It doesn't matter. Examples don't matter, because it's the same damned story regardless of the story.

And honestly, it hurts my heart a little bit.

The world shouldn't be so spiteful and unpleasant. People shouldn't go out of their way to hurt other people. Every vile comment cuts someone else; reading online forums, you'd think we were all eager to bleed to death.

I don't like negativity. The world is too dark, and too awful, to hold on to evil thoughts; and I don't want to be responsible for adding any more upset to the incomprehensible sea of bad feeling we're all drowning in.

But I'm also a reviewer, and sometimes that means being negative.

And sure, sometimes I'm really negative. My copy of Destination London ended up in the toilet. I suggested The Worst Case Scenario Survival Game as a suitable pass-time for members of a suicide cult. But it's not really something I seek out, and I usually write negative reviews with a heavy heart. I don't go out of my way to find bad games. I certainly don't buy games I know I won't like just so I can batter them in a review...

Well...

Not until now.

I'm looking at my copy of Lost Patrol, and I have to admit, it feels very much like that's exactly what I've done.

The box for Lost Patrol, showing artwork of genestealers surging to attack space marine scouts.


You see, I told myself I wasn't going to buy this game. Not straight away, of course. When I first heard that Games Workshop was releasing a new edition of this two-player "classic" from my childhood I was giddy with excitement and determined to buy it the day it went to retail. Lost Patrol may not have been the best game ever made, but I clocked plenty of hours of enjoyment with it as a child. It was fun, quick to setup, and richly thematic.

It was also unashamedly brutal. For the space marine player, at least.

The basic premise involves a squad of five space marine scouts searching an uncharted world for a crashed drop pod to recover vital documents. I guess, even in the far-flung future of 40K, broadband internet is a bit temperamental.

A stack of hexagonal tiles from Lost Patrol, with the crashed drop pod tile at the top.


On the surface, it sounds like a job for a data admin department, but what makes the theme so compelling is the drop pod didn't crash on any old planet. It crashed on a jungle death world. And death worlds do pretty much what it says on the tin. The jungle is almost alive, constantly growing and changing, with flesh-eating plants that threaten to consume unwary travellers, and clawing vines that ensnare them. Worst of all, there's something lurking in the treeline.

Lots of somethings, actually.

Shapeless, faceless beasts that scurry in the dark, briefly launching ambushes to snatch away the hapless marines before disappearing again.

What are these lurkers? The background fluff doesn't say, and on the board their movements are represented by tokens which only show a pair of evil eyes peering from the foliage. And that's part of the charm; that's part of what makes the game so enjoyable. It's a small group of trained marines in a hostile environment, fighting a running battle against and unknown, unseen adversary. If they stand and fight, they die; their only option is to keep moving.

If Space Hulk is Games Workshop's nod to James Cameron's Aliens, then Lost Patrol is throwing out a salute to Predator.

So, one player takes control of the scout squad, and one player takes control of the limitless horde of lurkers. First the scouts take actions (they get two each), running through a maze of hexagonal jungle tiles, occasionally shooting at lurkers in the hope of clearing a path to the destination. A move action lets a scout move to an adjacent tile (following the paths on the artwork), while a shoot action lets a scout roll three dice, removing a lurker token for each six rolled. One scout has a heavy weapon, and rolls six dice instead.

A squad of Imperial Guard soldiers lost in the deadly jungle of Lost Patrol.


After the scouts have finished flailing around in tangleweed and failing to kill anything with their shooting actions, the lurker player removes jungle tiles that are no longer visible, and adds new tiles that have become visible. Then things get ugly, as the lurkers spring into action. The lurker player gets to make three actions, from the following options: Start a new stack of lurkers, add two tokens to an existing stack of lurkers, or move lurkers. The movement is really interesting, because you can move any stack as far as you want (ignoring paths), but for each tile you move through, you have to remove a lurker token.

This is a surprisingly clever mechanism. You have to carefully balance movement with combat prowess. Sure, you can get a big stack all the way across the game board, but by the time it's reached its destination, the stack may be too weak to make a meaningful attack. You end up making smaller moves, and then using your other actions to reinforce the stacks. It feels a little bit like balancing your accounts, but... you know... not awful.

After the lurkers have finished taking actions, any lurkers on the same tile as a marine make an ambush. This involves rolling a dice, and adding one to the result if the dice turned up the same number as the number of tokens in the stack. The scout player then rolls two dice, keeping the highest result and adding one if the sergeant is present, and another one if the scout with the heavy weapon can see (but isn't in) the target tile.

If the lurkers win, a scout is removed and any survivors retreat to an adjacent tile; if the scouts win, one lurker token is remove and any survivors retreat to an adjacent tile.

That's it. It's that simple.

When I look back on my time playing Lost Patrol, the thing I remember the most is the seemingly impossible odds, the teeth-gnashingly frustrating experience of getting within one tile of the drop pod before the merciless lurkers ripped me to bits. And it seems that's what Games Workshop remembers the most too, because for this new edition of the game, they took the concept of a seriously outmatched space marine force with almost no chance of survival, and turned the dial up to 666.

The original was hard by design. It was a triumph of theme over balance. The whole point was the space marines were supposed to be in a world of hurt. If you managed to scrape a blood-soaked win, you were supposed to feel like a god.

But this new version... Bloody hell.

It's not hard. It's impossible.

At first blush, the new edition doesn't look much different to the original. The turn structure is the same, the squad format for the space marines is the same, the rules for the way in which the jungle moves and rearranges is the same. Hell, even the jungle tiles are the same. I mean they literally reused the artwork from the original, which I thought was bloody brilliant. It's a massive nostalgia hit for someone like me, and a nice touch to show that Games Workshop remember the origins of this cool little game.

Remembers them, and then pisses all over them.

The punchboards from Lost Patrol, with all of the hexagonal jungle tiles.


Make no mistakes. This new edition look absolutely lovely (except the cover art, which looks like a group of genestealers moshing out while listening to a futuristic boy band), but the game is a complete mess.

The devil's in the details.

For a start, they've changed the theme. Not a lot. But enough. Rather than landing on a death planet inhabited with an unknown menace, this new crop of marines has landed on a planet infested with... wait for it... genestealers.

Yay!

I love me some genestealers, but I really don't need them in every game, and here the inclusion of 12 genestealer figures feels very much like an effort to cram some models into the box just to make the game more appealing to hobbyists. They really could have done this game with a few card components and five plastic marines and sold it for £20-£25; but instead, it gets a £35 price tag, and a bunch of models that really aren't necessary.

Sprues from Lost Patrol, containing 12 genestealers and a 5-man squad of space marine scouts.


The worst thing is, the inclusion of the models has made it necessary to change some of the classic rules in subtle (and not so subtle) ways, because (a) plastic models take up more space on the board than a stack of tokens, and (b) there are less models in the box than there were tokens.

So, while the game functions in quite a similar manner, there are key differences.

Scouts got a serious nerf (which they really didn't need) to compensate for the reduced number of enemies on the board. Rather than rolling three dice when shooting, marines only roll one, and the poor heavy weapons expert only gets two dice rather than six. This makes it nigh on impossible to kill more than one genestealer per turn, and actually makes shooting a last resort rather than a tool to use at the key moment.

Genestealer swarms are limited in size, with a maximum of three models in any one tile, and the smaller body count means the movement rules have changed. You no longer remove a genestealer for each tile you move through. Instead, you pick a swarm of genestealers on a single tile and do one of three things: Move one genestealer three spaces (leaving the other two behind), move two genestealers two spaces (leaving the last one behind), or move three genestealers one space (leaving the original space empty).

In theory, this sounds like it works in the same way as the old rule, as you are diminishing a genestealer swarm's attack power in order to gain additional movement. The difference, of course, is that the genestealers you leave behind aren't removed from play. They stay there, clogging up a space, and waiting to move in to attack on subsequent turns.

Genestealer ambushes are significantly different, because there are usually smaller groups of combatants involved and because enemy models are not allowed in the same tile. Genestealers now have extra long Mr. Tickle arms and attack from adjacent tiles. Additionally, they don't roll any dice; they simply get a fixed combat result equal to twice the number of genestealers in the attacking swarm. In retaliation the scout player rolls one dice (not two). The marine player suffers a minus one to the roll if there is only one marine on the tile, but gets all the other bonuses from the original rules.

Some Imperial Guard troopers face a grisly demise at the claws of genestealers in a tense game of Lost Patrol.


These changes to the ambush phase have several major impacts on gameplay.

Attacking from an adjacent space means genestealers are even quicker than the lurkers used to be, as they effectively gain an extra space of movement by not needing to actually reach the target tile. This makes it incredibly difficult to get away from them, and significantly improves their chances of making a strong attack.

For example, under the old rules, if you were adjacent to a lurker swarm, you could move one space away. To catch you, that lurker swarm would need to move two spaces, discarding one lurker token for each tile moved. Simply running away massively improved your chances of survival, because it cost your opponent two tokens to get back into position. Under the new rules, if you are adjacent to a swarm of three genestealers and you move one space away, the genestealer player can simple move all three genestealers one space to move adjacent to you again, subsequently making a full strength-six ambush against you.

Simply put, running away isn't going to cut it anymore.

A team of Imperial Guard troopers preapre to face the deadly jungle in Lost Patrol.


Additionally, the combat results are more consistent. Under the old rules, a swarm could attack with a strength ranging from one to seven (based on the size of the swarm, and the dice roll), and there was always a small element of uncertainty. Under the new rules, a swarm always attacks with a strength of two, four, or six, depending on its size.

Consider this: Under the original rules, the only way for a single lurker to kill a single regular marine would be to roll a one on the ambush dice, and for the marine to then roll a double one. Under the new rules, a single genestealer has a base attack of two as standard, and the marine dies on a roll less than a three.

The game is so heavily weighted in favour of the genestealers that the genestealer player doesn't even need to worry about the new "infest" action, which is so utterly pointless I won't even bother explaining it.

In fact, the strength of the genestealers combined with the order of operations for each round means every game basically plays out the same, and the genestealer player doesn't really need to worry about silly things like strategy. First, the marine player moves his pieces to explore some of the jungle paths, finishing the action phase with some marines on tiles at the edge of the board. The genestealer player then puts down new jungle tiles adjacent to all of the marines that are on unexplored edges of the board. If the marine player is lucky, the new tile will be a straight path, which means the genestealer player has to lay the tile beyond that, creating a longer stretch of tiles; but in many cases this doesn't happen and the marine player dies...

No. I'm not joking. A single marine exploring a path will almost certainly die. A group of three marines (the maximum allowed in a space) has a very high chance of losing at least one marine.

Two pages from the Lost Patrol rules book, showing rules for tile placement.


The problem is, after the genestealer player puts down new tiles, he or she gets the chance to spawn on any empty tiles that are on the end of a path. That means, in most cases, the genestealer player is allowed to spawn three genestealers adjacent to the marine that just explored. There's not even a need to save one action to move into combat, because the combatants are already adjacent, and the ambush action is free.

So, the marines explore, and then instantly face a full strength-six attack from a newly revealed swarm. If they somehow survive, they have to try to fight through the swarm with their nerf guns, because we've already established that running away isn't an option. But of course, their nerf guns are shite. So they end up just shouting and waving their useless guns around like the poor bastards in Southern Comfort before getting chewed to bits.

It's an absolute bloody mess. In more ways than one. But it's a mess that could easily be avoided by changing the game's turn sequence. If the new tiles were placed after the genestealer action phase, it would be impossible for them to appear immediately on top of the marines. I honestly can't see how this was every overlooked during the design process.

But I knew all this before I made my purchase. Beating up the game for being exactly what I expected it to be seems a little unfair.

I knew Games Workshop has messed with the rules. I had watched playthroughs, I knew exactly what was different, and I didn't make any secret about my feelings on the subject. I was incredibly disappointed. I had expected a reissue of a game I had loved dearly as a child, but what I was getting was a game that had lost some of the original's charm by haphazardly forcing genestealer miniatures into the box.

And that's really what it comes down to. The changes in the theme... the changes in the rules... They only exist because those miniatures exist. Games Workshop wanted to put more plastic into the box, but there wasn't enough room, so some of the game got squeezed out of the sides.

But (and I repeat myself, because it's important) I knew that.

The question isn't, why didn't this game work for me? The question is, as I knew the game wasn't going to work for me, why did I buy it anyway?

A couple of reasons actually.

To begin with, I thought I might pick up a copy because I have a set of the original rules from the first edition. Armed with that, the beautiful tiles from the second edition, and some poker chips or wooden discs, it's easy to play the game as it was originally conceived.

But then something else happened, which finally swayed my decision. In a move that seemingly acknowledged they had made an absolute shithouse of a game, Games Workshop published some rules in White Dwarf for using a force of space marine terminators instead of the hapless scouts. A quick glance at those variant rules sealed the deal, and I made my purchase.

The problem is, the terminator rules don't really make Lost Patrol a better game. Sure, they make it more balanced - terminators actually have a chance of winning sometimes, and that instantly makes the game more enjoyable - but they also create a set of new problems which bugger the game up in new and exciting ways.

Here's a quick rundown of the terminator rules:

Terminators are large, so you can only put two on a tile; they have better weapons, so they roll two dice when shooting; they have some cool heavy weapon options that have unique rules; they never retreat following an ambush; and they have an improved chance of surviving an ambush because of their terminator armour.

A Blood Angel terminator is in trouble, fighting genestealers in Lost Patrol.


That last rule... that's the problem. The rules had to compensate for the fact you can only fit two terminators on a single tile, so they make the terminators powerhouses in a fight. First you roll a dice, and then you add one to the result for each terminator in the tile (for a possible bonus of two), and then you add another one if the sergeant is present. Then you add another one if a terminator with an assault cannon can see the target tile.

The bonuses mean it's actually impossible for a single genestealer to kill a single terminator, and as terminators never retreat, there would be no point ambushing at all in that situation. Furthermore, a single genestealer would automatically lose against a terminator sergeant, who gets a plus two bonus as standard. In fact, the genestealers only really have a chance when they attack in groups of three, and that means the genestealer player has no choice but to use the tactic of dumping three genestealers onto a newly explored tile each turn and then hoping for the terminators to fluff their dice roll.

Balance is restored. Genestealers die on a massive scale. But the game devolves into dropping three genestealers onto the board, rolling for the ambush (and hopefully killing one terminator), dying in the return fire, and then repeating the process. Nobody is using clever tactics. It's just the same routine each turn, with the dice ultimately deciding which side wins.

All told, the game just doesn't feel like as much fun as it should be. The tile-laying element is fantastic, the models are beautiful*, the theme is applied well, and there is palpable tension with every throw of the dice; but it just doesn't feel like a well thought-out game. The space marine player is railroaded into a specific strategy out of necessity (in order to stay alive), while the genestealer player is railroaded into a specific strategy because it's obviously the one that's going to work. As such, there's no real decisions to make, and no real reason to play.

And yet...

Dammit.

I don't know. There's something about the game. Something about the sleek design and ease of play. Something about that sense of growing dread as the genestealers close in. Something about the fact there are now three rules sets using the same few components.

And it was while I was playing a game using my Space Hulk terminators and the new rules, that I had something of an epiphany. I looked at the terminators on the board, and then I looked at the terminators I wasn't using: A sergeant with a thunder hammer, a dude with a chainfist. A librarian!

A Blood Angel terminator loses his life in a deadly confrontation with genestealers in Lost Patrol.


Something in my mind slotted into place, just like those awesome hexagonal jungle tiles slot into place.

And I was back there... in my childhood. I was 12 years old, and my imagination knew no bounds.

When I was a kid, I invented whole board games using parts cannibalised from other games. I ran Warhammer Quest campaigns, often making events up on the fly just to keep my small group of heroes entertained and on their toes. I modded and house-ruled and tweaked and poked and I didn't give a damned about little things like balance.

And if you look at Lost Patrol, and you squint a little bit, you can see something more than an imbalanced and badly designed board game. You can see a tool box.

I'm not really into house rules these days. I like to play a game out of the box, as the designer intended. But there is something about Lost Patrol that fires my imagination, and I'm already thinking of ways to introduce other characters and incorporating psychic powers to block jungle passages or nuke genestealers, I'm even thinking of some kind of points system, allowing you to choose from scouts, terminators, and tactical marines in different combinations.

I'm not just thinking about it. I'm eager to do it.

Maybe it's an ego thing. Maybe it's the (probably mistaken) belief that I can make a better game than Lost Patrol is at the moment. Maybe it's just the theme has really captured my imagination. Maybe it's because the core gameplay is so simple and streamlined, it's the easiest thing in the world to introduce special rules. Maybe it's because the game is so imbalanced, you can introduce pretty much any rules you want for the marine player and still end up with a tense, exciting game (which might even be balanced). Or maybe I'm just trying to justify spending £35 on what is undoubtedly Games Workshop's worst effort at a board game in recent years.

And make no mistake. This is their worst effort in recent years. It's probably the biggest load of clap trap since the bloody awful Mighty Warriors.

They messed up the original rules, and they even messed up the original theme. And yet, somehow, I can't stay mad at them. Because for all the things they've taken away, they've also given me back a piece of my childhood. Not just a game from my childhood (with artwork from my childhood), but the desire to create something new with that game.

I can't possible recommend Lost Patrol to anyone. I'm not sure I could sleep at night if I did. But I'm glad I own a copy. And so, despite insurmountable odds, I get to leave this review saying something positive.

Maybe there's hope for those space marines after all.



* Eagle-eyed readers will notice that in my pictures, I am not using the models that come with the game. I took the pictures the day I received my copy of the game. I didn't want to wait to assemble everything to play, so I used some proxies from my collection. But trust me, the models in the box are very nice...

The coloured scout sprue from Lost Patrol, showing all weapon variants.


Just be aware they are all models that have been available for years for the tabletop war game. There's nothing that was created especially for the game.

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