Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lost Their Way - Lost Patrol 2016 edition review

So, this game's like Space Hulk's younger, lamer brother, much like the featured Blood Angels Scouts are Terminators'.



Materials
The game comes with a few repurposed sprues of Scouts and Genestealers, in the colored plastic GW occasionally uses.  They're some of the line's older minis, so, while basically fine, aren't great. For those not familiar with miniature gaming, these are multipose and unassembled, so aren't ready to play out of the box (you'd optimally want some wire cutters, a hobby knife, and plastic cement and they aren't that difficult to put together), and are made of fairly nice HIPS plastic, better than the bog-standard board game PVC that most preassembled miniatures for board games use.

The tiles are, as far as I understand, recycled from the game's previous edition, and their age shows, despite better quality material.



Theme
The game goes through a twisting jungle as the Scouts attempt to escape, while the Genestealers and jungle itself are there to stop them. It's pretty basic, and comes with no scenario, campaign, set map, or other options.

The narrative's extremely minimal, not even going in to what a Space Marine is, and with about the only specificity being the planet got a name. Not the worst given it's only a 6 page booklet, but it's still kind of embarrassing given the company prides itself on narrative.
This is 2/3 of the total rules content.

Map
I think this is the best part of the game. Not the map itself, which I found a little bland and cartoony- the system.

The Scouts are able to see any distance until the map reaches a turn, and tiles are continually placed by the Genestealer player until all relevant lines of sight are filled. The open ends of tiles (i.e. corners the Scouts can't see past) are where the Genestealers are deployed from. So far, pretty straightforward.

As the Scouts move through, though, you need to constantly check relative position: when the Scouts get to a point where their maximum move won't let them see a given tile, it's removed, which changes the placement of all relevant entrances and exits. The map works like a perimeter from which you can see Genestealers' entrances, and allowing a corner to be ignored can mean the threat is way closer than it was a step back. You can re-explore the same direction as you double back, and it'll be a new path, which I thought was a very enjoyable way of dealing with a constantly shifting, living jungle.

There's a fair bit of strategy here, where there are a decent portion of risk-reward scenarios.

The goal is to reach the "drop ship," some weird little pod that doesn't look like it fits in the last decade-plus of 40k aesthetic...which makes sense since it appears that the tiles weren't significantly updated since the previous edition some years back.

Movement
Scouts move half movement and shoot or full movement. Genestealers move a variable distance as a single action, dependent on how many are moving as a single action. This actually creates an action point system that's decently deep by GW standards, though I still prefer Space Hulk's greater variety.

Genestealers can also summon spawn points instead of movement.
Some models posed in a stock photo of two illegal positions, on an illegal board state.
Yeah, I don't really get what they're demonstrating.

Combat
So, this is where the light-weight game loses me.

The problem in general is, it's a single d6 system (rather than, say, a 2d6 curve) with a very small sample size of rolls, and in very many cases, the marine player needs a 6 or 5-6 to make any progress, while the Genestealer player sits on static success rates. Furthermore, you actually need to clear the path and move up before the Genestealer player can fully recoup the losses (an impossibly perfect Scout turn would involve 9 dead Genestealers; a statistically probable Scout turn involves 0-2 dead Genestealers and maybe a dead scout; Genestealers can generate 3/turn if they do nothing else, and will do so in your way).

This makes some punishingly bad odds for the Scouts, where I've had multiple turns where not being able to roll a 5-6 has meant no progress, negative progress, and/or a bunch of dead Scouts. If you've ever played Pandemic or Ghost Stories, it's like the worst part of those, except one player benefits.

I think that better probabilities would have made the game hugely more enjoyable, possibly not moving to add to ranged accuracy or a defensive action would have worked, but after a bad Scout round, it's definitely possible to push the odds of killing all scouts to rolling a 5 or worse (or, minus the sergeant, an outright kill isn't all that difficult), which are some phenomenally punishing odds.

...And this is all fairly disappointing, because I really do enjoy the movement system. Enough so that I played around with slightly tweaking the numbers and running a few sessions, but it quickly became obvious that it would take serious house ruling to actually balance the system properly. I believe in house ruling only as a means to improve something, not salvage it, because I believe it's the game designers' job to make the game, not the consumers', so with no easy fix, house ruling wasn't enough.


Weight
With all my complaining about the mechanics, the game is very easy to learn, not difficult to keep track of, fast to set up, and there are some decent risk-reward tactics on both sides.

Which is all a shame, since the game is just so brutally one-sided that the opportunity for a fun, fast game was ruined.

Conclusion
This falls short in the same way a lot of GW games do, which is that they have a pretty good concept, pretty good (if a little cartoony) production values, and a good enough theme, but they just don't playtest or care or understand enough (not sure what combination it is) to balance the game properly. I don't particularly care if an asymmetrical game's evenly balanced, but the one-sidedness here is just out of control. It's one-sided to the point that it's extremely discouraging, and honestly feels like an early draft rather than a refined light-weight game from a company that's older than I am.

I don't understand how this relatively cheap and simple, seemingly introductory game would actually be enjoyable to younger audiences unless for some strange reason you ran into a kid who wanted to play the evil bugs against their parents, instead of the heroic novice super-soldiers.

I was going to try to say what sort of groups might like this game, but the only one I can really think of is if you're the sort of gaming masochist who's happy playing a game where punishing odds (rather than difficulty of strategy or choice) are what stops you from winning. Obviously, I'm not.

If you like the theme, play Space Hulk (whichever edition, it'll still be better than this). If you don't like the theme, there's nothing here for you unless you're just in it for cheap minis (by expensive miniatures standards, not board game standards). The game has a decent theme few good ideas that are ruined by extremely unbalanced mechanics, and I wouldn't recommend it.


Afterward
After writing the above review, I was mystified why this game ever warranted a second edition. I searched around, and found a copy of the earlier edition of this game's rules and played the older one twice.

The game featured a more forgiving movement system, most importantly without the brutal wipe-outs.

Genestealers were "lurkers" (mystery-monster tokens) and replenished more quickly, but also lost more in moving, so the further they pushed, the less punch they packed with a risk-reward element of the models getting weaker the more aggressively they played, as opposed to just having very nice movement. They also had more flexible movement, ignoring paths.

Combat was hugely more favorable for the Scouts, rolling 3x the dice at range, and rolling a modified 2d6 pick the higher vs. a modified 1d6 or the number of baddies (whichever total's higher) instead of modified 1d6 vs. a flat target number.

It was instead of a sure death, just a difficult game for one side.

Having seen this older iteration of the game, I'm pretty baffled. Most of the mechanics and language stayed the same, and it was clear the intent was to streamline the new edition (the older one did require a lot more tracking info even though it was all easy to do with tokens, and it was obvious now how a few of the changes were reasonable simplifications), but in the process they just made the game impossibly difficult for the Scout player, for no reason I could imagine.

Instead of simplifying values (and probably making them swingier in the process), they just mangled them with wild abandon. They made the Scouts somewhere around a third as effective in melee and range, and made the "lurkers" hugely more mobile, plus adding a new and largely superfluous mechanic because they happened to have some scenery bits left over.

The version this version for some reason doesn't wish it was.
Conclusion, second edition
My new review is, if you like the theme, play Space Hulk or find an old copy or a PDF of the previous edition of the rules. The current ones are an embarrassingly bad update, the worst I've ever seen- I've been angered about a lot of lame oversimplified editions or ones that fixed problems only to make new ones, but this is just in a league of its own.

(No pics in the review are mine- box art & GW's stock photos)