There was a time when people who played board games weren't obsessed with things like “balance”. Back in the day, you'd sit and play a board game and no-one would say anything about the “mechanics”. Nobody ever talked about design. There was a time when a board game was a game inside a cardboard box, and if you were lucky it gave you a measure of fun that you wanted to experience again and again and again.
Lost Patrol is exactly that kind of game. It is a game of inevitable death in the jungle. A game you can't win unless you get really lucky. A game that if you do win, you'll be talking about it for months. It's to Games Workshop's credit that they brought back this old-school game with its ridiculous hostility intact. This is a 2-player game without balance. One player is probably going to lose, and the other is going to win. The only question is how soon the enemy player will win, and how hard the good guys will get smashed.
In Lost Patrol, one player is in charge of five Space Marine Scouts. They've landed in this vile jungle, and need to search for a drop pod that will complete their mission and secure their extraction. Unfortunately for this patrol, they're lost. They don't know where this drop pod is. So they'll have to keep walking until they find it. Oh, but the jungle is kinda alive too. It's this seething, moving thing that can easily swallow patrolmates up if they get separated from the rest of the squad. Oh, and the jungle is populated by the chief alien bastards of the Warhammer 40K universe, the genestealers.
When the game begins, the five scouts land on a “clearing” right in the middle of the jungle. This clearing tile has paths leading off from it in six directions. Tiles are then added to these pathways until they hit a corner – creating a line of sight for the scouts. This is how far into the jungle they can see, right?
The game is very straight-forward. On the Scout player's turn, she makes two actions with her little dudes - Move or Shoot. She can Move-Move. Shoot-Move. Shoot-Shoot. Moving is one tile at a time. Shooting is just ridiculously hard. If a Scout can see a Genestealer, they can take a shot, and kill the enemy on a 6. Yes, a one-in-six chance of success. The Heavy Assault scout gets to roll two dice, but still needs one 6. It's DIFFICULT to score kills in that jungle, against these fast-moving creatures.
Once the Scout player has taken her actions, the Genestealer player places new tiles according to the Scouts' new line of sight. The jungle starts to take new shape, the Scouts get closer to their objective, and new places for Genestealers to spawn appear.
On the Genestealer player's turn, the player can take three actions. Spawn a Genestealer, infest a tile, or move Genstealers. Again, these can be combined in any form to make up the three actions. So Genstealers start to appear round corners. Genestealers start rushing the Scouts. Infesting allows for spawning to occur within the jungle at the infested tile, and not at a path's end, which is normally the case.
After all this is done, assaults happen – anywhere where Genestealers are adjacent to Scouts. The Genies dont roll any dice. Their assault score is determined by how many aliens are on the attacking tile. One Genstealer is a score of 2. Two Genies is a 4. Three is a 6. And the Scout player has to defeat that Genie score with one die roll. Yes. YEP. Yes, actually THAT. So one Genestealer is doable. Two is a risk. Three is almost certain death, unless some bonuses come into play. If the Scout Sergeant is being assaulted, he adds 1 to the roll. If the Heavy Assault Scout has eyes on the assault, but isn't in the assault, his covering fire gives another +1 bonus. It's so difficult.
And so the game goes on, with Scouts desperately scraping through battle after battle, hoping to score lucky hits on fast-moving shapes in the jungle. The Genestealer player has the advantage of being in control of utter death machines, and of being in a little bit of control of how the jungle grows around the players. By pushing Scouts back in retreat, by placing tiles in certain ways, the Patrol can be split in two, or three, and should packs of Scouts get far enough separated, one pack must be removed from the game completely.
This game hates the Scouts. Hates them.
I've never ever won a game of Lost Patrol, ever in my life. But man, this game is just a blast to play. It's a 15-30 minute thrill ride that likes to build up a player's hopes before rolling them into a ball and stamping them into the carpet. Lovely GW miniatures (needing assembly, of course) and colourful cardboard tiles, at a reasonable price point, what's not to like? Where the excellent Dungeonquest (another game that was an old-school Games Workshop belter) is the fantasy game for masochists, this is the far future equivalent. This is pain in green. This is hurt in plastic.
This is a straight-to-video, old-school board game that gives players a unique experience. Balance? No. Reliance on luck? Absolutely. Fair? Not a damn chance. But this game comes highly, highly recommended.