From designer Gordon Alford and Greenbrier Games, The Lost Ones is a solo or co-operative narrative adventure game. Taking on the role of youngsters taken from their homes and cast adrift in a beautiful but strange world, players must work together to try and find a way home.
Reviewer’s Note: The version of The Lost Ones reviewed below is a preview copy with work-in-progress rules and mechanics. The game continues to be worked on and polished ahead of release, with at least some of the issues I encountered being addressed.
My experience with narrative games is a little hit and miss. For every Legacy of Dragonholt and Above & Below that I have loved, there is a Seventh Continent or Tales of the Arabian Nights that has left me cold. Part of this, I will freely admit, is my own personal preference in board games. I love evocative themes and games that build an organic narrative but I am also a strategy-head that likes to crunch numbers, build engines and use the tools of the game to plan my path. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that games that leave me feeling like I’m not really in control of what happens in some way are a struggle. Perhaps that is why The Lost Ones left me fairly unsatisfied.
At the start of the game, every character finds themselves on one solitary map tile in the middle of the table. On their turn, each player can take three actions; explore orthogonally from the tile they are on to a neighbouring empty space, move to an already revealed tile or perform one of the actions available on the map tile they are on. Each map tile comes with a well-written, evocative introduction to the scene, letting the players know what they can see, what they feel and what their options are in that space. Early on, for example, you might meet a mysterious stag that you can talk to, or get invited to join some satyrs at a picnic. You don’t have to do any of these actions, you can (almost) always walk away.
If you decide that you would like to try the satyrs’ scotch eggs you have to be able to pay the price. Each action comes with a requirement represented by five different types of icons. Each player has a hand of ability cards that have one or more of these icons on, and which can be cashed in to unlock the actions on map tiles. Managing these ability cards is the core mechanic of the game as, if one player ever runs out of ability cards, the game is over. The ability cards are a scarce resource and there are only a limited number of ways to get them back. One of the most reliable is to rest; an action available on some specific tiles. Unfortunately, resting moves the time counter in the game in one space, and this can only happen three times before everyone is stuck in this strange world forever.
This ability card economy is at the core of my problem with The Lost Ones, really. Because drawing more cards is fairly scarce, each time one of them is used is significant and there is little indication as to what carrying out any of these actions will actually do. On several occasions in the games I played, players spent precious resources to perform an action to get nothing of any use from it. This isn’t inherently a problem, it only becomes one when there is little information in the game to tell you what actions you might want to do under what circumstances. Without that it feels a lot like you are blundering around blindly, trying out various things in the hopes that you might randomly hit something useful.
It could certainly be argued that this is intentional. After all, each of the characters in the game is a child, lost in a foreign land where they don’t know anyone or understand the rules. The Lost Ones feels like a game that is supposed to be played over-and-over again; with information gained on one playthrough informing choices made on the next. The first game we played, the first player actually made a move that instantly killed the whole party on turn one. We fudged this a little as it felt somewhat unfair but, even so, the direction we went in was extremely dangerous and soon led to a second death that we did not fudge away. Needless to say, when we restarted we did not go in that direction.
If this is supposed to be the loop of The Lost Ones then I don’t have an inherent problem with it. An Edge of Tomorrow style encounter that involves continually restarting the same thing but with prior knowledge of what happened before could work very well. The Lost Ones falls down for me on two fronts with this conceit though. Firstly, nothing in the lore (unless I missed it) indicates that these main characters are going through a loop. They are all named characters and everything points to death being the end for them. It is hard to escape a cognitive dissonance then when you start again with the same characters and you, the player, act on information you have that the characters do not.
The second problem I have with it is that there is no random or procedurally generated element to the game or the map. The placement of the tiles and the encounters are identical every time. On our second playthrough we went in a different direction and actually got most of the way towards winning before we ran out of time. As it turned out, we had stopped one tile short in one direction of getting a piece we needed to escape. The fact that it isn’t inconceivable that you can win the game on your first attempt at a different path is good but we all agreed that none of us were tempted to restart and try and finish the path we had nearly completed, for the simple reason that every tile and every encounter we would go over we had just done.
Something that mitigates this repetitiveness well is the fact that there are a good number of paths to take in the game. There are at least six ways out of the other realm and multiple choices that can be made along the way that make the number of possible endings much higher than this. I can certainly see a group who are into narrative gaming more than I am really getting a lot out of The Lost Ones and spending a lot of time puzzling through the different locations and routes to find all that the game has to offer.
In terms of story and writing, The Lost Ones doesn’t disappoint. It captures the feeling of disorientation and wonder of being trapped in a fantastical realm very well and the game is full of vibrant characters and backstory that rewards investigation. It looks stunning too, with wonderfully drawn map tiles that do an excellent job of giving a feeling of place and providing important gameplay hints as to what might lie in different directions. The art beyond the map tiles is lovely and it is easy to feel transported to the place and time the designer intended.
Ultimately, I cannot unconditionally recommend The Lost Ones, however I suspect that fans of co-operative or solo narrative gaming will get a lot out of it, particularly if the sounds of the, at times frustrating and repetitive, gameplay doesn’t put you off. The Lost Ones will only really appeal to a niche of the gaming community but it has the potential to thrive in that particular area.
If the game sounds interesting to you, it had a recent Kickstarter where there is a lot of video and written content showing off the game, the design process and the fiction behind the world. You can also follow development at the game’s official site.