CAREFULLY-CURATED HISTORICAL GAMES. That’s Hollandspiele’s slogan found on the back of The Lost Provinces: The Thai Blitzkrieg in French Indo-China, January 10-28, 1941. I had my eye on this title for a while but just hadn’t pulled the trigger. That is, until I read “The Franco-Thai War (1940-1941)” on the weaponsandwarfare blog. What an interesting conflict! After reading the ad copy from Hollandspiele I was also interested in the simple, soloable, tradition-with-a-twist mechanics:
This obscure conflict is the subject of designer John Gorkowski’s The Lost Provinces. This is a simple, small, and soloable game that can be played in an evening with new wargamers and grognards alike. It often utilizes traditional mechanisms but with twists and nuances that make them fresh again. For example, combat strengths are compared, to arrive at odds ratios, but those ratios are expressed via a die roll modifier rather than a column on a CRT, which results in greater uncertainty about how a given battle might turn out.
Thanks to quick work by Blue Panther who prints for Hollandspiele I got my copy to the gaming table quickly.
Hollandspiele is dead right about The Lost Provinces being simple. An eight (8) page rule book, 11″x17″ map, 88 counters, and one Display Sheet along with two dice is about as straight-forward a package you can get. That said, the map by Jose Ramon Faura is simple but easily understandable. The counters by Tom Russell are very generic but functional.
I play most of my games solo at least one, and often many times more. The Lost Provinces has no hidden information and if you are like me and play “two-handed solo” often enough you can play both sides fairly.
The real gem of The Lost Provinces design is that use of traditional wargaming mechanisms but with a bit of a difference. I appreciate that designer John Gorkowski uses many traditional mechanisms but mixes up a few; not too many but enough to make the game go from vanilla to very interesting. The ones that impress me the most are Contact, Attack Preparation, and Land Combat.
Contact: Movement starts out very traditional in The Lost Provinces with different terrain of course costing more Movement Points (MP) to enter. But don’t look for Zones of Control because Mr. Gorkowski uses the concept of Contact instead. Contact (Rule 8.21) describes units that are adjacent to each other. Leaving Contact or moving to another Contact hex costs 1 MP. Contact is important because units must be in Contact before they can attack.
Attack Preparation: Technically part of the Movement Phase, units that are in Contact with the enemy may declare an intention to attack. This Attack Preparation requires the expenditure of 1 MP in addition to the normal MP required to enter a hex. This simple twist requires you to be more aware of when and where you want a battle to happen. In my first game I constantly found myself just one MP short of being able to attack forcing me to consider if I really wanted to move into Contact this turn or wait until the next turn. A simple change to a game mechanism with a deep impact on your choices/decisions in a turn.
Land Combat: Combat resolution in The Lost Provinces is dead-simple – roll 2d6 and determine losses. Well, almost that simple. In Land Combat there are three die modifiers; +1 for Air Superiority, +1 for Combined Arms, and +1 for the Odds. The Odds modifier is the most interesting. To determine the odds you do like many wargames do – you compare the attack strength against the defense strength and express the result as odds. For example, 4 attacking 2 is 2:1 odds. In The Lost Provinces, however, you don’t look for that odds column on a Combat Results Table. Instead, the odds translate to another die modifier. The die modifier is the sum of the attacker subtracted from the defender. Thus, 2:1 odds is 2-1=+1 die modifier. Now the player rolls 2d6, sums them and adds/subtracts any die modifiers. The final number is compared to the Land Combat Table to get the result. The use of die modifiers instead of column shifts makes for more dramatic shifts in combat results, but not so much that players feel they have no agency in the outcome.
Buried within this modified combat mechanism is where the little bit of chrome in The Lost Provinces game design resides. When it comes to Supply or Movement there is little difference between types of units, but in combat the type of unit and where the attack takes place becomes very important:
- Units Out of Supply, whether attacking or defending, have their strength halved.
- Armor units on the attack are doubled IF they attack into a hex that has no Jungle or Mountains.
- Non-Artillery units attacking across rivers are halved.
- Artillery units attacking a hex where the defender is not Dug-In are doubled.
- Dug-In defenders are doubled.
- Infantry in Mountain hexes are doubled on defense.
These six simple rules give combat decisions in The Lost Provinces much depth. Supply becomes important. Armor can be deadly if they catch the enemy in the open. Digging in for defense, especially behind a river, is powerful and hampers Artillery. Add to these decisions the geography of the battlefield which creates many natural funnels and you have a very dynamic combat situation.
There are two other aspects of The Lost Provinces that are simple mechanically but add depth to the decisions. First is Air Superiority. Every turn, the Thai player can designate a hex (and the six adjacent to it) for Air Superiority. Attacks taking place under this umbrella gain a +1 DM for the Thai player. Once per game, and only once per game, the French player can use their air force to contest Air Superiority in ONE hex. This “one shot” decision is critical for the French player – your air force only gets to help you once so you better make it worthwhile.
As an old naval Grognard, I am also happy to see Naval Combat in The Lost Provinces. In keeping with the simple game design, Naval Combat is highly abstracted. Players line up their ships, roll 2d6 and add the Gunnery Score of the unit. If the modified die roll is greater than the Armor score of the target it’s a hit. The side suffering the greater number of hits returns to port. Control of the Gulf of Siam is worth 1 Victory Point at game end.
I have to agree; the use of few traditional wargame mechanisms with a twist in The Lost Provinces takes what on the surface is a very simple game and makes decisions mean so much more. I haven’t used the phrase “simple elegance” in a while but I certainly need to when talking about this design. John Gorkowski has taken what at it’s core is a very simple, straight-forward, no-nonsense wargame design and added just enough nuanced twists to make it very interesting. This carefully-curated design certainly deserves more table time.