W. Eric Martin
I try to avoid reading or watching reviews of games that I want to play. I prefer to approach such a game with a blank slate — beyond whatever info or description inspired me to want to play the game in the first place! — because I want to develop my own opinions about a game instead of seeing it through a frame that someone else has already constructed.
I take this same approach for books and movies, and it's served me well. Seeing both Inception and Interstellar in the theater, for example, while knowing nothing about the movies other than the director (which is what placed the movie on my "must watch" list) was ideal. Watching the trailers for these movies afterward confirmed the rightness of my approach because I would have hated to have been primed with the material included in them.
(I realize that including this preface in a detailed preview of a game might be contradictory, but if you were like me, then you wouldn't be reading this preview anyway!)
Sometimes, though, you can't help seeing comments about a game, and a single line might be all it takes to put that frame in place. With HATSUDEN, for example, a two-player card game from Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka that was released by itten and New Games Order at Tokyo Game Market in May 2017, I saw a couple of people refer to the game as playing like Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities. Boom — frame established!
When I finally got around to reading the rules of the copy I had purchased at TGM, I didn't see the connection. Sure, you're playing cards in five different columns based on the symbols on them, but that seemed like a weak link.
Then I actually played the game, and after completing three games with the same opponent, the connection was clear. What's more, without prompting, after the game my opponent said, "That kind of felt like Lost Cities, didn't it?"
So what's going on in the game to make that link? In the game, you're competing to provide more renewable energy in five types than the opponent is, while also supplying your two cities with exactly as much power as they need. Provide too little, and you're penalized at the end of the game; provide too much, and you'll have to take a power source offline so as not to blow the city's transformers, which might then put you behind the opponent in a particular energy type.
Set up for play, aside from having my cards revealed
To set up, you lay out the five energy cards to indicate where the columns will be, give each player two cities (to show where you'll place your own cards), shuffle the four technology cards, then give each player a random hand of five cards. Cards are numbered 1-4 in the five energy types, and each number appears twice. On a turn, you play one card from hand in one of four ways:
• Place a card face up in an empty space in the column that matches the symbol on the card.
• Upgrade an existing card by playing a card on top of it that has the same symbol, but a higher number.
• Place a card face down in a space as a pylon; this pylon supplies no energy, can never be upgraded, and serves only to fill one of the ten spaces on your side of the playing area.
• Discard a card face up from play.
At the end of your turn, draw a new card to bring your hand to five, whether from the top of the deck or any discarded card of your choice.
In Lost Cities, you don't compete directly with the opponent when laying down cards and attempting to build profitable expeditions. You build yours, and they build theirs, and at the end of the game you both tally your points to see who wins. However, a large part of the tension in the game comes from you not knowing which eight cards the opponent holds. You might have two great cards to start a particular expedition, but what if the high value cards of that color are in the opponent's hands? You could be setting yourself up for failure and left scrambling for enough cards just to cover your sunk costs.
What if the opponent has already started an expedition and you have a single middle-value card of that color? You don't want to discard the card because they'll pick it up and profit from it, yet you might not want to play it either because you're both cutting off the chance to play low-value cards and risking being stranded if they hold the goods. What to do, what to do?
Great minimalist design
This tension is what HATSUDEN shares with Lost Cities. Once you commit cards to both slots in a particular type of energy, your opponent knows what they need to tie or surpass you. Yes, you can upgrade those slots to larger numbers, but by doing so, you're giving up the opportunity to build something else.
What's worse, each time you place a card in a row, you need to sum all the cards in that row. If the value is 12 or higher, then you must convert one or more face-up cards in that row into pylons so as not to overload the city. Did you just lose a majority somewhere else to gain one here? Possibly, but sometimes you are able to flip down a card that you don't need for a majority because the opponent has already committed in that type of energy and you're holding the sole card that they could use to overtake you. In addition, aside from fighting for majorities, you want the power for each city to sum to ten. Sums of 9 and 11 are also valid and don't cost you points at the end of the game (whereas a sum of 8 or under costs you 1 point), but if a city's power does sum to 10 at game's end, then you score 1 point for it.
A point here, a point there — it doesn't sound like much, but you will likely score at most 5 points in the game overall, so every point matters.
Iconic technology cards
Another minor similarity to Lost Cities comes from HATSUDEN's technology cards. In Lost Cities, each color has handshake cards that can double, triple, or quadruple the value of an expedition, but they can be played only before any number cards for that expedition have been laid down. In essence, you have to increase your risk before being sure that the effort will pay off (although sometimes you already have the cards you need in hand).
HATSUDEN has four special technology cards, and when you play a 4 of any type of energy, you draw one of the cards at random from the tiny deck and add it to your hand. One card ("Smart") must be played immediately, and it doubles the value of that type of energy at game's end, making it worth 2 points instead of 1. The other cards stay in your hand until you want to play them: One lets you play an energy card face down so that the opponent doesn't know your strength in that type of energy; another lets you have up to 12 energy in a city, giving you more leeway to overpower the opponent in one or two columns; and another lets you downgrade a power plant. This last card is great because sometimes you lock in a type of energy early, then the opponent uses it to bury cards as pylons or otherwise cede it to you — yet because you played high cards in that column, you have less freedom due to the city limits to play cards elsewhere. Downgrading a 4 to a 1 opens up more room for plays elsewhere.
All of these technology cards are good, but to get them, you have to commit to an energy by laying down a 4, which locks out opportunities elsewhere.
The final point of connection between Lost Cities and HATSUDEN is the endgame. In Lost Cities, the game ends when the deck runs out, so you're often in the position of wanting to delay the game to play more of the cards in hand (so you pick up discarded cards instead of drawing from the deck) or you're trying to run out the clock to stuff the opponent and possibly draw cards that they might need.
In HATSUDEN, once a player fills all ten spaces on their side of the board, the opponent gets one more turn, then you score points, with each 10-power city being worth 1 point and the majority in an energy type being worth 1 point (unless something is doubled). That clock in the form of your opponent's board is staring you in the face all game, and you need to keep watching it so that you don't find yourself stuck with good cards that would have helped you, but...whoopsy daisy, you lost, lost in the cities...