Design by Reiner Knizia
Published by Kosmos
2 Players, 30 mintues
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
NOTE: This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website.
Lost Cities was first published back in 1999. I vividly remember my first encounter with the game, which was that same year at Gulf Games 3 in New Orleans. Jay Tummelson of the then fledgling Rio Grande Games was in attendance and had brought several games that he was considering releasing under the RGG label. Lost Cities was one of those games. My good friend and fellow gamer Lenny Leo explained the rules to me, and I kept thinking, "Is that it?". The game seemed way too simple to offer any depth or challenge. Boy, was I wrong.
The basic theme of the game (yes, it is very thinly pasted; so what else is new?) is that players are funding and embarking on various expeditions into the Himalayas, to Atlantis, through the desert, into volcanoes, etc. A deck of cards contains five different colors (representing the expeditions) with numbers of 2 - 10 each. There are three 'wager' cards in each color, which have the effect of doubling, tripling or quadrupling the ultimate total of the appropriate expedition, be it positive or negative. A long board depicts the five expeditions, with room for a discard stack for each one.
Each player is dealt a hand of eight cards. On a player's turn, he must place one card face-up along his side of the board, placing the card by the appropriate color on the board. Alternatively, he may discard a card face-up onto the appropriate discard stack for that color. He then refills his hand from the draw pile, or by selecting the top card from one of the face-up discard stacks.
Once cards are laid for a particular expedition (color), a player may not add any cards whose value is lower in value than the previously laid card. Thus, if a player elects to begin the Atlantis expedition with a '4' value card, he may never, ever lay a 2 or 3 value card on that expedition. Further, in order to play one or more of the wager cards (which multiply the ultimate point total), these cards must be laid before any numerical cards are played by that player on that expedition. Thus, it is a bit of a gamble.
Why? Because in order for an expedition to begin scoring positive points, the 'fixed cost' of the expedition must first be met. In other words, a player must have cards totaling at least 20 points (before any multipliers are applied) just to break even! Again, this is a gamble since it is rare that a player will have enough cards of a particular color in his hand (the hand limit is eight cards) to total 20. Thus, he must gamble that he will eventually draw enough cards to reach this total. This becomes a tough decision not only when to begin an expedition, but also whether or not to play one or more of those wager cards.
One must also carefully weigh which cards he is going to discard for fear of aiding his opponent's expedition. Many, many times I will discard a card only to watch my opponent gleefully scoop it from the discard pile, clearly joyful that it would aid her in one of her expeditions. Fortunately, my opponent usually returns the favor from time to time. On the other side of the coin, one must carefully watch for these important discards and exercise a certain degree of restraint before beginning an expedition, lest he be unable to utilize certain cards later in the game. Some tough, tough decisions need to be made. The temptation is to hold onto cards until you can collect more of the same color, but a round ends when the draw pile is exhausted, which can occur astonishingly quickly. Holding onto cards for too long may result in time running out before they can all be played. This can cost one dearly in points. Further, one is also tempted to hold onto cards that you may not wish to use, but you fear discarding them as they may aid your opponent. This, unfortunately, takes up valuable space in your hand and ultimately severely limits your card play options. Tough, tough decisions.
As mentioned, a round ends when the draw deck expires. Players can forestall this a bit by drawing new cards from the discard piles. While often useful, this stall tactic can only prolong the end for so long. Eventually the deck expires and points are tallied. Each player examines each of his five expeditions separately. If at least 20 points are not earned (excluding multipliers), the player loses point equal to the difference. For example, if a player's desert expedition only has a value of 15 points, that player loses 5 points. Any wager cards present multiply this loss. However, if the total of an expedition exceeds 20 points, the player earns positive points for the difference. Again, multipliers take effect, multiplying the total by 2, 3 or 4. An additional 20 points are earned if an expedition contains at least eight cards. This is difficult to achieve, but not impossible.
Players total the values of all five expeditions. Three rounds are played, with the player earning the highest cumulative total emerging victorious and becoming an archaeological legend akin to Indiana Jones.
Lost Cities is a recognized classic and has been mostly in print since its initial release. The latest edition maintains the original artwork, which is outstanding. Players should look very carefully at each of the cards, as they employ a very clever technique wherein one gets closer and closer to the destination the higher the value of the card. This is easy to miss, but a brilliant touch.
Do not let the simple rules and fast game play deceive you. There are so many tough choices to be made. I frequently agonize over which card to play or discard, fearing that any discard will be of great use to my opponent. How long do I hold onto cards before beginning an expedition, hoping to draw just one or two more cards before beginning the journey? When do I abandon all hope of beginning an expedition and discard those cards? Should I take a chance and play one or more wager cards, knowing full well that the cost will be severe if I fail to fully fund an expedition? These and other tough choices are present throughout the game and always fill me with angst.
In what is a sharp reversal of the normal trend, Lost Cities is one of the very few card games that have spawned a board game version. In this case, the board game version actually won the Spiel des Jahre, an award many gamers feel should have also been earned by the card game version.
Over the years I have played Lost Cities probably more than any other 2-player game save my wife's favorite, Upwords (she is a bit of a word buff). Lost Cities is a personal favorite, and is also a favorite of my wife's. Indeed, after first playing the game back in 1999, it was the very first game my wife every told me to purchase. That alone is high, high praise!
Great game and very nice review. My only beef with the game is that the cards are unnecessarily large. They could still have the great artwork with standard sized cards. I've seen it done. That said, I do like Battle Line a bit more.