2000 International Gamers Award Two-player Category Winner: Lost Cities
Series Note: I'm currently documenting the history of the International Gamers Awards (IGA) for Counter Magazine. The IGA is awarded annually by a jury of prominent gamers from around the world, with a stated goal “to recognize outstanding games and designers, as well as the companies that publish them.” Over the years the IGA has grown to be one of the three major prizes in gaming, alongside Germany’s Spiel des Jahres (“Game of the Year”) and the Deutscher Spiele Preis (the “German Game Prize”). The IGA’s nomination and voting procedures are outlined on the jury’s website (http://www.internationalgamersawards.net/).
This series walks through the history of the IGA, doing an entry for each winner in the multiplayer and two-player categories. For each game, I provide a brief history and a review. If you have any feedback or material that might aid in the series, I’d be grateful to hear from you. I'm posting the entries on BGG, but the most recent entries are only available through Counter, which can be purchased via the BGG store.
Note that there is no separate entry for Tikal (the other winner in 2000) because it was part of my Spiel des Jahres series.
Reiner Knizia started designing games in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, he had become one of Germany’s game design stars. He left his job as an executive at a large multinational bank in 1997, instead choosing to pursue game design full time. Since then he’s released dozens of games each year, and he is arguably the most prolific of the major game designers. In addition to his IGA win, he’s won the Deutscher Spiele Preis a record-setting four times, the Spiel des Jahres once, and the Kinderspiel des Jahres once. He’s also a prolific author and speaker on game design and trends in the hobby.
Knizia started developing the game known as Lost Cities in the mid-1990s. He showed it to a few publishers, but they turned him down, questioning the market for two-player games. Nonetheless, his influence as a designer was on the rise (he had twice won the Deutscher Spiele Preis at that point), and in the late 1990s, thinking the game would sell well, he started pressuring publishers into taking a second look. Kosmos picked it up, publishing Lost Cities with its archaeology theme in 1999.
Knizia’s intuition proved to be correct: the game did sell well. Lost Cities was released in nearly a dozen languages that year, and it has been continuously in print since. The game received immediate critical acclaim on release, winning the inaugural two-player Gamers’ Choice Award plus several other awards. It has sold more than 260,000 copies, an enviable number in an industry where the average game sells less than 10,000.
Several years after Lost Cities was released, Knizia designed an offshoot called Lost Cities: The Board Game, which was picked up in the United States by Rio Grande. Kosmos wanted a more abstracted game, and to accommodate that request, Knizia designed the game known today as Keltis, which is distributed throughout the rest of the world. Keltis --- which is, in many ways, a multiplayer version of Lost Cities --- would go on to win the 2008 Spiel des Jahres and sell more than 600,000 copies. Keltis itself spawned numerous other games, including another card game (Keltis: Das Kartenspiel), a dice game (Keltis: Das Würfelspiel), and a travel game (Keltis: Der Weg der Steine Mitbringspiel), plus several expansions. Both Keltis and Lost Cities: The Board Game are still in print, and their franchise has easily surpassed the one million unit sales mark.
Lost Cities itself has been adapted into numerous digital forms, including internet versions and an iOS version. It received a fresh printing in the United States just this year.
A Lost Cities deck consists of 60 cards: 9 cards (numbered from 2-10) for each of five destinations plus 3 “investment” cards for each destination. At the start of the game the deck is shuffled and each player is dealt eight cards, which he can look at throughout the game. The game board (with a space for each destination) is placed between the two players.
On a player’s turn, he must play or discard a card from his hand and then draw back up to eight cards. Each player has a stack (an “expedition”) for each destination, and cards can only be played in increasing value. Investment cards can only be played before all numbered cards for that destination. For example, once a player has played a 2, 3, and 5, he cannot go back and play a 4, nor can he play an investment card. As an alternative to playing a card, a player may discard it to the spaces in the center of the table, although as noted below, doing so can be risky since his opponent may draw it. When replenishing a hand, a player may either draw from the card stack or from any of the face-up discarded cards. Once this is complete, the next player’s turn begins.
This proceeds until the last card is taken from the draw stack, at which point the game ends immediately. Players can strategically postpone this by drawing from the discarded cards.
To determine the winner, each stack is scored separately and then all of the stacks are added together. The “fame points” (i.e. the numbers on the cards) within an expedition are all added up, and then twenty points are deducted for starting the expedition (meaning the total fame points can be negative). Expeditions not started by the players are worth zero (meaning the twenty point deduction only is applied to expeditions that are started). If a player has 1, 2, or 3 investment cards on the stack, the result is then multiplied by 2, 3, or 4, respectively. Each expedition with 8 or more cards gets an extra bonus of 20 points, which is not multiplied by the investment values. The player with the highest score wins the game.
Does it stand the test of time?
I tried Keltis and Lost Cities: The Board Game before I tried Lost Cities, and I figured the game would be their dry, two-player grandpa. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was quickly proven wrong. In my opinion, Lost Cities is far more tense than the games that came after it, and it is best described as an interesting, fast-paced duel between two players. Lost Cities is friendly and approachable, and I see why it has achieved its level of commercial success.
There’s a great deal of strategy in Lost Cities. Sure, there’s some luck mixed in (something I like in games), but managing your hand --- and deciding when to pursue an expedition --- make the game fascinating. The game is tough (even frustrating at times) because the best laid plans for great expeditions are often dashed early in the game. The investment cards add a push-your-luck element to the game, since they often must be placed early before you have adequate information about your ability to score enough points on the expedition.
The strategies that emerge are always interesting. It is tempting to clean up your hand by discarding cards, but timing is everything: you have to carefully monitor what your opponent is pursuing, knowing that they could pick up your discards. Similarly, as endgame approaches, you might find yourself drawing cards you don’t want --- and can’t even use --- as a strategy to prolong the game.
Though the game has great depth, it is still quite approachable. I thought the scoring might be a bit wonky for non gamers, but I’ve never found that to be the case: the example on the back of the rule book is easily understood, and new players seem to grasp it with ease.
The presentation value of the game is fantastic. I have one of the older Rio Grande editions, and the cards are a respectable size with excellent artwork. The theme of Lost Cities is clearly pasted on, but given the game’s short timeframe and excellent mechanics, that is merely a minor detraction.
I’ve seen a few websites treat the two-player winner of the IGA as an afterthought. I think that’s a mistake: two player games often get short shrift, but as Lost Cities shows, they can be a commercial success and have an enormous influence on the hobby. I think one of the IGA’s better decisions was to separately honor two player games, affording them the recognition they deserve.
Lost Cities is a classic, and I think it deserves a spot in many game collections. It is a short but tense two player game, and I see why Dr. Knizia loves when fans call it “the ultimate spouse game.”
I like Lost Cities.
Simple to play but it does require strategy.