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Subject: Key factors to think about when playing Lost Cities. rss

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Brandon Clarke
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Lost Cities is a game that receives a range of responses from the people I know who have played it. In my experience the most common objection the people who do not like it have is "There's just too much damn luck!".

While there obviously is a considerable amount of luck in the draw of the cards (part of the charm of the game, in my opinion) like most Knizia games if you scratch below the surface there is actually more depth there than might at first be apparent. The following is the distilled wisdom from my many enjoyable hours of playing this game. These are intended to be general guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Try to understand the concepts put forward here and explore why they make sense...

1. Patience is a virtue.

Generally, you need to be prepared to wait in Lost Cities. Once you have played a card you cannot go back and un-play it and play another card of lower face value, so therefore you should (wherever possible) only play cards that skip cards you don't have when either:
(i) you absolutely have to; or
(ii) you know your opponent has that card in their hand - perhaps they just picked it up from the discard pile, and time is tight.

2. Identifying when time is 'tight' or 'loose'.

Do not forget you are allowed to count the number of cards remaining in the deck. It is a good idea to turn the bottom 5 cards in the deck 90 degrees to the rest of the deck so that you know when you get down to the last 5 cards. Time can either be tight or loose for you, and for your opponent, at different times in a game of Lost Cities. In fact it can be tight for one player, and loose for the other player at the same time.

By this I mean the number of cards available to be picked up (in the pick up deck and in the discard piles) determines the maximum number of plays you (and your opponent) have left. Compare this to the maximum number of desired plays you (and your opponent) have left. If there are considerably more plays left than desired plays, then 'Time is loose', but if there are close to the same number of plays left and desired plays, or even more desired plays than the maximum number of plays left, then 'Time is tight'.

Time can be tight for you and loose for your opponent at the same time, or vice versa. Identifying this factor is crucial to being able to decide the best way to play in a given situation.

3. What to do when time is 'loose'.

Generally, when time is loose for you, be patient. Give yourself time to pick up cards that will allow you to improve your score. Delay. Don't play cards that skip over gaps in your expedition series' if you can avoid it. Buy time to manoeuvre by discarding (preferably where you opponent cannot pick up the discarded card - i.e. discard cards which are lower than the highest card already played by your opponent in that colour).

Note however, that as each pick up occurs, time gets slightly tighter as the maximum number of plays remaining has reduced. If the card you pick up is useful to you, time has tightened even further because now, in addition to the fact that the maximum number of plays remaining has dropped, your number of desired remaining plays has just risen. If you pick up three useful cards in a row you can go from time being rather loose to time being extremely tight very very quickly.

When time is loose look for cards in your hand that are 'locked in plays'. By this I mean cards for which no amount of waiting and drawing cards is ever going to make them more advantageous to play than they are already. If for example you have already played 2 multipliers, and you have 2, 3, 5 of that colour in your hand - At that stage the 2 is not a 'locked in play', as you might pick up the third multiplier. Let's say you choose not to wait for the third multiplier card, and you play the 2 - now the 3 is a 'locked in play', because there are no cards you can pick up to play between the 2 and the 3. Once the 3 has been played, the 5 is not a 'locked in play', because the 4 is out there somewhere...

Particularly early in the game, 'locked in plays' are good for you. Let's say you have played a red multiplier and you have 2, 3, 4 of red but no other reds. You're faced with a choice of waiting for other red multipliers, or playing now. There are a number of factors I would take into account. If I had say a 7 or 8 red I would wait and try and get the extra multipliers (or at least one more) as you then have a good chance of getting an 8 card expedition and the 20 point bonus. However, if you do not have any other cards to play or discard - say you had Red 2, 3, 4, Blue 9, Green 6, 8, Yellow 7, 10... then I would play the red 2. This gives you three pick ups (play the red 3 and 4 next) to get cards to play before the other high cards already in your hand.

One exception to the general principle of waiting when time is loose for you is if it is late in the game and you have run out of cards you can play to improve your score - so the number of possible plays left is relatively low, but your number of desired plays is even lower. In this situation, particularly if you know or sense that time is tight for your opponent, you want to erode the deck as quickly as possible. There are two reasons for this. Firstly it keeps the pressure on your tight opponent, and secondly drawing from the deck is the only way (unless your opponent discards something that is useful to you) you are going to increase your number of desired plays.

4. What to do when time is 'tight'.

You need to be VERY vigilant and monitor the tightening of time constantly. The biggest mistake, and perhaps the easiest to make, in Lost Cities is failing to appreciate just how quickly time is tightening on you, and then:

(a) being left with more desired plays remaining than the maximum number of plays available; or, worse yet
(b) not realising that situation (a) above has happened, and then playing say a 6 on an expedition with one multiplier (worth 12 points) and thus failing to play a 5 (or worse yet an 8) on an expedition with two multipliers (worth 15 points for the 5, or 24 points for the 8).

When time is tight you need to stop and think, and most importantly count. Firstly count the Maximum number of plays remaining. This is sometimes more difficult to get right than at first it appears. Let's say there are 6 cards left in the draw deck. On the surface of it there are 3 plays left to you as you and your opponent will each pick up 3 cards from the deck. However, if there are discards face up on the board there could be at LEAST 6 plays left to you... let's say there are 6 (or more) discarded cards face up on the board. This means that by not drawing from the deck, and instead picking up from the discard stacks you can guarantee you will get at least 6 more plays. You might even get more than six plays if time is tight for your opponent and they too draw from the discard piles.

However, there is (usually) a strong disadvantage to drawing from the discard piles. Normally the cards in the discard piles will not be useful to you, so unless you already have the cards you need to play out your expeditions in your hand you are not going to get them by not drawing from the pick up deck. The other disadvantage is that if there are valuable cards still in the deck, by choosing to pick up from the discard piles you are giving those cards in the deck to your opponent, which might be JUST the ones they need to finish their expeditions.

5. The Early Game - Buying time.

Early on in the game choosing which expeditions to start, and when to bite the bullet and stop holding out for more cards and just get on with an expedition is really where most games of Lost Cities are won and lost. I think many players make a mistake in that they try to make every expedition they start score as many points as possible. I don't think you should slavishly follow that approach. Obviously, overall you want to score as many points as possible... well, at LEAST more than your opponent.

Let's say you have 6, 8, 9 of White, and you have not started white. You could hold onto those cards and hope to pick up more lower valued white cards. Alternatively you could play 6, 8, 9 of White now and pick up three new cards...

Advantages of playing the 6, 8, 9 early:

(a) it frees up three spaces in your hand, so you are not playing the next few turns with only 5 cards to choose from.
(b) It allows you to pick up three new cards before playing any of the other 5 cards you had in your hand, and those 3 pick ups might enhance the value of those other 5 cards. Let's say you had already played a blue multiplier but your next lowest blue card was the 5... playing the 6, 8, 9 of White gives you three draws to draw another low blue card, and if you do draw one, when you play it it gives you ANOTHER turn to draw another low blue card. Also, any one of the drawn cards might alternatively allow you to begin playing another colour with 'locked in plays', and so delay the decision on whether to play the blue 5, thus giving you even more chances to pick up the low blues.
(c) Even if you never pick up the white 10 you have (i) discouraged the opponent from starting a white expedition because they can see early on that the 6, 8 and 9 are unavailable, and (ii) you've already broken even (actually you've scored plus 3) so it has not like it cost you anything (other than the opportunity to score more with white).

Disadvantages of playing the 6, 8, 9 early:

(a) 6, 8 and 9 White is a GREAT opportunity to score big points on white IF you pick up the lower white cards. Playing them early in this way gives up this opportunity. Because of this what you are really trying to do is trade the potential big white score for room to develop your hand in order to bag a big score on another colour... so the ideal time to play them would be if you had another colour that could yield a big run that you want time to pick up extra cards for - for example if you also had 4 6 7 10 of Yellow.
(b) Playing the 6, 8 and 9, as noted above may discourage your opponent from beginning a white expedition. Sometimes when you have a lot of high value cards in a colour you want to see your opponent laying down several multipliers and low value cards in that colour before revealing you hold all the big guns... then it's too late and they are in a hole they can't get out of... revealing your strong high cards in white early on will warn your opponent off from falling into that hole unless they already have the 7 and the 10.

Another way to buy time early on is to discard. However, think very carefully about whether to discard or not. If you can discard safely, i.e. play a card that is lower than your opponents highest played card in that colour this can be a very good thing to do. It can also get the cards you need out of your opponents hand.

Example: Say you have multiplier, 2, 5, 10 Green, and you opponent has played 2 green multipliers and 3, 4, 6, 8, 9. If you don't get the 7 it is not worth starting Green. If you discard the 2 (and perhaps the 5 too) your opponent might then discard the 7 thinking your discards show you're not interested in that colour. If so you can then pick up the 7 and hopefully the 5 and the 2 as well and then play Green.

When discarding try not to discard multipliers in colours your opponent has not yet played a numbered card in. This is very risky. If they have a long run of that colour including some of the top numbers, giving them a multiplier can be very costly for you. In general I try to avoid discarding cards my opponent could pick up and successfully use unless it is absolutely necessary. If I have to consider discarding a 4, and the other choice is to play it and start an expedition that I probably will only get to 15 points in, I will probably play it rather than discard it (unless time is tight and I cannot afford [in terms of time] the extra expedition). It is better to risk losing 5, especially if there is a chance you'll pick up the 9 or the 10 say and turn that - 5 into + 4 or 5, than give the 4 to your opponent - especially if they have a multiplier in that colour because it is worth 8 to them (or more if they have more multipliers). Also be aware that the card you give your opponent might also give them an 8 card expedition, and a further 20 bonus points.

The final way to buy time early is to start other expeditions. This must be done with the utmost caution. I strongly recommend against playing multipliers, especially 2 or more multipliers, when you have no (or very few) numbered cards to back them up. It is not unusual for you to not get ANY further cards in a colour, or to at least not get them until very late in the game. Remember the law of averages is a long term thing... don't count of being able to pick up 3 cards of a colour because it's very easy for that not to happen.

A common situation early in the game is to have one multiplier and say the 4 (and maybe one other card above 6) in a colour. I will happily the multiplier in this situation... sometimes you will get burnt here, but not often. However the real decision is whether to play the 4, or wait. What you pick up when you play the multiplier, and what other cards you have in your hand has a big impact on this decision. If you have other 'locked in plays' exploit them to give you time to pick up other multipliers and the 2 and the 3. If you pick up a second multiplier and the 2, then I'd happily go for it playing the second multiplier, then the 2 (and obviously the 3 if you pick it up in the meantime) and then the 4. Then it is time to see what you have picked up while playing those cards and evaluate your next move.

6. The Late Game - Controlling time.

By far the most important facet of the late game is controlling how tight time is for yourself and your opponent. Analyse:

(i) The number of cards left to be picked up;
(ii) The number of cards you have to play;
(iii) The number of cards you are missing but would like to have if you could; and
(iv) The number of cards your opponent would like to play in an ideal world, and how many of those you hold.

From this you can work out how tight time is for yourself, how likely it is that your opponent has cards in their hand that you are sweating on, how many cards you want that might still be in the deck and how many cards your opponent probably wants that might still be in the deck. From this, and their body language and their comments as they pick up, you can get a pretty good idea of how tight time is for your opponent.

Sometimes time will be tight for both of you. If both of you have 4 or more expeditions, then in the mid game you can predict that time will be tight in the end game for both of you. Note that as you discard at the end of the game you are making time looser for your opponent as you are increasing the number of discards available and therefore giving them more scope to stretch the number of turns remaining out by picking up from the discard piles instead of from the deck.

It is extremely important to monitor how tight time is when you get down to 16 cards or less in the deck. This is because at any given time you might have 8 cards in your hand you wish to play. If there are no discards face up on the board then you might only have 8 plays left, then if your opponent does not discard for the remainder of the game you might be forced to draw from the deck every remaining turn, in which case you will get only 8 more plays. If there are discards available for you to pick up you need to work out exactly how many more plays you need to get rid of all the cards you wish to play before the end of the game. You then need to pick up from the deck to shorten the game or from the discard piles to lengthen it. Remember if there are only 5 cards in the discard piles and 7 cards in the deck, and it is your turn to draw, you could get 3 more turns (if you and your opponent only draw from the deck) or you might get or you might get 6 more plays if all 5 discards get picked up (12 cards remaining).

Count how many cards you have left to play and manipulate the game length by drawing from the deck or the discard piles accordingly. Also be aware of how tight or loose times seems to be for your opponent.

The BC Police.
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David G. Cox Esq.
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This is a great article - I wish more people would write about strategy!

arrrh
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Will Black
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Now I know why I only beat you 49% of the time, but that may change not. But I do wonder if the street kids in Rio have access to this website to better use the game...

Will B
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Chuck Uherske
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Outstanding article, I believe it all very useful and I generally agree with all the specific principles outlined.

Just my two cents on the first specific example you showed above:

If you're holding the white 6, 8 and 9 and you have not yet played into white: assuming that it's early in the game, and assuming that your opponent hasn't played into it either, then EITHER playing into white, OR discarding white, are likely to be very costly moves. Almost always in this situation, I will sit on white and wait to draw an investment card, buying time by playing or discarding from another suit.

Consider:

You're sitting on 23 points in white. If you play the 6, then you take away your future ability to use any investment cards, or cards 2 through 5. On average early in the game, you have about a 40% chance of drawing a particular card in the future. Once you play the 6, you've got about a 40% chance of drawing the 7 and 10 cards, or an expectation value of about 7 points. Add that 7 to the 23 you have, that's 30 points, so you're looking at an expectation value of scoring about 10 points in the suit.

If on the other hand, you hold the cards, and hope for an investment card, your expectation value is much higher. There are 31 points you haven't yet seen in the suit, and you might expect to draw about 12 of them with the 40% rule, raising your total points in the suit to 35. That's worth 15 points to you if you don't draw any investment cards. But the 40% rule applies to the investment cards, too, you might expect to draw 1.2 investment cards on average, multiplying your 15 score by 2.2, or pushing your expectation value up over 30 points in the suit.

Bottom line is that if you play the 6, your expectation value in the suit plunges from more than 30 points, to about 10 -- a drop of about 20 points. That's a huge opportunity cost.

In general, it's not hard to find a better move than one that costs you about 20 in future expectation points.

Similarly, discarding the 6 could be very costly. If you expect to draw 1.2 investment cards and you therefore expect your opponent to draw 1.8 (his chances are higher than yours because he may hold it in his hand for all you know.) Then you're potentially giving up about 13 points and handing him about 17 -- a swing of 30 points. Again, that's potentially a hugely costly move. If either of you has a realistic shot at the 20-point bonus, then the swing is even greater.

This is really just a mathematical illustration of the strategic points outlined in the original article. The right strategy for the white cards in this situation is to wait. The math of this game dictates that waiting in a suit is your best play a great deal of the time, especially in the early going.

I personally like this game when both players have no moves other than those that have huge opportunity costs. Maneuvering my way through a series of very costly choices is one of my favorite experiences in gaming.
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Sue Hemberger

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Thanks so much for this article! It answers my long-standing question: Am I missing something in Lost Cities? Nope, apparently not -- just a matter of different tastes.
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Steve Blanding
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Excellent article. Very well articulated. It sounds like you play the game much the same way I do.
 
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Robin
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I agree with Sue. I really thought I was missing something in the game.

I enjoyed your article, it was informative, nicely organized, and well written. I am glad you enjoy this game and discovered a strategy. It is a more interesting game than I give it credit but still just not my game. I liked that you can count the cards or turn the cards. That could alleviate some frustration.
 
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Daniel Corban
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I clicked on the strategy forum link and expected to find one or two weak posts. I feel this game is very straightforward and uses common sense for decisionmaking. I was pleasantly surprised to read your thoughtful and complete article. As the others have mentioned, you covered everything this game is about and anyone on the fence about this game would be served well by reading your post.
 
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Brandon Clarke
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Thanks Dan (and everyone else who has posted comments too). Whenever I sit down to write stuff I always worry people will read my thyoughts and think "Yeah right! What a crack pot!". It's very satisfying to hear people appreciate the effort that went into it. I am glad you enjoyed reading it.

BC
 
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Matthew Wills
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Quote:
The final way to buy time early is to start other expeditions. This must be done with the utmost caution. I strongly recommend against playing multipliers, especially 2 or more multipliers, when you have no (or very few) numbered cards to back them up.


Playing multipliers in the early game is usually a good idea, in my view.

Firstly, it reduces your opponents options. If I am tossing up between my Green 2 and my Red multiplier, the Green 2 makes it easier for my opponent. Why? Because it gives him flexibility. He (or she) can now dump his Green multiplier without any downside. But if I play a multiplier it makes his life harder.

Secondly, multiplying usually works. Obviously, sometimes if you multiply you will lose points - bad luck happens. But keep in mind that the numbers 2-10 add up to 54. So as long as you have at least one good card (say at least a 7) it is a reasonable gamble (particularly early) to multiply. You have good odds of pulling cards to at least break even, and you reduce options for your opponent.
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