Buzzworthiness: Lost Cities

Time to review a popular two-player card game:

image by BGG user SpiderOne
image by BGG user SpiderOne

Lost Cities was originally published in 1999 by KOSMOS, with Rio Grande distributing it in the US.  A new English version is due out soon from KOSMOS.  This two-player game was designed by Reiner Knizia and takes around 30 minutes to play.  The basic idea is that you are putting together expeditions in order to gain the most points.

The game comes with a board and 60 cards.  Included in the cards are 12 cards in each of five colors – 9 expedition cards numbered 2-10 and 3 investment cards.  At the start of the game, each player is dealt a hand of eight cards.  On your turn, you play a card and draw a card.

When playing a card, you can either play into one of five expeditions or one of five discard piles.  When you discard, you discard by color.  To play into an expedition, put a card into its matching color column.  Number cards can only be played into an expedition if they are the next card in sequence.  This means that you can start with any number, but the next number played there must be higher – if your first card is a 4, the next card must be 5+.  You can also start any expedition with an investment card, and I’ll explain how those work when I get to scoring.  You can play up to three investment cards per color, but once you play a number, no more investments can be played.

You end your turn by drawing a card.  You can either draw from the draw pile, or the top card from any of the five discard piles.  The game ends when the draw pile runs out, and players calculate their scores.  Each number card scores points equal to its value.  However, each expedition that you have started costs you 20 points.  So if you have cards in all five piles, you start at -100 points.  Investment cards serve as multipliers – each one will increase your risk, but will double your reward.  One investment card means that you begin that expedition at -40 points, but all point values are doubled.  Two investments starts you at -60 with triple rewards, and three investments starts you at -80 with quadruple rewards.

Once you’ve added up all of your scores, the player with the highest total wins.

COMPONENTS: The components are fine.  The cards are oversized and fairly well illustrated.  Each color expedition has a progressive picture – each successive number goes a little farther towards the end treasure.  It’s not a polyptych where the images all make a single picture, but rather each moves slightly.  Like this:

image by BGG user Terraliptar
image by BGG user Terraliptar

The board is useful for storage purposes, but not really necessary.  It really just gives you the place where the discard piles go, and convenient place to line up your expeditions (they go off the edge of the board).  If you just carry the cards around, you’ll still be able to play.

THEME: This game has a slapped-on archaeological theme that really doesn’t affect gameplay at all.  No one ever feels like they are placing cards in order to progress through an archaeological expedition, they are placing cards to score more points.  The art helps somewhat, but the theme is very weak.

MECHANICS: This game is primarily set collection as you’re trying to build up as many cards as you can in sequence to earn points.  The sequences are very rigid, and once you’re locked in, you can’t go back.  The investments add that trademark Knizia convolution to the scoring, and causes you to do more mental arithmetic as you remember to double, triple, or quadruple values for that expedition.

On our turn, you only do two things, and have two choices per action – play a card in front of you or to the discard, and draw a card from the discard or the deck.  There aren’t a lot of extra steps, which helps with ease of play.  The deck also provides a nice timer for the experience – when it runs out, the game ends, so you get some idea of how much longer the game will run as you watch it.

Overall, there’s not a lot going on here, but the mechanics of the game that are there run very smoothly.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This game does have plenty of strategy to go along with a good dose of luck.  You have to make a determination of which expeditions will be most profitable to start, as well as to know which cards you can safely discard.  There’s a healthy amount of luck pushing going on, particularly as you try to get the cards you need.  There’s only one of each card in the game, so if you miss something, it’s gone.  You have to try to keep an eye on what you’re doing as well as what your opponent is doing in order to succeed at the game.

ACCESSIBILITY: This game falls solidly in the gateway category of games.  It is very simple to learn and play, and you’ll have no trouble teaching it to non-gamers.  The only thing that really gets sticky is the scoring, particularly as you use investment cards.  Still, not that difficult.

REPLAYABILITY: The differences in the ways the cards come out mean that games will play out slightly differently.  And the relatively short length of the game means that many people will want to play again as soon as it’s done – this will particularly happen the first time you teach it to someone because they want to give it another try now that they understand.  For me, however, I’m usually done after one or two.  I haven’t played in a while at this point because there are lots of other two-player games that I’d rather play than play this one over and over.

SCALABILITY: It’s a two-player only game, so there’s not much scalability.  Knizia has put out a four-player variant, but it requires two sets.

INTERACTION: The biggest source of interaction in this game is trying to figure out what your opponent needs and not giving it to them.  For example, if the next red card they need is a 5 and you have it in your hand, you might want to sit on it for a while.  Then, when they play the red 6, you can safely discard it.  There’s also some interaction in the timing of the game – if you think your opponent needs a little extra time to score points, you might want to be drawing from the deck to make the game go quicker.

FOOTPRINT: This game doesn’t take up much space at all.  You don’t need the board, you can just carry around the cards.  If the cards were standard size, this could probably be a game you could play on an airplane.

LEGACY: Lost Cities is often lauded as a great “couples” game, meaning that significant others who don’t usually play games will play it with their spouses.  That has not been the case for me – my wife hates it.  I like it more than she does, but not enough that I feel like pushing the matter.  It’s the third highest rated game of the KOSMOS two-player series, behind Targi and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation.  It came out in an era when Knizia was in his heyday, and I wonder if it would get as much attention if it came out for the first time today.  I doubt it.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? There’s no doubt that this is a well designed game.  It’s accessible, and a lot of people are big fans.  I’m not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the game and I’ll play it if someone else wants to.  But it doesn’t really do anything for me.  Therefore, on my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, I have to give it a

Meh

Thanks for reading.

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2 comments

  1. It is a couples game on my end, for sure. Its too bad the theme is lacking, because I think the theme is a cool on. But there are lots of adventurer themed games to make up for it.

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