Off the Shelf #3: Lost Cities

If you’re just joining us, this series is simply where I take games off my shelf, possibly ones that I haven’t played in a long time, and reconsider them. Today, we’re looking at

image by BGG user SpiderOne

Lost Cities (1999) is a two-player game designed by Reiner Knizia and published by KOSMOS. The original game first came over to the US from Rio Grande Games, but KOSMOS does their own distribution of it now. The version showing above is the one I have, the current version looks different.

I got this, I think, in 2008. At least, that’s when my first play is logged. It was fairly soon after I joined the hobby, and this was often touted as a game that spouses enjoyed playing together. However, while I initially enjoyed this game, my wife did not. So, it didn’t get played much. I found other times to play it over the years (I do have 24 plays logged on BGG), but my last one was in 2014. I may have played online a time or two since then. I haven’t really missed it much. It is simple and accessible, but I’ve kind of moved on in my tastes. I’ll talk about that as we go.

To play the game, you put a board between the two players. Then you shuffle up the large 60-card deck and deal each player eight. The oldest player begins, and on your turn, you will do two things – play a card, and draw a card.

Playing a card involves either discarding to one of five piles, or playing into an expedition. The five discard piles are on the board, matching the color of the five suits in the game. Match the card with its pile and put it on top.

Expeditions are played on your side of the board. What you’re trying to do is build up an ascending sequence of cards, 2-10. You very likely won’t play all of those numbers, but you can try. There are also three handshake cards (officially called wager cards) that will increase your score (and risk) if you play them before playing any other cards. If you already have cards in an expedition, you can’t play a handshake, you’d be better off discarding it. Likewise, if the card you want to play is of a lower value than other cards in the expedition, you can’t play it.

When you draw a card, you can take one from the top of the deck, or from the top of any discard stack. The game ends when the last card of the deck is drawn, and the player with the most points will win. Scores are calculated like so: in each expedition, add up the values of every card, then subtract 20. Having 1-2-3 handshakes doubles-triples-quadruples all values, including that 20 points you subtract. So, if you have two handshakes, all points are tripled, but you have to subtract 60.

Game in progress

Starting with the theme – let’s be honest, you don’t play a Knizia game for the theme. With a few exceptions. This one has a kind of adventure theme, but it’s really about playing numbers in order, which isn’t terribly exciting. If you look at the card art, they do tell a kind of story, as you get closer and closer to your goal. Still, if you just played with different colored cards with numbers on them, you’d get the same kind of experience.

As far as gameplay goes, it’s very simple. Play a card, draw a card. The details can get a little sticky, but it’s pretty simple over all. You’re trying to play numbers in order, but always wanting to make sure you’re able to get over that 20 point barrier so you’re not losing points. Since cards are numbered 2-10, that means you’ll have to get at least three cards in an adventure to be in the black.

The drawing a card aspect is pretty important. If you’re drawing from the discard piles, you know exactly what you’re getting, while drawing from the deck accelerates the end of the game – remember, the game ends when the deck runs out. So, if you think you’re in the lead, you may want to be drawing exclusively from there, whereas if you’re playing catch up, you may want to draw it out.

I think one of the things that appeals to people about this game is that it is very non-threatening. A lot of times, we hobbyists will pull out a game that we think is very welcoming and easy for people to get into, then spend fifteen minutes explaining the rules. You can explain Lost Cities in just a few minutes, and it’s very easy to get into. “Oh, I just play a card and draw a card? I can do that.”

If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you know I’m not really a Knizia fan. I respect what he’s done for the hobby, and I respect that he’s one of the best in crafting elegant and accessible games. Even his deeper titles are still pretty well streamlined. However, only a couple of them have ever really done anything for me. I think it’s probably that most of them feel just too mechanical. That’s really how I feel about Lost Cities.

If you really boil things down, Lost Cities is really just a game about putting numbers in order. And unlike some other games with that purpose, you’re just stuck once you play something. So, yes, you try to time your plays so you can maximize your points, but at a certain point, your opponent knows what you’re going for and isn’t going to give it to you if they can help it.

The luck in this game can be immensely frustrating. You want to start your expeditions when you’re sure you can get their points over 20, but sometimes, that’s not an option. What you get it what you get, and you can luck into a really strong expedition because you’re getting all of one color card just as easily as you can get only lower value cards.

That all said, I do recognize that this is a well-designed game. After a few games, however, it feels redundant. I don’t get anything else out of the game from play to play.

One final point for me. I mentioned earlier that this is often cited as a spousal hit. It didn’t ever work like that for me. My wife dislikes it, I think because of the math. This may be my fault for teaching it in a complicated way, but she’s not interested in trying again. She does like games, but I think she tends to like games for more than two players more than the head-to-head matches.

The yellow cards, showing the art progression

So, why do I still have this game? As much as I’m not a fan, it’s a good easy game for people who aren’t as enmeshed in the hobby as I am. And a lot of people do like it. I don’t hate it, it’s just one that doesn’t find its way to the top of my choices when I want to play a two-player game.

I’ve been ranking my games as I work through this series. This being the third post, I’ve got Lost Cities at #2, ahead of Apples to Apples, but behind Morels, which I like much better as a two-player game. We’ll see how these rankings play out going forward.

Thanks for reading! Stay safe out there!

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