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Review: Lost Cities

3

You’ve got your compass. And a map. You wore your thick boots today, and your mother packed you a hearty lunch. Oh, and money: good, you’ve got that, much of it from wealthy benefactors who hope you will bring back artifacts of great worth from your time in the jungle. Or Atlantis. Or wherever you’re going.

But wait–someone else is attempting a similar expedition? And how did they attract wealthy benefactors as well?

No matter. You will find and explore these lost cities and make a bundle while you’re at it. At least if you can figure out the scoring formula…

How It Works

Lost Cities is a hand management/set collection game for two players in which players manage different expeditions to explore lost cities (without overextending themselves). A round plays in about ten minutes, and the rulebook suggests playing three rounds.

The game board in play.

At the start of the game, each player is dealt eight cards. Cards come in five colors, numbered 2 to 10, with three additional investment cards in each suit. On a turn players will play one card (either onto an expedition on their side of the game board or onto a discard pile) and draw one card (either from the face-down deck or from the top of a discard pile). Players must play cards in ascending order on expeditions of matching color and may only play investment cards before playing number cards.

Once the draw deck is depleted, players calculate points. Players only score points (positive or negative) on expeditions they have played any cards on. The formula for calculating each expedition is FACE VALUE – 20 x (INVESTMENTS + 1) + 20 BONUS (if eight or more cards are played to an expedition). Players tally the points for all five expeditions, and the player who has the most points wins.

Lost or Found?

When I first started blogging about board games, the question I received most often (at least from my typical non-hobbyist friends) was, “Have you played Lost Cities?” Now, the fact that this question was coming from non-hobbyists, and the fact that numerous hobbyists wrote off Lost Cities, did not make me keen to try the game. And let’s face it: Lost Cities sounds very tedious. Another play one/draw one style of game? Ho hum. [Yawn.] Wake me up when something interesting happens. But the truth is that Lost Cities is one of the most exciting head-to-head games I’ve played.

Look at this beautiful artwork! Unless you’re playing. Then look at the color and the number only!

Lost Cities is so good because the game maintains a healthy balance between risk and reward. Players have a hand size of eight cards, which allows them some window into the future, but just like setting off on an adventure, even if your backpack is full of useful gadgets, you can never be absolutely certain of the trials that will beset you on the way. And because players must play every turn, whether they want to or not, it is not likely that a player will collect every card necessary to make them feel comfortable about venturing forth (once a card is played, a player may no longer play lower cards). Yet leaving the comforts of home is the only way to score points in Lost Cities.

Further enhancing the risk/reward nature of the game is the order in which players must complete their turns: they must play and then draw. I know this doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, but trust me: in the middle of a tense decision–should I wait for the green 2 or just play the green 4?–not having that extra bit of information makes each play feel more relevant. Because players must always play a higher card than the one last played, it is obviously better to play lower cards first if you can. But the tension here is that you don’t always have those low cards when you need them. And you can count on @FarmerLenny’s law: the card you decide to abandon hope of ever drawing is always the next card you draw.

I like the oversized cards that come with Lost Cities.

Lost Cities is great in that it offers players enough information to make strategic decisions but not enough information to make perfect decisions. Because each suit has the same twelve cards–three investment cards and numbers 2-10–it’s easy to track which cards are still available, since you know at a glance which cards your opponent has played, which ones are in the discard piles, and which ones are in your hand. (Card-counting is made easy in Lost Cities because there is so much open information, which is helpful for usually my non-card-counting wife.) The question remains, is the card you’re looking for in the draw deck or in your opponent’s hand? You can’t know for sure, but you can watch the cards your opponent is discarding and the expeditions your opponent has launched. Of course, there can be (and often is) an element of bluffing here, and the game situation can change. One of the five expeditions can instantly change from discard fodder to must-launch with the well-timed draw of a 10. The game state is in flux, and players must carefully watch their opponent because there is a limited number of points available in each suit.

The game is brilliant because of its timing mechanism. The round ends when the draw deck is depleted. However, players may draw from the discard piles instead of from the draw deck. In fact, it can be to the players’ advantage to draw alternately from one source or the other, depending where they are in the round. Do you have lots of expeditions started and have most of the cards you need to make them profitable? You might want to make the game last a little longer and so draw (even useless cards) from the discards. Are you feeling good about the state of your expeditions? You might want to end the game as quickly as possible to stick your opponent with negative points. The number of cards in the draw deck is public knowledge and can be obtained at any time, allowing players to plan their strategies. I love that the game clock can speed up and slow down depending on the will of the players.

A scoring example with my homemade cheat sheet. This expedition is worth 15 points.

There are a few aspects of the game that may upset some players, but really, they’re what usually upset the anti-Knizia crowd. The first is the lack of theme. The cards are oversized to show off the artwork of exploring lost cities, and they are nicely illustrated, but the art could be monkeys, or stones, or just plain numbers for all I care: I’m only looking at the color and the number on the card. While the theme does fit–you are investing in an expedition and only get paid back if the expedition was successful–the game is not experiential. You can get caught up in the fun of the game, but not the richness of the theme. This isn’t a big deal to me because the game itself is engaging.

The second is that the game has a wonky scoring system. (Are we following a script?!) I think the scoring system makes sense within the theme, but it’s still hard, especially for new players, to remember. I got around this by providing a small player aid for my wife so she doesn’t have to remember the scoring formula. She still thinks the scoring system is a little funny, but she enjoys the game enough that it’s not much of a bother. (And she’s used to it, having played and enjoyed Money.)

The third aspect is one that I’ve heard secondhand but haven’t experienced myself. Some players say that there is a clearly optimum play in every hand, and after enough plays, you feel like the game is playing itself and you might as well not be there. I’m fairly new to Lost Cities, but as I said, I’ve not noticed this. It’s entirely possible that the game can turn stale with enough plays, but I’d say that’s true of most games. And really, the great thing about Lost Cities is that, as a two-player game, if you play head-to-head against the same person consistently, skill and strategy should increase evenly. Since the game is really a back-and-forth game against your opponent, players can try new strategies when the old become familiar. This, at least, has been my experience in playing against my wife, and we’ve enjoyed exploring the bounds of the game together.

A decent insert that holds everything. Nice!

Lost Cities is hands-down one of the best two-player-only games I’ve played. It’s quick and tense, the rules are simple to grasp, and the game offers meaningful decisions on every turn. There is some luck here with the random card draws, but the game is ultimately about doing your best with a limited forecast and enjoying the risks and rewards that accompany playing to what you know. I understand that some people hate this game, but I am not one of them. This is a game that my wife and I keep coming back to and keep finding fresh and fun.

Summary

  • Rating 8.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple rules structure the game
  • Tense decisions keep gameplay exciting
  • Game timing mechanism is genius
  • The oversized cards are nice

Cons:

  • There's more theme in a game of Chess (okay, that's hyperbole)
  • End-game scoring can be puzzling for new players
8.5 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Have you played Battle Line? It’s another 2-player hand management Knizia and is highly strategic and thinky versus Lost Cities’ accessibility. Lost Cities is certainly the more couples-friendly game so it seems to get more attention but whenever I’m playing it I generally wish I was playing Battle Line instead.

    • I’ve not played Battle Line, but I played what seems a very similar game (Kingdoms of Crusaders), and I enjoyed it quite a bit. My wife, on the other hand, did not. If the two are comparable, I think your take is accurate. Lost Cities is certainly a very “couples friendly” game.

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