Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Review: Lost Cities

Lost Cities is a two player card game by master game designer Reiner Knizia. In Lost Cities, players finance archeological expeditions in the hopes of finding fame and fortune. Hirum Bingham's famous 1911 expedition to Peru where he discovered Machu Picchu could have served as a model for the theme of this game.

Like most of Dr. Knizia's games, Lost Cities' theme takes a bit of a back seat to the mechanics. This game could have been about any number of different things. Still, the theme works well even if it is mainly expressed in the wonderful artwork that adorns each of the oversized cards. There's also an attractive game board but it's rather superfluous as it really only serves as a place to mark the locations of the discard stacks.

The deck is divided into five suits or colors, each representing a different expedition. Each color is made up of expedition cards ranked 2 through 10 as well as three investment cards which have a handshake symbol in the corner in place of a number.

Game play is extremely simple. Each player starts with a hand of eight cards. At the beginning of your turn you have two choices: you can discard a card to one of the five discard piles (one for each suit) or you can play a card onto one of your expedition stacks. Then you either draw the top card from the supply or you draw the top card from one of the discards stacks (provided you didn't just play that card). The catch is that cards played on your expeditions must always be played in ascending order: first investment cards, then ranked cards from low to high. You need not play all the cards in a color (in fact, odds are very much against that even being possible) but you can never play a lower ranked card on top of a higher one.

Players alternate turns until the last card is drawn from the supply. At that point players score their expeditions. Any expedition on which you have played a card costs an initial investment of twenty points. Expeditions with no cards cost you nothing. To figure out your score for an expedition, you first add up the ranks of all expedition cards played on it. Then you subtract your twenty point investment. Next you multiply the result by one plus the number of investment cards. Finally, any expedition on which you have managed to play eight or more cards earns you twenty bonus points. So if you managed to play two investment cards, plus the 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 on the yellow expedition, you would earn 74 points: (38 - 20) x 3 + 20 for the 8 card bonus. But if you only managed to play one investment card, a six and a seven on the blue expedition then you'd lose 14 points: (13 - 20) * 2.

A complete game consists of three hands. After three hands, whoever has the most points wins the game.

A hand of Lost Cities typically progresses over three stages. In the opening few plays, players are typically agonizing over which expeditions to invest in. Eight cards aren't very many so you have very little information to go on. If you've got a lot of low cards then you've got a chance at getting a lot of cards into an expedition or two, but you run the risk that you'll begin an expedition and then not draw enough high cards in that color to make it profitable. If you've got a few high cards in one color then you could safely start playing in that color but by starting with high cards, you've automatically given up on the chance of playing any lower cards in that color and you've given your opponent the chance to safely discard some cards. Perhaps you might discard a couple of cards to buy time and allow you to draw a couple more cards. But if you do that, you might end up giving a card to your opponent that he needs. In a typical opening hand, you'll have one or two investment cards in a color with few (if any) other cards to guarantee success in that expedition. It's quite common to have to take a blind guess or leap of faith and just hope things work out for the best and that you'll be able to draw enough cards later on to make the expedition profitable. This is a game of agonizing decisions and most of the time you'll start the game feeling like you've just been dealt the worst hand in the world.

After you've both committed yourselves by starting a couple of expeditions you'll settle down into the mid game groove. For a few turns you'll have some obvious places to play. You'll have a run of cards in a color. You'll have unwanted cards that can safely be discarded because your opponent has already played a seven or eight in that color. And you'll probably enjoy the unpleasant experience of drawing a card you could have used right after you had given up waiting for it and played a higher ranking card in that color.

Before you know it, the pile of cards in the supply will be dwindling short. Now you've reached the end game. By now reality will have sunk in. You'll realize that there's little chance of drawing any more cards for the expeditions you've invested in and you're holding too many cards that must yet be played if you're to show a profit. You'll start playing cards and drawing from the discard stacks in a frantic bid to stretch the game out long enough to get those few remaining high cards out of your hand before the game ends. And your opponent will be trying his hardest to take those last cards from the supply before you can get your cards in play.

Lost Cities is an addicting blend of strategy and luck. Luck plays a pretty heavy role, as in most card games, but it isn't overwhelming and the game plays fast enough (about 30 minutes for a game of three hands) that you can always play another game to try and even things up. For such a simple game, there are a surprising amount of agonizing decisions to be made. Clever play and a good understanding of the odds are definitely a big help. It also doesn't hurt to have some math skills. Adding up those scores is just complicated enough to make you think.

A friend and I have been playing this game over our lunch hour several times a week for some time now. It's one of our favorite two player games and even when I'm losing, I still feel like playing again. The more I play it, the more I like it. If you're looking for a really solid two player game then you really can't go wrong with Lost Cities.


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