Monday, June 23, 2014

Finding the score

If you've read my reviews of Fortune and Glory or the Indiana Jones DVD Adventure Game, you'll know that I am a great fan of the pulp adventure genre, especially the Indiana Jones series. That theme is what initially attracted me to Lost Cities when I first picked it up way back in 1999.

The theme is certainly rooted in the search for the relics of lost civilizations, but it takes its inspiration from the ponderous nature of an archaeological expedition rather than the fast-paced thrill ride of an Indiana Jones movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the game play is interesting, and the slow pace gives players time to look at the beautiful artwork on the cards.

Lost Cities was our introduction to the games of German mathematician and game designer Reiner Knizia. Knizia has created over 400 games, and in many cases he doesn't design games so much as he designs elaborate scoring systems. The actual game is often just a way for the players to interact with the scoring system, but to me, Knizia's genius is in finding the right theme for each system he comes up with, and I think he does that pretty well with Lost Cities.

It's a two-player card game that consists of five different sets of cards numbered 2-10, each set representing a different expedition to find a lost city. Each set of cards also includes three "investment" cards, which represent the various universities and governments that might back an expedition.

Players play cards from their hands to different stacks in front of them, one for each expedition. There are discard for piles each expedition in the center of the table, and players have the option to discard to these stacks or take the top card from one of them instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game, players score points based on the numerical values of the cards they've played into each of their expeditions, and any investment cards played into a stack will double, triple, or quadruple the score for that stack, depending on how many investment cards were played.

But there's a catch. Actually, there are several:
  • Each player deducts 20 from their score for each stack. So if you can't score at least 20 points from a stack, your score will quickly go into negative numbers.
  • Investment cards must be played before any cards with numerical value. So you have to decide whether you're going to try to multiply your score before you really know whether you're going to make it out of the 20 point hole. The multiplier is applied after the 20 points are deducted, so if you have 2 investment cards on an expedition that only scored 10 points, you are looking at a final score of -30.
  • Numbered cards must be played into expeditions in numerical order, from lowest to highest. So if you draw a 7 for the desert expedition after you played the 8, you are out of luck and have to decide whether to discard the 7 or hold it in your hand to keep it away from your opponent. This is where the game's theme really shines: each card illustrates a progression on the path to one of the lost cities, so as you play each successive card, it is as if you are moving farther into the jungle, deeper into the ocean, or higher into the snow-capped mountains.
Meanwhile, your opponent is playing cards into his own expedition stacks, so you have to be careful about which cards you discard. Each player is required to either play or discard a card every turn, so a good deal of the strategy is in anticipating what your opponent is doing, so you don't give him too many cards he can use.

It's a simple game, but with a lot of strategic decisions to make. The random nature of the cards means that every game is different, so it has a lot of replay value. Plus, it comes in a relatively small box and doesn't have any tiny, easy-to-lose pieces, so it makes a great travel game, which is appropriate for a game about exploring lost ruins.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not an overly compelling game, but easy to play with enough strategy to keep it interesting.

Date played: May 3, 2014

UPDATE July 20, 2015: Another look at Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities, and Camelot Legends

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