Lost Cities, from Rio Grande Games, is a card game released in the year 2000, aimed at fans of two-player gaming. It’s a simple but addictive title from designer Reiner Knizia.
Reading other reviews online, I’ve found a lot of whining about the price of Lost Cities – at release, it cost $30, though I’ve been able to find used versions online and in comic shops for far less. One look at the deck and the other aspects of the game and you’ll understand the higher cost. The entire set is designed to look high-end, with beautiful illustrations and plenty of details.
One weird thing you’ll need to get used to is the larger size of the deck – which is itself split up into five color-coded groups, known as “expeditions.” Each expedition is further broken up into nine numbered stages and requires three investors.
It’s nice that all of the expeditions are fully illustrated, with each of the nine stages in full color. The cards themselves describe the player’s journey to one of the mysterious cities the game is named for. In a game with rules that are otherwise mathematical and abstract, great attention was paid to creating a unique and engaging deck.
The Game Board
The board itself is simple – there are discard spots for each of the five expeditions, and not much else. The board is meant to sit between the two players.
The board’s important because it represents the object of your mission – earn points by going on successful and lengthy expeditions. An expedition doesn’t have to reach its final or ninth stage to earn you points – as long as the expedition itself earns at least twenty points during play (more on that later), it will be valuable at the game’s end.
How to Play
Each player is dealt a hand of eight cards, and plays and draws a card every turn. These cards can always be discarded on the appropriate pile or in some cases added to the top of the player’s expedition that matches the card.
More Card Complexity
Every turn, each player can choose to draw from the deck or from the top of any of the game’s five discard areas. Strategy comes into play here – you don’t want to put a valuable piece in a discard pule that your opponent could use to beat you. To make things more complex, certain tokens (“investors”) can only be played as the beginning of each expedition.
A standard game runs through three phases – the beginning, the mid-game, and the end-game. In the beginning, card management is the name of the game. Players that hold high value cards as long as they can, in an attempt to draw lower cards to support investments in expeditions, tend to win.
The mid-game in Lost Cities means building up your expeditions waiting to hand out discards until your opponent has no use for them. This requires a lot of knowledge about the value of cards in the game, and I’ve noticed this skill will come with time.
The game is over when the deck is empty. If you have played all your high cards in time, you will probably turn out to be the winner.
Over and over again, Lost Cities presents players with a major gamble – do you take a risk on playing an investor, hoping to draw more cards that will support the expedition, or do you put high value cards in play that pretty much guarantee a successful mission, but may not earn you many long-term points? Discarding is another option, but a player would have to risk handing all his best plays to the opponent.
A major facet of Lost Cities strategy is to chase the expedition bonus. Any expedition that’s racked up eight or more cards earns the player an additional twenty points.
Being sneaky is a big help to your abilities with this empire-building title – players who know how to bait their opponent by letting go of just enough juicy cards to influence their play are basically in control of both decks, but this requires some playing time and experience reading your opponent.
Overall, Lost Cities may not hold a lot of appeal for people who like to replay the same game a lot. I’ve found that a few rounds of this title goes a long way, and since the game is heavily dependent on the luck of the draw, and involves a lot of in-your-head math, it isn’t always the most, well, fun strategy game on the market.
You can think of this title as kind of like rummy with traditional cards – once you learn the regular ebbs and flows of the game’s tokens, you become better at the contest. If you’re looking for a title that is fairly easy to learn, doesn’t take long to establish a winner, and is playable with just two people, Lost Cities is probably one of the better options for you out of all the games released in the past decade or so. I think gamers who like more complex material should look elsewhere.