|From:Rio Grande Games Cost: $20 Players: 2 Playing Time: 20-30 minutes Type of game: Card Skill level: 4 Complexity: 3 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.2 (22), January 2000|
Two-player games donít get much coverage in these pages. Thatís not because I have any bias against them per se. I write most of the reviews for TGR and rarely have the opportunity to play two-player games, consequently they tend to get short shrift around these parts. This summer my college buddy Dave moved in for a year or so, and suddenly there are two gamers in the house. Astoundingly, with all the games at our disposal we still spend about 95% of our time playing cribbage (for ten cents a point, which may explain how it manages to hold our interest). Much of the remaining five percent has been devoted to Lost Cities, a simple yet addictive card game from Reiner Knizia.
The oversized deck is evenly divided among five color-coded expeditions, each with nine numbered stages and three investors. Each stage is individually illustrated, with the full sequence of 2-10 depicting the complete journey to one of the gameís five lost cities. These illustrations and those on the game board successfully evoke the atmosphere of exotic locales- which is fortunate, since the gameplay is otherwise entirely abstract.
The game board, containing discard areas for each of the five expeditions, sits between the players. The object of the game is to earn points by mounting successful expeditions. To be successful an expedition doesnít need to reach its final destination, it just needs to accumulate over twenty points along the way. Players begin with a hand of eight cards, playing and then drawing one each turn. A card can always be played to the top of the corresponding discard pile or, if itís low enough, to the top of the playerís matching expedition. Expeditions must proceed in increasing, but not necessarily consecutive, numerical sequence (3-5-6-8, for example). So once youíve played the red 8, you can never play the red 4 except to the discard pile.
Youíre allowed to draw from the deck or from the top of any of the five discard piles. In practice, then, you donít want to discard something your opponent can use. And at the beginning of the game, thatís everything! Think thatís bad? Thereís more. The three investor cards can only be played as the first cards of an expedition, before any numbers get added. An expeditionís value is multiplied by its number of investors plus one, up to a maximum of quadruple value with all three investors.
But you donít want to just slap down investors whenever you can. The score for each expedition is the total value of all cards played to it minus twenty. So each expedition has to have a total face value of twenty or more to be successful. If it falls short, you subtract the difference from your score. If a failed expedition had investors, the loss is multiplied.
Expeditions with no cards in them score zero, so playing that first card represents a major risk. Itís difficult to turn a profit on all five expeditions. Focusing on three and not starting the other two seems like the ideal mix. If the deck cooperates.
The most painful decisions of the game typically come at the very beginning. Imagine a hand with one investor and the remainder valued at seven or higher- but none the same color as your investor. Do you take a risk and play the investor, hoping to draw more cards for it? Or do you play some of your high cards, practically guaranteeing a successful expedition that still wonít earn you many points? You could discard, but your opponent will pounce on whatever you drop. To increase the pain, thereís a bonus to consider. Any expedition with eight or more cards earns a twenty point bonus (applied after any multiplier). Playing too high too soon means forfeiting that bonus. And thereís nothing more painful than playing a nine and immediately drawing the eight.
A game of Lost Cities runs through three discrete phases. In the beginning you need to manage your card flow. You want to hold onto your high cards as long as possible, hoping to draw the lower cards and more importantly investors of the same colors. Doing that may mean playing other cards earlier than youíd like, or discarding a lone 2 or 3 rather than risking a failed expedition. When discarding, keep in mind that your opponent may be sitting on some investors, and what could have been an eight point loss for you may be a gain of many times that for him. Youíre usually better off taking the loss.
The mid-game involves building on your expeditions and sitting on discards until your opponent canít use them, either because heís already played higher cards or there just isnít enough time for him to snatch them and play them. The game ends when the deck expires, and you want to make sure all those high cards youíve been saving get played in time. Consequently the endgame becomes a game of chicken as each player counts the cards remaining in the deck. Ultimately someone will flinch and begin drawing from the discard piles to slow down the pace, trying to buy more time to play his high cards. The downside of doing so is that your opponent gets to draw all the remaining cards, possibly snagging some good ones he can play.
Experienced players develop subtle strategies novices wouldnít even consider, such as discarding enough juicy cards to convince your opponent to start the matching expedition, but holding onto enough to guarantee that his expedition fails.
Much ado has been made about the gameís price. Strip away the lavish production values and youíve got a game you could easily make at home with two standard card decks. However, the gameís components are top-notch and will enhance most playersí enjoyment of the game. Most importantly, Lost Cities delivers the goods. It may be heavily luck-dependent, but it makes you feel like youíre in control- Iíve won 20 of my 25 games. The fact that Iíve played that many times is a strong recommendation in itself. Lost Citiesí rummy-like play is easy to learn and tugs on the one-more-time string with surprising tenacity. Kniziaís lesser-known Schotten-Totten feels similar but has more depth, and is therefore more satisfying (see review elsewhere this issue). Unlike Lost Cities, itís not readily available outside Germany. Light, fun, and approachable, Lost Cities is the best general-audience two-player game to come to the States in years.