Artist: Claus Stephan
I almost decided against writing a review of Lost Cities. After all, if you hadn’t picked up the game by now, it’s unlikely you ever will since there must be over 100 reviews (actually it is more than 200 reviews, text and video included on BGG!). If you have the game, then you should know why this game is Knizia’s evergreen title and likely to be in print for eternity. I think of all his designs, Lost Cities stands the best chance of being around for a long time.
So, why write a review? Well for completion sake I suppose since I am systematically playing and writing about the older games in my collection. Also, I had a Keltis / Lost Cities game night recently and I kinda wanted to rank the games. So off we go.
The core mechanism in Lost Cities is both simple and flexible as it is implemented in other games in this series. In Lost Cities, there are 5 suits of cards in five colors with numbers ranging from 2-10. There are also several handshake cards for each suit which serve as multipliers for your final score. Each turn in this 2 player masterpiece, players play a single card from their hand of 8 onto their tableau or discard pile. Cards for each suit must be played in ascending numerical order, starting with the handshake cards, but need not be continuous. For example, I can play a red 2 followed by a red 6 to a column of cards, but cannot backtrack by placing a red 4 after placing the 6. In this way, players will take turns playing cards to their respective columns of the same suit. They then draw a card to refresh their hand of 8 cards. Importantly, players don’t always need to play cards to their columns as they can always discard a card to individual piles of each specific suit. Similarly, players can draw the top card from these discard piles instead of drawing from the main deck.
The goal of the game is to score as many points as possible from these individual columns of cards. The kicker is in the scoring: each column must have at least 20 points before the scoring is tabulated as a positive score. Any difference in the score will be counted as negative points. For example, if you only have 15 points in the red suit, then you will score -5 points. If you have 40 points, then your score will be 20 after subtracting the first 20 points. Practically, this means that if you are not careful and exceed the threshold for scoring, then some columns may hurt your final score.
The risk-reward is further compounded by the handshake cards which must be placed as the first card or cards in each column. One can stack the handshake cards with each card increasing the multiplier (2x with 1, 3x with 2, etc). These cards will multiply the final score for each suit regardless if the scores are positive or negative! So starting a column of cards can be risky, but the rewards and damage is amplified by these handshake cards.
The game ends when the draw deck is depleted and every one tallies up the points for each column. Clearly, if you never placed any cards of a particular suit, then you score zero points, but then again, you also don’t earn negative points. If a column contains more than 8 cards, you earn 20 bonus points. This is to encourage players to delay putting down cards until the very end.
I often wonder why Lost Cities has been dubbed a classic and a spouse-friendly game. I think part of the allure of the game is a well balanced mix of luck and skill. No doubt, drawing good cards is critical, but I would say the timing of the draw is even more important. Imagine if you only have 9s’ and 10s’ as a starting hand. Your hand is clogged and you can’t assemble a reasonable column. So, timing is just as crucial as getting high value cards. Much of the game is spent deciding if or when to start a column and whether it is worthwhile to delay the decision until more information is at hand. Here, luck certainly plays a huge role. If you happen to have the right timing and the sequence of cards you draw allows you to place the cards in ascending order, then you will have a high scoring round. But skill matters. Knowing when to delay and when to push your luck is important. Also knowing when it is worthwhile to discard a card and draw from the deck is crucial especially at early stages of the game. Like most Knizia games, there is a fine balance between luck and skill.
Each game of Lost Cities is relatively quick. The decision space is not terribly huge even though there are moment in the game where you must decide to play a card or hold back. It is fun to push your luck, but knowing when to relent is a large part of the game. Each game should be completed inside of 15 minutes. That makes replaying the game an important feature as aggregate scores can be tabulated across multiple plays.
A quick word about the theme: it is amazing. For an abstract game, Lost Cities has perfectly captured the theme and the art work is part of the reason. Once all the cards are lined up numerically, it form a path that leads you from the start of the expedition to the final goal. We often rail about Knizia’s game lacking theme. I just happen to think that many of his abstracts have subtle theme which happens to be perfectly suited for the game. But when Knizia wants to do theme….. well you go check out his Lord of the Rings games and decide for yourself.
Look, the game has been around for a while and it won’t be all peaches and cream for everyone. It’s a decent game by any standard and while I won’t be asking for it everyday, I still remain happy to pull it out and play on occasion. That is more than I can say for many other games on my shelf. Today’s gamer has evolved into a more sophisticated creature, always looking for the next flashy item. People want components, minis, novelty, foam core inserts, etc. Lost Cities is an old timer with none of that. The game is however, timeless. I argue that Knizia designs often have a timeless quality to it and is highly approachable by both the young and old. You can play this with your teen or your grandmother. Plus, I bet this is the game many of us think of as a “spouse-friendly” game where they can be competitive even as a noob. Clearly, Lost Cities has gained enough popularity that it is the progenitor game that launched a thousand spin-offs. I would like to think that amongst all the $300 Kickstarter games in your collection, there is a corner in your overburdened shelf that remains worthy of Lost Cities.
Final word: Good