Artist: Annette Nora Kara
Publisher: Rio Grande GAmes
I finally managed to get Lost Cities: The Board Game on the table for a replay. It is one of six games in the Knizia Lost Cities / Keltis family that I own and also the final one to hit the table for my review of the entire series. My goal is to replay all the games back-to-back and write a summary of my thoughts while reranking the games after all these years. None of these games are new but surprisingly, Knizia still cranks out new games in this series, based loosely on the core mechanism.
Lost Cities: The Board Game is a spin off of Lost Cities the Card Game. For an overview of the core mechanism, you can visit my previous review for the card game. The general idea for Lost Cities is to play cards in ascending numerical order for five different suits (colors) , each with its individual column. Importantly, cards played do not have to be sequential in numbers and gaps are fine, so long as numbers are of the same value or higher. With each card played, players get to advance their explorer meeple on a track that correspond to the color of the card played. So for example, if you play a red card, then you get to move your explorer on the red track. Of course, this means that there are five separate tracks on the game board, one for each color, and players will have the ability to move their explorers on all five tracks if they choose to. However, that may not always be a great idea especially when playing with more players. That’s because how far you move on each track is translated to points at the end of each round. For each track, the first 3 spots on the track will score negative points. In other words, if you want to move your explorer, you better make sure you play enough cards to move him far enough on the track to earn positive points. If you initiate movement for all five explorers, you will have to divvy out the movement among all your explorers and dilute out your ability to make a push for one explorer.
Thus far, the game sounds very much like a multi-player version of Lost Cities the card game. That is not exactly a bad comparison as there are many similarities given that they share the same core mechanism. However, I think a few aspects of the board game makes it a stand out relative to the other games in the series. First, the race aspect of the game really comes through. I think racing games only work if turns are fast and players get to see their pieces move on a track. Here, the race is against time to see who can move the furthest, with as many explorers before the end of each round. The round ends when the first five explorers, belonging to any player, crosses a bridge which is found between the 6th and 7th spot on each track. If collectively, four explorers have passed the threshold, the fifth explorer to cross the bridge ends the game immediately. To be clear, other games in this series also have a similar race-type feel to it. The game feels a bit more calculated and tense compared to other games in the series. Like other games in the series, the central struggle in Lost Cities revolves around deciding if one should push forward on one or tracks, or diversity the movement. The game generally favors specialization as the point differential for track advancement is not linear for each step. This means that moving from the 7th to 8th spot on the track will earn you more points than moving from 3rd to 4th. However, because there are special bonus tiles placed randomly along all the tracks, it makes moving on other tracks quite tempting and sometimes, important, even though the final score for that track is paltry.
Which brings me to the second aspect of the game I enjoy: the randomly placed tokens on the tracks. It sounds trivial, but the uneven distribution of tokens greatly alter the desirability of each track and can create some interesting choices when it comes to deciding how to advance. These tokens are mainly one time bonuses that allow players to score additional points, give any explorer an extra move or the tile can be an artifact. Unlike other tokens, artifacts are picked up from the board by the first player who reaches that spot. The artifact tiles are the only thing that ties the game together between rounds. The more tiles you collect, the more points you will get at the end of the game which lasts for 3 rounds. Conversely, you will get a hefty penalty (-50 points!) for not competing for artifacts. Overall, the tokens serve as an effective carrot-and-stick mechanism: to force players to consider diversifying their allocation of movement between tracks not only to get goodies but also to avoid getting penalized at the end of the game for not collecting artifacts.
I love the theme in Lost Cities. Like the card game which spots the same exact theme, the mechanism here just suits the theme perfectly. Movement along the tracks to symbolize progress on expeditions really fits hand in glove. As abstract as this game may be, I do feel that players are indeed racing to reach the Lost Cities, I truly do. For that reason alone, I think thematically, Lost Cities beats out Keltis even though the latter has really beautiful Celtic art and wonderful iconography. For those who are not in the know, Keltis is essentially Lost Cities: The Board Game, but published primarily for the European market. I have longed for a copy of Keltis because it purportedly comes with an expansion board called Keltis: Neue Wege, Neue Ziele that is superior in play. Unfortunately, Lost Cities: The Board Game does not come with that additional board, even with the latest reprint. It is not clear why they won’t include that additional layout, but I suspect it might have something to do with theme. The expansion board in Keltis features mixed colored-paths which is probably thematically incompatible with the idea of Lost Cities. Still, my desire to obtain a copy of Keltis has waned over the years. The current game is solid and can proudly stand alone without further complexity.
Now, for the downsides. Lost Cities: The Board Game lasts for 3 rounds, which I feel is a little long. We always struggle to complete three games and in my playing, we just opt for a single round. Players do have an option to play a short game, which is one round. The downside of playing a single round is that the importance of collecting artifacts becomes outsized. There is a separate scoring matrix for artifacts if the short game is played, but it doesn’t really alleviate the intense rush to pick up these tokens. I do think the ideal length for the game is two rounds. Alas, there is no separate scoring matrix for that.
Ultimately, I think, whether you enjoy the game really boils down to whether you think there is choice or perhaps illusion of choice for this game. You are dealt a hand of 8 cards from which you play one and draw one to replenish. You are almost beholden to play the cards you draw and have very little in way of controlling your destiny beyond deciding when to play the cards or if you choose to pick up discards for your draw action. If you believe this makes the game terrible, I am not sure I can convince you otherwise as I don’t think you are entirely wrong. The game does have limits in terms of where you can move based on your hand of cards, but it is somewhat mitigated by special tokens that allow additional movement. If nothing else, the biggest defense for Lost Cities: The Board Game will be that the game plays fast and luck-of-the-draw is largely mitigated by the ability to play multiple rounds to dilute out the effects of uneven card draw. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why they insist we play three rounds instead of one.
Lost Cities: The Board Game is entertaining, tense, fast and ultimately, enjoyable. I like it as I do other games in this series.
Final word: Good