Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Martin Hoffman and Claus Stephan
I am writing a series of reviews for the entire Lost Cities and Keltis family of games and then ranking them. For the longest time, the original Keltis and the must-have expansion board (Neue Wege, Neue Ziele) was one of the remaining games in the series I have never played. The main reason being, Keltis was never sold outside of Europe. However, Rio Grande Games eventually released Keltis in the form of Lost Cities the Board Game for the global market with very minor rule tweaks. For the most part, the Keltis clone was sufficient and I liked it enough to own a copy. But the main reason I still want Keltis is because of the expansion board which is sold separately and which requires the base game. This is one of the few instances (perhaps only?) where I value the expansion board more than the main game and boy, was I impressed. Heck, even my spouse loved the expansion and felt it elevated the game beyond its gateway status. However, I will write more about the expansion in another blog post.
Keltis, at least the main game, plays similarly to Lost Cities the Board Game which I have previous described here. In brief, players play cards to a personal tableau in either ascending or descending order. Depending on the suit played, players will move pawns on their respective tracks on the board, aiming to reach the end of each track to score maximum points. The more steps you take on each track, the higher your pawn will move up and the more points you will score. However, the game ends as soon as five pawns from any player in any track reaches the top third of the board. So, not all pawns will score points. In fact, pawns stuck at the bottom third will score negative points. In other words, if you commit to move a pawn on a track, you should aim to move far enough to score positive points.
To make each game slightly different, bonus tiles are randomly distributed at specific locations along each track. These bonus tokens allow scoring of additional points, allow an extra free movement of any pawn on any track and players can collect wishing stones for set collection scoring at the end. These stones are tallied at the end of the game and if you collect more than five stones, you will get an additional 10 points. Failure to collect any stones will also result in negative points.
By and large, I have enjoyed every game in this series, some more than others, including Keltis. However, as I mentioned, I have never tried Keltis because it just wasn’t available for purchase. It is hard to find a copy outside of Europe. The game is mostly similar to Lost Cities the Board Game (LC:TBG) but with some minor differences. First, LC: TBG plays for three rounds as opposed to one for Keltis. I like the flexibility of a single round with Keltis. It is a good filler and I think we rarely every play all three rounds in LC:TBG. In LC:TBG, players collect artifact tiles each round and only tally up the sum total at the end of three rounds. This is similar to the Wishing stones in Keltis, except the stones are tabulated at the end of the round. Since I don’t normally play three rounds of LC:TBG, I do not miss set collection of the artifacts over multiple rounds. The stone collection over a single round is more than enough. So thumbs up for Keltis. Now, there is a minor variation in how cards are played in ascending or descending order. In Keltis, the rules recommend playing either ascending or descending. Knizia has stated that the original intention was to only playing ascending just like Lost Cities the card game. He implemented this rule in LC:TBG. We kept the original rule from Knizia where cards are played only in ascending order. Choosing one over the other is largely a personal preference and I would imagine an ascending/descending card play is more approachable and mitigates a crappy opening hand where all card values are very high. Beyond that, I enjoy the theme in both Keltis and LC:TBG. The Indiana Jones vibe in LC:TBG is cool and will attract some eyeballs, but I also love the Celtic palette, artwork and iconography in Keltis.
Regardless of theme or rule tweaks, the game is still all Knizia. The fun over complexity ratio is high as rules are simple and actions are clean but the agony of decision making remains acute. Lots of games have tough decisions, but in complex games, the implication for each decision is not always clear cut as there are so many mechanisms interwoven in one single action. In Keltis, the cost benefit is clear even though the decision is anything but. Playing a card to move on one track comes at the expense of ignoring another. Choosing to advance on one track means sacrificing movement on another path. Plain and simple. This has always been Knizia’s trademark. It is what is fan base loves best and what I also appreciate and enjoy.
Part of the fun of Keltis is the tension from the race to get enough pawns on the board that can score you positive points. Are the number of pawns in the top third of the board slowly increases and the game inches toward the end, there is a palpable agony in deciding which pawns you want to push for scoring. Should you move a pawn from a negative territory into the positive region for scoring or do you want to move another pawn that lands on a bonus token that you are eyeing? Should you finish the game by moving your pawn so that it becomes the fifth pawn to cross the finish line or do you want to some more time to move up other pawns? The decisions can be painful, but in a very good way.
I wanted to write the Keltis expansion in this post, but decided against it as I feel the expansion deserves a separate write up. Yeah, it’s that good. But whether or not you get the expansion board should never detract players from playing Keltis. This is a darn good good gateway game for the family. Hands down on par with Ticket to Ride. Length wise, it is shorter than Ticket to Ride. However, if you own LC:TBG, there is no need to get Keltis unless you are a Knizia fan like I am and want to play the expansion. In which case, then a base game for Keltis or Keltis: das Orakel is required. After finally acquiring Keltis, I glad to say that the game lived up to all my expectations.
Initial impression: Good