Lost Cities is a 2-player card game. This game is fast, easy to learn and quite addictive to play. It is legendary as a “wife’s game”. That is, I’ve read numerous stories about how husbands can get their wives to play Lost Cities and how, for some reason, women seem to win most times. In my own personal case, Melissa is really good at this game and beats me at it 80% of the time. It’s still fun, I just have to set my expectations differently when I play.
Lost Cities is another Reiner Knizia game. Reiner is one of the most prolific game designers alive in our time. He creates so many interesting games. I’ve become a big fan of his designs and Lost Cities is one more reason why. He’s very much a creative genius when it comes to board game design. Incidentally, you pronounce Reiner’s last name as “Ka-Nit-zia”.
What’s in the box?
Lost Cities is really a card game. It has a board, but the board just suggests where the players place their cards as they put them on the table before them. The board is mounted and has nice artwork consistent with the theme. The theme is about exploring 5 regions of the world with expeditions. The players choose to begin any expeditions they want and can make “investments” in an expedition before it starts to increase it’s potential payoff. Truth is, like many Knizia games, the theme is interesting but “pasted on”. It has no real bearing on how the game is played.
Here’s the board.
The cards are over-sized and are all stacked together face-down into a single draw stack. The users draw cards from the same stack. Each card is unique and they have artwork that can be overlaid with each other to form a drawing of each potential expedition’s journey. This is how the expeditions would look if you were to stack the cards to make expedition drawings.
There are 5 potential expeditions. The cards are all numbered with a sequence repeated for each expedition. Numbers begin with 2 and end with 10 for each expedition/color.
Decide who goes first. Usually the winner of the last round goes first. A game is played in rounds, 3 rounds to a game. However that’s a recommended convention. You can also use your own rules and play until someone scores 200 for example. Or agree to set the game ending at 4 rounds. Since there is a degree of luck involved in the cards you draw, it’s important to play several rounds in a game to round things out. Three rounds is recommended.
Each player is dealt 8 cards at the beginning of the game. You will always have 8 cards during your turn even when the game is ended. You keep the cards in your hand secret and must play them in a certain order. Remember you are both drawing from the same deck of common cards, so if you have the blue expedition’s 10-card in your hand, you know that’s the only blue 10 in the game.
Players take turns placing cards in front of themselves, forming “expeditions”.
The only rule is that when you place a card it either begins a new expedition, adds to one of your own expeditions, or is discarded. You draw a replacement card immediately after placing a card.
For an expedition, all cards must be of the same color. The board suggests the placement of expeditions by color. In the example shown, you can see that red expeditions are on the left, then green, white, blue and yellow. When you add a card to an expedition it must be of a higher numeric value than the previous card in that same expedition.
For example, if you’ve already begun a yellow expedition with a 4 card from your hand, and later draw a 2 or 3, those cards cannot be inserted or added to your existing expedition.
If you choose to discard a card, remember you have to play a card every turn, you place it on the board in the center area between the players. Discards for each expedition go in specific places on the board. Yellow discards go on a yellow stack, red on red, and so on. The discards are placed face up, on top of each other.
Here’s one of the interesting twists. When a player draws a replacement card for their hand they can choose to take 1 card from either the face-down draw stack or one of the face up expedition discard stacks. If you take a card from a discard stack, you must take the top card. The next card underneath is available next turn since it is now on top.
I have not talked about scoring nor the “investment” cards yet. For each expedition there are 3 “investment” cards. They have a handshake icon instead of a number. Investment cards must be placed before any numbered cards on an expedition. You can potentially place three investment cards down at the start of an expedition.
The trick is to understand the scoring and how investment cards impact final scoring. The game continues, each player placing a card and then drawing a replacement either from the draw stack or an expedition discard stack, until the last card is drawn from the draw stack. The round ends immediately, with each player still holding 8 cards that are out of play, and scoring begins.
You score each of your expeditions independently and then total the expedition’s scores for yourself for that round. All the numeric values of cards in an expedition are added. You must subtract 20 from your expedition’s total. This means the score for that expedition can go negative. If you did not begin an expedition, it scores 0.
The investments are multipliers. For each investment you made in an expedition, you multiply the score. If there are no investments, no multiplier is applied. For one investment you multiply the score by 2. Two investments, you multiply by 3. Three investments you multiply by 4.
There’s also an expedition bonus. For any expedition where you have played 8 or more cards, including investment cards, you get an automatic 20 point bonus after the investment multiplier is applied.
Let’s use the game photograph above for a scoring example. The game has not ended yet because there are still cards left in the draw stack. You can also see a blue 8 card placed on the blue expedition discard pile, and a yellow 3 card. For the player on this side of the table, the green expedition totals 12. Subtract 20, and you have -8. Since there are 2 investments placed, multiply by 3. Currently the green expedition has a score value of -24. Fortunately the game is not over for this player yet. The yellow expedition scores 0. On the other side of the table you can see the opponent has the 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10 cards played on the white expedition. That’s a total of 36, subtract 20, for a score of 16.
Lost Cities plays fast, and once the scoring algorithm is understood it provides for interesting playing strategies. My wife, for example, will never discard an investment card for a color until she see that the other player has already begun that color’s expedition – and therefore can no longer use the investment card. I’ve played games where the score is consistently very close, by 2 or 3 points, each round. I’ve played games where the opponent has “spanked me” good.
The cards are colorful and easy to handle. You can play this game almost anywhere, but with the oversized cards, and because you need to lay your expeditions out in neat rows, some table space is required. As I said earlier, for reasons unknown to me, this game is legendary as a wife or girlfriend’s favorite game.
Some people complain that the game is very luck based. There’s some truth in that. But I see it more as a “push your luck” game. You can win with awful cards by careful game play. It’s a strategy game. And there are players out there who are very consistent at winning when they play this game.
Lost Cities is an excellent Reiner Knizia game design. Easy to learn, quick and fun to play.