- Number of Plays: 8 (Plus 30 games on Board Game Arena)
- Game Length: 20 – 30 minutes
- Mechanics: Hand Management, Set collection
- Release Year: 1999
- Designer: Reiner Knizia
- Artist: Anke Pohl, Thilo Rick, and Claus Stephan
Once upon a time I had a roommate. He and I had been friends in high school and we had both moved to the same city. During our years as roommates we started playing Chess together. As it turns out, he was the perfect opponent to play head-to-head duel games with. Chess was played often, and Magic the Gathering soon made its way into our lives, along with Yu-Gi-Oh. Cycling between these decks, we were constantly going head-to-head, each of us adjusting our play style to directly combat the other.
Now, I live on the other side of the country from that friend, and have discovered the world of hobby board games. Although I still feel my heart pulled to games that pit one player against another in a head to head competition, I simply don’t have a partner to really throw myself against. My current game group has 4 members, and we prefer to play games all together instead of breaking into 2 smaller groups, making 2 player games not very attractive to us. I’ll often play 2 player games with my wife, but we really don’t like to bear our teeth and claws at one another. Lost Cities by Reiner Knizia is a two player game that doesn’t make you hit the other player over the head, but tasks you with hedging your bets and challenges you to bluff and manipulate the pace of the game to outscore the other player.
How to Play
The goal of Lost Cities is to have the most points at the end of the game, or series of games if you choose to play multiple times in a row (and you probably should). Each game consists of shuffling the entire deck and dealing 8 cards to each player. On your turn you need to play one card, and draw one card.
When playing a card, you can either play it in front of you, or to the discard. If you chose to play it in front of you, it must be placed in a column with the cards of the same colour, and the numbers must be ascending. Each colour has its own discard pile should you choose to play your card there instead. When you draw a card, you can either take the top card from the deck, or the top card from any of the discard piles.
The deck of Lost Cities is comprised of 5 different suits each with the numbers of 2 through 10, with each card being worth their numeric value in points at the end of the game. In addition to those 9 cards there are 3 handshake cards per colour. These cards have a value of 0, but their presence multiplies the final sum of that suit.
The game ends when the draw deck has been depleted. At that time, each player counts up the sum of the cards for each of their expeditions. Each expedition begins in a deficit of negative 20 points. You add the value of each card and the final result is your score for that suit (don’t forget to multiply the final sum depending on the number of handshakes you managed to put down. Yes, you can multiply a negative number). If you manage the herculean task of getting 8 or more cards of a colour down, you get a bonus 20 points for that suit, to be added in at the end, after the multiplication step. It’s rare, but it can happen!
Lost Cities is fairly light in terms of rules overhead. Play one card, pick up one card, try to exceed 20 points for each colour you commit to. It is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or boring. Lost Cities presents players with plenty of opportunities to shoot themselves in the foot. If you have a couple of high cards of each suit, do you play them down? If not, they’re just taking up space in your hand that could be used for holding more useful cards. Do you discard the yellow 5 because you have no other yellow cards? What if you inadvertently give your opponent everything he ever wanted?
All these questions slowly build to a crescendo as you and your opponent play card after card, slowly exhausting the draw deck. The tempo and cadence of play changes as each player gets more desperate, searching for the lynchpin card that will allow them to place the rest of their higher value cards that are just sitting in their hand waiting for their opportunity. Jumping from a 4 or a 7 can feel like you’re shutting the door on opportunities for points, but as the deck dwindles and tensions rise you’ll find yourself much more willing to skip over missing numbers to get the best cards out of your hand and onto the table.
When I introduced my wife to Lost Cities, she instantly hated it. With frustration she exclaimed that it was too random and you didn’t have enough options or choices and the deck somehow always seems to screw with you. A few days later she prodded me to play it again. The puzzle of Lost Cities had burrowed into her head. On repeat plays she found the strategies much more satisfying and it has become one her favourite games.
Lost Cities has become a staple of my travel games. Considering the whole game is just a deck of cards and a scrap of paper to track the scores, I often find myself sliding it into my bag and suggesting it whenever we have a few moments of downtime. Because it’s fast to teach and and offers a satisfying feeling in your heart when your plans all come together, it’s frequently my go-to pick when I want to introduce someone to board games.
Just this past weekend we were visiting a couple in-laws, and my wife’s uncle asked if I had brought any games with me (apparently my reputation as a gamer precedes me), so I introduced him to Lost Cities. We promptly played 5 games in a row. Each new game had him exploring the strategies and tactics available to the players, and he learned how to control the wax and wane of the deck to his advantage. It was a wonderful sight to behold.
While the winner of a single game of Lost Cities can be determined by how lucky their card draws were, I firmly believe that the better player will come out ahead, more often than not. To this end, it’s suggested to play three games in a row and whomever has the highest cumulative score at the end of the series is the overall winner. I really enjoy playing Lost Cities like this, as some rounds, getting a mere 15 points feels like an achievement, while other rounds you can find yourself breaking 100 points.
Lost Cities rewards the bold, but can also punish those who delve too greedily. The gambling feeling of placing a handshake when you barely have any cards of that colour in your hand can grip your heart in fear, especially when you start coming down to the last 15 cards in the deck, or if your opponent matches your move and starts playing the lower numbers. Your heart rate will rise as your agonize over which card to play, deciding to start another expedition late into the game, math-ing out exactly how many turns remain before the round ends and you’re forced to score your hands.
Lost Cities was released over 20 years ago, and it remains to this day one of my favourite two player games. I love how well balanced it feels, how easy it is to introduce to new players, and how rewarded I feel after playing dozens of games. Other games have been published with the Lost Cities name attached to it (Lost Cities: Rivals, and Lost Cities: Roll and Write being the two most recent), and while they do catch my eye, I haven’t bothered exploring any of these reimplementation’s or alternate versions. Perhaps one day I’ll embark on that expedition, but for now, I’m going to continue to play and recommend Lost Cities every chance I get.