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Friday, July 2, 2010

Review: Lost Cities - Not all its cracked up to be


As I've mentioned before, I have a special place in my heart for two player games.  When you're looking for a way to pass the time with a single friend they are great.  Perfect for spouses, too.  And they don't eliminate conversation like watching a movie or TV can.  However, not every two player game is sunshine and rainbows.

Lost Cities has a high reputation - and I really tried to like it.  But after numerous plays, it just falls flat for me.  Repeatedly.  What seems like it should be an interesting engagement involving bluffing, luck, and just the right amount of daring, turns into two player solitaire and a math quiz.

The Basics.  Lost Cities is a light euro-style card game.  In it, you play the role of adventurers who will travel out and explore new lands.  There are five different expeditions you can start - Desert, Underwater, Mountain, Tropic, and Volcano.  The theme, though a little pasted on, is enjoyable enough. 

Players take eight cards.  Then it's play (or discard) one and draw one.  Each expedition has three "investment" cards, represented by handshakes, and numbered cards two through ten.  A player can start any expedition by playing a card down in front of him.  But, once started, the expedition can only go forward.  So if the player played the Underwater 4, he cannot then play the underwater 3.  Only the 5 or later.  With only eight cards, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what to play.  That's where the bit of daring and luck comes in.  Play the 4 and 5 that you have in your hand and hope to draw the higher numbered cards.

A player can also discard instead of playing a card.  Each expedition gets its own discard pile.  But the other player is allowed to take the top card of any discard instead of from the draw stack.  So, you don't want to discard something your opponent can use.

Once the last card is drawn from the pile, the round is over and points are tallied.  The math is simple once you get used to it, but if you're playing with younger kids (or if your spouse is math-phobic) it can be a little rough.  Each expedition that was started (by playing even a single card) gets -20 points.  You then dig yourself out of that hole by adding up the numbered cards.  So a route with the 3, 5 ,7, 9, and 10 would be worth 14 points.  Then you multiply that by one plus the number of investment cards.  One investment on that same expedition would double the points to 28.  And if your expedition had 8 or more cards played, it would be worth an extra 20 points.  Whew!  Most points is the winner.

Components: 4.5 of 5.  The components are excellent.  The cards are on nice stock and are a little over-sized making them easy to shuffle and manage.  The artwork is also excellent.  Not only is it good, but if you line up the cards from 2 to 10, you'll see that the pictures overlap as though you're walking step by step towards the expedition.  The board included is nice, but unnecessary to the game play.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 2.5 of 5.  As a card game, there is a significant luck element.  And, unfortunately, that luck is not well balanced against strategy.  If you don't draw the high numbers for an expedition you started, then tough cookies.  And, there is almost always a "best" move to take.  Don't want to improve your expeditions (because you have high numbers), but don't want to start a new one (because you don't have that one's high numbers)?  Just discard a card.  But be sure to discard one your opponent can't use.  Need a few more turns?  Draw from the discard pile rather than the draw pile.  And, because cards are played face up, you can see which expeditions are being started by your opponent.

Mechanics: 2 of 5.  The gameplay is just dull.  It's not broken, and the game is certainly playable.  But it's just not an exciting game.  Even without the needless math, you can usually survey the board and get a sense of who is going to win each round.  On the plus side, the game is simple enough to learn quickly, and the rule book is straight forward.  But there is just so little interaction that it feels more like two people sharing a deck of cards as they play their own game of solitaire.

Replayability:  3.5 of 5.  Assuming you like the game (and many people do), it has some replay value.  The random cards mixed with the danger of starting a new expedition keeps the game relatively fresh.  But, in my experience it tends to wear thin rather quickly.

Spite:  2 of 5.  There are no express "screw you" cards in Lost Cities.  However, if you see your opponent has started the Mountain expedition, and you have the 10, then it's to your benefit not to discard that card.  Keep it from your opponent to hinder their progress.  I've also heard tales of discarding an investment when you have several high cards in the hope your opponent will have the lower cards, take the investment, and play it hoping to draw the high cards that you have.  That seems a little situational and I don't know how often that really occurs.

Overall: 2 of 5.  Though beautiful, this game lacks any real joy.  You and a friend might as well play Klondike with two standard decks of playing cards.  You'll have about the same amount of interaction.  The feeling that there is always a very obvious "right" or "best" decision really detracts from this game as well.  A good game should provide multiple options toward victory.  With Lost Cities, an experienced player more or less has their play dictated by the luck of their draw.

If you'd still like to pick it up, you can grab it from BoardsandBits here, or FunAgain here.


  1. Kevin E. SchlabachJuly 4, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    My wife and I like Lost Cities the Board Game... there's slightly more to it I think. And it scales to 4 players.

  2. I just can't see the obvious "best" decisions in this game. Of course if you have already placed a card and you have the next value in hand you are going to place it. Otherwise it's about taking risks as you can't know what cards you are going to draw, so more often than not there are no "best" decisions, only "seems to be good" decisions.