Reiner Knizia is arguably the most prolific board game designer of all time. With over 600 titles to his name it is hard to find a designer that has created more games in their career. Some people don’t really care for his games as they think all of his games are basically the same. I personally am a fan though. I have played quite a few of his games and I have yet to find a game that I didn’t get at least some enjoyment out of. What I like about his games is that he does a good job avoiding adding difficulty for difficulties sake allowing them to be enjoyed by large audiences. Today I am looking at one of Reiner Knizia’s most famous games Lost Cities. Lost Cities does have an issue with its reliance on luck, but it is a simple game that anyone can enjoy that has more strategy than you would initially expect.
How to Play Lost Cities
- Place the gameboard between the two players.
- The players will decide how many rounds they will play. The game recommends three rounds. If you are playing more than one round you will need paper and a pencil to keep track of the score for each round.
- Shuffle the cards and deal eight to each player face down. Players can look at their cards, but shouldn’t show them to the other player.
- The oldest player will start the game.
Playing the Game
On a player’s turn they will take two actions:
- Play a Card
- Draw a Card
After a player has taken both actions play will pass to the other player.
Playing a Card
For this action the player can choose one of two options.
Adding A Card to an Expedition
Their first option is to add a card to an expedition. On the gameboard there are five different expeditions with each having specific cards that correspond to them. When a player decides to start an expedition they will play a card of the corresponding type to their side of the board. Players should think carefully before starting an expedition as it could lead to negative points if they can’t add enough cards to the expedition.
When a player adds additional cards to an expedition one rule must be followed. Each additional card added to an expedition must be a larger number than the previous largest number for the expedition. Each card does not have to be placed in numerical order as numbers can be skipped. When a card is added to an expedition it is placed on top of the previous card in a way that all of the numbers can be seen by both players.
Each expedition also has three investment cards. Before a player starts an expedition they can choose to play one or more of these cards to the expedition. These cards will multiply the number of points that a player will score from an expedition. Once a player adds a number card to an expedition they can not add any more investment cards to that expedition.
Discard a Card
Instead of adding a card to an expedition the player can choose to discard one of their cards. When a player chooses to discard a card they will place it on top of the space on the board that corresponds to its type. If there is already a card(s) on the space they will put their card on top of the pile.
Drawing a Card
After a player has played a card they will get to draw a card. They have two options for drawing a card. First they can take the top card from the face down draw pile. Otherwise they can take the top card from one of the discard piles on the gameboard. When taking a card from a discard pile the player cannot pick up the card that they just discarded.
End of Round and Scoring
A round ends when the last card is taken from the draw pile. Players can count the cards in the draw pile at any time.
Each player will then tally their score from each expedition.
If a player added no cards to an expedition they will score zero points from it.
For all other expeditions they will add up the numbers on all of the cards that they added to the expedition. The player will then subtract 20 points from the total. This total is the value of the expedition.
The player will then count up the number of investment cards that they added to the expedition. The player will add one to this number to determine their multiplier for the expedition. They will then multiply their value for the expedition by their multiplier. This is the number of points they will score for the expedition.
If a player adds at least eight cards to an expedition they will add 20 bonus points to the value of an expedition (after the multiplier has been applied).
Each player will record their score for each expedition. If the players haven’t played all of the agreed to number of rounds another round is played. All of the cards are shuffled. The player with the most total points so far in the game will start the next round.
End of Game
When the players have played the agreed upon number of rounds the game will end. The player that has scored the most total points will win the game.
Four Player Game
To play the four player game you need two copies of Lost Cities. You will use all of the components from one set and add all of the 2, 3, and 4 cards from the other set.
Teammates will sit across from one another (so the two teams alternate turns) and will use the same side of the board. The game is played the same except for the following additions:
- Each card added to an expedition must be larger than the previous card. You cannot play two cards of the same value on top of one another.
- Instead of taking the normal actions a player can choose to pass two of their cards to their partner. A player cannot choose this option if it would put them under six cards in their hand. Players cannot communicate in any other way during the game.
My Thoughts on Lost Cities
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review one of the things that I have always appreciated about games made by Reiner Knizia is their simplicity. He has always done a good job avoiding making games more complicated than they needed to be. While I expected Lost Cities to be pretty easy based on Reiner Knizia’s reputation, I was still surprised by how easy the game was to play. The game is simple enough that the whole family outside of young children should have no issues playing the game. The comparison is not great, but I would say that it feels a lot like a more in-depth UNO. The gameplay is quite different, but the games have a very similar feel to them.
If I were to classify Lost Cities I would say that it is a combination of a number of different mechanics. The game is obviously a card game, but it also has elements of set collection as well as risk/reward. The basic goal of the game is to play cards to different expeditions in order to score points. When playing cards to an expedition you want to start with lower numbers and build up to larger numbers. While you can start up as many expeditions as you want, the catch is if you can’t play cards that add up to at least twenty you will end up losing points from that expedition. This creates an interesting dichotomy as you want to play cards to expeditions, but you don’t want to start too many expeditions where you end up losing points from some of them.
Because of this risk versus reward element there is quite a bit more strategy to Lost Cities than you would initially expect. Your decisions in the game make a pretty big difference in what ultimately happens in the game. Most of your decisions in the game come down to choosing which expeditions to play cards to and when to start playing cards. While you could play cards to every expedition it rarely will be the right decision. Instead you are better off focusing on two to four of the expeditions. This limits your exposure to losing points while also letting you increase the value of certain expeditions which will ultimately score you more points. Once you have chosen which expeditions you want to pursue you have to choose when to play cards to them. Generally the longer you wait to play cards to an expedition the more points you can score. This allows you to play more low value/investment cards which will increase the set’s value. If you wait too long though you will waste room in your hand and you might run out of time to play all of the cards that you want to play.
Once you have a plan for the round your options on each turn are usually pretty obvious. To begin you can either play or discard a card. If you have a card that is only one or two higher than a card that you have already played for an expedition there is no reason not to play the card. If you don’t have any cards that work well with cards that you have already played, it is probably better to discard a card. Generally I am not the type of player to waste a turn discarding a card, but this is the best option on a surprising number of your turns. As long as you aren’t giving the other player a card that they need you are better off discarding a card than starting an expedition that will lose you points or limit the number of points that you can score.
With your decision for most turns being pretty obvious Lost Cities actually plays pretty quickly. If you know what you are going to do on a turn, you could easily finish a turn in around 30 seconds. Most rounds should take around ten minutes to complete. The game lets the players choose how many rounds to play with the recommendation that you play three. This means most games can be finished in about 30 minutes. If you want a shorter or longer game though you could easily add or take away rounds. With the game playing quickly it makes for a good filler game. You can easily play it when you don’t have much time or since it is so short it is easy to quickly play a rematch.
While most of the decisions in the game are really obvious, there are likely a few key decisions that you will have to make each round that are going to have a huge impact on how many points both players will score. These key decisions occur when a player doesn’t have an obvious best choice. These usually come when a player is starting to assemble cards for an expedition, but they don’t have any low valued cards to play to it. The cards that this player isn’t holding for the expedition are likely cards that the other player wants/needs. At this point the player has a conundrum. They can choose to play the cards in their hand for the expedition that they have been saving up for, reducing the maximum number of points they could have scored from it. Otherwise they could choose to discard a card that will likely help their opponent. Neither of these options are good, and whatever decision is ultimately made is likely to have a big impact on the game. These are the times in the game where things get really interesting.
This also shows off the game’s greatest weakness in my opinion. Simply put Lost Cities does rely on quite a bit of luck. The game has a decent amount of strategy, but making a mistake has a bigger impact on the game than making smart strategic plays. The cards you ultimately end up drawing have a pretty big impact on how well you can do in the game. You could have a perfect strategy, but if you don’t draw the right cards there isn’t much that you could do with it. The player that draws the best cards will likely win the game. When drawing cards you want to get a lot of cards from the same set. It is also beneficial to draw the low cards from a set first and later draw the higher cards. Getting investment cards can be quite important as well as it allows you to score considerably higher. Getting the right cards early allows you to play the cards out of your hand quicker and rack up the number of cards that you can play to a set. Playing enough cards to qualify for the bonus points is huge as it will likely give you a pretty big point advantage over the other player.
As for Lost Cities’ components I thought they were pretty good for the most part. The game basically just comes with cards and the board. The board is mostly a placeholder to help separate the cards played by the two players and it serves as a place to discard cards. It is not particularly necessary, but I thought the artwork was pretty nice and the gameboard is thick enough. As for the cards I thought they were pretty good as well. I will admit that they are probably larger than they needed to be as they are larger than a standard card. There is no gameplay reason for why they had to be so big. I am guessing it was mostly to show of the game’s artwork which is pretty good. The game also comes in a pretty small box for those who are worried about space. For the most part I thought the components were quite good.
One of the biggest complaints that people have with Reiner Knizia is that he is known for reusing mechanics when developing new games. A decent amount of the games that he has created have been re-themed versions of other games that he has designed. Lost Cities is actually a very good example of this. The game was originally released back in 1999 and became a pretty big hit. Around a decade later the game was rethemed with a few changes like adding two additional players to create the game Keltis which ended up winning the Spiel Des Jahres. This launched its own series of games under the Keltis brand. The same year Lost Cities: The Board Game was launched which is basically the same game as Keltis with a few minor differences. A decade later in 2018 Lost Cities: To Go was released which once again changed the gameplay a little with a couple little twists but keeping much of the main gameplay. I haven’t played any of these games so I can’t make any personal recommendations. From what I have seen though the games probably differ enough that it may pay to pick up more than one version if you can get them at a good price.
Should You Buy Lost Cities?
I really enjoyed my time with Lost Cities. The game is not going to be for everyone, but it succeeds at what it is trying to be. The mechanics are really simple where most people can learn how to play the game in just a couple of minutes. Despite being easy to play the game still has quite a bit more strategy than you would expect. The game is built around a combination of set collecting and risk versus reward mechanics. To do well in the game you need to take risks, but you don’t want to be overly aggressive. The best decision on most turns is usually pretty obvious, but there are some key moments in each round where your decision will have a big impact on what ultimately happens. You have quite a bit of control over your fate in the game, but the game also relies on quite a bit of luck. Whoever draws the best cards is likely to win the game. I still really enjoyed Lost Cities though because it finds the perfect balance between being accessible and having enough strategic decisions to remain interesting.
If Lost Cities doesn’t sound all that interesting to you it may not be for you. Those that think the game sounds at least somewhat interesting though should really enjoy Lost Cities and should consider picking it up.