Does archaeology hold a special place in your heart? Do you dream of being Indiana Jones and discovering cities lost to antiquity? If so, may I suggest picking up a copy of Lost Cities and giving it a go with a friend. If you're not convinced, try the solitaire version on Facebook and see just how cool a game it is before buying a copy.
About the Cards
The box comes with a small board and a deck of oversized (Tarot-sized) cards. The cards come in five suits numbered 2 to 10, each representing a different lost city. Green shows an ancient Mayan city in the jungle, blue shows the underwater ruins of Atlantis, yellow has an Egyptian theme, white lets you find Shangri-La in the snow-covered mountains, and red leads you to a Viking stone circle in a volcano. If you arrange each suit in ascending order, the art tells the story of the journey to that lost city. The art alone is worth the $20 for the game - I could spin an RPG adventure from each random draw of the deck using nothing but background details in the art.
The only other card type in the deck are investment cards. Each suit has three investment cards, and they all share common artwork of Victorian gentlemen shaking hands across a table under a poster-sized picture of that suit's lost city. Investment cards introduce score multipliers for better or worse, and they must be played before any numbered cards are played in that suit. More on this below.
To start, set the board between the two players. The board has an area to hold discarded cards in each suit, and it's used as an organization tool so both players can easily see all cards played in each suit. Shuffle the cards and deal a hand of eight cards to each player, leaving a draw deck next to the board for both players to use. Each turn consists of either playing or discarding a card and then drawing a card to bring your hand back up to eight cards. When playing a card, you add to the appropriate suit's stack on your side of the board. When discarding a card, place the card in the appropriate suit's discard pile on the board between the two players. Either player can draw from the deck or from any discard pile. The game ends immediately when a player takes the last card from the draw pile.
Several things make the game strategy challenging. First, each suit must be played in ascending order. If you play a 4 as your lowest red card and later draw the red 3, you can't play the 3 and should discard it. Second, all the cards will appear in the game, but your opponent will get half of them. This is especially annoying when you're waiting to fill in some cards between the 5 and 10 of a suit to get more points. Third, when you start an expedition in a suit, you start with twenty negative points to represent your initial investment in manpower and supplies. So you start "in the hole" and need to make sure you have the cards to at least break even.
Fourth, investment cards multiply your score in a suit, whether positive or negative. Each investment card introduces a multiplier to your score in that suit: one investment card gives you x2, and three investment cards give you a x4. When you play an investment card, you have played a card in that suit so you get whacked with the 20 negative points - and here's the kicker - multiplied by the number of investment cards plus one. So if you end the game with nothing but three investment cards in a suit, that's -20 x 4 or -80 points. Quick tip: don't do that or you'll lose the game in a hurry.
When the last card has been drawn from the deck, play stops and each player counts their score. Suits with no cards are worth no points. It's better to have a suit with nothing than to start playing a suit and fall short of breaking even. Total up the cards in each suit, subtract twenty for the initial investment, multiply by the number of investment cards plus one, and you've got your score in that suit. Each suit that contains at least eight cards earns you a bonus of twenty points. Total the points across all your suits and that's your score for the round. The typical game consists of three rounds, and the highest total score wins the game.
The strategic elements of Lost Cities work really well. You have plenty of choices to make, but you're on a countdown clock since drawing the last card immediately ends the game. Do you start a suit with a 5 or wait to draw a lower rank in that suit before starting? Do you play investment cards or hold off to make sure you'll break even in that suit? Do you draw from the discard pile and extend the game or push to end early and play your big cards as quickly as you can? Do you play offensively and focus on building your suits or defensively and keep a card in your hand so your opponent won't pick it up and play it?
You need to find the balance between playing your hand as it stands right now and waiting for better cards to come along. If you wait too long you won't have time to play all the cards in a suit, but if you start too early you lose out on more points in a suit. It's OK to have negative points in a suit, just make sure the other suits earn more points than you lost to the suits that didn't break even. I usually focus on three suits and ignore the other two, though much of the pacing and order of the game relies on random card draws.
It's an infinitely replayable game since the cards change order and people make different decisions each game. Each of the five expeditions can score from -80 to 156 points, so you will see plenty of variation in score. Sometimes keeping a suit empty makes the most sense, even if you start with the 10 in your hand. With two decks you can play the four player variation, but I've only played with two players.
I heartily recommend Lost Cities, especially if you're taking a break from playing a high adventure competing archaeologist RPG setting like The Adventures of Indiana Jones or Resolute, Adventurer & Genius (download the free PDF from RPGNow).
TL;DR - Executive Summary
- Lost Cities is Reiner Knizia's 2 player strategy card game about uncovering ancient cities.
- It takes about 30 minutes per game to play. The balance between strategy and luck works well.
- Play suits in ascending order. Game ends when last card is drawn from the deck.
- You play mainly against yourself, though you can draw from your opponent's discards.
- Great variety of player decisions, but success requires a sense of timing and balance.
- There's a solitaire version on Facebook.