Lost Cities is an interesting game for two that makes good use of risk-assessment, planning, and memory. Lost Cities is a card game by Reiner Knizia, and features his taste for simplicity in numbers. A game of Lost Cities is three rounds, and generally takes twenty-five to forty minutes. The game is themed on exploring to find the ruins of ancient civilizations, e.g. Machu Picchu, Atlantis, and the Egypitan pyramids.
Lost Cities consists of a sixty card deck in five suits. Each suit has the numbers 2-10 as well as three “handshake” cards. In addition to the deck of cards, there is a board that serves as a placeholder for discarded cards and also helps players to organize their expeditions. To start the round, players are dealt eight cards. On a player’s turn, the placer has two options — play a card to an expedition (one of the five suits of cards in an ascending pile) or discard a card to one of the piles on the board. Then the player draws a card to bring his or her hand back to eight cards, but the player can either draw from the draw pile, or take the top card from one of the discard piles on the game board. The key to the game is that when a player plays a card to an expedition, he or she has to play cards in an ascending order; thus, once a player has played a six to an expedition, the two-through-five can no longer be played to that expedition and only the seven-through-ten could potentially be played there. Handshakes are considered 0 points, and must be played before playing any numbers in the expedition, but they will multiply the score of the expedition at the end of the round. Choosing to start an expedition is a tough decision, as the score for an expedition at the end of the round will be the sum of the cards in the expedition, but less twenty points, so getting into an expedition where you can’t get many points on the table will ultimately lose you points.
The round proceeds with players playing-or-discarding cards and then drawing back up to eight, and the round is over when the last card is taken from the draw deck. Since players can draw from the draw deck and the discard piles, this has an important impact on the game in two ways. First, there may be cards in the discard pile that a player can still use in an expedition; a card discarded early in the round may become valuable later in the round for some easily-gained points. Second, since drawing from the discard piles does not deplete the draw deck, drawing discards can help delay the end of the round, giving an opportunity to get some needed points on the table.
At the end of the round, players score for each of their expeditions. In expeditions where a player hasn’t put any cards, there is no score. In an expedition where the player has played any cards, the numbers on the cards is summed, and then twenty is subtracted, leaving a positive or negative score. If the player has played one or more handshakes to that expedition, the score is multiplied by 2, 3, or 4 for 1, 2, or 3 handshakes. Finally, if a player has played eight or more cards in an expedition (of the 12 available), twenty points is added back to the score after multiplying. After tallying scores, players play another round toward a total of three rounds. High score at the end is the winner.
Lost Cities has great head-to-head action that includes assessments of risk management and memory. For example, if you start the game with a couple of cards in a suit, you might choose to start an expedition with the hope that you’ll see a couple more cards pop into your hand over the course of the round. Or, if you see that your opponent has already played the seven in a color, you know you can safely discard lower cards of that suit without fear that your opponent can turn them into additional points. There’s also a little bit of a memory element on the discard piles, since only the top card is visible; you might be able to remember that there are valuable points buried in the discards that you can turn into a viable expedition if you draw them back out.
Lost Cities is popular enough that it spawned a similar spin-off game called Keltis that took the same core game and added a board, some extra stuff, and a Celtic theme, and it also won Germany’s Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres). Keltis then spun off a card game (so Lost Cities card game became Keltis the board game became Keltis the card game) and then Lost Cities was also reformulated into Lost Cities the boardgame. I think there might have also been a Keltis dice game, but I really stopped keeping track a long time ago. I’ve played Lost Cities lots of times, and I’ve played Keltis once, and I really don’t need to get any deeper into playing anything other than Lost Cities, card game.
Lost Cities is available from hobby stores and retails for $19.95, but it can be found for less from online sources.