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When I first started exploring Board Game Geek, I came across innumerable recommendations for Lost Cities. At the time, I had never heard of Kosmos or Reiner Knizia. Still, Lost Cities was one of the first Kosmos Two Player Line I ever picked up, since I had heard so many good things about it.
After I finished reading the rules, my second thought was “That’s it?” My first thought had been, “Why is there a board?” Still, the art looked neat so I shuffled the deck and laid out two hands and began playing against myself. By the end of that solitaire game, I was enticed.
And when I actually found a real opponent, I was hooked.
Lost Cities comes in what I have come to think of as the standard Kosmos Two Player box. The box is tough enough to withstand time in a backpack, small and square, which makes storage easy. Inside, you’ll find a tri-fold board and a deck of sixty over-sized cards.
The board is linen finished and quite attractive. It’s designed to look like a scholar’s desk, at least if that scholar happens to be Harrison Ford. On it are five maps, each one about the size of the cards, and each one clearly relating to one of the five suites that the deck is made up of.
The cards, though, are what Lost Cities is really about. The board simply makes housekeeping simpler. As I’ve already mentioned, the deck is made up of five suites, each one made up of 12 cards. Each suite runs from two to ten and has three handshake or investment cards. It’s easy to tell the suites apart because they each have their own theme and their own color.
Now, in all honesty, there is no mechanical reason for there to be art of the cards. All you need to do is be able to see the numbers and tell the suite. However, the artwork on the cards absolutely captivated me. Each suite visually describes an expedition. As the cards go higher in number, you see more and more of the final location of that expedition. Until, on the ten card, you fully see the destination of the expedition.
In Lost Cities, you are in control of up to five different expeditions, one for each suite. You will decide which expeditions are the most likely to be a success for you. You will also decide if any investments can be made to help improve the expedition’s chances of making money or going even deeper into debt. Okay, it is just a card game, but a little imagination can go a long way.
Lost Cities is a two player game, although I understand that you can use two decks for a three player variant. To begin, set the board in between yourself and the other player. Shuffle the deck and deal yourself and the other player eight cards each. Then, place the remaining cards beside the board to serve as the draw pile. Decide who will go first and begin. I’m personally a big fan of the old standard that the non-dealer goes first but whatever works for you.
On your turn, you will play a card. You can play a card either in front of you, as part of an expedition, or onto one of the discard piles on the board. There is a separate discard pile for each suite and there’s no mixing the suites on the discard piles.
If you play a card on an expedition, the card is placed on your side of the board in front of the appropriate discard pile. The card must be a higher card than the last one played and laid so that you can see all of the cards under it. You don’t have to make it a sequential run, like rummy, but after you play a card, you will never be able to place a lower number on that expedition. Handshake or investment cards must be played before any numbered cards are laid down.
After you play a card, you then must draw a card from either one of the discard piles or the draw pile. The round ends when the last card is drawn from the draw pile. You are allowed the count, but not look at, the cards in the draw pile, so the end doesn’t have to be a surprise. The official rules hold to three rounds equaling a game, although I have played games that lasted many more rounds than that.
However, it is the scoring that makes Lost Cities interesting. Until you lay a card down on an expedition, that particular suite or expedition is not worth any points. However, the moment a card is laid down, the expedition is worth the sum of the numbers on the cards, MINUS twenty points.
The handshake or investment cards serve as multipliers. Each card is worth the same value the numbered expedition cards on top of it, after they have had their twenty points subtracted. So, if you have an expedition with three investment cards on it and no other cards, it would be worth negative 60 points.
There is an additional rule, one that I usually forget. If an expedition has at least eight cards in it, you get an additional twenty points for it after all of the other calculations are done.
The points per round are cumulative. So, a good round or a bad round can make a huge difference in the entire game.
Now, Lost Cities may sound like a simple game. Well, it is a simple game but it can have some very tense play. Unlike many games, there is rarely an obvious best move. Any expedition you start has the potential to lose points. Unless your opponent has already played a higher card in that suite, any card you discard might help them. Every card you play or discard, particularly at the beginning of the game, is a risk.
On top of that, there is the luck of the draw. There is a chance that you might be able to draw a card that will pull one of your expeditions out of losing points and into the positive, possibly salvaging the game for you. Of course, you could also end up drawing cards that do nothing but bury you.
While the start of the game has a lot of tension because you are choosing the risks you will make, the endgame is just as tense. By then, you have an idea if your risks will pay off but there may not be enough cards left in the draw pile for you to be able to pull it off before the end of the round. Unlike some card games, the endgame is coming and it is inevitable.
Despite the very large luck element in the game, careful play does make a difference. The strategies of the game are obvious enough for a new player to be able to have a chance but there are enough possibilities that an experience player won’t be bored. Because every card in your hand is a potential play, Lost Cities is a deeper game than first glance would make you think.
Lost Cities is also a very non-confrontational game. While the discard piles do give you a way to interact with your opponent, there are very few ways you can hurt an opponent. That might not appeal to everyone but there are definitely times when I’m in the mood for a game that isn’t about beating up the other guy.
In summary, Lost Cities is a very good game. Maybe it isn’t the card game to end all card games but I think most people will find enough good play in the game to wear out at least one deck of cards. If you have a chance to play it, either in life or online, you will discover a very rewarding game.