Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities is a very well established set collection card game for two players. Released in 1999, Lost Cities is cited by BoardGameGeek as Knizia’s most widespread game to date. At over 20 years old, is Lost Cities still able to stand toe to toe with the new kids on the block?
Discover Lost Cities
In Lost Cities, two players go head to head as they explore a variety of terrains. The players attempt to complete suits of discovery cards and rack up points in the process.
Setting up the game can be done within a couple of minutes. The box includes a central discard board and a pack of 60 beautifully illustrated cards. To start the game, each player gets dealt 8 cards to their hand, the rest of the cards get added to a central draw pile… and that’s it, you’re good to go!
Lost Cities plays out like a game of expedition chicken. It’s a game where you don’t want to give away worthless cards because you know how much they are worth to your opponent. You’ll sit there, cluttering your deck with these cards. As you wait, your opponent gets closer to giving up drawing cards, still hunting for the very card you hold. Finally, once they play the next card in the sequence, they prevent the use of the lower scoring card, allowing you to discard it. There lies the fun of Lost Cities.
How to play
Teaching the game is about as easy as setting up the game. Each suit represents a different expedition, the numbers in the corner represent the number of points you’ll gain when playing that card. Players must pay 20 points to mount an expedition, so think carefully before jumping in. Some cards do not have numbers, instead they feature handshake icons, these are wager cards which act as multipliers.
During the game, players have two main choices – play a card or discard a card.
Play a card
Cards must get played in ascending order but you do not need to play every card in sequence to score points. The sequence can, if you wish, start with up to 3 wager cards of that colour, be careful though as a wager will also multiply minus scores. Expedition cards are numbered from 2-10 with only one of each number per suit in the deck.
To get a better understanding of why you would want to discard a card you need to look at how points get calculated.
Scoring the game
The scoring of the game gets done in steps:
- Add up the discovery points from 1 expedition
- Take off the 20 point expedition cost
- Tally your score so far
- Multiply your score by the number of wager cards + 1
- 20 Bonus points get awarded for expeditions with 8 or more cards
- Repeat the above steps for each expedition mounted then total all expeditions together
If you were to lay down 3 wager and 5 points worth of cards, the score for that expedition would be -60. This is because you will have paid 20 points to begin the expedition, that leaves you with -15 points which is then multiplied by the number of wager cards + 1.
Simple? If you find this daunting then a quick online search for ‘Lost Cities score calculator’ brings up sites that do the scoring for you. You will need a pen and paper to keep score between rounds as there are no scoresheets in the game.
Before beginning the game you should decide how many rounds you intend to play. The winner is the person with the most combined points by the end of those rounds. The manual recommends 3 rounds, whilst that’s usually a good amount, you may wish to have a practice round with new players first.
Discard a card
Whether you want to clear your hand of unwanted colours or maybe you have cards in your hand that you’ve drawn but can no longer play. In these instances discarding your cards is a good way to optimise your hand without mounting more costly expeditions.
Draw a card
Once you’ve played or discarded your card, it’s time to draw. This can be done either from the face-down deck or from the top of any of the face-up discard piles.
There’s an element to the game which was completely overlooked by me the first time I’d played Lost Cities. By drawing a card from the face down pile you are moving one step closer to the end of the game.
During that first game, my wife caught with my trousers down as the game ended abruptly, leaving me with my top scoring cards in my hand. I’d realised too late that there would only be 1 more turn. But all is not lost, you can buy yourself a little more time during the game by drawing a previously discarded card and hope your opponent does the same.
The game ends when the last card gets drawn.
My edition of the game is over 20 years old but the game has evolved very little over those 20 years. The theme is spot on, I love that the discard board is designed to look like an explorer's desk, it also has a nice linen finish. The artwork on the cards give the sense of adventure and the beautiful pencil illustrations fulfil the brief of colour coding each suit.
Whilst I do enjoy other hand management games such as 6 nimmt! and find them great fun to play; Lost Cities has the added benefit of being something that you want to show off. It’s something you want to get out of the box just to look at it.
Like most card games, the box is fairly small, making it ideal for when you go away on your own adventures. One downside is that the discard board is tri-folded and doesn’t always sit completely flat.
I really enjoy Lost Cities but it’s not one of my wife's favourites. I feel that her melancholia towards it is largely down to the potential for large point swings, especially when not planning ahead. The tightrope you start to walk along when setting up expeditions can be wildly affected by your opponent but also by the luck of the deck. The amount of downtime for tallying up required at the end of each round doesn’t help me to sell the game to her either. That said, it will be in our bag the next time we go away and she does enjoy it.
So it didn’t quite tick the box I’d planned for it to after buying it as a game to get us through the pandemic lockdown, but it doesn’t make it any less a good game. As lockdown is slowly getting relaxed, Lost Cities will be making its way to my parents house where I know my dad will love it. He will no doubt feel smug holding the 9 and 10 that I’m desperately trying to draw while secretly, I’m preventing him from doing likewise.
So should you buy Lost Cities over 20 years after its release?
If you love beautiful artwork then buy this game. Do you like going head to head with others? Then buy this game. If you love the theme of adventure then buy this game. Do you enjoy showing others how good your mental arithmetic is? Then most definitely buy this game. If you already love and own this game then keep exploring with Reiner Knizia’s The Quest for El Dorado.
Lost Cities may be old but I’m yet to see another game improve on it.