Lost Cities Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 1999
Playing Time: 30 Minutes
Lost Cities – The Premise
OH HOLY HECK it’s Lost Cities, the 2-player game that everyone should love (except if you don’t, in which case, you do you! But stick around because I want to change your mind)
In this press your luck card game you’ll be starting expeditions with uncertain ends and gauging your opponent’s expedition interests to try to have the more lucrative expeditions. When you begin a point track (one of five) you will actually receive negative points, and can go further into the negative by leveraging this track. However, just like leveraging an investment in the real world, if you’re able to make an expedition lucrative, it will be even more lucrative if you leveraged it early on.
But you don’t always know how well you’ll do by the end, so there’s definite risk-taking. Additionally, keeping an eye on your opponent can clue you in to what you should be prioritizing or discarding, but they’ll be trying to do the same.
Why It Works
There’s a flutter of fear when beginning a track when you don’t have guaranteed points (which is often). Same when you discard a card to the center that your opponent might want, but it’s when you don’t have better options and need to hope for some fortuitous card draws. Same when you’re racing to deplete the deck once you’ve finished your point-getting and your opponent still has tracks in the negative. Same when you’re the one racing to get your expeditions into positive points and your opponent is trying to race to the end of the round.
So there’s a lot of tension packed into this simple design. It’s exhilarating!
Luck? Strategy? Yes.
I’ve beaten some really good players on Board Game Arena, and lost to complete newbs. I’m somewhere in the middle, though.
Card draw means a lot, but play enough and you can start to see the subtler strategies of when to start an expedition, when to leverage, when to abandon a track, and when to start to push for the end of the round (and conversely, when to prolong the round by discarding cards to the center). A great, lucky draw will let a new player beat an expert. But most of the time, how you play will matter a bunch.
There’s one thing that really pushes this game over the top for me, though. To talk about it, I’d like to discuss…
Lost Cities vs. Jaipur
These two get compared a lot, and rightly so. They’re both good games that scratch a similar itch. I used to own Jaipur and would recommend it for fans of light but interesting 2P games.
But Lost Cities is better to me, and there’s one big reason: Jaipur plays out over three rounds, but you simply win or lose each round and start over. In Lost Cities, you reset the cards but your points carry over from round to round.
Now, imaginary dissenter, I hear you: “doesn’t that mean there will be runaway victories where there are round 3’s with no tension.” In theory, maybe. In practice, hell no.
Here’s why: usually someone will be losing going into round 3, let’s say by 30 points, which is potentially intimidating but far from insurmountable. The trailing player will usually raise their risk tolerance, taking more chances for potentially greater rewards.
And the leader has an interesting decision. Do they play it safe, but risk the trailer catching up? Or try to play just as aggressively as normal, but run a greater risk of some bad draws resulting in a negative or mediocre round?
Some of the most exciting games I’ve played were ones with ~50-60 point leads in the final round, with the trailing player playing wildly and the leader cautious but nervous. I’ve also seen those games end with the leader losing because they were too cautious or the trailer’s risks paid off in a big way. I’ve also seen those same rounds end with the original leader winning by 150+ points, because the risks of the trailing player backfired spectacularly.
Either outcome is possible, though, and that’s the point. Either way, it’s going to be hilarious and nerve-wracking. This dynamic packs an increasing amount of tension into a game already filled with it.
Who Won’t Like It
Anyone who needs theme (which is pretty much nonexistent), and anyone who needs a group of people to fully invest in a game. Otherwise, this won’t rub many the wrong way.
Lost Cities – Conclusions
CLIMB EVEREST! EXPLORE THE AMAZON! Actually it’s just pushing some cards around, but it’s a truly shocking amount of excitement packed into a simple rule set.