The Evolution (Intelligent Design?) of Keltis

So, I’m a sucker for game series. Slap a “#2”, or a consistent art design onto a spinoff or a boardgame sequel and my interest will be piqued. I can’t help it. As such, even though I was initially resistant to Keltis, when the card game and expansion were announced, I decided to give the games a shot.  I am really happy I did, especially for the later games in the series. I wanted to write up a pseudo-review of the whole shebang, really, and how the games compare to one another. My thoughts appeared originally as a Geeklist. and, at Dale’s suggestion, I fleshed it out a bit for an Opinionated Gamers’ article.

Note: I am not covering the entire rules of any of the games. Since I am covering a fair bit of territory, I will assume at least a bit of familiarity with how at least the first few games are played. Mostly, I am trying to highlight how the different changes and additions to the games change how the game play feels, and what extra decisions are brought into, or lost from the games.

Lost Cities (LC)

This is the grandaddy  You know this, and how it works. If you don’t, go read or watch a review or 2, then come back. (Review here or video here.)

I’ll add three quick notes, though, about why this game has continued to be a classic:
1. The balance between the different  cards. High cards are worth more points, but close off more options. Simple, but effective at creating tension.
2. The two-player nature of the game makes the discard piles something to be managed and leveraged, and not just a place to put cards you can’t use. Keeping your options open not only helps your score, but presents limitations on your opponent on what they can discard. But don’t wait too long to commit those high cards….
3. The investment cards add a “push-your-luck” aspect to a “wait-as-long-as-I-can-to-commit” game. This extra little addition just adds to the tension.

Lost Cities: The Boardgame (LC:TBG)

The immediate descendant. As the initial design in the Keltis/LC:TBG split, I’ll address this one first. (Apparently, Knizia designed this first, then made changes to accommodate Kosmos for Keltis.) The changes from LC are essentially to accommodate the move to 4 players. The board and pawns are, for the most part, just scoring tools. With the change from just cards to the board and pawns, randomized bonuses can be assigned to specific values and colors, and bonus movement along a track can be accomplished. This is something that would be clunky to track using just cards. Bonuses take the form of extra movement, points, and monuments which are collected for differing amounts of points based on the number collected.

So, with little variance, if I play 5 red cards, my pawn has moved about 5 spaces along the red track. The variable points for the distance along the path, and the various “cliffs” along the way, pretty much are the game. (Your 4th, 7th and 9th cards are worth more than any other plays, barring bonus considerations. Therefore if you charted the number of points gained by each card, you would see “cliffs” in the scoring. Certain plays are worth more than others. )

The doubling pawn is a sort of deterministic replacement for investment cards. The bonuses add straight points and monument collecting, which has its “cliffs” of its own. And a variable ending condition is created, to add some more tension right near the end of whether you will get your last cards down.

But, other than those somewhat minor aspects, this is essentially 4 player LC. How many lines do I start? Do I start a line with a medium card if I have a few in my hand? Which one should I “invest” in with my doubler? Do I play my 5 on my 2 now, to grab that stone that the other player might get before me, or do I hold out for a 2, 3 or 4? You know, what you loved about LC is back, but with 2 more friends.

One aspect in which LC:TBG completely trumps Keltis: You can play Keltis with the LC:TBG components. LC:TBG includes a separate track for playing just 1 round and the Keltis rules differences as variants in the rulebook. This is an awesome addition to the game and I wish Keltis could have done the same.


Here is the first of 2 big breaks in the evolutionary path of this series of games.

Besides theme/artwork, there are only 2 real differences between Keltis and LC:TBG. One of which is minor, and one major.

Minor: In LC:TBG, you play 3 rounds, scoring stones/monuments after all 3 rounds. Keltis just calls for one round, and has stone scoring to accommodate that. This is just a preference, in my opinion. Now, its a real difference, mind you, but I don’t see a better/worse value here. If you tend to play more than 1 game in a row, then scoring at the end seems more fun. Also, LC:TBG is  closer to the LC way of doing things, maintaining the thematic link.

Major: In Keltis, you can play cards in ascending or descending order. This is a major design difference, or break in the path, and one that really shapes how the game feels. All the games that follow allow for ascending and descending play. Much has been written about this, but count me firmly in the “in favor of the change” camp. Here is why: In LC, cards are worth their numerical value. So, a high value card cuts off more options, but it’s also worth more points. This is not the case in LC:TBG, as each card simply moves you one space along the path. Later spaces on the paths are typically worth more points, but there is nothing inherently linking the high cards to the later spaces. In LC:TBG, if you get dealt high cards you are in a simply worse position than otherwise. This strikes me as unfair, and pretty un-Knizia-like. (Though, again, this is how it was initially designed, so what do I know.)

Keltis, feels more open, and less tense as a result. I can appreciate the criticism of the lost angst, but I think the cost is reasonable for a fairer game, and one that has more choice about what paths to take. The choice of whether to start a new line with your green 8 is simply one that is not there in LC:TBG.

Also, people seem to lament the infrequent use of the discard piles in the Keltis line. Since cards can be used more often, the discards are used much less. Meh, no big deal, to me. In a 2 player game, picking and playing off the other person’s discards is interesting. In a multi-player game, it feels less like a good play, and more like good fortune. There are plenty of interesting decisions to come, without the benefit of frequently used discard piles. Plus, who wants to do nothing on their turn?

I have one beef for both iterations so far: The stone/monument scoring runs from a negative score to a positive one. Why? The reason is seemingly to “match” the scoring for the columns, which start negative. The columns have a reason for doing so, as the initial negative is a risk that can be taken or not. But with the stones, there is no abstaining. This just creates an artificial incentive to “get positive” points. Ive even seen this trip up veteran gamers, until it gets pointed out. Seems like for a SdJ-type game, this could have been clearer. Dunno, kinda weird.

Keltis: Das Kartenspiel

Ok, we move back to just cards. But, rather than just adding the investment cards back in from LC, and calling it a day, we have three nice tweaks to link this game to Keltis, rather than LC:TBG or a straight 4 player LC. Note, for the game paths, we are back to a straight 1 card is one step, relationship, as there are no bonuses.

1. Ending cards replace the investment cards. This is a neutral change, gameplay-value-wise, I think. It does allow the variable ending from Keltis to live on in the card game. Not knowing when the game can end is part of Keltis more than LC.

2. Reintroduction of stones that are claimable by discarding pairs. There are stones numbered 1-9 that can be claimed by discarding a pair of cards with the same number. These stones have the scoring “cliffs”, like always. This is a cool way to create some utility of otherwise dead cards, and another decision point for non-dead cards early on. Is this card worth more if I add it to my stack, or if I use it in a pair for a stone? Playing 2 cards also cycles your hand a bit more, which is something to throw into the equation.

3. Multi-use point cards. These are gray cards that can be played as a wild, but only if your stack already has that number. You can play a gray 5 onto a stack that has a yellow 5 on top. So, you can meld ’em separately for 1 point a piece, use them as wilds, or in pairs to claim stones. They are unique to this iteration of the game and have a nice give and take since they can be used in 3 ways.

In all, Keltis: Das Kartenspiel is a nice card based version of the Keltis system, different and more flexible than LC proper, with a few interesting twists. Its a very worthwhile addition to the series, especially with the unique aspects and the small box size allowing for easy travel.

My one beef for this version: I wish a little card would have been included (like the next game has), so I don’t have to set out the rules sheet to remember the scoring.

Keltis: Der Weg der Steine

One side detour for the brand. This game uses the ideas, theme and scoring structure, and adds a quick, binary decision system. Scoring works pretty much the same as the previous incarnations of Keltis, but rather than choosing from a hand of cards, you draw a tile from a face down pile and then keep it or discard it. All discards are available for drawing too, and bonuses (extra turns, points and stones) are attached to specific tiles. You build sets, numbered up or down, in each color, just like the rest of the series. It plays in about 5-10 mins, and is awesome for throwing in your jacket pocket to play before your food arrives at a restaurant.

See, this is where Knizia shines, in my opinion. He takes what could be an almost exact duplicate game in the BMM package, and adds a push-your-luck style decision mechanic to the known scoring/set-making scheme, and we have something new and worthwhile.

One side note about the title of this game: Kosmos and Ravensburger do these cool little travel size versions of their popular games, like Keltis, Einfach Genial, Just 4 Fun, Ubongo, FITS, Verflixxt! and others. But for some weird reason, they don’t change the title of the game, even though the gameplay can be very different. So, when you wander over to your online boardgame database of choice, and search for these games, it’s a pain. You end up with situations like this one, where the subtitle becomes part of the name for no real reason. Notice the same subtitle appears on the regular Keltis box. For what it’s worth, the Kosmos website lists this game as “Keltis BMM”, lists it as “Keltis, Mitbringspiel” and lists it as I have above. Nice and confusing. Sigh.

Keltis: Neue Wege, Neue Ziele

If Keltis had ended with the SdJ-winning base game (fat chance!), or even with the card and tile/travel versions, I would probably have been less enthused about the game and series. But, this expansion, and the subsequent spinoff, take the system to a place where your play is not totally dictated by your hand, and strategy plays a part, rather than just turn-to-turn tactics. This introduces the second big shift for the series.

New mechanics in this expansion:

1. Multicolored stones. You are now able to to for a set of one of each color, or for triplets of the same color. You can see what is available where on the board before you start, and the much harder to get triplets are duly rewarded with 10 points.

2. The “discard a card” bonus, allowing the player to discard a card from their display, or from their hand. This is really interesting, as you can plan for this, and use a singleton card, or a number far off from the cards you have played, knowing you will be able to discard it. Also, discarding from hand is more powerful than you think, allowing you to cycle your cards.

3. Some of the point values go down as you go along the path. Moving your pawn one more space is no longer a no-brainer, unless you think you have time/cards to move it a couple more. Do I stay here for 5 points, or move ahead and hope to make it to 8?

4. Cris-crossing paths. This is the other big development, big leap, or branch in the path of the series. Pawns are no longer linked directly to a color of cards. So, pawns can move along the same paths as each other. They can go from green, to blue, to wild spaces that any color card are good for, back to yellow to finish their run. And to be clear, your piles of cards must still be in one color, so piles of cards no longer directly correspond to a pawn.

I can play 1 or 2 cards in a suit, as long as I plan ahead, without taking a huge point hit. You can really look ahead and plan with the cards in your hand, to make the most efficient use of them. Play cards in all 5 colors to take your doubler pawn to the top. There is still a race aspect, for the single stones sprinkled on the board. You can really shape a strategy around your hand, as opposed to your hand dictating your play.

This is huge. The feel of the board and pawns goes from a scoreboard for your card play, to being the actual game itself, and the cards just being tools to allow you to move your pawns. Keltis is now a board game with cards, and not a card game that uses a board. So, we go from something like Cribbage (where the board pretty much is just a scoreboard) to Brass (where the cards just serve to restrict your available actions.)*

This version of Keltis is great, and once I played this way, I pretty much never played vanilla Keltis, except when bringing it out with non-gamers as a gateway.  Even then, I felt as though I might be underestimating my non-gamers aptitudes to play the expansion. In fact, if you jump straight into the expansion, without playing the base game, it might even be easier as you never knew the colors used to be linked to pawns. Anyway, I thought this game was the bees knees…until I played the next one.

*Note: I am not saying we go from Cribbage to Brass, complexity-wise, just in the apparent function of the cards/board.

Keltis: Das Orakel

And finally, we arrive at the latest incarnation in the series. Note that this is a new game, not an expansion, and includes everything you need to play. Many of the benefits of what “New Ways” added are retained here, with even more new twists.

1. One long path. Cards now take any of your 3 pawns to the next space of that color. And every space has a bonus, to boot. Staying with the unlinked cards/pawns bit is great. Now, really any hand of cards can work, and the game is mostly about what options you choose. Any turn has lots of potential moves to consider.

2. Scarce/hard-to-get stones, and companion “doubler” mirrors, allows for a “stone strategy.” The stones all lie on the second of two spaces of the same color. So, they are harder to get to, in that you will only get to move 1 space when playing that second card. Add to that the mirror bonuses which allow you to double your stone score, whether it be negative or positive. You can really shoot for lots of stones and the mirrors, but these are all limited. Tension galore.

3. Discard bonuses are still present, in the form of Leprechauns, which also serve as an incentive to use all three of your pawns. If you manage to get all three of your pawns on some combination of the three Leprechaun spaces, you get a one time bonus of 5, 10, or 15 points, depending on how spread out they are. You really have to plan to make this happen, so its a nice payoff. A bonus this restrictive wouldn’t have worked in the previous “card/pawn-linked” versions, and shows the flexibility that you have in this one.

4. Spiral bonuses that move your pawn backwards, to get to specific spaces. When landing on one of these, send you pawn back as far as you want. Risky, in that your pawn needs to still make progress to get to positive scores on the spaces, like always. But you can go back to get that missing whatever, that seems juicy, like the aforementioned Leprechauns or stones.

5. Bonus moves forward are color coded. In Keltis proper, when you landed on a golden shamrock thingy, you could move any pawn forward 1 space. Here, the same exists, but the shamrocks are color coded, so when you land in the blue one, for example, you move any pawn forward to the next blue space, and activate the bonus there, if any. This can lead to some really cool chain reactions, where you use multiple pawns and bonus movers, plus the spirals, to make a series of moves. Really cool when you plan it out and it happens. (This assumes you are playing with the rules-included variant to allow bonus moves to be used by pawns other than the one landing on the bonus tile. I highly recommend this variant.)

6. And finally the Oracle itself. Instead of moving a pawn, move the neutral Oracle up to 5 spaces depending on the card number you play. If she lands on your pawn, get 5 points. Five points is a lot, on a per card basis, so this is usually a good move. In most of the games Ive played, she gets forgotten by players other than me, to the benefit of my win percentage.

All these aspects add up to a very interesting game, and one that has tons of angst. You can plan out your next few turns, you can make a strategy ahead of time, and you can grab that tactical play as well.

My one critique of this incarnation is that it seems that not using all three of your pawns seems like a losing strategy. In the previous versions, choosing how many colors (or pawns) to invest in was a crucial part of the strategy. It doesn’t seem viable in this version, especially in light of the Leprechaun bonus. But, maybe Ill just try that out next time I play, to see how it goes.

In all, Keltis: Orakel feels less frustrating than LC, LC:TBG and Kelts. It has that grand ‘ole “too many things to do in not enough time” feeling that the great games have, without the “I guess I’m stuck doing this cause I have no other option” feeling that the earlier games have. That second feeling can lead to interesting games too, in that keeping your options open is important, but the second one is better, I think. Both have their place, obviously.

So, since I need to be opinionated, here’s an opinion for you: This is the game that should have won the SdJ. The Keltis SdJ seemed like a legacy award, and all the followups have been improvements. I don’t feel as though the extra complexity would have shut out any gamers, and while the connection to LC feels less and less apparent, the games really shine once that connection was left behind.

And of course, one last beef: the only difference between the cards here and the standard ones is the number of spaces you can move the Oracle printed on them. Were it not for that, this could have been an expansion. A chart could have sufficed.Though, I guess in that situation, I couldn’t have my fictional SdJ for this game!

So, thats my Lost Cities/Keltis thoughts. I really do like the card system for creating angst for players. The basic versions are great for non-gamers and as gateway games. The later ones are fun for my gaming lunches. Got another one in the works, Reiner?

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Ted Cheatham- Initially I was not a fan of Lost Cities and never acquired a copy until very late.  Its saving grace was my wife really enjoyed it and we played it quite a bit.  Lost Cities the Board Game was a “must buy” as a gift for my wife.  How often can you give a non-gaming spouse a board game as a present?  I do think this is my favorite of the incantations. I like the tension of having to move on a track before another player to get a token and potentially ruining your future possibilities and calculating how to move forward with bonuses from other tracks.  I have managed to play all of the other variations on LC/Keltis and although they are fine games, they start to feel like meatloaf every night.  But, I do like meatloaf.

Melissa Rogerson – Lost Cities is often cited as “the ultimate Wife game” but it’s really much more than that. Quick to play, very straightforward – we’ve played it sporadically but rarely do we just play one round. Now that it’s on Facebook, I’m playing it solo. I’ve played Keltis also but much prefer the little Keltis: Der Weg der Steine Mitbringspiel, for the reasons Luke outlined: it’s small and lightweight (we pack it and the Make ‘n’ Break Mitbringspiel together in the one little box), quick to play and has virtually no setup.

Ratings summary from the Opinionated gamers:

Lost Cities
Love it! (2)  …………….. Mark Jackson, Valerie Putman
Like it (9) ……………….. Melissa Rogerson, Dale Yu, Jonathan Franklin, Matt Carlson, Joe Huber, Andrea Ligabue, Brian Yu, Doug Garrett, Craig Massey
Neutral (2)………………. Luke Hedgren, Larry Levy
Not for me… (0)

Lost Cities: The Board Game
Love it! (0)
Like it (1) ………………..Valerie Putman
Neutral (6)………………Luke Hedgren, Dale Yu, Mark Jackson, Jonathan Franklin, Brian Yu, Doug Garrett
Not for me… (1) … … … Larry Levy

Love it! (1)  ……………..Craig Massey
Like it (6) ………………..Luke Hedgren, Melissa Rogerson, Matt Carlson, Joe Huber, Brian Yu, Doug Garrett
Neutral (4)………………. Jonathan Franklin, Mark Jackson, Larry Levy, Andrea Ligabue
Not for me… (1) … … … Dale Yu

Keltis: Das Kartenspiel
Love it! (1)  ……………..Craig Massey
Like it (2) ………………..Luke Hedgren, Doug Garrett
Neutral (4)……………….Jonathan Franklin, Joe Huber, Larry Levy, Brian Yu
Not for me… (1) … … … Dale Yu

Keltis: Der Weg der Steine
Love it! (4)  …………….. Luke Hedgren, Mark Jackson, Joe Huber, Melissa Rogerson
Like it (2) ………………..Larry Levy, Brian Yu
Neutral (2)………………. Dale Yu, Doug Garrett
Not for me… (1) … … … Jonathan Franklin

Keltis: Neue Wege, Neue Ziele
Love it! (2)  …………….. Luke Hedgren, Brian Yu
Like it (2) ………………..Jonathan Franklin, Doug Garrett
Neutral (2)………………. Larry Levy, Dale Yu
Not for me… (0)

Keltis: Das Orakel
Love it! (3)  …………….. Luke Hedgren, Brian Yu, Craig Massey
Like it (0)
Neutral (1)………………. Doug Garrett
Not for me… (0)

About Lucas Hedgren

Lucas Hedgren likes playing, designing, reading about, thinking about, and writing about games.
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8 Responses to The Evolution (Intelligent Design?) of Keltis

  1. Tim Mierz says:

    I dig the comparative review format. It has good access points for people who’ve played a few but not all of the games. It’s also helpful to see where on the complexity line someone might want to get a game, since there’s a bit of a range. I look forward to more of these articles.

  2. Jonathan D says:

    Ted – “Lost Cities the Board Game was (your) favorite of the incantations?” Are these games or mantras? You’ve got a pretty weird guru, Ted! Don’t ever run for office. The blogosphere can be pretty merciless to people who use malapropisms!

  3. Rob Cannon says:

    Great comparison. I really like the Ratings Summary at the bottom.

    So, here is hoping that Kosmos will do a Keltis-combo and put out a package with everything in one box. It looks like there is a lot of room for re-use of components and it is about that point in the lifecyle of the game. Plus, it would be easier to track down a copy.

  4. Thanks for clearing up the history for me. I was never sure which came first: Lost Cities or Keltis.

    Love the comparisons and the ratings summary at the end. Hope to see more articles like this. I always find the history and evolution of a game intriguing.

  5. Doug Adams says:

    Nice recap – being a total Knizia junkie, I’ve played them all (apart from the LC Boardgame) and they are good to excellent. My favorite is Keltis das Kartenspiel which is a stunning card game. The most disposable is Keltis: Der Weg der Steine, which feels a bit too simple in the decisions, but okay as a quick filler.

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