Lost Cities

Design by Reiner Knizia
Published by Kosmos
2 Players, 30 mintues
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Lost Cities - cover

Lost Cities was first published back in 1999.  I vividly remember my first encounter with the game, which was that same year at Gulf Games 3 in New Orleans.  Jay Tummelson of the then fledgling Rio Grande Games was in attendance and had brought several games that he was considering releasing under the RGG label.  Lost Cities was one of those games.  My good friend and fellow gamer Lenny Leo explained the rules to me, and I kept thinking, “Is that it?”.  The game seemed way too simple to offer any depth or challenge. Boy, was I wrong.

The basic theme of the game (yes, it is very thinly pasted; so what else is new?) is that players are funding and embarking on various expeditions into the Himalayas, to Atlantis, through the desert, into volcanoes, etc. A deck of cards contains five different colors (representing the expeditions) with numbers of 2 – 10 each.  There are three ‘wager’ cards in each color, which have the effect of doubling, tripling or quadrupling the ultimate total of the appropriate expedition, be it positive or negative.  A long board depicts the five expeditions, with room for a discard stack for each one.

Lost Cities - cardsEach player is dealt a hand of eight cards.  On a player’s turn, he must place one card face-up along his side of the board, placing the card by the appropriate color on the board.  Alternatively, he may discard a card face-up onto the appropriate discard stack for that color. He then refills his hand from the draw pile, or by selecting the top card from one of the face-up discard stacks.

Once cards are laid for a particular expedition (color), a player may not add any cards whose value is lower in value than the previously laid card. Thus, if a player elects to begin the Atlantis expedition with a ‘4’ value card, he may never, ever lay a 2 or 3 value card on that expedition. Further, in order to play one or more of the wager cards (which multiply the ultimate point total), these cards must be laid before any numerical cards are played by that player on that expedition. Thus, it is a bit of a gamble.

Why? Because in order for an expedition to begin scoring positive points, the ‘fixed cost’ of the expedition must first be met. In other words, a player must have cards totaling at least 20 points (before any multipliers are applied) just to break even! Again, this is a gamble since it is rare that a player will have enough cards of a particular color in his hand (the hand limit is eight cards) to total 20. Thus, he must gamble that he will eventually draw enough cards to reach this total. This becomes a tough decision not only when to begin an expedition, but also whether or not to play one or more of those wager cards.

One must also carefully weigh which cards he is going to discard for fear of aiding his opponent’s expedition. Many, many times I will discard a card only to watch my opponent gleefully scoop it from the discard pile, clearly joyful that it would aid her in one of her expeditions. Fortunately, my opponent usually returns the favor from time to time. On the other side of the coin, one must carefully watch for these important discards and exercise a certain degree of restraint before beginning an expedition, lest he be unable to utilize certain cards later in the game. Some tough, tough decisions need to be made. The temptation is to hold onto cards until you can collect more of the same color, but a round ends when the draw pile is exhausted, which can occur astonishingly quickly.  Holding onto cards for too long may result in time running out before they can all be played. This can cost one dearly in points. Further, one is also tempted to hold onto cards that you may not wish to use, but you fear discarding them as they may aid your opponent. This, unfortunately, takes up valuable space in your hand and ultimately severely limits your card play options. Tough, tough decisions.

Lost Cities - components2As mentioned, a round ends when the draw deck expires.  Players can forestall this a bit by drawing new cards from the discard piles.  While often useful, this stall tactic can only prolong the end for so long.  Eventually the deck expires and points are tallied.  Each player examines each of his five expeditions separately.  If at least 20 points are not earned (excluding multipliers), the player loses point equal to the difference.  For example, if a player’s desert expedition only has a value of 15 points, that player loses 5 points.  Any wager cards present multiply this loss.  However, if the total of an expedition exceeds 20 points, the player earns positive points for the difference.  Again, multipliers take effect, multiplying the total by 2, 3 or 4.  An additional 20 points are earned if an expedition contains at least eight cards.  This is difficult to achieve, but not impossible.

Players total the values of all five expeditions.  Three rounds are played, with the player earning the highest cumulative total emerging victorious and becoming an archaeological legend akin to Indiana Jones.

Lost Cities is a recognized classic and has been mostly in print since its initial release.  The latest edition maintains the original artwork, which is outstanding.  Players should look very carefully at each of the cards, as they employ a very clever technique wherein one gets closer and closer to the destination the higher the value of the card. This is easy to miss, but a brilliant touch.

Lost Cities - componentsDo not let the simple rules and fast game play deceive you.  There are so many tough choices to be made.  I frequently agonize over which card to play or discard, fearing that any discard will be of great use to my opponent.  How long do I hold onto cards before beginning an expedition, hoping to draw just one or two more cards before beginning the journey?  When do I abandon all hope of beginning an expedition and discard those cards? Should I take a chance and play one or more wager cards, knowing full well that the cost will be severe if I fail to fully fund an expedition?  These and other tough choices are present throughout the game and always fill me with angst.

In what is a sharp reversal of the normal trend, Lost Cities is one of the very few card games that have spawned a board game version.  In this case, the board game version actually won the Spiel des Jahre, an award many gamers feel should have also been earned by the card game version.

Over the years I have played Lost Cities probably more than any other 2-player game save my wife’s favorite, Upwords (she is a bit of a word buff).  Lost Cities is a personal favorite, and is also a favorite of my wife’s.  Indeed, after first playing the game back in 1999, it was the very first game my wife every told me to purchase.  That alone is high, high praise!

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Rick Thornquist: A classic two player game that should be in every gamer’s collection.  Also an excellent gateway game – I’ve roped in quite a few non-gamers with this one.

Patrick Brennan: 100+ plays. It’s one of the great 2 player spouse games. It’s light enough to play fast but there inevitably comes a few agonising decisions over how long to hold out for better cards (vs giving useful cards to your opponent via the discard pile vs playing too early to a colour and limiting your score in it). The other hard decision each hand is whether to play safe or risky (by playing multiplier cards on a suit that you may score negative in if you don’t get the high cards). There’s no direct screwage and limited interaction, but your plays generate enough interest and tension (from time pressure to maximise your score before the deck runs out) to warrant a lot of replay.

Matt Carlson: I’ve had less luck in the spousal game playing department with this one (go figure, she likes RoboRally and Ricochet Robots…).  However, I do think this is my favorite intro-gaming 2 player card game (Pretty specific, I know).  Rereading this review reminds me I need to start pulling this one out to play with my son(s).

Fraser: Spouse, Daughter the Elder, colleagues at work… Lost Cities keeps on giving year after year.  It still gets played regularly at home, almost as often as Balloon Cup.  That angst of which expedition to start never gets old.

Larry:  I’ve always heard about the hidden depths of Lost Cities, and from gamers whose opinion I trust.  I’ve never seen it.  After playing it a couple of times, I found I was able to make good decisions just about as quickly as I can draw the cards.  It’s a pleasant game and a good one to play if I’m feeling tired, but there are many 2-player titles (including quite a few by Knizia) that I prefer.  Maybe I’m missing something or maybe I picked up on the strategy uncharacteristically quickly, but whatever the reason is, it’s just not challenging enough of a game for me to rate particularly highly.

Mitchell Thomashow: Lost Cities is a classic because it took a well known genre of games and turned it into a clever and interesting Euro-type card game. Essentially, it’s derived from the sequential organization of a competitive patience. Racko was an early commercial adaptation. As Knizia does so well, he turned the ordering of cards into an ingenious (no pun intended) scoring exercise, using five suits and bonuses. The game was incredibly successful because he took the legacy of a competitive patience and turned it on its side. He demonstrated how interesting scoring approaches can transform simple games. Also, Lost Cities became the card sequence template for a variety of card-board games (the Keltis series) which then morphed into other card games (The Keltis Card Game). My favorite in this sequence is Keltis:Das Orakel, a kind of super-advanced and profound Candyland. Lost Cities was the foundational game in this modern genre.


4 (Love it!): Greg S., Rick Thornquist, Erik Arneson, Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Mitchell Thomashow
3 (Like it): Matt C.
2 (Neutral): Larry
1 (Not for me):

About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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5 Responses to Lost Cities

  1. After an article about the Keltis series, here is one on Lost Cities. Great read!

    Greg, your review confirmed what I already believed : most people love this game. I am not sure any other game got such a big number of “I love it” from the opiononated gamers. Correct me if I am wrong!

    This very fact that most people love it gives it a special status I think. Should we give it a special award? Or name it “The king of gateway games”?

    This game has only one tiny issue. The final counting is a bit tedious. And it is easy to make mistakes. I understand Reiner Knizia simplified the counting in Keltis the card game (whcih has a very similar feeling but with more options, do try this one if you like Lost Cities) but I am not so sure it was a big improvement.

    While I think that playing at the table is always better than anything else, playing this game with a program helps with the counting. And so it saves you 1 or 2 minutes between rounds. The ongoing intermediate scoring is also an interesting feature. You always know where you stand and how many points you need to score to catch up (or stay up front). And I think it adds to the tension nicely. So I’d say that the game manages to improve yet a notch when played with a software.

    There are a few ways to play Lost Cities online. There is even an iOS app (this app is good but strangely they decided to program it for asynchronous play.I think this is not the kind of game to play asynchronously, so I think this was a very wrong decision, especially when real-time play is really difficult as a consequence). I would presonnaly recommend the platfrom I have been working on for the last few years (http://www.happymeeple.com/en/). There you can play a few other quick-playing board games. But most importantly, you can learn and play Lost Cities. The tutorial will get you through the basics in 4-5 minutes. So if you still have not tried Lost Cities, please come and visit us to get a taste of it. After that, you’ll be able to come back to the table and use this wonderful game as the perfect gateway game that it is.

    Have fun with Lost Cities! I know I get a ton each I play.

  2. Correction of the last sentence:

    Have fun with Lost Cities! I know I get a ton each time I play.

  3. I didn’t put my two cents in as an OG reviewer, but I love this game and I’ve just taught my oldest son to love it as well.

  4. pete steinkamp says:

    We bought a new game to replace our aging lost cities game (sticky cards) and were VERY disappointed how cheap they now make the cards. The cards are so thin, feel so cheap, that it was no longer fun to play the game. CHEAP!

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