Lost Cities

Designed by Reiner Knizia
Published by Kosmos
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2 players
15 minutes per hand

I am starting to sound repetitive. This is yet another outstanding Knizia small box game, this time only for two players, which manages to shine despite having perhaps the shortest set of rules I've seen. To be honest, one doesn't expect much initially - you simply lay numbered cards in sequence. The mechanism is simplicity itself - play or discard a card, then replenish. But, true to form, and through nothing more than elegant design, Reiner manages to deliver the goods, yet again.

We are treated to a surprising level of decision making, a good theme (though a trifle thin), very quick resolution, and deceptive play value way beyond anything the pack of cards might suggest. Players take the role of expedition leaders who are looking to discover up to five sites for the usual fame and fortune - these are depicted by coloured cards numbered 1 to 10. The higher the number laid, the closer you get to achieving your goal. Of course only one of you will be able to play the 10, but solid mid-range play is just as good, and sometimes better.

The first decision is whether to set off immediately using cards in your hand and hoping to pick up other relevant numbers, or wait for investors to come up with funds - these act as multipliers to your final expedition score. The second decision is how many of the five sites you try for - each expedition is marked separately and you must overcome a rubicon score or face penalties come game end. It is tough, even foolhardy, to compete in all five of them. What results is a series of strategies and card mechanisms that really make you think.

One frequently sits with a hand of eight cards and every one of them presents a tough choice. This achievement alone is worth the price of entry, but that is not all. You have to balance future draw probability and your hand mix, bluff, misinform, withhold cards, calculate risk and plan the timing of your move to perfection. Strategies can change many times within the hand, and I have seen some amazing coups.

To cap it all there is an extremely clever timing mechanism based on the remaining cards in the draw pile that pressurises the player with almost no overhead cost (again, I take my hat off to Reiner). You may consider discarding cards to improve or 'store' your hand (this too is inspired) and also buy yourself some more time to complete your expeditions, resulting in a race against time and your rival.

All that, and each round will only take you fifteen minutes. Every one of our first ten hands was pleasingly different - I will shut up and let you spot the nuances yourself, because they are a real joy to discover. You will groan as your opponent stuffs you by retaining your key cards, you will be elated as you draw the exact numbers you want, you will spot new tactics as you go, you will wonder how such a simple mechanism can generate such decisions and play depth.

The final game add-up is a little more mathematical than we usually encounter, and a pen and paper is required - especially if you play two or three rounds to even out the luck of the draw (which can make a difference at times). That said, the scoring mechanism slowly reveals its polish and range.

Initially I rated Lost Cities on a par with Caesar & Cleopatra, now it has exceeded even that lofty standard. What we have here are some innovative card play concepts that will, I believe, be emulated in years to come - what a pleasant change from the droves of me-too card game titles. As you will have gathered, this is a truly excellent little game - I only wish it could have been a three or four player as well. Reiner, if that is in any way possible, please let us have it!

Lost Cities represents more than the sum of its parts by a large multiple and is an absolute must buy. Quite brilliant. A hobby-affirming card game.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell