Monday, January 26, 2009

Lost Cities (the Board Game)

When I first played Lost Cities (the card game by Rio Grande) I enjoyed it, but I was never a huge fan. It's got a nice core mechanic, but for me it grew kinda stale after half a dozen plays. (Some folks I know have enjoyed it for years, however.) I also didn't like that the theme felt "tacked on" to the mechanics - it could have just as easily been a game about lemonade stands, inventors, or vampire hunters.

Yesterday I played Lost Cities: The Board Game, and I must say I like it a lot more than the original. I think it's got longer legs - the random placement of the little scroll-shaped bits makes certain colors/suits a better investment at certain stages of the game. That's probably enough to keep it fresh for a long time.

If you like the original Lost Cities, you'll probably really dig the boardgame version. If the original wasn't your cup of tea, the boardgame is still probably worth a peek. It plays a little better, stays fresh longer, and emulates the theme far more accurately than the card game did. There's slightly greater options to consider on your turn, and it feels more like you're sending expeditions to locations. It works well with 3 or 4, whereas the original is purely a two-player game.

An aside: the red suit of the original Lost Cities featured artwork I referred to as "Viking Stonehenge in Hell". It was neat to look at and try to figure out, but it was strange. The board game version replaces that with the temple-in-a-canyon from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I guess it's because it looks more like a city.

One criticism I will level, however, is that (both versions of the game) could use more "up" beats. Both games have a strong random element, and a relatively blind decision tree (since there's a lot of data you can't predict, such as whether or not the other player is hording the card you're waiting for). It's very easy to make a mistake that costs you the game or round, but it's rare you get the sense that a decision you made really boosted you ahead. Same with the random card draws - for every time you say "just the card I needed!" you probably say "I wish I'd drawn that two turns ago" twice and "just what I needed - another dead and useless card" four or five times. I think both games would be better if that excitement happened more often. It's very rare that you actually get excited about something you draw, and big risks rarely pay off. Instead, you just aim to play a solid conservative game and hope your opponents screw up more often then you do.

Another aside: A good future micro-expansion to address the excitement issue for the boardgame could be handled with just 7 cards. They'd come up rarely enough (IIRC, the main deck is 110 cards) that you wouldn't greatly alter your strategy to accommodate them, but they'd almost always be exciting when you drew them.
The first five cards could be a wild card in of each of the 5 colors/suits. These 5 wilds would just indicate a color, and have no numerical value. When you play one, it goes on the bottom of your stack, so it doesn't change the value of your high number, it just advances you along the track. Having one would make that color much easier, and provide more incentive to dip into your 4th or 5th color in a round.
The 6th and 7th cards would be a Wild 4 and a Wild 8. They would be all five colors (I'd say no color at all, but one of the 5 colors is white, so that doesn't work) and could be played on any one of your piles as the 4 or 8 (as appropriate) of that suit.4 and 8 aren't just random numbers, they were chosen so they'd impact suits that were still being developed as opposed to ones that were nearly closed off, or ones you'd just barely started.
I've thought up some other, more complicated, cards, but decided it's far better leaving the game uncluttered. The remainder of the hypothetical expansion (since you can't sell 7 cards profitably) would probably be new scroll-shaped tiles with different rewards to put on spaces.

An area that needs to be desperately avoided in any potential expansion for the game is cards that allow movement but don't go to your piles, cards that recirculate other cards from your piles, and various other graveyard animation tricks. We found that players were constantly moving the wrong pieces, and having piles of cards to simply recount allowed us to fix every error with 100% certainty no matter when we caught it.

In summation: the new Lost Cities is better than the old. It's fairly light, but has just enough variation to keep it fresh for many plays. It's not a game that's going to make you jump up in triumph, but it's a fun "thinker"-style game that won't melt your brain.

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