As much as I love the new wave of German-style boardgames, the category lacks viable two-player options. Many games, like Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, require a minimum of three players, while others, like Zooloretto and Power Grid, include two-player variants that don’t work as well as the three-plus rules do. We’ve found a couple that work well for two players – Carcassonne, San Juan, and Dominion are probably the best – but the list is relatively short.
Lost Cities is a real rarity among great German-style games in that it’s strictly a two-player game, only the second (along with the card game Catan, a two-player offshoot of Settlers) in our collection, and it has the twin virtues of being quick to learn and quick to play, so that you can run through several games in an evening rather than devoting the entire night just to setting up Puerto Rico. Lost Cities – which went in the less common direction by spawning a multi-player game, Keltis, which ended up winning the Spiel des Jahres – is simple, portable (just a deck of cards and a small board that isn’t fully necessary once you know how to play), and has an excellent blend of strategy and chance that prevents the game from becoming repetitive yet gives the player some control over his fate.
Each player in Lost Cities may begin, over the course of the game, up to five “expeditions” using cards; each expedition costs 20 points once initiated, but there’s no cost associated with an expedition that’s never started. The deck of cards contains twelve cards in each of five colors, representing the five expeditions: One card each from numbers 2 through 10, and three “investment” cards that allow the player to double, triple (if he plays two), or quadruple (if he plays all three) his profit or loss from that particular expedition. On each turn, a player plays one card to an expedition or discards one to the board and draws a single replacement from the deck or the discard piles. When the deck is exhausted, you add the values of the cards in each expedition, subtract 20, and then multiply the result by 2, 3, or 4 depending on the number of investment cards that expedition, gaining another 20 point bonus for any expedition that contains at least eight cards.
The catch is that cards must be played in order – investment cards come before card 2 – but the deck is fully shuffled and players only hold eight cards in their hand at any given time. Thus, players face decisions like holding on to high-numbered cards while hoping to get lower numbers or investment cards to fill out the expedition, or risking beginning an expedition where he isn’t close to the 20 card points required to turn it profitable. If you discard a valuable card, your opponent may pick it up, unless his expedition has already gone past the number of the card you’ve given up. When the game is nearly over, a player may choose to pick up discards rather than draw from the deck to try to delay the end and allow him to play more cards – but the other player can just keep drawing from the deck to try to end it sooner.
Once we got the hang of it, we found that games only lasted ten minutes or so, meaning that one of us can try avenge his/her losses in the same night, breaking up one of our major frustrations with the Catan card game or massive multi-player games like Puerto Rico and Agricola*. There’s no particular skill required beyond arithmetic, so even the most ardent RBI-lover could handle the math, and the basic strategies are straightforward and shouldn’t take long for new players to figure out. I’d boil down those strategies to two archetypes that the players can blend as needed: You can try to hit home runs on one or two long expeditions with investment cards, or go for 5-10 points on four or all five expeditions. Your optimal strategy or mix of those two depends on the cards you draw, but since you only see eight at the start the game, you have to make some educated guesses – you could argue that there’s a little probability involved here but I’m not saying anyone needs to bust our their old permutations formula – and at some point will end up at the mercy of the deck and your opponent.
*Yes, I now own Agricola, a birthday present from a determined wife who bought one of the last copies from the game’s last print run – it’s out of stock just about everywhere until at least August – and we’ve played it twice. When I get through a few more games, I’ll write it up.
The simplicity of Lost Cities meant that I could even play with my four-year-old daughter, who wanted to play as soon as she saw the cards in my bag while we were in St. Kitts. We never keep score, but to make it interesting for her, I told her she just had to make sure each card she put down was bigger than the one before it, she had to match the colors, and her goal was to make each column add up to more than twenty (she’s not adding to twenty yet, but it turned into a whole conversation about how you add numbers together). We’d play the game and she’d be excited that, say, three of her five expeditions reached the magic number of 20. Those of you with children probably understand this more than those of you who haven’t crossed that chasm yet, but it was fun for both of us to play like that, and she enjoys playing games she sees mommy and daddy playing.
One final advantage to Lost Cities: It’s cheap for a German-style game, and so in many ways this could serve as a gateway game to the bigger, more complex entries that tend to dominate the rankings at BoardGameGeek.