I’ve been touting the physical version of Lost Cities, Reiner Knizia’s easy-to-learn two-player gateway game, for about two years now, because of its combination of simple mechanics, modest strategy, and portability, even though it has a little more luck or randomness than I like in most games. The iOS version of Lost Cities is now out, from the same developers as the best-of-breed Carcassonne app, and as you might expect the Lost Cities app looks tremendous and plays very easily and quickly, with just a few minor glitches.
The entire game of Lost Cities revolves around a single deck of 60 cards, containing 12 cards in each of five colors: cards numbered 2 through 10 as well as three coin cards that allow a player to increase his/her bet on that color. Players build “expeditions” in each color by placing cards in increasing numerical order, so once you’ve placed the 4 card in one color, you can no longer place the 2 or the 3 (and must hold or discard it). Each player’s turn consists of playing or discarding one card, and then drawing a card from the deck or any discard pile. You receive points for an expedition equal to the sum of the card values in that expedition minus 20, so you can receive negative points if you don’t place enough cards in a column. Placing one coin card (before you place any numerical cards) doubles your gain or loss, placing two coin cards triples the result, and placing three quadruples it. There’s also a 20-point bonus for placing eight or more cards, including coins, in a single column. Since there is only one card of each number/color combination, the game’s decisions revolve around when to play a specific card – do you play it now, or hold it to see if you can get an intervening card first? Do you hold certain cards to keep them away from your opponent? Do you draw from the deck to move the game closer to the end, or draw from a discard pile to prolong it?
The app version has incredibly bright, clear graphics, enough that it plays well on the small iPod/iPhone screen, with a very sensible layout that makes it easy to see what’s been played, including coin markers next to the current score in each column. That ability to see the current score is probably the biggest advantage the app version offers over the physical version – the math in the game isn’t hard, but it’s easier to make quick decisions when the running tallies are there in front of you. (It can be a little disconcerting to see a -40 or -60 when you’ve played coin cards but no number cards in an expedition, though.) The app offers four AI players, one comparable to a box of rocks, one very challenging, and two in between. It also comes with a set of thirty in-game achievements that serve as tutorials on mechanics and on strategy, with the higher levels forcing you to handicap yourself in ways that will force you to think about the game a little differently. Online play is available, but I haven’t tested it out yet. I have played over 100 games against AI opponents, with most games taking under five minutes. It’s addictive enough that my daughter complained I was playing it too much.
The main glitch in the game is the proximity of the discard pile to your expeditions, making it far too easy to accidentally place a card in the wrong place. While your placement isn’t final until you draw another card, either from the deck or from a discard pile, if you move very quickly, which I found I was able to do after just a game or two, you’ll likely make a wrong move along the way because it’s so easy to put a card in the wrong place. Obviously there’s a user error element there – if I would just slow down, I wouldn’t make these mistakes – but I’d prefer to see more space between the two areas, perhaps by relocating the discard piles to the center of the board, which is how the game is set up if you’re playing the physical version. I’ve also caught the weaker AI players making what appeared to be extremely bad moves, such as playing coin cards late in the game when the probability of reaching the 20-point threshold in that expedition is very low, so once you’re up to speed on gameplay you will probably just want to face the most difficult AI opponent.
One of the best aspects of the migration of advanced boardgames to iOS has been the high-quality implementations, since the audience is still somewhat of a niche market, willing to pay a few bucks for every title released in this space. The Lost Cities app takes a fun if very simple game and gives it a high-class makeover for iOS, with tremendous graphics, plenty of replay value thanks to the game’s random element and one very strong AI player, and the potential for online play – another top of the line electronic version that matches or even exceeds the quality of the original.