While I adore video games, I'm equally fond of board and card games. On the Table is a weekly feature of my cBlog that examines some of these analog entertainments. If you have a suggestion for a game to appear in this column or suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know.
This week on XBox Live Arcade, we saw the release of Lost Cities, a game designed by Renier Knizia (a respected doctor of mathematics and prolific game designer). I've had the tabletop version of the game since shortly after its release and it's one that I'm rather fond of, even if I don't often have opportunity to play it.
could probably best be described as a competitive solitaire game. Each player is an explorer, undertaking various expeditions as represented by the different colored cards. The deck consists of cards ranging from two to ten in five colors, yellow, blue, white, green and red. On a turn, a player has a choice between playing a card from their hand to progress an expedition or discarding a card to the discard pile of the appropriate color. Cards can only be played in ascension (you cannot play a lower number than the last card played). After they have either played or discarded, the player then draws a card from the top of the deck or by taking the top card of one of the discard piles.
Starting an expedition is as simple as placing a card on your side of the board in front of the colored rectangle which matches the color of the card you're playing. Every expedition has expenses, simply starting one will cost you twenty points, so you have to consider whether or not you'll be able to earn enough points through exploration to offset the cost. Running at about $16, there's decent value, though your mileage will certainly vary based on use.
In addition to the numbered cards, each expedition color has three "investment" cards. These cards, which can only be played as the first cards of an expedition, act as a multiplier to your final score. Each investment card you have played in an expedition multiplies your score by 1x (so, having one card would mean a 2x score, two cards is 3x and all three is 4x). These are powerful cards but they are not without risk, as they just as capably multiply a negative score as they would a positive one.
A round ends when the last card is drawn from the draw pile. As a result, it will sometimes benefit you to draw cards from the discard piles just so you'll have enough turns to play out the high-value cards from your hand before the round ends. Alternately, you could put the squeeze on an opponent who's struggling by drawing from the deck every turn. After the round ends, points are awarded for each expedition equal to the sum of the cards played, minus twenty, with any investment multiplier applied afterwards. A bonus of twenty points is also awarded for any expedition which has at least eight cards, applied after all other scoring. Then, a new round begins with games typically lasting three rounds.
All of this results in good strategy marred by horrible randomness. The cards you're dealt in your starting hand often set the tone for the round as a whole. Starting with a hand full of high-value cards can be great, except when you realize that you're going to have to play some of them right now and there's a good chance you won't clear the twenty points needed to get out of the red. Having a wide range of colors but nothing of any real value means that you're starting your expeditions blind with a fair chance that you'll never get the cards you need. It's fun and you can bend it a bit to your will, but luck plays a major factor which may turn off some players.
In addition to the standard rules for play, the game also includes rules for playing with four people. This requires having a second copy of the game and consists of using a combined deck which takes the cards valued at two through four from one deck and adding it to the other. The two boards are also used next to each other as each player performs their own expeditions into each of the areas. Gameplay is identical with a few exceptions. Players form a partnership with the person next to them and can skip their turn to pass two cards, face down, to their partner. Also, despite their being multiples of some cards in the combined deck, cards must still always ascend and two cards of the same number may never be played in the same expedition.
The game, produced by Kosmos, is excellent quality. The cards are oversized, rather thick and have attractive art. The board, while not strictly necessary for playing the game, is sturdy, looks great and can help keep things organized without being an encumbrance.
The new XBLA version is a near-perfect adaptation. The art for the game is lifted directly from the cards and looks great on the screen. With automatic scoring, there's no time wasted counting up and writing down points, which is always the best advantage to playing a game like this on a computer system. The number of cards remaining in the deck to be drawn (and, hence, the number of turns remaining) and the current scoring of every expedition on both sides is always displayed, making it that much easier to keep track of what's going on. Time limits for turns also keep the game moving at a brisk pace.
Apologies for this blurry photo
The only thing I would be wary of in the online version of the game is the four-player mode. In Lost Cities, as with many card games involving partnerships, kibitzing is strictly verboten and this is a rule I can see being constantly broken to the dismay of more honorable players of the game. That said, it's a great release and worth the investment for players of card games. At the very least, I would encourage you to check out the demo and see if it's the sort of gameplay you're interested in.
On the whole, Lost Cities is an interesting game with a few problems. It's fun and I certainly had no qualms about coughing up the 800 MS points to get the online version, but I worry that it may languish on my hard drive the same way the card game has collected dust on my shelf. The presentation of the online edition is in many ways superior to playing with the cards (and is less of an investment), making it the version to buy if XBLA is an option for you.
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