Dr. Jonze would like to have a word with you about an idol. And an ark– not the boat kind– and some chunky stones, a grail, and a crystal skull. Someone has to retrieve these five artifacts, and you’re going to determine who does it… by playing cards.
That’s not the theme of Lost Cities, but it might as well be, especially given that there is a suspiciously zpelled ‘Dr. Jonze’ among your opponents. The tutorial doesn’t explain why you’re playing cards, so you may never know that you are an investor choosing how much funding you’re putting into treasure-hunting expeditions. Fortunately, that’s the only significant flaw in an excellent translation of one of German designer Reiner Knizia’s most popular card games.
Lost Cities pits two players in a contest to get the highest score by playing numbered expedition cards. There are 60 cards in the deck, divided into five suits. Each suit has nine cards valued from 2 through 10, plus three cards that depict coins. You have a hand of eight cards, and you score points by playing cards from your hand into the five lanes matching the five suits.
Rack ‘em up.
The cards you play have to be in ascending order. If the first red card you play is a 5, then the next red card you play has to be a 6 or higher. If you draw a red 2 after playing the 5, you can’t use the 2 and may have to discard it. Coin cards increase the points you can score in a suit, but are risky because they must be played before you play any of the number cards in that suit.
Two rules make the game into a cutthroat affair. The first rule is that you can draw from the deck or from the top discard in each color. Just like gin rummy, you have to watch your opponent closely and avoid throwing away cards that will give her a winning hand.
The second rule is that when you start playing cards into a lane, you immediately lose 20 points. (Coin cards multiply that loss, which is why they are risky.) You have to make up the deficit by playing enough number cards in the suit to climb back into a positive score. Tempting your opponent into a bad suit is a viable strategy, and Lost Cities is one of the few games you can win with a negative score.
Round one. Fight!
Like many Knizia games, Lost Cities is all about probability and math, which makes it easy to program the AI opponents so that they have a fighting chance. However, the game does not count on their skills to keep you interested.
Instead, it presents 10 levels of challenges with three goals in each level. Early goals teach you basic strategies like drawing from the discard pile, but the later objectives are much more difficult. By the time you’ve learned how to win without playing any 10s, or without discarding any cards, you’ve earned the title of ‘Lost Cities Master.’
Lost Cities uses Game Center for online matchmaking and games against friends, and this part of the game runs smoothly. The game is at its best when both players are online at the same time, but asynchronous play works well too. While there’s no chat, a simple emote system lets you taunt your opponents or cry crocodile tears when you lose.
The graphics and music are good, but this is not a flashy game, and there’s not much to interest action-oriented gamers. If you like card games and puzzles, though, this is a must-play.