So many of the games on the market need three, four or more players to be enjoyable, so it is always a pleasure to find a gem that is perfect for two. Lost Cities is a game all about the adventure of exploration, whether it is in a deep sea or on a rocky mountain. Wait, forget that. The pictures on the game are nice, but the play has nothing to do with exploration. It is just a great card game that will have you making hard decisions throughout.
The game consists of five colors (read suits) of cards each having one card each numbered two through ten. There are also three cards in each color showing a handshake (more on this later). The box also contains a hard playboard with a spot for each of the five colors. Play can be summed up as follows:
Start with and always keep eight cards in your hand.
On your turn, either play a card on your side of the board in any color or discard to that color's common pile, face up, in the center of the play board.
Cards played in each color must be higher than any other on your side of the table. For example, if the last card you played in red was a four, you can only play five or higher on that color. Two and three are now useless to you.
Handshake cards double your score, but they must be the first card down in a color.
At the end of your turn, pick up one card from either the face down draw pile or from any of the five color piles of cards that have been discarded.
The hand is over when the last card is drawn.
The score is based on the total of the cards in each of the colors where you have played. You are aiming for twenty points or more total in each. Your score is the total of the cards in a color less twenty and, yes, you can have a negative score, so don't start a color unless you feel confident you can hit the magic number of twenty. For each handshake you played in a color, double your score. Once again, if you only accumulated, say, fourteen points with a handshake, your score for the color would be negative twelve (20 - 14 = -6 * 2 = -12).
A game consists of three hands.
That's it...that's all of the rules. Every person with which I have played the game has started with the comment "that's it?" Yet, after a few hands, they are amazed at the depth of strategy.
For example, you have already played the two and four in red and you are holding the seven and ten. You know you have 23 points for red, but your opponent hasn't started the color and the balance of the red cards, many of which he might be holding, total 31 points. Do you dare discard a handshake card, which is now useless to you, on the chance he won't choose to pick it up and play it, doubling a potent score? Do you hold it another couple turns, taking up space in your hand, hoping he will start red so that the handshake is also useless to him?
In another example of hard decisions, you are holding the blue two and ten, half the draw pile is gone and your opponent also hasn't started blue. Do you play the two, figuring the odds are in your favor to draw enough of the missing cards to push you over the twenty bar? Remember, your opponent may have a similar dilemma and, if you drop the two, may figure you have the majority of the rest of the cards and will think twice before starting the color.
You can also control the end-game by your drawing. Say that the draw pile is dwindling fast and you have a number of cards you still want to play. Once the last card is drawn, the hand is over, so anything you can do to get extra turns is in your favor. Your best bet is to draw from the discard piles, even if you don't need the card, which, in turn, draws out the game.
In comparison with so many other games, Lost Cities is inexpensive ($17 at Boldo's Armory), yet the components are beautifully made and the simple-to-teach rule set opens up to a high-degree of strategy and decision-making. This is another winner for Knizia.