Monday, November 2, 2009

Lost Cities Impressions

Anna is a fairly big fan of card and board games... pretty much always being up for a game of anything ranging from Candyland to Boggle to Monopoly. While I do enjoy the occasional game of cutthroat Monopoly, I have generally eschewed boardgames since I was a teenager... preferring to get my strategic and competitive game playing fixes on the computer. The problem there is that the competition is usually against the A.I., which besides tending not to be much of a challenge... isn't very social, and doesn't satisfy the most critical criterion in the request: "Let's do something together!" With multi-player video games most often needing two copies of the software, and two computers or consoles to run it on... it really seemed the most cost effective strategy for another entertainment option beyond cooking, watching Netflix, or going out was for me to investigate board gaming, and find something that appealed to me more than Boggle. The problem from the board gaming end, however, is that the vast majority are meant for something like four players... not two... and while we could get some friends over for a board gaming night occasionally... or perhaps head down Mass Ave to Pandemonium Books for their board gaming night... two player games are really what we're going to get the most use out of.

We started with highly regarded Carcassonne and War of the Ring, but had mixed success. While I like Carcassonne, I've never quite gotten into it... usually preferring to do something else rather than play... luckily Xbox Live Arcade has a version Anna can play solo. I can't really explain what's failed to grab me about Carcassonne... maybe it's just that I prefer massive strategy titles with lots of complicated rules and moving parts... thus I am a much bigger fan of War of the Ring. While we both really enjoy WoTR, it takes quite a lot of time for us to setup and play(see here) and thus requires more planning and dedication than you really want on a week night. So I am starting to acknowledge that I need to get more into games that can get whipped out and played quickly, without needing hours of setup and hours of play to resolve... while I think I need to give Carcassonne another (more serious) go, I also wanted to try some other games.

So with that... rather long... introduction, you know where I'm coming from with my impressions of Lost Cities: I am new to board gaming, lean towards complicated games, but want to get into some "simple but deep" ones. We played on two different nights... just a game or two each time (each game consisting of three rounds)... which is sufficient to give some impressions of how it plays and some of the strategy involved. Lost Cities is a 60 card game (5 suits or "expeditions" instead of the 4 in a regular deck) that's pretty straight forward to play, with the most complicated (and important) part being the scoring. For each suit/expedition there are numbered cards from 2 to 10 and then three face/investment cards. Each player puts down cards on their own side of the table and doesn't directly impact the expeditions of the other (you do indirectly impact them of course). The investment cards for any expedition can only be played before you put down any numbered cards... and any number card you put down has do be higher than the ones you've played so far. So ideally, you'd put down the three investment cards and then in sequence the cards 2 through 10. Each player starts the game with 8 cards, and then on your turn you can either put a card down on an expedition or discard a card to the middle onto the appropriate expedition discard pile... then you take a card.. either from the deck... or from one of the aforementioned expedition discard piles. The round ends when the last card is drawn from the deck... meaning that you will end a round with cards in your hand, and getting cards onto the table before the game ends is a huge part of the strategy... the end comes much more quickly than you think it will. Besides just getting your cards down on the table, the biggest part of the strategy involves the nature of the scoring. When you start an expedition, you start in the hole 20 points... that is, if you can't put down more than 20 points of numbered cards on an expedition by the end of the round, you lose points for starting it. The investment cards increase the multiplier applied after you determine how many points an expedition won or lost... which can lead to huge losses if you put down investment cards and few numbered cards. So, naturally, a fairly large part of the strategy appears to be based on holding cards to screw your opponent... or holding back on playing any cards from an expedition until you already have a lot of points from that suit in your hand. There is a lot of tension between wanting to put down a long string of cards that will score you a big round, and trying to keep from taking big risks for huge losses.

While the first couple of games we played were mainly just learning the ins and outs of that scoring dynamic... it's super easy to pick up the rules, and you can just dive right in. I have to say that I've enjoyed it quite a bit so far, with one of the nicest parts being that you can play it in small doses... and thus I'm not really worried about of getting sick of it quickly... playing three rounds for a game is pretty fast, but still feels like a decent amount of activity to me.

So I'm pleased. I'll try to update if I sour on it, or suddenly find some aspect of the strategy that makes playing it tedious.