Monday, October 22, 2018

Board Game Review - Lost Cities: Rivals

More than a decade ago, my wife and I picked up a copy of the card game Lost Cities. This simple game of card management and trying to outguess your opponent (and the deck) has been a mainstay in our collection ever since and one we still play on a regular basis. This past summer, Dr. Reiner Knizia released Lost Cities: Rivals. As you may suspect from the name, this game is a sequel of sorts to the original Lost Cities but it has a few differences as well.

A number of years ago, a full "Board Game" version of Lost Cities was released. That version borrowed on the general theme and some of the mechanical ideas of the original Lost Cities but made some significant departures in order to create a compelling board game experience. With Lost Cities: Rivals we are closer to the original version of Lost Cities but we still have enough changes that this should be considered its own distinct game.

Lost Cities: Rivals is a straightforward card game in which each player takes on the role of an adventurer setting off on expeditions with the goal of achieving the most fame. Prior to each expedition, the player may set a "wager" to potentially double, triple or quadruple the amount of fame they receive. The deck consists of 5 different suits/colors with each suit containing 3 wager cards along with numerical cards ranging from 2-10. Cards must be placed in numeric order with the player not being allowed to backtrack. So if the player places a red 7 and later finds a red 6, they are not allowed to play the 6 and instead must pass up on those juicy points. Wager cards must be placed before any numbers are played. Thus a player is required to wager that they will do well in a color before having full confidence of getting the cards they need. So far this should sound VERY similar to the original game and indeed it is, with a few significant differences.

First, scoring in Rivals is much simpler and quicker than its predecessor. In the original, all of your expeditions began with an immediate value of -20. Thematically the idea is that you are investing to get your expedition started. This meant that in order to even break even, you had to make sure you earned at least 20 points in a given color. This also meant that wagers were even riskier since a triple wager on a failed expedition could demolish your score. Rivals does not have negative scoring at all.

Part of me was very sad to see that go away. Another part of me enjoyed losing the penalty for failure. The other scoring difference is that instead of using the card's numerical value to score (as in the original), each card shows either 1 or 2 footprints (with the higher valued cards, 6-10, showing the double footprint). Each footprint is worth a fame point. To score an expedition, you simply count the number of footprints and multiply it by the wager multiplier (2, 3 or 4) and then add all the expedition scores together. Additionally, if an expedition had at least 4 numeric cards, you get a bonus of 8 points and you also add 1 point for each coin you have leftover.

Did I say coins?!? In addition to the cards, the game also includes 36 coins to be distributed between the players. Instead of being dealt a hand of cards to try and build their expeditions, cards are purchased in auctions. Each turn a player has the choice to either begin an auction on all available cards in the center of the table or to flip the top card of the deck and add it to the cards available for sale. The only way to gain any cards is to win an auction. So even though unspent coins are worth 1 fame point each at the end of the game, players need to spend their money in order to get any real points. Since there are only 36 coins, you can see that the in-game economy is tight. Spent money is 'recycled' 3 times during the game so you will get some coins back and (as my wife showed) it can be entirely worthwhile to spend ALL of your money on a meaty auction even if it means you don't get to participate in any auctions for a few turns.

At its heart, Lost Cities is a card game where players have to press their luck in a balance of risk vs reward as they try to decide when to start on a given expedition and when to wait just a little longer. Rather than collecting cards into their hands, players in Rivals are sharing a visible pool of potential cards to play and thus they play the game of whether or not to spend their scanty fortune on available expedition cards or hold onto their cash hoping for better prospects later. The auction element takes this game from just being about set collection and trying to guess whether to keep or play a card and changes it into a game of playing against your opponent’s desire, or need, to get a specific card.

The auctions can be tight and ruthless as a player may increase an auction price just to ensure another player can't afford the perfect cards to enhance their expedition. Or a player may bump the cost up to try and force someone to spend all of their coins for cards they really need, knowing that a major purchase puts them out of all auctions for the next few turns. As an added twist, the winner of the auction also has the option to "throw away" one of the cards from the display row. So not only might you frustrate a person by winning an auction they really wanted to win but you can also take the card they really wanted (but which doesn't benefit you much) and throw it out of the game. In my group, our auctions thus far have been fairly amiable but there is a chance for some "take that" in the tough decisions.

Overall, I enjoyed Lost Cities: Rivals. It's a simple, lightweight game that's easy to teach/learn and easy to play but that still has some thoughtful choices to be made. I really enjoyed the auction element and had fun trying to play bidders against each other (my tactic was to run up the bid and then let other players win, thus hoarding my money to spend in later rounds...sadly this didn't work out quite as well as I'd hoped). I did find myself missing the concept of negative scoring. While it made scoring and teaching easier, removing the risks made the choice of which expedition(s) to try for feel a little less compelling. After all, why should I hesitate taking one or more expedition cards or grabbing that 6 even if I haven't seen any other cards in that color? Without the penalty, the only risk is that you miss out on playing a couple of lower cards. If scores are super close that might be a big deal but sometimes it's worth more to swipe a few cards away from your opponent at the risk of not getting one or two more points.

I don't see this replacing Lost Cities as a choice for when my wife and I are looking for a quick filler between just the two of us but Lost Cities: Rivals may hit the table when we've got another player or two looking for something light and fun.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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