Board Game Review: How does Lost Cities Rivals, compare to Lost Cities, the original two player card game?

I have been a fan of Lost Cities, the two-player card game by Reiner Knizia, for a very long time. When I was offered a chance to check out Lost Cities: Rivals, a two to four player revision of this classic card game, I jumped at the chance.

My wife and I used to play Lost Cities at The Coffee Exchange during her lunch breaks when she worked at the downtown library. Read on to see if Lost Cities: Rivals lives up to its namesake or at least stands on its own.

Disclosure: Kosmos provided me with a review copy of Lost Cities: Rivals, no other compensation was provided. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What comes with a copy of Lost Cities: Rivals?

Lost Cities: Rivals was designed by Reiner Knizia, one of the most well known and respected names in game design. It features artwork from Sébastien Caiveau. Here in North America, it is published by Thames & Kosmos. Lost Cities: Rivals plays two to four players and a game takes about forty-five minutes. 

To see what you get in the box, be sure to check out our Lost Cities: Rivals Unboxing Video on YouTube

Lost Cities: Rivals comes in a nice small box that is very portable. The contents are even more portable, only taking up about a third of the box. This game would be a good contender for swapping to some other transportation method like a Quiver Card Carrying Case. 

The instructions for this multi-player version of Lost Cities are full colour, good quality and only seven pages long. They feature a number of examples using pictures of actual game components.

There are a number of gold coin tokens that come on a couple of punchboards. These are of normal thickness and punch out easily with no tearing.   

The box also includes a really basic box insert dividing the space into two pockets. This works well enough, separating the tokens from the cards once you have everything punched and sorted. You may want to put the empty punch boards under the insert so that the divider stays tight to the top of the box when closed.  

The rest of the components of Lost Cities: Rivals consist of a number of cards. There is a first player card, then two starter wager cards in each of five colours and finally a deck of cards consisting of sets of cards each with the numbers two to five twice and five to ten once, and one more wager. There are a total of five sets of cards in five different colours. 

The card quality is decent but not spectacular and I can see most people wanting to sleeve these cards. The artwork features some great looking landscapes, featuring the colours of each suit. In addition to the artwork, each card has a symbol on it denoting the suite, a great design choice that addresses any colour blindness issues. 

How does Lost Cities: Rivals Play compared to Lost Cities?

The theme of both versions of Lost Cities centres around explorers going on expeditions represented by sets of cards in one of five colours representing different terrain types. Wagers can be made before an expedition to increase the score for that expedition. An expedition is represented by a set of numbered cards in ascending order, potentially starting with a number of wager cards.

Unlike Lost Cities, in Lost Cities: Rivals players do not have a hand of cards. Instead, cards are auctioned from a central play area and placed into each player’s individual tableau. 

At the start of a game of Lost Cities: Rivals each player is randomly assigned two starting wager cards of different colours. The remaining starting wager cards are not used. The remaining suit cards are shuffled and split into four equal-sized decks and one deck is selected to start the game and placed in the middle of the table.  The gold coins are split evenly between the players with any remainder left in a central bank. 

Starting with the first player (determined randomly and indicated by the #1 card) each turn players have two options:

  1. Flip over the top card of the active deck and place it next to the deck in a growing tableau of cards.
  2. Start an auction for the cards currently on display.

During an auction the active player bids one or more of their gold coins for the cards in the main tableau. The next player can then up the bid or pass. This continues around the table until all but one player has passed, the winning player pays their bid amount in coins to the bank.

The auction winning player can take any number of the cards from the central playing area and place them into their personal tableau.  They can also choose one card on display to remove from the game. 

When placing cards into their tableau the players have to follow a few rules. Each colour/suit of card goes into its own row and you can only have one row for each one wager cards can only be played on other wager cards or can start a new row. Once a number card has been played all future number cards played on that row must of a higher number than the last card played. This is identical to the placement rules for the original Lost Cities. 

After an auction, the player to the left of the winning bidder becomes the start player and continues the game.

When the active deck runs out, all gold coins in the bank are evenly split between all of the players with any remainders left in the bank.

When the last card in the last deck is flipped face-up the game ends immediately. 

Scoring in Lost Cities Rivals is based on the number of footprint symbols shown on the cards in each player’s tableau, unlike Lost Cities where scoring it is based on card value. Similar to Lost Cities wager cards act as a multiplier. One wager doubles your points for that set, two triples them and three quadruples your score. Finally, players get a bonus of eight points if they manage to make a set consisting of at least four number cards (wagers don’t count). Unlike Lost Cities, there is no scoring penalty applied for starting an expedition. 

My thoughts on Lost Cities: Rivals 

To start off I feel I need to say that I am a huge fan of the original Lost Cities. Now sold as Lost Cities The Original Card game, so that people don’t get it confused with Lost Cities: Rivals or the Lost Cities Board Game. 

One of our local downtown coffee shops, The Coffee Exchange, always had a number of board games on hand for customers to play. One of those games was Lost Cities. One afternoon sitting having a coffee on Deanna’s lunch break from the library we read the rules and taught ourselves to play and were instantly hooked. To this day I still think Lost Cities is one of the best two-player board games out there. 

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that there is a multi-player version of Lost Cities out there. I knew there was a Lost Cities Board Game published but somehow Rivals had slipped under my radar. That was until Thames & Kosmos offered me a review copy and, filled with curiosity, I quickly agreed.

Lost Cities: Rivals is a much lighter game than Lost Cities.  There are fewer decision points and fewer things to remember. With two copies of the lower numbered cards, forming card sets is also easier. Rivals is also more forgiving, with no penalty for starting an expedition and it basically going nowhere. What this means is that there’s really no reason not to draft cards of every colour. You also never have to worry about giving your opponent a vital card they need when you discard, as there is no discarding of cards here. Rivals is easier to teach and quicker to master but, being easier to approach doesn’t necessarily mean that Lost Cities: Rivals is more fun.

I’m sorry to say that the first few plays of this game fell completely flat. I first tried it out two-player at one of our EZY Mode game nights and really did not enjoy it. I personally don’t think I’ve found an auction-based game that really works with only two players. I’ve since tried this game again with two-players and my initial verdict still stands. I honestly don’t think this game should even be listed as playable with only two. It should say three to four players on the box. Besides, there’s already a fantastic way to play Lost Cities two players, the original game. 

As for playing with more players, I’ve had very mixed results. The first few games, again at public play events, didn’t go over well. One local gamer, a game designer, thought the auction mechanic and the way money refreshed partway through was brilliant (and I totally agree with him) but found the rest of the game rather boring. Two other players did not enjoy the experience at all and refused to give it a second chance. Personally I thought it did some neat things but didn’t find it nearly as fun as the original. 

Fast forward to last weekend when, playing this game with a totally different group, I had a totally different experience. Here I was playing with my sister in law, Holly, who also used to meet Deanna downtown and play Lost Cities with her at The Coffee Exchange, as well as Deanna’s mother, who learned the original game from Holly and also really enjoys it. Both of them liked Lost Cities: Rivals a lot and I found that their enjoyment of the game spread to Deanna and I.

I can’t stress enough how shocked both Deanna and I were while playing these rounds of Lost Cities Rivals. We went in expecting to have the same experience we had at EZY mode and this wasn’t it. Here we were being engaged, counting cards, backstabbing each other and taking part in some very tight cut-throat auctions.

So what changed? The main difference between these two play experiences is the people we played with and their experience level.

The first group had no experience with Lost Cities and the wager and card stacking mechanics that are core to that game, whereas the second group knew the original game well. What this means is that the players didn’t really know the values of the various cards on display in the central tableau when bidding in the games’ many auctions. Lost Cities, both versions, are also math heavy games requiring card counting to play well and that’s not going to appeal to everyone. There’s a good chance that the players in the first group wouldn’t have enjoyed the original Lost Cities either.

So what this tells me is that Lost Cities: Rivals is not for everyone. It is a math-heavy, card counting, card game with a very solid auction mechanic and that isn’t going to appeal to all groups. I personally thought the game was decent the first few plays and grew to rather enjoy it in the end, but found that it is very player dependant. Playing with players who are taking the time to count the cards and being careful with their bidding is more fun than playing with folks who are just taking actions and bidding amounts without realizing the value of the cards on display. 

Despite growing to enjoy the game, with plans to now keep it in my collection, I still strongly think the original Lost Cities is the better of the two. The only advantage Rivals has over the original is that it can play three or four players, whereas Lost Cities can only ever play two. 

If you enjoy the original Lost Cities and find you can never get it to the table because you often have groups of more than two players, you may want to check out Lost Cities: Rivals. If you’ve never played any of the Lost Cities games before, this could be a good introduction to the series as it does feature much lighter and more forgiving gameplay. If you are looking for a new two-player game, skip over this and just pick up the original. In all cases, I do suggest you try before you buy because I’ve found that even if you enjoy Lost Cities you may not enjoy Lost Cities: Rivals.

Have you had a chance to play the classic two-player game Lost Cities? What other two-player games do you enjoy and do you think any of them could use a multi-player update?

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