Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Lost Cities: Rivals is a peculiar thing; it is a reworking of a game that was itself reworked. Reiner Knizia's original Lost Cities game was reshaped into a card game for two players, and Rivals now takes it back to 2-4 players. However, this time, Knizia has introduced a bidding, push-your-luck aspect to the game.
The thin and somewhat vague theme remains the same; players are attempting 'expeditions' to abandoned civilisations, from five possible realms (deserts, snowy mountains, volcanoes and underwater grottoes) in a timeframe that shouldn’t last more than around 30 minutes with four players. Put simply, players are attempting to collect suits of cards in ascending numerical order. They will start with a pair of randomly drawn 'wager cards', on which can be laid on top further wager cards and cards of an equal of higher value. This represents an 'expedition'. Low value cards have one footprint on them, higher value cards have two. When the expedition is scored at the end of the game, its value will be the total number of footprints multiplied by the effect of the wager cards at the start of that expedition. If an expedition has 4 or more number cards on it, players score an extra 8 points.
To play, the deck is split into four separate stacks, with each stack constituting a round. At the start of the game, 36 coins are distributed amongst the players equally. Coins that are spent are redistributed again at the start of each round. On your turn, you can either draw a card from the current stack and place it in a central tableau or you can initiate an auction for the cards already in the tableau. The player that wins the auction can then take as many as they want of the displayed cards and immediately add them to their expeditions and they can also remove one card from any existing expedition.
Like all Knizia games, there’s a sense of tension and tightness present from the start. With only five suits, and with wager cards being so valuable, the decision on when to go for an auction and not be forced into paying more than what you want is palpable. In general, you’re probably going to win maybe one or two auctions per round, and as such you want to ensure that your auction win is optimal. However, you may need only one card. The distribution of cards ensures that in some cases you may want to buy cards to stop an opponent from scoring more on their expedition. The presence of wager cards within the deck means that, where possible, you might want to leave off starting an expedition (ie: collecting a new suit) until you obtain a wager card, because you cannot readily add them once you’ve started one. However, at what point in the game do you think 'I need to start getting cards otherwise I won’t score anything at all?' This is what makes Lost Cities: Rivals an excellent game: there will be times when you know you need to win an auction but your opponents around the table will make you pay through the nose to do so. Or you may want to play the waiting game each round until your opponents have made their auctions, but will the cards left be worth your purchase?
Reiner Knizia’s games often attract criticism for their thin 'themes' but the gameplay is usually first rate and Lost Cities: Rivals is no exception. (Review by Toby Frith)