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June 07, 2003

Favorite Games V

A game of exploring the secret places of earth and a game of conquering the galaxy. A nice pairing, don't you think?

Lost Cities is Knizia again, a sharp two-player card game of exploration. Cards are numbered 2-10 in five colors, each representing a different area of exploration (jungle, arctic, underwater, etc.), and can be played only in ascending order (that is, once you've played the 6, only the 7 or higher can be played on your side of the table in that suit). Each player tries to build the best expeditions they can, one card a time, with the value being the sum of the cards played minus 20 (though if no cards are played, the value is zero), plus an additional 20 if you managed to accumulate 8 or more cards. This rather mathematical scoring scheme is typical of Knizia, but it works quite well. It is unwise to start any expedition you can't make at least moderate progress in, and the -20 cost to play the first card represents that well. Investor cards (3 per suit) multiply the eventual score of a column, but must be played before any other card, and do trigger that -20, making it possible to score as little as -80 for an expedition with full backing but no progress made. Also interesting is the discard mechanic. Discards go face-up to a stack for each suit, and the top of each stack can be drawn from by either player in the future (rather than taking a card from the face-down deck). Thus, you have to watch what you throw away, lest your opponent find it valuable. Or, if you're feeling daring, you can use the discards as a temporary holding place for a card you can't use now, but may want later. And, with as many as 5 face-up cards available, sometimes even the drawing of a card takes a thought-out decision (5 known cards plus one from the deck to choose among). There is a lot of luck to the game, which is why the rules suggest playing three (or more) rounds and totaling your score from each rather than just one play, which is fine because each single play goes by fairly quickly. Card art is interesting, showing progressively more interesting hints of what the expedition discovers as the card value increase. There is also a board that isn't strictly necessary to play, but since the whole package still comes in under $20 (under $15 from the link below!), I can't complain too much about it.

Cosmic Encounter is an absolute classic, a game that serves as a direct ancestor of all the Collectable Card/Miniature/Bard Games that have flooded the market for the last several years. You see, Cosmic Encounter was the first (or at least the first successful) game based on the the idea of having fairly simple rules but numerous special exceptions, governed by the player role or by cards drawn and played. I was introduced to it as "every player has their own way to cheat", which is as good a description as any. This made Cosmic Encounter an infinitely re-playable game, as every game has a new and likely unique mix of player options. The actual base game is very simplistic, as you send a small number of your units to attack other player's planets while defending your own, with both players inviting the rest of the game to ally on their side if they wish. Attack Cards are added to each side, the higher total wins ("Compromise" cards can be played to give up and take cards from your opponent's hand if they played a normal attack card, or start a round of negotiations for a deal if both players Compromise). If that doesn't sound overwhelmingly interesting, it's because it really isn't. It's the powers and the funky edicts/flares/moons/lucre that make the game the classic that it is (okay, maybe not lucre, which came in a very late expansion and always seemed too patched-on to flow with the game). Originally, the game was released (by the defunct but regularly brilliant Eon) as just its base self, with only a handful of alien powers. The really good stuff came in a series of 9 expansion sets, each adding new aliens (if memory serves, their final total was 75), new rules, new variety. Unfortunately, the original publisher went away, and CE has since been given 3 re-workings, only the middle of which (by Mayfair Games) actually managed to replicate the full range of the original game, and even expand on it a bit (with some new powers and a few new cards of significant impact). The most current edition, from Avalon Hill/Hasbro, looks by far the best with fancy plastic space ships replacing the familiar round cardboard disks of earlier editions, but is only a slight peek at this great game, lacking most of the options and alien powers that make CE such a great game, and it seems unlikely that it will be expanded to show its true strength. Which is really a shame, because this is really not a game where less is more.

Just an additional note... there is a new online version of Cosmic Encounter out there, and it's getting fairly good reviews, though it's still far from the complete game. It's adding new alien powers quickly (including some new ones created just for them and taking advantage of the computer to do things that would be hard with real cards, boards and pieces), which is a good sign, but it has a long way to go to be even half the game I wasted many a college night playing (thanks again, Alex, for letting your set take all the abuse endless gaming put it through!). Because, as I said about the board version, in this game it really is all about how many options for weirdness you have to choose from. Still, if you are curious, it's worth a bit of time trying it out!

Funagain Purchase Links:
Lost Cities
Cosmic Encounter

Posted by ghoul at June 7, 2003 07:07 AM

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Great reviews of both. My wife won't play Lost Cities, since she can't get past the fact that it's a rummy game that has nothing to do with exploring. A shame, since it's so much fun.

Ever play Modern Art? Now there's a fun game.

Oh, and one other game is a spiritual ancestor of the CCGs: the original Illuminati and its expansions. We never used the final one, with its world opinion map, but it's a keeper.

Posted by: Scott` at June 7, 2003 12:34 PM

Knizia games are often only granted with the thinnest of themes... I think Lost Cities at least makes a nod with the Investor card scoring system, but other than that it is pretty much a limited style of Rummy. Of course, I have no problems with that because it's a good game.

Have Modern Art but haven't managed a chance to play it yet (it's something I picked up since last time I got together with boardgamers)... It impresses me from a read-through as a very promising bidding game.

And I'd agree that Illuminati is also in the ancestry of CCGs. And a great game I need to add to my list for future comment (dunno how I forgot it!).

Posted by: Ghoul at June 7, 2003 12:47 PM

Modern Art deserved its Game of the Year award a decade ago -- it's really interesting, and plays differently every time. It also has a different feel depending on whether you have three or four players.

Posted by: Scott at June 10, 2003 10:27 AM

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