Lost Cities: The Board Game

Lost Cities: The Board Game, KOSMOS, 2019 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

1 Play (4 Players)

As a Kniziaphile, when an unexplored Knizia game lands in your lap, it’s impossible to say no. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick up a cheap, used copy Lost Cities: The Board Game at a recent local sellers market event. There are now five different games in the Lost Cities line, and this is the third one I’ve tried (after the OG 2-player game and the Roll & Write).

As expected, the core gameplay is preserved here yet expanded to feature a large game board which can host up to 4 players. You’re still managing a tight hand, often wishing you could simply pass, and embarking on card climbing expeditions. But each card you play results in an explorer meeple advancing one step up the matching colored track. Once you start on an expedition, you’re immediately in the hole by negative 20 points and eager to get yourself into positive scoring territory. That’s why it’s important to commit to an expedition only when you know you have enough cards of that suit to make it worthwhile and enough time to actually play them.

Where Lost Cities is likely among of the most popular 2-player games of all time, most folks will find this to be a familiar premise. The unique aspects of the board game version are what make this spinoff interesting and worthwhile. Because you are advancing up tracks rather than simply tallying up cards, the math part of the scoring is significantly reduced. The game board also allows for Knizia to take advantage of some new opportunities: racing incentives, set collection, and variable bonuses. 

Each color or expedition will have a unique arrangement of bonus token spaces where tiles are laid out each round. Some of these tiles are first come first serve, while others will benefit all who reach them. You may earn bonus points, a bonus movement (to be used on any of your explorer meeples) or an artifact that nobody else can have. Those artifacts are particularly spicy, as earning a lot of them can gain you massive points at the end of the game, and earning too few (or none) can cost you loads of points. No investor likes to see their sponsored explorer come home empty handed.

Ultimately, Lost Cities: The Board Game offers a unique, family-friendly twist on Lost Cities that notably supports more than 2 players. It certainly scratches the same itch of tight hand management and risky commitments, although diehard fans of the original card game might find that this one lacks the same level of tension… Where the original card game has you agonizing over which cards to play or discard within its zero-sum head-to-head battle, in the board game it’s easier to scoop up discarded cards from opponents who simply have bigger things to worry about. In other words, the board game is larger and longer, yet more casual and welcoming, for better or worse. But even in 2023, it still holds up as a solid family game.

Prognosis: Fair

Board

Odd Socks / Relationship Tightrope

box cover

1 Play (4 Players)

If you, like me, happen to travel hundreds of miles deep into the tabletop gaming hobby… beyond the Ticket to Ride train station, through the Dice Tower woods, across the Kickstarter ocean, and having weathered the storms of board game conventions… you will eventually find yourself in the dark, mysterious cave known as Amazon Japan. That is once again where I found myself recently, and I certainly didn’t come out unscathed. 

Odd Socks is the first of five Knizia Games I giddily ordered from the other side of the world and happily printed English rules for. This design, originally released in 1999 under the title Relationship Tightrope andlater tweaked and reimplemented in 2010 as Zen Master, has now come full circle back to it’s original ruleset but with a notably different theme. Here, you’re simply doing your best to avoid collecting odd socks. But socks do what they do best and somehow manage to end up all over the place, especially in front of your play area. The only way to get rid of these socks is to pair them up, and the player with the least socks wins.

Interestingly, Odd Socks reminds me a bit of our own Knizia publications, Pumafiosi and Hot Lead. In all of these games, there is a subtle element of hand management — rolling with the punches as you decide when to save and when to spend your high, low, and middle cards. All the games feature a deck of cards that range from 1-55 (or in the case of Odd Socks, 50). But what you are trying to accomplish with those cards is very different.

In Odd Socks, you’ll simply play a trick where the highest and the lowest cards get nailed with sock tokens (there are no suits here, although every card notably has a charmingly unique sock design in the background). How many sock tokens you get nailed with depends entirely on the scoring card of the trick. Each trick starts with a new scoring card being revealed — one card will award 3 blue socks to the highest bidder and 3 red socks to the lowest bidder, another will drown a the highest player in 9 blue socks and the lowest player in 9 red socks. These scoring cards range from 1 all the way up to 9. So once you get nailed with socks of one color, you desperately want to collect a roughly equal amount of socks of the other color to cancel them all out and bring your score back down to zero.

Deciding when to commit or dump certain cards in your hand is the bread and butter of this light card game. There are some subtle tactics lurking here that reward smart hand management. But there are two particularly potent twists to the design that really make it sing:

  1. The scoring cards have a couple zeros that nullify one color or the other of a particular trick’s scoring card. This can make for a great opportunity to dump a super high or low card with no consequences, or a devastating discovery when you counted on this card coming up and it never did (because it was at the bottom of the score card pile, unused after all player’s hands are empty). 
  2. If you can manage to get a perfect score in a round (zero socks in front of you after all the cards have been played), then you are allowed to erase your worst score in a previous round. This adds much more tension to ridding your current round supply of socks as you gun for a comeback.

It may not be among the greatest Knizia card games of all time, that’s a very high bar to clear, but Odd Socks is easily a pleasing casual card game well worth its latest rebirth.

Prognosis: Good

eyecatch

Wiener Walzer

Wiener Walzer, Group SNE, 2022 — front cov

1 Play (4 Players)

Wiener Walzer! The Viennese Waltz! Dancing and buffets! Although if you have the Group SNE (Japanese) version like me, you could easily be fooled into believing it’s an Anime Waltz based in Japan. At any rate, in this game you’ll be waltzing and feasting — Knizia style!

Wiener Walzer originated as a 2016 release in French/German/Italian regions and only last year hit the Japanese market with a new art style. This is actually one of Knizia’s notable board games that has never seen an English release. I say notable because it features one of his most legendary mechanisms — tile placement. Thus, its English absence hasn’t stopped Knizia fans like myself from picking up a copy from overseas. Fortunately, our fellow gamers at Board Game Geek are often thoughtful enough to translate the rules to allow us to do more than stare at the components and imagine the possibilities.

To setup Wiener Walzer, you’ll lay out a board and place various food dishes and neutral dancers (mostly food) across the square grid of spaces. Each player has an identical supply of their own dancer tiles which are shuffled and drawn one at a time in their hands. Your tiles range from the zero value grouchy old lady or crotchety old man to the five value radiant lady or handsome man. In case their demeanor didn’t make it obvious, their number reinforces who you do and don’t want to dance with.

On your turn you’ll simply take the single tile in your hand and place it onto any space on the board that doesn’t yet have a dancer — claiming the food tile from that space in the process. Once a dancer tile is fully surrounded by other dancers, this will trigger a waltz. The surrounded dancer will waltz with the adjacent highest-value dancer of the opposite sex. What this means is that the finest gentlemen will be competing for the most sought after ladies, and vice versa. Of course, it also means that I can plop my old hag down in the middle of a bunch of proper young gentlemen and force one of them into dancing with her (or vice versa).

The reason you might try to ruin a hopeful young dancer’s night with an icky tile positioned at the perfect time is because both tiles flip facedown and score their owners the full sum of their points. So even though my repulsive dancers are worth nothing on their own, they can earn me points by waltzing with a more prized dancer. It proved to be quite a tense and funny experience to see players swooping in on each other, foiling each other’s grand ball plans, and stealing away dancer points.

On top of that, you want to collect complete sets of buffet items. There are five different tokens (bread, cheese, cake, caviar, and cigars) as well as wild champagne. At the end of the game, you’ll receive 5 points per complete set of buffet items (with champagne filling in the cracks as needed). Notably, these buffet tokens can have anywhere from 1 to 3 items on them… not all tokens are created equal. So there is a careful balance between snatching up lucrative dancing opportunities and wolfing down the best platters.

It makes for a lovely little game that should work well with any group and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Additionally, the game even comes with optional event cards which allow you to execute a special action whenever you play a zero tile. We haven’t tried those yet, and the game frankly doesn’t even need them, but it’s a nice addition for those who wish to spice things up. It’s just a shame that nobody has bothered to bring this waltz to the US.

Prognosis: Good

Japanese edition components

Medici: The Card Game

Medici: The Card Game, Grail Games, 2017

2 Plays (4 Players)

Well hot dang, this is a lovely card game. Even when nobody asked for a stone-cold classic auctioning game, Medici, to have the auctions ripped out of it, Reiner provided us with a worthwhile answer.

While it’s true that players are no longer bidding with their points to claim goods and fill their ships, all of the other killer ingredients of original Medici are preserved here, and there are even some compelling new ones added to the mix.

Your turn is dead simple: flip and reveal 1, 2, or 3 cards (or 0 if you’d like and if the market already has cards), then take 1-3 cards from the market and add them to your collection. If that were the entire conceit of the game, then I would be the first in line to burn this design at the stake (and frankly, one might assume that was the entire ruleset based on some of the negative comments on board game geek… are you people sure you read the entire rulebook?). But nay, there is so much more behind the scenes here:

First, you can only collect five total cards each round, and not all cards are created equal. Do you play it safe and take what you can see now, or do you hold out for hopefully better options later? You won’t have all the time in the world, because once everyone else fills their “ship,” you only get one more turn whether it fills your ship or not. 

Second, you must always take the last card in the market. So there is a zesty element of push-your-luck here where you have to weigh the opportunity costs of stopping early against the risks of revealing an even worse card that clogs up your ship. That third and final card you flip may or may not be worth it, and the decision of whether to go to the limit is always thrilling.

Third, you can additionally take up to two more cards, but your options are restricted to the very end of the market row. So revealing more cards can also completely lock you out of earlier (and potentially better) cards in the market. 

Fourth, just like classic Medici, there are several dangling carrots within the set collection competition. It’s always good to gun for the highest valued ship (highest numerical sum) of each round. The difference between first and last place is a massive amount of points. On top of that, you are competing with players for goods type majorities. Both versions of Medici feature the perfect blend of scoring strategies that make various options painfully enticing yet at odds with each other.

Once again, there is far more juicy nuance here than the game’s detractors give it credit for. Yes, there is luck involved (that is one of Knizia’s favorite ingredients), but it’s the kind of luck that makes for compelling decisions and delicious drama.

But why wouldn’t I just play classic Medici instead? Well, Medici: The Card Game manages to stand out and shine on its own in several ways: It’s lightning quick, it plays better than Medici at lower player counts (particularly at 4p), it’s the obvious choice for folks who struggle with auctioning games, and it enhances the push-your-luck elements in delectable ways.

Prognosis: Good

Medici The Card Game - 3D preview (Work in Progress!)

Forbidden City

Forbidden City front of box

3 Plays (2 Players)

Where Forbidden City is one of the more recent Knizia releases — it’s from 2018 meaning it’s probably only the… 40th newest Knizia release (I had to check just now and of course I was wrong, Reiner has released over 80 more games since Forbidden City — 80+ games in 4 years! ?).  And now we’ve strayed so far from the start of that sentence that there is no hope in finishing it ?.  Oh well, another month has come and gone and I have yet more new-to-me Knizias to discuss.  What else is new?

Anyway, Forbidden City is basically Carcassonne but with a few twists… which is funny because Reiner already designed that kind of thing with Carcassonne: The Castle.  These are both games that I’ve tried for the first time within a month of each other, so it’s inevitable that I must compare them.

Forbidden City asks the question: What if your Carcassonne meeple figures were printed directly onto the tiles themselves, and every player had their own set of tiles to draw from?  And what if you could compete directly with the other players (adding your figures to an unfinished area that already contained figures)? And what if scoring for a completed area also triggered scoring for adjacent connected areas?

That last question is the most interesting of the bunch.  Your tiles can have three possible colors (room types) on them.  You’ll be linking up open ends with like colors, or you can simply put a walled side up against any end of a room.  Some of the tile sides also have doorways, and those doorways create opportunities for massive scoring.  

Any time you close off an area, that area will score first place (maximum) points and second place (half) points for the players with the most figures in that area. Those points can be huge if the room has any doorways leading to other areas which will add their full point values to the score. Where players are limited to a single tile option in their hand each turn, they must decide where to commit, when to close off a room, and when to risk leaving rooms open. You’ll score a point for every tile that makes up a room, plus a bonus three points for every dragon.

It’s as simple as that. The competition really becomes all about those doorways and the additional scoring potential they offer.  Like a hungry leech, it’s easy to suck even more points out of a completed room with a newly placed neighboring 1-tile room that is connected via a doorway. These bonus points don’t even have to come from a completed room — it’s allowed to score off of a monstrous glob of tiles that have no hope of being enclosed by walls, you just have to connect to it with another room and complete that one.

It’s a perfectly fine game that offers a Carcassonne-like experience with a few twists to the formula. The only problem is that Forbidden City exists in the shadow of Carcassonne: The Castle. Based on initial impressions, Carcassonne: The Castle seems the more interesting and exciting game of the two.

During our first play of Forbidden City, it was genuinely difficult to sit at our table and enjoy the subtle nuances of the design when I knew that a similar style of game with more layered depth, intense competition, and excruciating decisions was sitting only a few feet away on our bookshelf. I was ready to write this one off as a purely inferior “me too” type of game, but that is the moment where I knew it deserved a bit more exploration.  Of course, as many overlooked Knizias go, our second and third plays revealed that there was more to peel back here. 

The biggest problem with Forbidden City is the fact that newcomers will naturally try to play it similar to how they play Carcassonne. It’s easy to fall into this trap when so many of the mechanisms are identical. You’ll spend your amateur turns connecting matching tile colors and competing for majority influence over the largest rooms. And if that is all there was to the strategy, then Forbidden City would be a rather redundant affair. But all it takes is one little scoring rule change to completely upend the true strategy of the game.

The true magic of Forbidden City is found not within the rooms, but in the doorways. If my opponent establishes a strong presence in a lucrative room, then I shouldn’t be looking to overtake them — I have zero control over what tiles enter my hand anyway, so the odds of me getting a matching tile to put me ahead in the room’s majority is slim to none. Rather, I should drop a matching tile for easy second place points (to cut my opponents scoring advantage in half), and then begin surrounding this mega room with doorways where I can leech further points off of it from adjacent rooms where I have the majority control.

Once one breaks through this mental cage, Forbidden City really opens itself up to being a satisfying game in its own right.  I still don’t know whether that’s good enough to keep it around long-term. All I know is that Carcassonne: The Castle satisfies the same craving in a more flavorful way — straight from the first bite.

Prognosis: Fair

Cardboard Imperial Palace in the middle

Cat Blues / Katzenjammer Blues

Cat Blues, OPEN'N PLAY, 2019 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

4 Plays (2 & 3 Players)

I’m feeling the blues for Cat Blues because this game right here is seriously underrated. I suppose I must give all those bafflingly low ratings the benefit of the doubt because there is a chance that many of these folks tried the game at 5 or 6 players which seems far too high for this type of game. But even so, I get the impression that this masterful medley from Maestro Knizia has fallen on many deaf ears.

It’s extremely difficult to make a good game with simpler components than what this one has: 15 cards each of values 1-5 and Jokers, plus 24 mice cards (or tokens, depending on your version of the game). The object of the game is to claim the most mice, and you earn mice by melding quartets of cards. If I meld a quartet of 1s then I get 1 mouse, if I meld a quartet of 5s then I get 5 mice. So clearly 1s are hot garbage and 5s are top-tier, right? Not so, dear fellow feline.

While the high value jazz bands bring in the best crowds, the low value sets can help you assemble an amazing hand. The only way you are allowed to meld a quartet and claim mice is by winning an auction, and winning an auction also adds more cards to your hand, but you gotta spend the cards in your hand to win an auction! Already I can sense your cheeks clenching in pain (don’t worry, I only sense it conceptually) — which cards will you cast away to win an auction, and which cards will you save for a precious quartet?!

The prize of each auction is determined very easily: simply flip cards face-up from the deck and stop once you see a duplicate number or a Joker. So the spoils can range from 1 all the way up to 6 cards. The winner of the auction claims each and every one. Then another auction begins anew until the deck or mice run out.

The manner in which you bid makes for another compelling decision: you can either bid cards of different values or cards of the same value… If I bid “two cards” (meaning any two cards of different values), you can raise the bid by declaring “three cards” OR “two 1s” or “two 3s” because a set cards of the same value trumps cards of different values, higher values beat out lower, but a bid with more cards (either all different values or all the same value) trumps all. Conceptually, this makes sense because a set of cards of the same value can instead earn you mice if you don’t blow your cards on a bid, and mice are how you win the game.

The most powerful card of all, the wild Joker, is the final twist that seals the deal. You see, you can substitute Jokers in anywhere you want. Make your bid more powerful or push your set across the quartet finish line to earn those mice you so desperately hunger for. Heck, even form a quartet of all Jokers and call it whatever number you want (of course you should only pick 5, silly). But here’s the catch: Jokers will come back to haunt you at the end of the game. Any Jokers you played in a bid or melded into a quartet remain in front of you and are tallied up (along with any that were unplayed in your hand) at the end of the game. The player(s) with the most Jokers lose 5 mice. That’s classic Knizia, right there.

This entire offering just sings for me across every facet: the game length is blazingly quick, the box is incredibly compact, the artwork is wonderfully bonkers, and the well of nuanced strategy is breathlessly deep. I can’t recall the last time I played a Knizia card game that hides this much complexity under the hood.

Actually, I lied earlier. There is one way in which you can exorcise Jokers from your hand: meld a quartet of all Jokers and then discard it rather than claiming any mice for it. But does it even matter if you net zero points either way? Oh, dear kitten, it matters. It matters alright. But just like a bopping Jazz performance, I can’t hear the music for you, so I’ll allow you to discover and enjoy its hidden subtleties on your own.

Prognosis: Excellent

The complete box contents.

Prognosis: a forecast of how the game will likely fare in my collection, and perhaps yours as well.

Excellent– Among the best in its genre.  This game will never leave my collection.

Good– A very solid game and a keeper on the shelf.

Fair– It’s fine. It’s enjoyable. But I’m not likely to seek it out or keep it around.

Poor– Really doesn’t fit my tastes; not one I want to revisit… but hey, that’s just me.

Hopeless– Never again. Run & hide. Demon be gone.


Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing excellent board games, including the upcoming Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games that bite.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kuiper

    You describe Odd Socks as “the first of five Knizia Games…giddily ordered from the other side of the world,” what are the others? I wouldn’t mind a “round-up” post of the various Knizia titles you’ve imported from various countries, as it would really help me out when planning my own international orders. (I’ve become a bit of a collector, in some cases buying new versions of Knizia titles I already own because I’ve found international versions with artwork or components that I like more, such as the gorgeous retheme of Circus Flohcati by New Games Order, or the Japanese version of Battle Line/Schotten Totten which was released as “Knights Poker” with wooden pieces replacing the cards).

    1. Nick Murray

      Hello Kuiper!

      I apologize for the tease. Here are some of the games I recall ordering from Japan (basically Amazon Japan):
      – Odd Socks
      – Cat Blues (Katzenjammer Blues)
      – Members Only (soon releasing in the US as Classic Art)
      – Rumble Nation (not a Knizia, but a great one nonetheless)
      – Botswana (the new Japanese edition is gorgeous)
      – Circus Flohcati
      – Weiner Walzer

      Other great options:
      – Stephenson’s Rocket
      – Winner’s Circle

      One great source to learn about more international Knizias (and how to acquire them) is the Reiner Knizia Enthusiasts Discord! You can join the community here: https://discord.gg/FH2F25hvWA

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