This is the third post in one of our new series for the Die Gute Fabrik blog. Playing in a Pandemic from Game Designer and Co-Owner Douglas Wilson offers insights into games and play for lockdown and limited physical contact, and to think through and help us connect socially in physically-distanced times.
The Intimacy of 1v1 Games
In the first two parts of this series (Part 1, Part 2) I focused on playing tabletop games over the internet, via websites like playingcards.io and Board Game Arena, or even by using elaborately staged webcams. But despite the name of this series (#RemotePlay) I don’t think online games tell the full story about how we play under pandemic conditions.
Yes, we’re living in physically distanced times, but many of us are fortunate enough to be living together with a partner, family, or flatmates. Here in Melbourne, our strict statewide lockdown meant that I was spending more time than ever with my partner (and our pets). In addition to figuring out how we’d socially interact with friends and family online, we also had to think more seriously about how we would interact just the two of us, in our own home.
We tried lots of playful activities. We watched TV series; we did a jigsaw puzzle together; we dug out old videogames fondly remembered from our childhoods; we fostered rescue animals; and of course, we tried a lot of 1v1 tabletop games.
Of all those activities, one of our favorites was Lost Cities, the famous 1v1 card game (originally published in 1999) by German designer Reiner Knizia. I had played and enjoyed Lost Cities for years, but the game became even more meaningful for me under lockdown.
In this post, I’m hoping to convince you to try Lost Cities! I’ll also suggest some house rules. More broadly, I want to celebrate the power of ritualized play, especially as a way of cutting through the monotonous morass of lockdown life.
The Beauty of Lost Cities
There are lots of great 1v1 card games. I’m especially fond of maximalist collectible (or “living”) card games like Android: Netrunner and Doomtown. But those games benefit from a bigger community of players with diverse decks (a “local meta”). They also require a big time investment between games, researching cards, brainstorming strategies, and building decks. For our purposes under lockdown, we wanted something simpler, with less prep time.
The two of us could have tried cooperative campaign games like Pandemic Legacy, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, or Codenames Duet. I love those games, and play them with some of my colleagues. But my partner and I wanted something that would put us on more equal footing. We also wanted a competitive game, in order to engage in cheeky banter and playful taunting.
There are many casual 1v1 designer games, but my all-time favorite is Lost Cities. I won’t try to summarize every rule in this post, but here’s a useful how-to-play video:
The conceptual core of Lost Cities is its stacking mechanic, by which you play piles of colored number cards in strictly ascending order. What this means in practice is that you’re constantly making heart-wrenching decisions about what numbers to skip over in a sequence. For example: you’ve played a Green 2, 3, 5, and you’re holding a Green 8. Do you just play the 8, or do you keep waiting for the 6 or 7? Are they still in the deck, or is your opponent holding them? Because of your limited hand size, you often pay a cost for waiting too long: what other cards will you have to play or give away as you keep waiting for more Green cards?
The resulting dynamic of Lost Cities is a game in which you’re constantly trying to make the least bad decision. Sure, sometimes you’ll luck into the perfect stack, or draw a card at just the right moment. But most of the time, you’re making hard decisions on which futures to close down. This particular flavor of gameplay isn’t for everyone, but personally I love how weighty all my decisions feel. I want to curse my bad luck when I draw that Green 7 one round too late.
(Sidenote: if you like the “oh no, all my options are bad” flavor of Lost Cities, I highly recommend the solo card game Scoundrel, which similarly uses a stacking mechanic).
Lost Cities is a “push your luck” game. The special contract cards (which double, triple, or quadruple the stakes of a colored stack) force you to consider taking major risks. Do I play a Blue contract now, hoping to draw better Blue cards later? If I misplay the contract, I might end up earning negative points. But if I discard the Blue contract, I might supercharge my opponent (what Blue cards are they secretly holding?). Lost Cities is not a forgiving game.
Crucially, Lost Cities is a deeply psychological game. Your own actions will depend on what colors your opponent is playing and holding in their hand, and visa versa. This dynamic leads to a surprising variety of advanced strategic gambits. Maybe I discard a Red 3, just to test the waters and see if my opponent scoops it. If not, I can feel more confident they aren’t hoarding Red cards… that is, unless my opponent suspects my 3 is bait! Learning exactly how your opponent tends to play is an important part of succeeding in Lost Cities.
That said, Lost Cities is no Chess or Go. The game is subject to considerable explicit randomness, based on the shuffle of the deck. Like Poker, Lost Cities is a game that requires skill and luck. You need to calculate the odds and read your opponent, but you also need to draw the right cards at the right time. The inherent randomness of Lost Cities helps level the playing field, and makes it easier to introduce the game to new players.
Lost Cities certainly isn’t the only eurogame-y 1v1 card game that gives players so-called “interesting choices”. But I love the numeric clarity of every decision I make in Lost Cities. In a 1v1 game like, say, Jaipur, I can generally work out which moves benefit me or my opponent. And sure, each token I earn has a concrete integer value. But, by design, the precise stakes of each single action often feels muddled; there are so many different interlocking subsystems.
By contrast, in Lost Cities I can generally calculate exactly how many points I would gain by playing a particular card — or how many points I might forego by skipping a card in a sequence. I feel like this clarity is key, because it helps heighten my anticipation of every single card I draw or my opponent plays. In Lost Cities, it feels like every action really matters. And yet, the game is still complex enough that I’m not able to calculate the precise numerical odds of most of my gambles. It is only experience that teaches you how to better “feel out” your chances.
Lost Cities as Lockdown Ritual
At the start of the pandemic, I introduced my partner to Lost Cities. Pretty soon, we were playing several times every day, for months. Sometimes we would play over dinner; other times we would play right before bed. A round of Lost Cities takes roughly 10 minutes, which makes it a great game to fit into the rest of your life, spontaneously.
Typically, a “match” of Lost Cities is supposed to last three rounds. You sum up all your points over the three rounds, and the winner if the person with the most points. This three-round rule helps give the game some structure and narrative, not unlike a three-act story. In addition, playing multiple rounds helps reduce the role of luck (i.e. law of large numbers).
Stuck inside in lockdown, my partner and I realized that we could raise the stakes, durationally over time. Instead of playing just three rounds, we would play first to 1000 points (roughly, that’s about 30 rounds) over the course of a couple weeks. This simple temporal shift radically changed the experience of the game, in several major ways. First, we found ourselves really savoring each victory and lamenting every loss; after all, we might trash-talk each other periodically over the course of the day. Second, playing to a set number of points instead of a set number of rounds changes the incentives of what risks we take. In a three-round game, I play somewhat conservatively, unless I’m at a big point deficit going into the final round. Playing to 1000 points, I play contract cards more aggressively and aim for big point swings.
One risk of playing so many rounds is that the role of luck is greatly diminished. Early on, it became clear that my experience with the game was giving me too big an advantage over my partner, who was still learning the game. In response, we started improvising restrictions to even the odds. For example, in one early 1000-point series, I was never allowed to play the Blue 4. This introduced fun strategic conundrums. Both of us knew that Blue was less favorable for me, but of course that opened up opportunities for me to play Blue when my partner was least expecting it. In another series, my partner could play the Yellow 4 at any time, even out of sequence. Again, this changed the “meta” of our strategies.
For us, Lost Cities became something more than just a game. We began to view it as a ritual — something to look forward to, something to talk about. This ritual gave us a welcome sense of order in a year where the days all seemed to bleed together. No game can give you this kind of ritualized experience on a proverbial silver platter; the magic of our Lost Cities experience was a function of our own efforts and motivations. Still, if you’re looking for a two-player game that rewards repeated play and friendly rivalry, you should really try Lost Cities.
Lost Cities in the Digital Age
Not everyone is living together with somebody else (or with somebody else who would enjoy Lost Cities). But don’t worry, you can still play Lost Cities online. I sometimes play the game with my parents over Board Game Arena. Even better, there’s a pretty good version of the game for iOS, which allows you to play asynchronously over the internet, or against AI opponents.
That said, I have to admit that I prefer playing the game in person. Because Lost Cities is such a psychological game, the gameplay is enriched by tone of voice and body language. I also find that playing the game asynchronously undercuts the momentum of the gameplay. I wait all day for my opponent to take their action, and then I finally get to… play just one card. Card games that work best asynchronously are often the ones that allow you to take multiple actions on your turn (here I’m thinking about engine-building games like Ascension).
I should mention that my friend (and Lost Cities rival) Nick Suttner doesn’t totally agree with me on this point. Nick loves playing the game in person too, but gets his fix by maintaining multiple games (with different opponents) at a time via iOS.
One final tip: we do use computer technology to aid our in-person play. The Lost Cities scoring system is notoriously confusing (i.e. starting from -20) and finicky to calculate. There are a number of Lost Cities scoring assistants and apps you can find online. I usually prefer something more homespun, and so my partner and I use this janky Google spreadsheet I threw together:
One of the benefits of our Lost Cities mega-spreadsheet is that I have a record of every single 1000-point series we played over lockdown. We can even crunch the data and chart trends over time! After 2020, I feel like I’m ready for a Lost Cities esports league.