Today Jeremiah reviews Onitama, Arcane Wonders' two-player game of martial arts tactics. Onitama was released during Origins Game Fair in 2016 and features quick play, simple mechanics, and deep strategy. So does Onitama win the tournament and get the girl? Or does it sweep the leg? Let's find out!Read More
By Firestone Some people have spouses who love to game with them, but for most of us, we’re always on the lookout for a game that might entice our significant other to join us in this hobby.
For many people, designer Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities is the quintessential Spouse Game: It’s easy to teach, it’s 2-player only, there’s a decent amount of luck, and there are interesting decisions throughout.
If you’ve read our review of Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line, these mechanisms will be very familiar: play a card, and draw a card.
The theme is paper-thin, but every little bit helps when it comes to getting your wife or husband playing. You’re heading up a series of expeditions looking for fabled “lost cities.” The game comes with a small board, and a deck of 60 cards—45 of them run 2 through 10 five colors (or destinations), and then each color also has three Investment cards. You start the game with eight cards.
On your turn you will play a card—either down to one of the five expeditions in front of you, or into the communal discard pile for the color. Then you draw a card, either from the facedown deck or the top card from one of the color discard piles. You’re trying to get as many cards into as many expeditions as possible. The catch is that once you place a card for an expedition, the next card you play has to be higher than the last one played. It doesn’t have to be the next card in sequence; it just has to be higher. But the numbers only go two through 10, so if you start on five, you only have five more cards you can play—and that’s only if you’re able to draw those cards!
Since you’re forced to play a card each turn, sometimes you just want to delay having to start one of your expeditions until you can get some small numbers in that color, so you ditch a card onto a discard pile. You run the risk that’s just the card your opponent needed, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.
Another twist is those Investment cards I mentioned earlier. There are three in each color, and you have to play them at the beginning of an expedition. You can play all three if you’re lucky enough to draw them—and brave enough to play them. That’s because the first one doubles the value of the expedition at the end of the game; the second one triples it; and the third one quadruples it.
Why is that brave, you ask? Well, that’s because each expedition you launch has 20 points subtracted from it at the end of the game. Thematically, you can think of this as the money it costs to launch these endeavors to the ends of the earth. So let’s say on the green expedition you’re only able to play an Investment card, a two, a three, and a five by the time the game ends. You’ve only scored 10 points, but you subtract 20 points from that and you’re now at -10…except that Investment card now doubles it. You’re at a cool -20. Be very careful where you Invest…
One other small rule is that there’s a bonus of 20 points for any expedition that has eight or more cards in it—including Investment cards.
The game ends as soon as the draw deck runs out. You add up the points in each expedition, subtract the 20 points, add the 20 points (if applicable), and multiply (if applicable).
The game suggests playing three rounds, and since the rounds are short, it doesn’t take long at all.
Lost Cities is part of the Kosmos line of 2-player games. If you play a lot of 2-player games, I highly recommend checking these out—especially Jambo, Odin’s Ravens, The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, and Balloon Cup. The artwork is colorful and evocative. The cards are oversized, and despite the fact that they have black borders, they don’t seem to be showing much wear.
Lost Cities is a very good 2-player game, and if you’re looking for the game to hook your spouse, this might just do the trick. Check back later in the week for our review of Lost Cities: The Board Game, which ramps this game up a notch.
Thanks for reading!
[Review by Firestone] If there’s a king of board game design, it would have to be Reiner Knizia. This German genius has designed hundreds of games—including many that are at the top of the Boardgamegeek.com list of highest-rated games. (He’s definitely designed some stinkers, mind you, but his highs make up for his lows.)
What makes him so interesting is that his games are so diverse. His games go from 2-6 players. Some have auctions. Some don’t. Some have tile-laying. Some don’t. Some use cards. Others dice. Others wooden bits. Some are ridiculously simple to play. Some will make your brain hurt. He’s a wonder.
According to Boardgamegeek, I own 45 of his games—and I’ve probably played at least 50 more of his that I don’t even own. One of my favorites is a gem called Battle Line—a 2-player card game that I can’t recommend highly enough.
In it you have 9 small pawns, that you place in a left-to-right line between you and your opponent; these represent battlefields. The goal is to “win” either three fields that are next to each other, or any 5 fields. Here’s how you play the game: you play a card, and you draw a card. That’s it. Super simple, right? But as with so many Knizia games, the simple play reveals hidden depth.
Thematically, you’re a Greek general, and you’re playing down troop cards to win battles. There are 60 cards, numbered one through 10 in six different colors. On your turn you have to play a card down to your side of one of the battlefields. Only three cards can be on each side.
The way you determine who won is that you compare the “formations” on each side. They’re kinda like poker hands. Three cards in a numerical row of the same color (straight flush ) > three of the same number (three of a kind) > three of the same color (flush) > three in a numerical row of any colors (straight) > any combination of three colors and numbers (high cards).
Sometimes you’ll both play three of a kind down, and the tie is broken by who has the highest numbers on their cards.
At the end of your turn you can “claim” a battlefield if you’ve won it (by both having three cards down and your formation beats your opponent’s). You can also claim it if your opponent has at least two cards down, and you play your third one and there’s no way your opponent could win the battle. For instance, if your opponent has two 4’s on his side, if you play your third of three 5s on your side, there’s no way your opponent can beat you, so you can claim victory there.
There’s a great deal of angst, because sometimes you don’t want to play a card down, because you’re still waiting for juuuust the right card in a few places. But you have to, so you’re forced to ditch a card on a battle you just know you won’t win. But that gives your opponent a chance to get closer to winning. It’s so tense and wonderful!
As I said, the winner is the first person to win three battles next to each other, or any five across all nine battlefields.
But WAIT! There are also some cards called Tactics cards, that let you mess with things. At the end of your turn, when you draw a card, you can draw from the regular Troops deck, or draw a Tactics cards. Those allow you to break the rules in some way. There are only 10 of them, but they can be powerful. One is a wild color; one is a wild number; one lets you steal an opponent’s card from an unresolved battle, and one changes the rules for determining winner in one battle so that it’s only the numbers that count.
Some people think the Tactics cards insert too much luck, so they don’t play with them. I’ve played both ways, and I like both ways. Without Tactics cards makes for a more tense and thinky game, while playing with them makes it a little more thematic and “loose.”
If I had one complaint, it would be about the theme. It’s pretty boring, and publisher GMT Games used boring artwork on the cards. They’re functional, they’re just not fun. I must not be the only person who feels that way, because there are LOTS of rethemes for this game on Boardgamegeek, where people have created entirely new images to use for the game.
But other than that purely subjective gripe, this is one of the best 2-player games I’ve ever played—maybe the best. It’s super cheap, so consider giving this one a whirl!
Thanks for reading!