I don’t know why I always assume games with the ‘South American explorer’ vibe revolve around Mayans. The Incas were pretty legit.
Screw the Aztecs, though. Stupid Eagle Warriors.
Wait, which game are we playing?
Lost Cities is a Reiner Knizia game, which is good! Reiner makes good games! So Lost Cities is… it must be…
Ok, look. This is a 2008 reprint of a 1999 game. Less was expected of the industry back then. It’s useful to go back and look at games like this so we see where our hobby came from while also looking towards where it’s going.
In Lost Cities, you have five explorers and five tracks for them to go down. Each track has a randomized set of bonuses on certain spaces, and are worth a certain number of points at the end of the round depending on how far your explorer moves. There’s also a huge deck of cards, with cards numbered zero through ten and corresponding to the color of one of the tracks. If you want to put an explorer on a track, you play a card of that color. Easy.
However, if you want to move the explorer further along, you have to play a card of the same value or higher. Therefore, in order to move the explorer a decent distance (hopefully all the way to the end), you need to start with low value cards and work your way up as slowly as you can. You can discard a card and draw a new one rather than play a trash card; however, you can’t take too long, because as soon as a certain number of total explorers reach the break line on their tracks, the round ends, and explorers who haven’t moved very far are actually worth negative points.
The points get kind of stratospheric, which is neat—many games don’t go above fifty, and most don’t go above one hundred. If you’re not getting triple digits in a single Lost Cities round, that wasn’t a very good round.
But there’s not much strategy here. As the round draws nearer to a close, you may need to decide whether it’s worth the risk to start an explorer down a new trail when they could be worth negative points. It can be a consequential choice, but it’s about the only intellectual decision you’ll need to make. If you can go down a track and you have a low card, you play the card and go down the track. If you can hit bonuses that give you extra moves, you link them together as best you can. Maybe you play a 2 on one track rather than a 0 on another because you like the bonuses on that first track more, but you still have the 0 and you’ll still play it pretty soon.
I imagine that people looking for games that weren’t Twilight Imperium-sized but more friendly than Monopoly and less mindless than Chutes & Ladders were probably happy with this in 1999. Today, it’s quite possibly a good tool for teaching game basics to kids. Beyond that, it’s just a casual game that can kill an hour. Don’t avoid it like the plague, but it’s not much more than a thrift store purchase.
(3 / 5)
The fantasy land of Xidit cries out for a champion, a leader that will save it from the terrible monsters which traverse the realm! Someone noble, someone grand of vision, someone who will conscript farmers to the cause before actual trained warriors!
In Lords of Xidit, you play the role of an army commander who is identical to all other commanders except for how sweet they look (hell yeah, ninja lady). It’s a programming game in the vein of Robo Rally; you select six actions, your commander does each of them in turn, and if someone ninjas in to take whatever you wanted to get, well, too bad. At least you can’t drop into a bottomless pit.
The possible actions are few, but they’re enough. Each location has three roads leading away from it: blue, red, and black. If you choose one of those roads as your action, you travel that road from whatever location you’re in, whether you want to anymore or not. You can conscript the lowest-level unit type available in the location, assuming it’s a city; once all the possible conscripts are gone, this action does nothing. You can also do battle with a monster in a location. Or pass the move, if you think a delay will get you what you want.
Each monster requires a specific set of unit types to defeat it. You cannot use higher-level unit types in place of whatever’s necessary. Beating monsters earns you two of three possible rewards: lyre points, towers, or gold. There’s a different balance of these rewards on each monster, such that most of them have a pretty obvious ‘two best’ rewards, but in some cases you can’t choose those (most likely because someone has a tower built in that location, forcing you to take the other two rewards). One curious mechanic is that tiles have a monster on one side and a city in the other, which means when a city runs out of conscripts, it flips into the monster pile, to be drawn when you run low on monsters, and so on forever. (There are titans you can fight in any location, with any set of troops, if no monsters are available to be drawn.)
That’s all of the mechanics. Your goal is to score the most points in… well… it changes. And it’s not exactly the most points.
The win condition is intriguing but takes a bit of getting used to. There are three ways of scoring, based on the aforementioned monster-smash rewards: lyre points (gained from having the most lyre tokens in a territory), the most levels of towers (height is irrelevant; nine one-story towers is better than two four-stories), and straight cash. These scoring methods are chosen randomly at the start of the game into the first, second, and third scoring slots.
Scoring for each of these is straightforward—count the appropriate item. How they apply to winning, however, is pretty different from most games. For the first scoring metric, being first does not matter; you only need to be in the top three. (In a three player game, an NPC gains points in each metric slowly as the game progresses so there’s someone to eliminate in the first round.) For the second metric, you need to be in the top two. Having the highest score only matters with regards to the final metric, and you only need to beat the other person who has made it that far.
Since gold is hidden, and lyre points in the center are as well (they go into a strongbox), each game plays different in part around how readily available information is on the first two metrics. A game that counts towers first, where all info is open, plays differently than one where gold is first and everyone’s just taking their best guess.
So, there are two main aspects to the game outside of the theme that will determine if you like it: the programming gameplay and the shifting win conditions. Programming requires some forethought, but if everyone is experienced, the “I know what you know, but you know that I know what you know” shenanigans can run deep. If you’re into that, it’s great. Likewise, some people are more comfortable going into a game knowing what their goal will be, and even those who are fine with a shifting win condition may struggle with some setups (ie. gold -> lyres -> towers) while excelling with others (towers -> gold -> lyres). It’s a real challenge to be good at the game no matter the set of win conditions.
Short version: Lords of Xidit a game that’s hard to broadly recommend, as there are a lot of speed bumps any given player may not like, but it’s very good for the people who would enjoy the game that it is.
(4 / 5)
Metropolys brings an old-school, semi-steampunk look to a tower placement game, which is like worker placement except with towers.
This is high-level analysis, folks. Feel the rush.
The city board is split up into several districts, each of which has a various number of smaller sections. Each player has a set of towers numbered one through fifteen. Players can hide the numbers of their remaining towers, but they’re in three sizes according to value (1-5, 6-10, 11-15), so opponents can always get at least a rough idea of what you have remaining. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the game, the way they’ve made what is effectively card-counting something you can use to get an edge but also a manageable task.
The first player chooses one of the small sections of the city and places a tower on it. From there, play continues with players either placing a higher number tower on an adjacent spot or passing, until all but one player has passed or no one else can make a legal play (this includes not having a space on which to play another tower because all adjacent ones have been taken). On all subsequent turns, the player who chooses the section is the one who won the previous auction.
Different tokens are placed on the city sections as bonuses or, in the case of one token type, penalties. Forcing players away from (or towards) these tokens is useful, although the secret objective each player gets may make them perfectly willing to absorb a small penalty in order to win a bigger bonus at the end of the game.
The main strategy of the game is figuring out which sections you want to target and how to ensure you get them. If you need to chain sections along a lake for your secret objective, there’s a section in the middle of the board where it might be worth dropping your biggest towers early because there are two lakes touching the same areas, so you’ll get double the bonuses. If you wait and try to finagle your way into them without committing as many resources, there’s an excellent chance you’ll lose them; should it work, however, you could end up with a major advantage. Likewise, cornering areas so you can take them with your smallest tower (by making sure there are no free adjacent areas) is a big part of winning.
As a game, it’s… fine. It’s adequate. You’ll probably play, finish, and say, “Yeah, that was alright.” It’s the type of game more likely to sway you after your first run based on how you finished, because it’s not so bad that you’ll feel like it was a waste of time even if you win, and it’s not so good that you’ll be dying to try again even if you get smashed.
Of course, it’s not my place to say how you’ll feel. That’s rude. I’m running on probabilities. This is an older game, so telling you to find a friend with it isn’t a suggestion to save your money; it may be the only way to see it. It used to be playable online, but that’s apparently no longer the case. It’s worth one playthrough, at the very least. You might adore the game. Just don’t set your expectations excessively high.
Score: The most mundane 7/10.
Chicago Express is kind of the anti-Ticket to Ride. There are no cards, no pre-determined track lines where your trains can go, and you don’t even have your own set of trains. Instead, you buy stock in train companies and receive dividends at various points so you can turn around and buy more stock, or just sit on your cash like Scrooge McDuck. And the train companies pay for everything!
The way it works is thus: Each player can do one of three actions per turn. You can start an auction for one stock certificate of your choice, build up to three trains along the line of a company in which you own stock, or build a house in an area to increase the value of any train lines running through there. Running lines and building houses comes out of the money put into a company via stock purchases, so at the start you can only auction stock. This gives ownership stakes to players so they can use the other actions, and money to the companies so they can afford the other actions. However, only so many of each action can be used per turn (different number per action type), and they don’t reset until two action types are maxed out.
Once those two action types are maxed, the round resets, and dividends are paid. Dividends are equal to the value of the company, and you receive a percentage of those dividends equal to the percentage of the purchased stock you have in that company. If you have the only stock that anyone’s bought, you get it all; if you have one and another person has one, you get half; if you have two and another person has one, you get two-thirds. Early stock ends up being the most valuable, since it’s purchased when players don’t have much money, but gauging what something’s going to be worth at that point is harder. In other words, you need to buy something early, but it’s hard to know what to buy.
Chicago is, for the most part, the most valuable city on the map. (A couple others can become worth slightly more, but they require either time or spending on upgrades; see below.) Not only does it add a ton more value to your company than any random town, mountain, or forest, but when a company gets there, its shareholders get an extra dividend paid to them right away. Every train company wants to reach Chicago, but the game doesn’t usually last long enough for that to happen. However, roaming a bit with your line to increase its value can be helpful, as long as you make it to Chicago eventually.
There are a few quirks thrown into the game. Detroit acts like a round counter; it slowly increases in value, and once it’s worth eight money, the game is in its final round. It can be a good boost to swing one of the northern lines to Detroit before taking it to Chicago. Reaching that final round is unusual, however, and you have to get to Chicago before the game ends.
Pittsburgh and Wheeling can be repeatedly increased through building houses, unlike other areas. Pittsburgh is sometimes worth it; there are usually better options than pumping Wheeling up one dollar at a time, which largely plays to how West Virginia is treated in the real world. And, once a company reaches Chicago, the Wabash company opens up. It only has two shares, but it starts in Fort Wayne and can reach Chicago pretty quickly.
The quirks don’t overtake the main concept, though: everything is balanced around how well you judge the value of a company’s stock, and how well you improve that value once you have a stake in it. Wabash is special because it comes into the game late and has a short path to Chicago, but that doesn’t make it more valuable than the other companies; bidding wars can easily happen because there are only two shares, and that’s often a mistake. Getting half of fourteen is not as good as getting one-quarter of thirty-six. (The answers are seven and nine.) It’s a nice change from the automatic, whatever opens up last is best idea that games tend to have. And it’s not really a secret from new players; the logic may not be immediately obvious, but if you’re cognizant of how value works and can see what’s possible or probable before the game ending conditions are met, you can take advantage.
I’m not a huge fan of this game because I’m bad at it. If it turns out you’re not bad at it, you’ll probably have a swell time.
Score: Six broken-down mining towns out of seven.
Codenames: Pictures is an offshoot of the original Codenames. In fact, it serves as the basis for as many Codenames spin-offs as the original (the Disney and Marvel versions).
But is it as good?
You can find my review of the original here; the core gameplay is unchanged. There’s still two teams, each with a codemaster who associates as many things of their color as possible with a clue and hopes their team makes the same connection. The main difference, as the title should give away, is that now it’s done with pictures rather than words.
Before playing, there may be a trap of thinking that this is a dumbed-down version of the game. After all, picture books are considered to be at a lower level than purely text books (though numerous comic series put the lie to that idea, but that’s a story for another time). Figuring out what associations your team will make, however, is the name of the game, and the pictures here do not make that easy. Each tile has multiple elements that could be drawn on for clues. Thus, the codemaster has to work around misunderstandings that could lead their team to the wrong tiles, and also ones that could lead them to disregard the correct tiles because they’re focused on the wrong parts of those tiles.
In short, the pictures work out very well as association devices. The game is about equally challenging for both codemasters and players, but in a different way that refreshes the experience.
If there’s a problem with the game, it’s the way the board is set up. Instead of a 5×5 grid like the original, Pictures uses a 4×5. This does not come with a commensurate reduction in spies per team; instead, there are far fewer neutral tiles. The result is a slightly quicker, but swingier game. If you get something wrong, you’re much more likely to hand your opponents a freebie. Combined with the slightly fewer spies per team needed to win, and any error is now far more likely to push your opponents ahead. Codemasters are thus incentivized to be a little more conservative with how many clues they tell their team, which… it’s not bad, per se, but the threat of losing your turn (and potentially hitting the assassin) already leads teams to not go crazy with the number of clues they go for on a given turn.
Given the quality of Codenames in general, I’m assuming they started with a 5×5 grid and determined 4×5 made more sense for some reason. Maybe their playtesters liked the potential swings. Maybe players disliked neutrals in general—they’d rather the game move towards a conclusion with each guess more often. I don’t know. The change probably won’t matter to most people. This is a purely personal gripe with the game, but this is my space, so I’m going to make it
Even with that, though, it’s still good. Go play it.
Score: 8/10 (wouldn’t make sense to have an extra gripe and score it higher, would it?)