Boardgame designer Reiner Knizia seems to slap random themes onto whatever mechanics he dreams up. An auction game? Ancient Egyptian dynasties! Matching tiles? The rise of Mesopotamian civilization! Warring cubes, obelisks, and beans fighting for control of hexes? Feudal Japan! Stratego with special abilities? The Lord of the Rings, naturally.

But Lost Cities, his mathy two-player card game, has uniquely intertwined theme and mechanics. The theme is sending out expeditions to find lost cities in remote lands. The mechanics are the calculus of risk/reward, measured against card draws and whatever the other player is doing. Where will you search? How much will you invest? Does the other player know something you don’t? It’s a canny mix of calculation, randomness, and even a touch of psychology.

After the jump, guess what platform it’s on now?

The iOS version of Lost Cities is from Coding Monkeys, the folks who did a damn fine job with an iOS version of Carcassone. But whereas Carcassone was a literal expression of the tabletop game, Lost Cities reimagines the presentation entirely. When you play cards, they plug into a machine that gradually draws a map deeper and deeper into whatever region you’re exploring. Furthermore, the score is shown for each region you’re exploring, which is enormously helpful. The scoring system in Lost Cities can be hard to wrap your head around, and now you don’t have to because it’s there on the machine, broken down by region, with totals for each player.

This presentation doesn’t alter the gameplay in any way. However, it serves as a wonderful visual interpretation of Lost Cities’ theme and mechanics. As a Lost Cities purist (I own a well-loved copy of the game signed by Mr. Knizia!), I heartily approve of the liberties the developers have taken.

The interface is as easy as could be, with support for dragging or tapping to play cards. Everything is big and colorful, which lends itself well to smaller iPhone screens. It’s super convenient to switch among active games, which of course include asynchronous multiplayer.

This new presentation is particularly appropriate since the entire game is such an enthusiastic package. This isn’t just a way to play Lost Cities matches. It’s a whole silly metagame, with four different AI opponents, ingame emoticon chat, goals, and leveling up. Not that most of this stuff is anything other than pointless frippery. But it’s spirited pointless frippery. For instance, after my last game with Dr. Jonze, I got a graph that shows our relative scores over the course of the game, along with each moment he felt the need to send me a little emoticon.

I totally thought I had him in the middle of the game! I also get a running tally of how I’m doing against him.

Not too well, it seems. How are our overall skill levels trending?

And what does a fella have to do to level up already?

What do I get for leveling up? A new set of goals. Which will let me level up again. Lost Cities has an entirely meaningless but welcome sense of progression. I don’t really need a reason to play Lost Cities besides the fact that it’s a really good game. But Coding Monkeys is going to give me one anyway.

5 stars
iOS