5 Strategy Tips for Lost Cities

Lost Cities is a perfect example of Knizian elegance. It calls to mind a sort of dance or duet as opponents tip-toe around giving each other aid while trying to hold on as long as possible before cashing in points. I’ve found it perhaps a bit too mesmerizing as an “in between meetings” diversion over on Board Game Arena. But over the last couple of months I’ve been exploring various strategies and analyzing how to improve my play. After reaching a peak of 13th on the BGA rankings (and managing to stay in “above average” territory consistently in the ELO) I’m here to share with you all my many wisdoms.

Note: all of this is in the context of playing best of one games, not adding up the scores from three consecutive games, which might warrant more conservative play.

1. 3 Or 4 Colors Is Usually Best

I’m not going to go very deep into the math, but nearly always I’m shooting for commitment to 3 or 4 colors by the end and usually when I take that 5th color I regret it. The basic principle is that while there are enough points available for both players to score positively in every color (54 total points to be precise), a minimum of 16 cards will be left unused at the end of the game, so not all of those points will be realized.

Additionally, if you’re going for all 5 colors by the end of the game your opponent (if they’re smart) is going to try to be racing you out, drawing from the main pile each time while you pull from the discards. By that point in the game you cannot gain any new cards without losing valuable time, so unless you have enough points in hand to win you’ve already lost. 

This ended up being a very close game between two players who played 3 and 4 color strategies perfectly.

2. Make Sure Your Math Is Correct

Giving your opponent an 8 in a color they’ve started without any handshakes is better for you than giving them a 3 in a color in which they have played 2 handshakes. Maybe this is obvious to some, but I found myself blundering by being sloppy with my math vis a vis the handshake cards. 

When I first started playing Lost Cities I thought it was a game about trying to line up as many cards as possible in ascending order. At the risk of sounding trite, I now realize the game is about scoring more points than your opponent. 

It’s funny how studying artistic or creative follows this cycle. If it catches your attention and admiration at first experience you want to study it more, but as you study you break it up into its parts and peer beyond the artifice of it until it becomes an assemblage of math and craftwork, the rest disintegrating under your gaze. If you survive past this, and if the work is truly interesting, you’ll return to a rebuilt appreciation of it on a foundation of understanding. But the central canyon of that journey always appears where the game or the book or the film loses its magic, if only for a bit.

I’m thankfully past that with Lost Cities, and the mathematical beauty of it is stronger than ever before. Anyways, make sure you’re counting correctly when you give your opponent the opportunity to pick up points from what you discarded.

The green 9 is worth less to your opponent than the yellow 7 here.

3. The One Card Rule

I’ve invented this nomenclature, just now, but I think about it constantly when I play. The line between a risk worth taking and one perhaps too bold is thin, but I find my “one card rule” to be a good rule of thumb. If you play the numbers you have of a particular color now, and you draw only one more playable card of that color, will it be enough to break even in that color? 

This applies more to situations where you have cards towards the middle of the range of numbers. Suppose, for example, you have at the beginning of the game a couple of handshakes in yellow and the 5 and 7 cards of that color. This is a risk I would take because the lowest playable card (the 8) past that will cause me to break even. Given that you have a roughly 50% chance to draw any given card from the deck and there are three cards you could draw to break even or get ahead in yellow, the odds seem pretty good.

Indeed, I did some calculations to more minutely understand this risk assessment and found that in this situation you have ~82% chance to draw at least the 8, 9, or 10 of yellow if you draw at the same rate as your opponent. This takes into consideration the chances your opponent already has one or more of those cards in their starting hand (~40%). 

If you start with the 2 and 4 of a color the possibility space is a bit more broad, but some back of the napkin calculations show 80-90% odds of getting at least two of the remaining playable cards in that color. But if you get the 5 and 6 you’re still in the red by three. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? Without any handshakes, sure, but I’m more cautious once multiplication gets involved.

4. Use Small Numbers to Bait Out Handshakes

This is a fun little trick I like to employ when the opportunity arises. Online I’m finding that it works perhaps 20% of the time, but it’s low-risk so I keep doing it. If you’re in a position to potentially score big with a color but don’t have any handshakes, try tossing that 2 or 3 out into the center row and see if you can fish out a handshake from your opponent.

The reasoning behind this ploy is that if you have, e.g. the 2, 5, 6, 7, and 9 of blue you definitely want to try to get some handshakes out first to capitalize on those points. There’s a good chance if your opponent has a handshake they probably don’t have much else in that color, so they’ll not want to play or discard it. If you toss the 2 out you signal to them that you’re also short on blue which may give them confidence that they can discard the handshake without giving you too much. It’s a cheeky gambit but I’ve been enjoying it.

5. Use Dump Colors To Buy Time

Locking down a win in Lost Cities in a best of one game is about trying to score big in one or two colors and using the other colors to help make that happen. If you begin with 3 low numbered cards in a color–perfect. You can use those to buy time to see where you draw high cards. Once you have high cards, search for handshakes. A lone 3-4-5 in a color is only -8 points at the end of the game, and the odds of never drawing another playable card in that color are low. A one handshake 4-5-8-9 set is worth 12 points and that’s a pretty bad result on a color you’re holding out for.

If you manage to get an 8-card set for those bonus 20 points and your opponent doesn’t, you’ve probably locked down the win. Lost Cities is like a game of poker: you will win some colors and lose others. The key is minimizing the losses and maximizing the wins.

The right play here is to start white to hold out for more cards in green and blue.

Let’s look at some case studies from a few of my games on BGA.

Here’s more or less a perfect opening hand. If I start with this I’m feeling very confident in my chances. The right play is to play the green handshake, followed by the 2/4 of yellow. That’s three free draws from the deck to gain valuable information about what to do next. I’m certainly going to be hunting for the mere 3 green cards I need to get the bonus 20 points. I’d dump the red 7 in a heartbeat to buy more time unless my opponent starts dropping red handshakes.

This is a bit of a predicament. See if you can spot the best play at this moment…

We’re clearly trying to hold on to score big on blue. Green and white are more or less washed out right now and we also need time for red. Playing the yellow 6 and 8 is fine, but I’d choose to discard the green 7. It’s almost setting up a trap for the opponent, because such high cards are tempting, but even if they get all of the remaining green cards they’re only netting +5 points on that color, while you draw from the deck. If your draw is a dud you can discard it without too much consequence as your opponent only has a maximum of one handshake on any of the colors. Buy time for your scoring colors and don’t worry about giving your opponent a couple of points here and there.

This is how you hold out for high scoring colors. Granted, you need to be a bit lucky to finish this well, but the principles are true nonetheless. That white column looks ugly but it doesn’t matter–this scores over 100 points total, which is essentially unbeatable, even though my opponent did quite well for themselves also!

Finally we get to an interesting situation where going for all five colors ended up being the correct play. How did this work out? I started with a hand of unusually high numbered cards (in fact, look at the picture under tip #2 above to see what the beginning looked like). If I remember correctly, this game also had an unusual number of handshake cards stuck at the bottom of the deck. Having a lot of high cards can allow you to have short-column dump colors (see yellow) so you don’t get stuck out of tempo. This allows you to dig for the handshakes you desperately want to have. I didn’t find them, but still played well enough to scrape out a win here.

I hope you find this article helpful. Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional strategy tips for Lost Cities!

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