Games, Theme, Lord of the Rings, and Lost Cities

So, a hypothetical question: Let’s say you’re a gamer, and you’re trying to decide whether you like a game or not (I know, I know, what are the odds?). Let’s also assume for the moment that games can be cleanly divided into two parts, theme and game-play. Which of these two halves is easier to get one’s head around?

The answer I would have given, prior to last year anyway, was that theme is easier. You can easily tell if a game is evoking a certain feel just from playing it, right? What’s so hard about that? It’s almost not even worth thinking too much about. Most game discussions seem to me to spend far, far more ink on game-play than on theme.

Or is it really as obvious as all that?

If you step back a bit and think about it, it seems otherwise everywhere else. Literature, for example. Take the Lord of the Rings, a perennial favorite of mine and, it seems, of many gamers. It’s easy to appreciate these books for their obvious craft: the use of language, the narrative flow, the easy and economical but exceptionally vivid characterization, the incredible attention to detail, the visceral struggle between good and evil. But to understand and appreciate the themes that run through the books requires digging deeper. What is the nature of the evil Tolkien is portraying? Is the Ring in itself a force of evil, or is it simply the power of it that corrupts even the stoutest of hearts? Tolkien uses the language of both, and that ambiguity in exploring the theme of good vs evil is what makes thinking about the book deeply rewarding, and gives the theme strength and subtlety beyond the Manichaeism traditional to fantasy. This is just one of the themes of the book that can be understood more fully only after appreciating the simple excitement of a well-told story.

And so it sometimes is with games, I’ve come to understand.

Take Reiner Knizia’s classic Lost Cities. For the couple readers who may not have played this game, here is a game-play summary: Lost Cities is played with what is essentially a 5-suited but otherwise standard deck of cards. On your turn, you must play a card on your side of the table, onto one of five columns, one for each suit. You can only play cards in ascending order; once you’ve played the 6, you can’t go back and play a 5. If you want to get that 5 out of your hand, you have to play it to the discard pile, but then your opponent can pick it up instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game your score is simply the sum of all the cards you’ve played in a column, minus 20. The face cards are not numeric, but are doublers: you have to play them before you play a numeric card, and they double your score for that suit (not always a good thing!).

Most players will be immediately struck by the constant, wrenching choices the game throws at you. There are rarely obvious plays; you might have a 2 to start an expedition with, but nothing to back it up, or a couple high cards and you have to decide whether to play them or hold them waiting to fill in some lower-valued cards. Figuring out where and what to play is never easy.

But is the game thematic? I think most players (including myself) would instinctively say no, it’s just another basically-abstract Knizia game with a theme of pretty pictures and nice presentation. The game gives you no sense of exploration or adventure. You’re just playing cards.

Well, maybe. But if you take a deeper look at the choices that drive the play of those cards, you discover that Lost Cities is a game of risk management. How risky is it to double an expedition given what you know about it so far, i.e., what cards you have in hand? Is it worth it to set out early and leave drawing the rest of the cards you need to chance, or do you want to wait and do more research, see what the draw deck gives you? Do you want to start an expedition which you know has a small risk of a negative score, but no chance of a big positive score, or do you take a risk on an expedition with a greater upside but also a greater downside?

Although I’ve never put together an expedition to a lost city personally, in my mind I imagine that it would be primarily an exercise in managing and mitigating risks – knowing when you’ve done all the preparation you can expect to do and it’s time to get going, or when there are too many unknowns and more preparation is required. Knowing which expeditions have good prospects and which don’t. And in the sense of getting right at that idea – of planning and managing risk – Lost Cities does, in fact, carry the theme wonderfully. And almost by definition this thematic success simply cannot be appreciated until you have fully grasped not just the rules, but all the subtle nuances of the game-play, and not just how to play but how to win.

So now I consider Lost Cities, along with a number of other Knizia games I hadn’t fully appreciated before, thematically compelling. It’s a different way of presenting a theme – not as visceral as being shot at in Battlestations or dodging incoming asteroids in Galaxy Trucker – but to me arguably every bit as successful.

This all came up recently because I played one of Knizia’s latest releases, Keltis. This is basically Lost Cities with room for 3 or 4 players, and a few additional touches – there are now bonus points for reaching certain checkpoints in the expeditions before the other players, which introduces a race element and makes the game-play even more exciting and interesting. Alas, we’ve lost the theme of expedition, replaced with generic Celtic art and no plausible thematic tie-in that I can discern. The game-play is still there, maybe even more interesting than it used to be, but I don’t see any theme to strengthen the story. Perhaps it’ll take another 6 or 7 years for me to have the aha! insight that illuminates this one. For the moment, though, if such things matter to you, you might want to wait for Rio Grande’s version of the game (Lost Cities: The Boardgame) which  sticks with the original expedition theme and hews more faithfully to the original card game.

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