Lost Cities review


Lost Cities: The Board Game (2008)

FADE IN

EXT. SOME FARAWAY COUNTRY – DAY

OUR CAMERA pans over a rocky landscape of indeterminate geography.

Game board

This is a weird an alien geography.

To the east lie the jungles, lush and alive with exotic creatures. To the north is the desert – barren and unwelcoming. If you look closely you can perhaps see a trio of dead adventurers carrying bits of an airship that would never fly. The broken ruins of a sunken city dominate the west of the landscape, whereas the south is made up of forbidden rocky outcrops. Ancient ruins have been carved in the red and white bones of the Earth itself. Our camera continues to pan, eventually coming to a rest on a handsome, rugged meeple with a fedora. A whip hangs by his side. He pushes the brim of his hat up his forehead as he surveys the land before him.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

What the hell is this? The real world doesn’t work like this! It’s utter nonsense, entirely unbelievable. How can you possibly have so many different kinds of…

We roll the introductory credits to reveal Lost Cities:

Box art

It looks very exciting! I hope looks aren’t deceiving!

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

… just like the last time I was in Peru, and… did you just cut away from me? Did you just roll the intro titles? I was talking! I explained for a good ten minutes how the geological features of this part of the world would prohibit…

The camera moves quickly away, because Meeple Jones is off on another one of his rants. He’s such a diva. I don’t know why we even bother with him any more. If he doesn’t get his act together pretty damn quickly he’s going to be seeing out his twilight years as everyone’s least favourite token in a second-hand, battered charity shop copy of Monopoly. We pause, to let that sink in for a moment, and then track the camera back to our hero.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

I’ll be good, sorry.

That’s better. Now, shall we get on with this review?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

y’s.

I didn’t quite hear you.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

YES!  GOD!

Fine.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Fine.

Fine?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

YES IT’S FINE. GOD. LET’S JUST DO THIS.

The camera pulls back to reveal the graduate students that Meeple Jones has brought along on this adventure. They stand flanking him, looking out at the landscape before them.

Meeples

Meeple Jones and the Class Outing of Doom

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

That there, students, is the landscape of the Lost Cities. Five ruins, forgotten by civilization, until my diligent research turned up their existence in an old dusty book that I was reading in a library because I’m a real archaeologist. Our goal, is to spread out and explore these ruins, claiming whatever ancient antiquities we may find and bringing them back with us to our home university.

One of his students turns to him. She is Mary Ravenscraig. We are supposed to think she will be the romantic lead of this movie, but she has other ideas.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

So we can return them to the proper owners, I assume?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Uh. Sure.

He hastily changes the subject.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

See those paths? Each is more treacherous than the last – and it will be our job to ascend them to the top. Those that make good progress will be rewarded – riches and fame, and perhaps even a paper that could be published in a peer reviewed journal. That’s important – to you, I mean. Not to me. I have tenure and an awesome hat, so publication means precisely less than bugger all to me. But you guys – man, it’s publish or perish. Why did you even decide to become academics? It suggests to me that you are fundamentally not good enough researchers to be a good fit for the job.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Professor, this is all very interesting but how do we climb these paths? Is it merely a task of physical exertion? Presumably there are traps, and dangers, and we’ll need to properly prepare by inventorying our supplies and ensuring…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Cards.

There is the briefest of pauses.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

What?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

We climb it by playing down cards. You’ll see. We have eight of these available to us.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Uh…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

It’s quite simple. When this land was first discovered, that great explorer randomly dealt out fifteen face down tokens on the empty places of the map. Once that was done, he flipped them over to reveal what was to be found underneath. Those are the glittering prizes that we’ll discover on our voyage. Look, you can see them if you squint.

Tokens on a map

The stuff that dreams are made of

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Can we go back to the card thing, because…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Some of those tokens indicate victory points – we get them added to our total when one of us passes them. Some are ancient treasures, and we keep them with us. We’ll count those up at the end of our third expedition. The rest are passageways that permit us to ascend more quickly and safely up the route to the cities themselves.  But here’s the odd thing – a passageway we find on one path can also enable the ascent of someone on another path.  Don’t ask me why, it just does – that’s the kind of thing fieldwork experience will teach you.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Wait, did you say three expeditions, because I only brought enough underwear for…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

But the journey itself is based on our cards. You see, each path has a colour, and each turn we play a card, and then draw a card from the supply deck you can see over there. When we play a card of a particular colour, one of us gets to start our journey up to a ruin. We then ascend farther up by playing future cards of that colour. Nothing could be simpler!

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

I’m just saying, three expeditions seems like a crazy number given how you told us we’d only be gone for a few da…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

BUT HERE’S THE THING, MARY!

He grabs her by the shoulders and looks deep into her eyes.  She is very obviously creeped out by this.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

EACH TIME! EACH TIME! We have to play a card with a face value that is equal, or larger, to the one we played before! If we can’t do that, we can’t progress! And Mary! Mary! LOOK AT OUR CARDS.

Cards

This is what a handful of despair looks like

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

I know you’re new to fieldwork, but in the archamelogical trade, of which I am totally a trained practitioner, we refer to that hand as ‘a complete and utter bastard’. We want to start by playing low cards, and gradually moving on to our higher cards – but guess what? We don’t have any low cards. We’re totally humped. We’ll be crushed to death by rolling boulders before we get half way up the route.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

What can we do, professor? I’m pretty sure there are no numbers greater than ten that are recognised in archaeology. How can we possibly accomplish our goals? Perhaps it would be best to simply lie here and wait for the cool embrace of death to take us.

Mary lies down, so as to be in a repose suitable for convenient passage into the afterlife.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Well, I may have overstated how humped we are. You see, if we don’t want to play a card down to progress a journey, we can discard one from our hand in the hope of getting something better when we next draw.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Then we’re fine! We can just discard all the large numbers until we get something we can work with. Fieldwork is easy! We’re going to be rich and famous, like all archaeologists eventually become!

Mary leaps to her feet.  Professor Jones groans. He touches her lightly on the shoulder and gestures over to the horizon. She lifts up her binoculars and looks through.

Yellow meeples

Dr Bolloq has a healthier hand.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Isn’t that… isn’t that Doctor Bolloq? Your arch-rival, and the man who often steals your hard work and takes the credit for it with the international community?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

What are you, the narrator? Yes. We’re not alone here, Mary. And worse…

He gestures off to the north.

Black player

Waiter Diceovan has a team of stealth meeples.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

And that’s Waiter Diceovan! Wait, I thought he drank water from the holy grail and…

Professor Meeple Jones coughs aggressively, as if to hide any hint of intellectual property violation in the script.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Those guys are our problem, Mary. Because every time we discard, we discard our cards face up and into colour separated piles – and then instead of drawing a random card from the deck, everyone can choose to pick a face up card they like they look of, from one of the five discard piles. We need to keep an eye on what they’ve played to ascend to the cities, because it lets us know what’s safe for us to discard. The higher the number we have, the less chance we have of safely discarding. Everyone can use a ten, but once someone has played a two or a three they can’t use the zero or the one any more. Every single discard we make has to be assessed in light of what it does for our opponents, not just how good it would be for us.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

I never knew fieldwork could be so dangerous!

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

You get used to it, kid. It’ll be a cold day in hell though before I play a four as my opening step in climbing a path, so discard that blue four and pick us up some luck.

Mary pulls the card from her backpack, and discards it into the great void.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Okay, now pull us a card from the deck.

Drawing a brown 10

Ffffuuuuuuuuu

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Oh for fu…

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. THAT SAME COUNTRY – DAY

The camera focuses on a rugged Frenchman in a stylish safari suit. He is fanning himself with an immaculate white hat. Seriously, how can he still be clean? He must have a washing machine with him in his expedition. It takes five days on horse to arrive at this dig-site!

DR. BOLLOQ

Play the one. We begin the climb to the brown city.

He looks over to where Meeple Jones and his team sit, weeping. He cups his hands to his mouth and yells.

DR. BOLLOQ

SEE YOU AT THE TOP, MEEPLE!

His team laughs as his words echo around the board. After a few moments, the last syllables of his taunt die away. All they can hear from Meeple is a faint cry that sounds vaguely like ‘ck you’. One of Bolloq’s graduate students plays the card in front of the team.

Playing a card

This is how progress is supposed to look

DR. BOLLOQ

I will begin this climb. You see, class – I am bigger and more important than any of you. I am a researcher. I get twice as much benefit from the climb as you would. But, I also have a greater reputation to protect – if I am penalised, I will be penalised twice as harshly. Only one of us may ascend any given path, and it is for the good of the expedition that I progress up the one most likely to bring us the greatest success.  And what’s good for me is good for the expedition.  Look at how clean I am!  That’s how you know I’m the only one in this team that really matters.

He then saunters gently up the path, looking for all the world like an old-world gentleman out for a pleasing stroll before dinner.  As he walks, he gestures to the strange numerical symbols at his feet.

Beginning an expedition

If only you spoke Hovitos

DR. BOLLOQ

You see these numbers? Those are the victory points we shall get at the end of the expedition. If we make little progress, we lose points. If we make good progress, we earn points. If we make it to the top – well, then we gain all the glittering prizes. I have confidence, for we have many cards for this city and plenty of time to play them. All the time in the world, in fact!

Dr. Bolloq draws a card from the deck.

Drawing a one

Bolloq must have a lucky horseshoe up his backside

He grins.

DR. BOLLOQ

As you can see Meeple, what was once never yours is now almost certainly probably now going to be mine.

His graduate students look at each other, confused. One puts up a hand.

ANON. GRAD STUDENT

Is any of this going to be on the test?

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. THAT SAME COUNTRY, BUT FROM A DIFFERENT VANTAGE POINT – DAY

Waiter Diceovan watches through narrowed eyes as the Bolloq expedition begin to climb. He drums his thin fingers against a nearby outcropping of rock.

WAITER DICEOVAN

They’re on the move. We too will move. Play our zero card.

Zero to hero

Zero to hero

WAITER DICEOVAN

I’m not going up that path. It looks altogether too steep. One of you do it. And beat Bolloq to the top, or I will beat you on your bottoms.  Whoever volunteers, step forward.

Two players one step

Race you!

 

As if driven by a single command, three of the four graduate students take a smart step backwards.  The fourth is a little too sluggish of thought, and finds himself volunteered.

ANON. GRAD STUDENT

Oh, eat a bag of dicks.  Assholes.

He mutters angrily, then begins the journey.

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. WHERE MEEPLE IS STANDING – EARLY EVENING

Meeple Jones paces back and forth, an angry look on his face.  He has spent the past hour arguing with himself about the folly of beginning a journey with such limited supplies.  Finally, he turns to Mary.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Discard the brown four. We’ll never beat them to the top of the brown city. Not with our cards. Let’s just hope we get a bit more luck on one of the other routes. It’s dangerous to start a journey unless you’re sure you can get far enough along to make it worth your while. I don’t think we can do that with any route just yet. But give us time, and let’s see what another card does for our prospects.

Mary discards, and then draws a card.  She looks over at him, her face a mask of anxious worry.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

What did you draw, Mary?

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

I’d rather not say.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Mary, tell me what you drew.

She shows him the card.

Drawing a white 10

Seriously, ffffuuuu

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Fffffffuuuuuuuu…

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. WHERE BOLLOQ IS STANDING – SEVERAL DAYS LATER

Meeple Jones has finally managed to get his foot on a pathway – he’s chosen the white city, and began his climb with bad grace and worse humour. Bolloq has managed to progress another precarious step on the brown path. Diceovan has claimed both the brown and blue paths. Bolloq is in fine spirits, and sips water from a canteen he wears around his neck. He is still immaculate. How the hell does he do it?

Meeples everywhere

You take the high road and I’ll take the low…

DR. BOLLOQ

We are still in great shape for this expedition. I have high hopes we shall see the top of this climb before too much time has passed.  I will rise higher than the Gods themselves, and nothing will ever bring me down.  Hubris is for lesser mortals.

It’s not clear to whom he is talking – only one archaeologist from a given team can occupy a path at any one time, and so we must assume he is talking for the benefit of the audience. Wow, this is some bad writing. Someone will need to clean up this dialogue. The best we can currently hope is this script becomes the core of an episode of the Walking Dead. Yeurgh.

Bolloq plays down a third brown card, and ascends further. He passes a marker with some victory points on it, and grins. He reaches down and scoops ten of them into his satchel. They glitter as they pour between his fingers.

DR. BOLLOQ

The Museum of Natural History will pay me handsomely for these. Oh yes.

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. THE BLUE PATH – AFTERNOON

Diceovan continues his climb. He is out of breath and sweating profusely. He drags his forearm across his glistening brow as he takes deep, calming breaths. He leans back against an outcropping of rock, and some dirt falls away and coats his jacket. He mutters, wiping the mud from his coat as he looks behind him to reveal…

Finding an antique

It belongs in a museum!

His jaw drops – a treasure of the people who once lived in these lands is embedded into the dirt. He digs into the mud with his bare hands until it is revealed, and in his possession. He brings it up to his eyes, and smiles broadly.

WAITER DICEOVAN

Oh, you will have pride of place in my collection. You’re a sexy little antique, aren’t you? Aren’t you? What’s that? You want me to show you how much I love you? Well, alright…

He reaches for his flies, a lustful look in his eyes.

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. A RICKETY BRIDGE – EVENING

Bridge crossing

Bridges are never wise to cross in an action movie

Bolloq stands before a rickety bridge over a wide chasm. Behind him is the squeeze through which he was able to make such quick progress – upon landing on that, he instantly progressed to the next highest step on his journey. Across the bridge though – that’s a dangerous step to take. There’s an artifact here – he can see it. He can *smell* it. But the expedition ends when five explorers have crossed a bridge and he’s not sure he wants to fire the starter pistol on the end-game just yet. Once the expedition end is in sight, it’s a mad dash to get to the end. Everyone must ration their actions, minimising penalties while maximising rewards. He thinks deeply as he mops at his brow with a pristine white handkerchief. Seriously, where are all his clean clothes coming from? He must have biological detergent where most people have urine.

DR. BOLLOQ

Screw this. Fortune favours the brave.  And the handsome.  And the immaculately tailored.  So I have nothing to fear.

Crossed the bridge

No risk, no reward

The bridge sways dangerously as he steps foot on it, but it holds, and he progresses. Somewhere, a gong is struck to indicate his progress. He looks up, puzzled, at the unexpected noise.

DR. BOLLOQ

Well, that’s not exactly encouraging.  In my long career, I have never known an unexpected gong to signal anything good.

But he shrugs, and continues on his way.

FADE OUT

FADE IN

EXT. PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES’ BASE CAMP – NIGHT

Meeple Jones looks like a broken man as he stares across the city. A flickering campfire in the distance picks out where Bolloq made camp for the evening. Jones is watching it, an expression of weary sadness on his rugged face.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

He’s crossed the bridge, and he has two more team members ready to cross others. Diceovan is about to cross his first and a second is soon to follow.  and we are nowhere near any of the cities. They’re going to beat us to the treasures, and my reputation as a diligent scholar of ancient artifacts will be in absolute ruins.  My entire academic reputation as a serious researcher is at peril!  I’ll have to go back to punching Nazis for a living.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Why does the expedition need to end when five people have crossed a bridge? That seems awfully arbitrary. Can’t we just keep going until we reach the cities? I mean, they’re *cities*. One team of archaeologists can’t *possibly* loot any of them of *everything*.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

It’s the international code of archaeology. We just all agree it’s best this way. Don’t ask questions. This has been a terrible expedition. I hope the other two go better for us.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Yeah, about that. See, I’m still not very happy that…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

It wouldn’t have been so bad if we just started off with some good cards, but we didn’t. We were stuck with a handful of absolute ass from the get-go, and we couldn’t do anything about it. All we could do was watch our enemies beat us to the tastiest treasures.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

We could have discarded. I mean, I kept saying ‘Why don’t we discard, why are we just sitting here eating bag upon bag of Monster Munch?’, but you wouldn’t discard.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Ha! And let those animals get the high value cards? They were busting out ones and twos, Mary – do you know what they could have done with a ten? I once saw a magic Ikea cupboard melt the faces off of an entire regiment of Nazis. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, Mary, and I don’t want to imagine what they could have done if we’d given them our tens. It doesn’t bear thinking about it, it really doesn’t.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

Speaking of bears, I’m pretty sure I heard something outside going through our fo…

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Because in the end, that’s what archaeology is – it’s keeping your hand full of shit just in case one of your enemies can turn it into manure. In the process, you’re just hurting yourself because you can’t do anything. You can’t play shit, you can’t discard shit, you can’t do shit. Archaeology is waiting for your enemies to play a card high enough that lets you safely discard your own useless trash in the hope that you haven’t done yourself irreparable damage through sloth and lethargy. But you have, because expeditions end quickly and if you don’t have enough progress on a journey you’ll end up a laughing stock. You won’t get the treasures, you won’t get the victory points, and you’ll end up doing yourself more harm than good for even trying.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

I’ve counted. We’ve managed to make it fifteen meters from where we started, and then you demanded we set up a camp and cook marshmallows. I’m not sure you really gave it your all.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

I’ve been doing this longer than you, Mary. You can’t commit to an expedition unless you have the cards to back it up. You can start off down the paths, but you need to get far enough along to make it matter. If all you have are nines and tens, then what can you do? Numbers only go up so far. I can’t change what numbers are, Mary.  Ten is the biggest number, we all know that.  There is no number bigger than ten.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

It all just seems a bit futile, and not a huge amount of fun. And very simple – I’m not sure there’s really much in the job to justify the extensive training I undertook at huge personal and financial cost.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say ‘ruinous’ cost.   Do you know how many times you can dry out and re-use a teabag?  I do.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

Oh, there’s fun in the chase – provided you are in with at least a glimmer of a chance. There are some nice opportunities to push your luck, some gambling on fortune shifting in your favour, and some long term chaining of cards that let you steal victory from the jaws of defeat. But there’s also long periods of not a lot happening, and in the end if you don’t have the cards you don’t have the cards. The answer to ‘how do I do archaeology better next time’ is often ‘draw better cards’. Not entirely, but substantially. You can discard, sure – but to discard is to miss your chance at progressing a journey, and when does ‘miss a go’ ever become fun?

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

It doesn’t seem like it’s very fulfilling then. I thought we’d be tested to our extremes in a brutal but rewarding journey of wit and brawn. I thought we’d be explorers, not… accountants.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

I can see why you might have thought that, but no. Exploring a lost city is certainly a starter career. It doesn’t have the depth or complexity to really offer you a chance to stretch yourself at all. Overall, it just feels a little… soulless as an occupation. Engaging as a puzzle once or twice, but fundamentally unsatisfying. There are career alternatives you can explore, such as the one that allows you to play low to high *or* high to low. Those though seem a bit like buying a nice lawnmower in an attempt to compensate for unsatisfying life-choices. I don’t mind exploring lost cities, really – it just isn’t something that excites or energises me the way you’d think it would. I can do it and not resent the time I spent in the effort, but I think fundamentally I’d rather just stay home and watch the Muppets take Manhattan.

There is a yell of triumph in the distance. A lone, sonorous gong rings through the ruins. Jones sighs and slumps by the campfire.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

That’s the fifth bridge passed. Time to pack up, count up our scores and go back where we started.

Expeditions

Calculate the score, and get ready for round two! And then round three

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

And then we get the transport home and put all this behind us?

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

What? No. Then we draw new hands of cards and try again.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

WHAT? WHY DON’T WE JUST CONTINUE ON FROM HERE??

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

That wouldn’t be very fair, would it? See, we do this three times because any single expedition may be a nightmare of stalled progress and frustrating card-draws. Three times means that all that bad luck is probably going to average out – those that do well might do poorly, or vice versa. Or of course, you might do terribly one expedition and then worse the next. The key thing is, we all start from the same place, with the same resources, and try to achieve the same goals. Again. It’s not enough that we didn’t have much fun once, Mary – we have to not have much fun three times in a row.

MARY RAVENSCRAIG

This is such bullshit. I’m going home, I’m quitting my graduate studies, and I’m going to work in a Starbucks.

Meeple Jones gives her a long, calculating look. And then he sighs.

PROFESSOR MEEPLE JONES

God, I wish I had done that when I was younger.

FADE OUT

CREDITS


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