Friday, February 22, 2013

Resemblance Review: Keltis The Card Game

Keltis: The Card Game
I've had the pleasure of trying out several new games in the past month and for several of them I am apt to compare the experience to another game it brings to mind.

The sudden frequency of these comparable games in such a short period of time has enticed me to start a series of comparison reviews which may help you identify a new game with a game you may have already played.

If you haven't been paying close attention in the past five years, you may be taken aback by the sudden inundation of games with the title "Keltis" in them. This rapid proliferation transpired after the original Keltis title took home the Spiel des Jahres in 2008 and a market was born.

Although Keltis Sr. began this modern family tree, we need to go back to the original patriarch in order to fully understand the familial relationship.

Originally published in 1999, Lost Cities was Reiner Knizia's initial design that would eventually evolve into Keltis. The critically acclaimed title is part of the Kosmos 2-player series and has unofficially been labeled the definitive gateway game for couples.

In 2008, Reiner Knizia based his eventual Spiel des Jahres winner on the ideas successful ideas implemented in Lost Cities. Keltis essentially took the mechanics of Lost Cities and put it into a 2 to 4 player board game. Its success would eventually spin off several more titles including Keltis Ór (A Dice Game version), Keltis: Das Würfulspiel (Another Dice game - wait...what?), Keltis: Das Oracle and an expansion to the base game of Keltis.

Also in 2008, shortly after the publication of Keltis, Lost Cities: The Board Game was published. Lost Cities: the Board Game was rethemed in Germany to Keltis while the American Publisher kept Reiner Knizia's intended name. LC:TBG features many similarities to Keltis, they differ in scoring methods and the direction of card play.

From Lost Cities (Card Game) to Keltis (The Lost Cities Board Game) to the actual Lost Cities: The Board Game to Keltis: The Card Game. If you're still with me, we've traversed the roughest part. Keltis: Das Kartenspiel came out in 2009 and builds on the family tree with several additions and continues to accommodate up to four players.

Comparing Lost Cities to Keltis: The Card Game

Lost Cities Overview

Lost Cities has been one of my top ten games for most of the last decade. As a brief overview for those who are not familiar, each player initially draws eight cards from a deck of five colors representing five potential expeditions. Each color consists of cards numbered 1 through 10 along with 3 "investment cards".

Players play a card  either start a new expedition by playing a card onto an empty color or add to an existing expedition, so long as the card is larger than the last. Players may alternatively discard an undesirable card into a discard pile shared by their opponent but risks helping their adversary. After playing a card, players may draw either from the deck or from the top of any discard pile.

Play continues until the deck runs out upon which scoring occurs. Each expedition for a player scores the sum of the cards played minus twenty points, representing an initial fixed cost of pursuing a breakthrough discovery or long lost treasure. Any investment cards offer a multiplication effect of 2x, 3x or 4x (1/2/3 investment cards). Finally, twenty points are added to an expedition if a player is able to play eight or more cards in a single color. Games take place over three rounds.

Lost Cities Analysis

Lost Cities has a number of impressive concepts that cause it to stand out from other card games. It features the concept of sunk costs (minus 20 to start an expedition) that can be increased with the initial placement of investment cards. There is constant risk assessment done each turn as one may have to lay down a low valued card with great uncertainty if they may be able to reach a break even point of that color.

Most of the difficulty for new and improving players comes from initial starting hands, if a player holds only investment cards and low numbers they can't be certain what colors are worth pursuing and what can be safely discarded. The end game gathers a great deal of excitement as the pacing element of Lost Cities keeps everyone on their toes - aiming to run out of cards right as the deck empties by slowing the pace to get all of their cards scored.

The downside is the scoring each round can be a bit lengthy for the time it takes to play. Multiple rounds mitigate the randomness caused by luck and award the better performance.

Keltis: The Card Game Overview

Keltis: The Card Game uses the established rules of Lost Cities with a few key changes. The five normal colors have one or more of each card in the deck numbering from 0 to 10 along with three "end cards" which close out a color for a player. Cards can be played ascending or descending, allowing for 0 or 10 to be equally attractive.

There is a sixth suit of grey cards that can be placed on your turn individually for a single point or placed  on to your established runs to increase their value, but only if they match the value of the card most recently played (I can place my grey 8 on my recently played green 8 and then continue the run).

The new addition I enjoy most is that on your turn you may a numerical pair (e.g. two sixes) and receive a wishing stone of that number (e.g. six). Wishing stones increase your score by sheer quantity, and face value of each stone is irrelevant once captured. This provides some neat ways to both accelerate the game (drawing twice to replace your discarded pair) and a way to get rid of useless cards and refresh your hand with new options.

The most significant change with Keltis:TCG is the scoring. Rather than the face value of cards being used, the number of cards played in a given color determine your score. If you start a color and only place three cards, you score -2 and for each card above that your score increases in a non-linear format (four cards is worth +1 while nine or more cards nets you +10). Capturing zero wishing stones at the end of the game will score you -4 while having five will earn you +10.

Keltis: The Card Game Analysis

The initial experience with Keltis:TCG opened my eyes to new strategies, new areas of interest and a new way to manage my hand. It is a fresh take on a Knizia classic and a good game in its own right.

I love the wishing stones and grey cards which add these new scoring opportunities, but I don't care for the scoring as its a bit fiddly. In Lost Cities you celebrate when that third yellow investment card shows up after you'd been holding out for it over the last six turns, this excitement is gone from Keltis:TCG, you're only focused on color for the and card value is diminished.

The pacing element exists in two player Keltis:TCG, but it lacks the exciting tension. I feel I have time to do nearly everything I want and then some with two players. In Lost Cities I have roughly 22 cards to play and a mid-game evaluation of opening up a fourth expedition is a crucial decision as time is always running out. Three or four players eliminates the pacing strategy as if I delay the game my opponents will continue on their intended pace and I have significantly less control.

The risk assessment aspect is absent from two player, but I feel it would improve with each added player. You often can pick a color and go with it uncontested, and information is plentiful with the longer number of turns and more discarding taking place.

Conclusion

Keltis offers several stark improvements over Lost Cities, but overall I can't say I find the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A hidden element of player interaction in Lost Cities that disappeared from Keltis:TCG is the ability to force sub-optimal decision making from an opponent. As much of the early to mid-game is discarding and locating cards to maximize value, one can force an opponent into a frustrating position. If I open with a red investment card and my opponent holds only a red four, they must either:

  • a). hold it for an uncertain time period while playing other cards earlier than desired 
  • b). discard the card, giving me exactly what I want when I want it
  • c). start a red expedition, taking a moderate risk that pulls attention from better color options.
All three of these happen somewhat often in Lost Cities, and imagine the impact when your opponent does this in red, green and blue? This is subtle player interaction at its finest.

Lost Cities offers indirect but substantial player interaction but Keltis feels a whole lot more like solitaire. There is often an initial surge for wishing stones as each number can only be claimed once. After than you find a color with an adequate card count you can play and start two or three runs in different colors, but these are frequently the same ones ignored by your opponent. All that remains is ensuring you discard the cards in his colors as he or she can't use them.

Keltis:TCG also has an interesting modification for two players in which 30 cards are randomly removed before the game. I appreciate this shortens the game significantly for two players (although I still feel its too long and not enough tension among possible options) but I would have preferred something like removing all of one color (as grey stays as a fifth "universal" color) and then removing 10 cards randomly. This would shorten the game, increase the player interaction and still allow adequate time for the additional strategic options offered by Keltis:TCG.

Keltis: The Card Game

Originality (0.75/1.0) - Fresh ideas rejuvenate a gold standard
Theme (0.0/0.5) - Lost Cities has a debatable theme, this one isn't even close
Pure Fun (0.5/1.0) - Good by not great, not a game I'd reach for in many situations
"Re-play-ability" (0.5/1.0) - Additional strategic options are enticing, but blend together

Strategy/Luck Ratio (0.5/0.5) - Less useful cards can be turned into scoring option
Player Scaling (0.5/0.5) - 2 and 4 players offer an enjoyable variety, but p
lays best with 3
Parity (0.5/0.5) - The structured scoring leads to more scoring parity than Lost Cities

My Rating:
Overall 3.25/5.0 = 6.5 out of 10


Lost Cities registers at an 8.5 out of 10 for me. Keltis: The Card Game is a wonderful place to visit, but Lost Cities allows one to explore the greater depths with less complexity and is an entirely more accessible culture to discover.