Now, while you would rather be tending your sheep, you have to band together with other nearby farmers–your competitors–to build a dike just to keep the floodwater at bay. This costs both time and resources, both of which would be better spent on your own farm.
But what’s this? While you’ve been building the dike out of the goodness of your heart, Farmer Randy has been building more and more fences and barns, making his own Walmart for sheep down the road. Maybe it’s time to return to your land and let Randy taste the salty spume. But if you give up the dike, will your own farm be safe?
How It Works
Lowlands is a semicooperative resource management game for two to four players. Players are sheep farmers who have to manage the competing claims on their attention of running their farms and preventing damage to their farms by building the dike. The player with the most points wins.
To begin, each player receives a farm board; an income board; three farmers, one disc, and four houses of a color; two sheep; two assistants; and fences. The players arrange the fences and houses on their income board so they cover the indicated spots. One assistant is placed on the income board, and the other is placed by the card draw action. The central board is placed on the table and the flood cards are shuffled and placed where indicated. The resource cards are shuffled and placed in a stack with some cards face up. The correct market/dike board is placed on the table based on the number of players. The sheep, action, feature, and storm surge buildings are placed on the table. Players place their discs on the dike track and begin.
Lowlands is played in three rounds of three phases each. In each of the action phases, each player will take three actions, one action per turn, in order. Actions are constructing a building or feature, contributing to the dike, building fences, selling or buying sheep, and drawing resource cards. Each action is executed using a farmer with a value on it (2 through 4), which determines the strength of the action. Buildings offer special abilities to the players, fences hold sheep (a source of points in the game and at the end of the game), and building the dike makes it more likely that sheep will be worth points at the end of the game.
After the action phase is the income phase. Players receive income based on the spaces they’ve uncovered on their income boards (by building buildings and fences). The players’ sheep breed (every two sheep breeds a new one). Also in the income phase, a new flood card is revealed, which forecasts to players how much water will be coming in the flood (and thus how large the dike needs to be to protect the players’ farms).
After two action/income phases, players check the dike. If it holds, players receive money based on how much they’ve contributed to the communal project; if it doesn’t hold, players will take flood tokens and potentially lose sheep at the end of the game if the dike doesn’t hold. The value of sheep and dike points (earned for building the dike) fluctuates based on whether the dike holds.
After the third round, the storm surges. Any storm surge buildings that players have built are scored. If the dike doesn’t hold, all players who have flood tokens lose one sheep per token. Then players receive points based on their money, buildings, dike points, sheep, and resources left over. The player with the most points wins.
Wooling in the Deep
It will come as a shock to no one that Lowlands’s box bears the “Uwe Rosenberg Collection” stamp. As some have quipped, this game in some ways seems like peak Rosenberg: players manage individual farm boards with wooden fences, farmer pawns, lots of sheep, and buildings that give players special powers. Yet what makes Lowlands special is in the ways it differs from Rosenberg’s farming games. And in these differences there is a compelling game that isn’t simply in the shadow of the master.
Lowlands isn’t a dry Euro game, as farming games are often accused of being. And the thing keeping the game from becoming dry figuratively is the only thing that will protect your in-game assets from the flood: the dike. Lowlands has all the tell-tale signs of a do-your-own-thing Euro game–personal player boards, unique player upgrades, and so on–yet the communal dike project ties the personal elements together and gives meaning to everything players might accomplish on their own.
There are several ways to earn points in Lowlands, but there are two main sources, and they fluctuate based on player actions: sheep and dike points (awarded to players who contribute to the central project). This makes thematic sense. Sheep are the main source of income for the farmers, and the dike is the only thing that stands between a raging sea and the players’ precious commodity. And this is where the game gets interesting: the value in points for sheep and dike contributions is determined by the success of the communal project. If the dike holds, players are rewarded less for their contributions. But if the dike doesn’t hold, then those who contributed to the doomed project look like heroes and are rewarded more for their sacrifice.
I love trade-offs in games, and this central problem of Lowlands is fascinating to me: the players who most invest in sheep are keenly affected if the dike doesn’t hold; those who contribute most to the dike, if the dike does hold, are benefiting those who spent their time on the farm. Because each player has limited actions and finite resources, it’s impossible to do everything, so players have to try to strike the right balance between helping their competitors and looking to their own lands.
Aiding players in their quest to do everything are the building and feature tiles. Players can only build four buildings over the course of a game of Lowlands, so they have to choose wisely which ones will most aid their strategy. The storm surge buildings, set out at the start of each game, give end game points but generally aren’t very helpful in the game. The sheep and action buildings help make players’ actions more effective and can make housing sheep a little easier (both by providing additional shelter and by walling off pastures with their edges). Feature tiles are a mixed bag, but an unlimited number of these can be built over the course of the game, provided a player has room and meets the minimum requirements.
I like the buildings in Lowlands because they represent yet another trade-off in the game. Because players can only build four of them, they want to be choosy and build the right buildings. But there are some factors that complicate this. First, there are a limited number of buildings out at a time–a boon for explaining the game to new players–and new buildings only come out once prior buildings are constructed. This means it’s a gamble to wait for a specific building to become available because it might never show up. And second, while players want to choose the right buildings, they are also rewarded for building sooner in the game. Each building on their board means a space uncovered on their income mat, which, like Hansa Teutonica and Terra Mystica, provide benefits based on what isn’t there.
While the chief distinguishing factor and star of the show in Lowlands is the dike, the other elements in the game are competent and interesting. The worker placement in the game, for example, differs from other worker placement games in that workers have variable strengths (which can be modified through assistants and tokens) and workers are placed privately rather than centrally, meaning they restrict a player’s own options rather than the options of the table. This is a little gentler than the worker placement genre typically is, but because the dike provides the main source of interaction in the game, reduced stress in placement is acceptable. And placing workers on your own mat creates other interesting decisions. Each action can only be chosen once per action phase for free. Players can double- or triple-down on actions but at the cost of, essentially, victory points. This means that no action is ever truly restricted so long as a player has money at their disposal, but both the strengths of the farmers and the added cost will make players think twice before they wantonly spend their resources.
The assistants are another factor in the worker placement decisions. Players start the game with one assistant assigned to the card draw action, which sweetens that action from the get-go. But as players uncover income or progress on the dike track, they can add another assistant or move their assistants around, making it more attractive to take those actions as the game goes on. I like this system, and it usually serves to differentiate one player from another.
One thing I haven’t talked about much is the sheep. The sheep in Lowlands multiply quickly, which gives players the feeling of wealth. However, because players have to have somewhere to house these sheep, it’s not uncommon to have sheep run away. This is another one of the wrinkles in Lowlands: in order to maximize space and value, players have to use actions to build fences or claim buildings with lesser abilities that offer extra space for the sheep. Players can also buy and sell sheep in the market, using precious actions to do so but gaining money in the process.
All of these parts tie together into a united whole that is tense and compelling. As I said at the start of this review, the dike is what makes the parts work together so well. If players want to focus on raising sheep, they have to watch the progression of the dike carefully to ensure their flock won’t be washed away. If players focus on building the dike, this can be a huge source of points and in-game bonuses, but only if they build the dike enough to stay ahead but not enough for it to hold. The game reminds me a little bit of the television show Foyle’s War. Foyle’s War follows a detective in the British homeland while his nation is fighting in World War II. While his job is the same as it was before the war–investigate crimes and catch the bad guys–everything that happens in the show happens under the looming shadow of what’s going on in Germany. Most of the actions in a game of Lowlands are related to building up a player’s own farm, yet the rising floodwaters constantly force players to reevaluate their position and determine how much they can contribute to the common goal without endangering their own position.
I find this tension fascinating and engaging. It’s interaction without conflict. And players are forced to interact. Every time a player takes a “build the dike action,” they have to ask another player for help. The other player can contribute only as much as the asking player, and the asking player gets a small benefit, but players have to weigh what they want when they ask other players. Should they ask a player who is unlikely to help so they can stay ahead on the dike track? Should they ask a player likely to help to ensure that the dike holds? It can be a boon to contribute to the dike on another player’s turn–that’s one less action you have to spend!–but then you contribute according to that player’s terms. Talking about the interaction in the game makes me want to play it now, which is always a good sign.
I like Lowlands a lot. My only concern with the game is I’m not sure how replayable it will be. As with all reviews that aim to be even close to timely, I’ve played Lowlands enough to know that I like the game, but I haven’t played it enough to know how long the love will last. The reason I question replayability at all is that the game follows a similar arc each game: players build up their farms, the water comes in, and they have to weigh how much damage they can withstand in the event of a dike breach. Granted, there is a lot of variability from game to game–the water will range from 24 to 36 waves (which makes a huge difference), and different buildings will be available–but again, you are doing the same kinds of things each game, and I’m not sure how much players will want to engage in this. The tension of building the dike is still present for me now–but will it be in another five plays or so? I can’t say.
What gives me hope on this score, however, is the number of different avenues to try in Lowlands. Each game, players have so few actions that there are obviously things they want to do and can’t. This is the mark of good design, and it’s also the primary path I see to making a rich game. I may have tried gaining and housing more and more sheep last game–what if I now focus on building the dike whenever I can? I tried constructing buildings and features–maybe I should go for buying and selling sheep at the right time. The strategies aren’t endless, and really, most games you will be forced to combine strategies in some fashion. But because each game you can only build four buildings, the game forces you to try new things and be on the lookout for new combinations. I like this.
Lowlands has a rich theme that makes sense for the game, and most of the actions, once understood, are straightforward. However, there can be a lot to take in during your first game. While all the actions make sense and become almost second nature about halfway through, this isn’t a game for the faint of heart. I’d say it’s similar in complexity to Agricola.
The components in Lowlands are excellent. The cardboard is thick and coated in linen finish, there are lots of wooden pieces that are satisfying to place, and the game looks great on the table. Each of the farm boards is double sided, one side showing a sunny pasture and the other side a rainy one. The illustrations on all the boards and cards are clear and pleasant. The iconography on the buildings is clear once you understand the game, and the player aids and round tracker are huge boons to keep the game moving along. The star of the show here, though, is the water and dike–as it should be in a game where building the dike is the central problem. The wave pieces stack perfectly, and the dike pieces are just the right length. The colors are different enough to easily distinguish them. It’s easy to see where you are in relation to the dike project (which will make disappointment that you haven’t contributed that much more vocal and frequent). I wish the numbers for farmer strengths were silkscreened onto the pawns or that the stickers were less obtrusive, but that is the only nit to pick in an otherwise stunning production. (I will note, however, that if you don’t like farming games in general, or the understated aesthetic of Euro games, you probably will think this package is bland. I happen to like farming as a theme and thus don’t find it so.)
Lowlands takes the farming Euro that many of us are familiar with and revitalizes it with a central conceit that provides strong thematic integration and a ripe source for interaction. There are elements in it that should be familiar to experienced players, but the dike offers something that feels new and fresh. I don’t expect that Lowlands will be everyone’s cup of tea, but players who like strong interaction in their efficiency games will enjoy what Lowlands has to offer.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America for providing us with a copy of Lowlands for review.