Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Tuesday, 31 July 2018

You take the low road:- Lowlands


Game: Lowlands

Publisher: Z-Man Games

Designer: Claudia and Ralf Partenheimer

Year: 2018


Lowlands is a 2-4 player worker placement game in which you manage a sheep farm in an area of land that is incredibly prone to flooding. You must balance your time between managing and improving your farm and helping the community to build dikes to keep the floods at bay. Should the land start flooding then the value of sheep will go down and the amount of praise you get for helping the dikes go up, conversely if the dike is holding then the value of sheep increase and the reward for dike building is low. With a little luck you can walk this tightrope to become the richest farm owner, and presumably buy some land that's a bit higher up...

Each player has their own board in Lowlands which doubles as their farm and their worker placement area. You have 3 workers to use each round, one each of strength 2, 3 and 4. There are 5 different abilities you can perform, each of which giving you more power should you use your larger numbered workers. Firstly you can gather resources, these are collected from a common market in a similar way to Ticket to Ride, There are 3 resources which are used for a few things, but mostly for building dikes. Secondly you can buy or sell sheep, when you do this you get to buy or sell sheep at the current market value. Thirdly you can rearrange existing fences or spend resources to build new fence, for every fenced in square on your farm you can put one sheep out to graze. You also get some income benefits as you build more fence. Fourthly you can build the dike, to do so you spend a number of resources of the relevant type and move your marker up the same number of points on the dike track. If you gave enough resources to finish the dike then you can place a new dike in front of the incoming floodwater. Finally you can build buildings and other farm upgrades, these cost resources to build but tend to give permanent new abilities or end game scoring, you can also use the walls of buildings as if they were fences to keep your sheep in place.

As you build fences and buildings you unlock extra income that you get every round.
After placing workers your sheep will breed (every 2 sheep you have give you an extra sheep, the mysteries of nature!), a new flood card will be unveiled (cards are approximately numbered so players know roughly how many dikes they need to make) and then a new worker placement round begins. After every second worker placement round the flood is evaluated, should the flood happen then penalties are given to the players who helped the least and the value of helping build the dikes goes up. Should the flood be stopped then rewards are given to those who helped the most with the dike, then the value of sheep rises and the value of dike points decreases. The game then continues for 2 more cycles (ending with 6 worker placement rounds and 3 floods) before the final flood, at this point if the final flood is kept at bay then all flood penalties are discarded, but should the final flood happen then a sheep drowns for every flood penalty you have! Points are then awarded for how much you helped on the dike, all the sheep you have, money earned and any other end game bonuses your buildings provide.

Lowlands is a very clever worker placement game, there is no direct player confrontation, instead you are reliant on your rivals to at least help with the dikes a little bit, lest all your hard work goes to waste. The ideal situation to be in is either putting no work into the dike, and the farms not flooding at the end, or to be the only one working on the dike and having it fail, at which point the dike points are high and your rival's sheep are... swimming to the Bahamas... sure, lets go with that. The reality is normally far more in the middle, particularly as you must ask someone to help after building the dike, it's rare that the person you ask outright says no (unless they don't have the resources). The flood and dike pieces are a lovely touch, with the final dike genuinely starting to look like a tall mound of minecraft-esque dirt.

As floods occur (or don't) the market value varies for both sheep and dike points. Ironically a dike-heavy strategy actually wants it to flood!
So the gameplay of Lowlands leads to this strange kind of aggressive cooperation, you end up helping each other out, but only with entirely selfish motivation, and you;d really rather everyone would do it without you. I love it! It's a great representation of the human condition, most of us work our jobs for the money, not for the benefit to society. We are being selfish, but in doing so we make society run and create something much bigger that the input. In Lowland's case the thing created is sheep, lots and lots of sheep. There is a lot of customization from the buildings with some forcing you to build in certain ways (rewards for uncovered trees on my farm? Better make sure I don't build over them!) which adds to the strategy, though if you aren't careful costs you more than you gain. Alternatively you can get buildings that reward you less but are simpler to use, or are just a shed that you can fill with sheep!

Unfortunately the dike building feels a little broken in a 2 player game, as you can now ask the board for help... and why would I do otherwise? If I get my opponent to help then the dike might be built faster, but they will get dike points. In 3+ players you can choose the player you think is doing worst to get the chance for bonus points, but in 2 player you can select no-one and that's just a better option. The rest of the game still works well though, I particularly like how the different worker strengths makes you further plan your turns or potentially overspend (spare power turns into free resource cards). If you like the general farming simulation of games like Caverna or Agricola, but would rather not have other players ruining your plans by taking your spots from you (and you don't want to watch your family starve) then Lowlands is the game for you!

8/10

Lowlands was a review copy provided by Asmodee UK. It is available for an RRP of £64.99 at your friendly local game store or can be picked up at http://www.365games.co.uk/.

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