I recently acquired Foothills by Lookout Games for an insanely cheap price. It was one of those offers that looked almost too good to be true so I thought I would have to get it. It is marketed as a streamlined, two-player version of Snowdonia - the “Big Daddy” of train building in North Wales. The question that I had when I opened the lid was whether it was a bargain, or should I have just purchased the full Snowdonia experience?
According to the Welsh Tourist Board, several million tourists visit Snowdonia each year. If you want hiking, beautiful scenery and unpronounceable place names, then this is the place for you. It is best known for its mountains – the most famous being Snowdon or Yr Wyddfa as the locals call it. Winding their way around these mountains, and up them too, are the remnants of Snowdonia’s slate mining past. There are numerous narrow-gauge railways, many now lost and overgrown, but some restored for tourists.
Of the millions of tourists who visit North Wales each year, only half a million actually climb Snowdon. That is still a huge number, but less than 10% of the visitors to the area. Why’s that? Accessibility? Time? A desire for something other than mountains?
The majority are more than happy to ride the rails on the region’s steam trains. They are more than happy to enjoy the beautiful scenery, without the need for blisters and hiking boots. These are the “fair-weather” walkers who would prefer an hour’s stroll on a paved guided walk rather than a precarious scramble along the knife-edged arête that is Crib Goch.
Foothills, I want to suggest, is that leisurely stroll, whereas Snowdonia is the “full karabiners and body harness” gaming experience.
Foothills is a two-player game. Here players are competing to construct a number of heritage lines. It is a worker placement game with a twist and usually is finished within 45 minutes. (This includes set-up time and take downtime). The game is played around six well known narrow-gauge lines. These are selected at random from a choice of eight on offer. The lines, with their station spaces and termini, are laid out as a series of cards. At the beginning, these routes are all blocked by rubble which prevents the track from being laid or stations built. Part of the task of players is to clear this rubble and use some of the building materials later in the game.
Players have their own action spaces. There are five in total laid out as cards. As each action is used so the card is flipped to the reverse offering a different action. This also prevents a player from persistently repeating one action every turn.
Building railways needs resources. This simplest action allows a player to claim up to three resources from the stockyard. Often only two resources are required, stone and iron ore to lay track but extra material will always be useful later in the game. As the stockyard becomes depleted, more resources are drawn at random from a bag. In order to extend a railway all of the rubble needs to be cleared. This can only occur in an organised fashion commencing with obstacles closest to the starting stations. Once the rubble is cleared completely, this paves the way for track-laying or building stations. These actions cost resources and, depending on which station is built, so different rewards may be gained. This might be additional passenger visits or even bonus victory points.
The construction of a station also opens up an opportunity for your surveyor (worker) to perform other local actions. In this regard, this is a little “engine builder” coming into play. It is the equivalent of a free extra action, providing you have sufficient resources to complete the extra task. Track-laying enables the railway to grow. The surveyor can choose to lay track at the closest free space comet nearest to the starting station. Once a line is completed from start to terminus then the buffers are set.
Visiting the Pub
No self-respecting Welsh town would be complete without a warm snug pub, perhaps called the Red Dragon. Here the locals can put the world to right and railway workers rehydrate after a long backbreaking day. In Foothills you have the opportunity to move your surveyor to the pub. This is a way of gaining extra bonuses by exchanging one of your action spaces for a new one. Choose wisely and you may gain extra victory points for each station built or passenger ticket on your lines.
Once five (of the six) lines are completed, and buffers installed, Foothills is over. It is just a matter of counting victory points, tokens and adding passenger bonuses and action cards. Most games take about 45 minutes to complete.
Thoughts on Foothills
In the same way that Snowdonia National Park is much more accessible than the peak of Snowdon itself, so Foothills offers a straight forward experience without the effort of the full game. Indeed as the box explains, Foothill gives a gamer the chance to try a little “Sunday afternoon ramble” rather than a full hike. Foothills is excellent at what it is offering, and it does not pretend to offer more.
The box art is a colourful depiction of the Welsh steam trains, with Victorian surveyors decked in their bowler hats. Lift the lid and there are cards and resources galore.
At its heart, this is a two-player worker placement game. However, there is no direct competition for action spaces. Each player is responsible for their own set of cards. As there is just one action per turn, then this game plays extremely quickly. There is barely enough time to collect the rubble or build the station before it is time to put your surveyor on the Ffestiniog railway, grab a ticket, collect some iron ore and lay some track. In that regard, it is almost a solo experience.
However, when playing Foothills it is very important to keep a tab on your opponent. Whilst you might have plans to clear rubble on the Talyllyn line and gain resources and victory points, the other player has been amassing stone and iron in readiness to build a number of stations. They are playing the long game perhaps. As you complete stations, this enables your surveyor to visit another action space next to the station. With planning, this becomes very lucrative. So, having realised their plan, you need to try to “uncouple their carriage” or cause a derailment.
So, How Can You Cause an Upset?
The beauty of foothills is that there is some randomness. In digging a tunnel you might hit hard rock to slow progress or fail to meet your stone quota and miss out on a bonus. The element of chance in Foothills comes in the form of the navvies. These (predominantly) Irish men were hard workers. Having built the canals at the beginning of Victorian times they turned their skills to railway lines.
So what has this to do with stopping your opponent?
When stock is taken from the stockyard, new stone and iron are randomly retrieved from the resource bag. However, this bag also contains six white cubes. If one is taken then a navvy tile is placed. These efficient workers immediately construct the tracks and station on the highest cleared line. This means that your opponent’s plans to monopolise one route is thrown into disarray. Similarly, as more resources are taken and hoarded, so the likelihood of drawing a white navvy cube will increase.
This game is finely balanced. There appears to be many competing strategies available. Clearing rubble to allow a railway to extend will give some victory points, and yield plenty of raw resources. Building stations will increase your passenger numbers. These can be so valuable in endgame scoring. As there is a defined endpoint (five buffers laid) it could be advantageous to aim to complete routes quickly in the hope your opponent has not yet built sufficient stations. Certainly, some lines carry separate bonuses. These might catch your eye as you steam your way to the summit of the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Those two extra victory points could be so valuable.
This is a Euro game. There is little “conflict”. The game is quite cerebral in that it pays to plan ahead. Like the great train surveyors of 180 years ago it is better to have a plan and strategy, yet be able to react as you see your opponent’s weaknesses. If they are low on stone, now is the time to use your stone to build stations. If you have plenty of iron why not complete a few lines.
Having played Foothills several times against my son, I have been surprised how close the final scores are. Often there is just a single victory point separating us. There is no runaway leader in Foothills. I know there are some games where one wrong move penalises your strategy and for the remainder of the game you are on the back-foot. Not so in Foothills. The game seems to reward consistency but is forgiving of errors.
A loss after a finely balanced game is always so much more satisfying than a win by a country mile in my opinion.
Final Thoughts on Foothills
I bought Foothills for two reasons; to enjoy playing a slimmed-down Snowdonia game and to snag a gaming bargain.
I’ve actually climbed Snowdon a couple of times. The views are breath-taking and the scenery stunning. Whether you walk up the mountain yourself or choose to visit Snowdonia and perhaps take the easy way to the top on the steam train, the final vista is almost as good. For a tourist, pushed for time or someone who is not equipped with hiking boots, there is no shame in taking the short train ride to the top. It is the same with Foothills. Do not look down on this slimmed down Snowdonia experience. It increases the accessibility of a great worker placement game and, like the little steam trains that are used by the tourists, now you can get to the top of the mountain. Foothills is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of those Victorian engineers.