Lowlands is an intriguing Euro-style game for 2-4 players from Z-Man Games. There’s a semi co-op undertow running through its veins in the form of a communal enemy. This villain threatens all players, who are competing to score the most points. (Euro games gon’ Euro, after all.) This Big Bad takes the form of rising tides threatening to flood the precarious coastline. At any moment, the waters could wipe out your sheep farm by the sea!
The constant consideration in Lowlands is ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Will you work together with your rivals to hold back the tide? Or will you turn your back on the storm and go it alone? Better pop on your wellies and get the sandbags ready. It’s time we learned how to play Lowlands!
What’s The Aim Of The Game?
Lowlands has a series of phases to it, with a suggested playing time of 50-100 minutes. At the end of the game, you score points across many areas. These include your sheep, buildings, money, and your position along the Dike Track. The player with the most points wins. End-game factors feel the impact of a successfully built communal dike (or not). But first: let’s set up the game.
Setting Up The Big Main Board
Before we learn how to play Lowlands, let's learn how to set up. Place the main board in the middle of the table. Shuffle the Flood Deck. Have the Flood Pieces and Dike Segments nearby. Keep the excess sheep close to hand, along with coins, Dike Breach chits, and other tokens.
Assign player colours. Each player places Dike Point Markers on zero along the Dike Track. Place the five circular Progress Tokens in a random order along the Dike Track. Put the neutral-colour round marker at the start of the Phase Track (in the bottom-right). Along the sheep/Dike-Value Track, situate the framed marker in the middle (on the 1|3 values).
Shuffle the large deck of Resource Cards and deal four of them face-up at the bottom. Leave the deck face-down next to this flop. Use the correct Sheep Market Board as per player count. Place sheep on the silhouettes. Put the three resource cubes (brown/orange/grey) on this board too.
Stack the square Farm Expansion Tiles into their own piles. (See icons on their reverse; green Features, and Sheep/Action/Storm Surge tiles.) Draw three Sheep, Action, and Feature tiles. Arrange them face-up beneath their stacks. Pick as many Storm Surge tiles as there are players, plus one. Sit those face-up too. Return excess Storm Surge tiles to the box.
Individual Player Set-Up: Your Farmyard Board
Give each player a Farmyard Board. (It’s double-sided, but for aesthetics alone.) Each player gets an Income Board and their own Reference Sheet. (The latter helps with iconography and reminders about the Phases.) Give each player three coloured Farmers (numbered 2, 3, and 4), and four Buildings. Place the Buildings on your Income Board, covering the four Building silhouettes.
Each player takes 16 fences; they line 10 in a row on their Income Board. Use the remaining six fences to create a 2x1 portrait pasture in the middle of your Farmyard Board. Place one sheep in each square within this Pasture. Give each player two Labourer chits and four coins. Then deal each player four Resource Cards. Players keep their hand secret. Hand someone the First Player Marker. Everyone else gains an extra coin as recompense. Now you’re ready to play Lowlands!
Storm A-Brewing – The Turn Of The Tide
Lowlands has a series of formulaic phases. They’re easier to digest once you’ve seen them in action. The first is the Turn of the Tide. This circular arrow symbol is on the bottom of the Phase Marker Track. Players discard back down to eight cards if they have more. (This doesn’t apply at the start, since you begin with a hand of four cards. It has a greater impact later in the game.)
Deal out the top three cards from the Flood Deck, face-down, at the top of the board. Each card has either 1-3 or 4-6 on its reverse, meaning it is one of those numbers. Reveal the left-most Flood Card. Place the corresponding number of Flood Pieces on the Flood Spaces, left-to-right.
Note: among the 12 Flood Cards, there’s one ‘6’. For your first game, consider removing this from play. All done? Slide the Phase Marker up one notch.
Lowlands’ Labour – Work Phase
Next along the Phase Track is ‘Work’ – the green I. This is the crux of Lowlands: sending Farmers to work. Your ‘Number 2’ Farmer provides you with two action points; your ‘3’ Farmer provides three action points, and so on. On your turn, you place one of these Farmers on an Action Space on the left-hand side of your Farmyard. Perform the action, then play continues clockwise.
There are five different Action Spaces, each with a Farmer silhouette. This is like an individual worker placement. No one else can visit your board, but in essence, you ‘block’ your own spaces once you place a Farmer on it. You can revisit an Action Space, but you have to pay a coin to do so. Let’s break down these actions one at a time, top-to-bottom.
If Ewe Build It… Build A Farm Expansion
Placing a Farmer here lets you build one face-up Farm Expansion Tile. The number in the top-left of each tile shows how many action points it costs. You’ll also see the number of specific resources needed to build the Farm Expansion. (Brown/orange/grey being wood/clay/stone respectively.) Pay the required cards from your hand into a discard pile, then place the tile on your Farm board. Short of a Resource to meet a payment? You can spend 2x resources of the same type to substitute for missing resources.
Once placed, you cannot move a Farm Expansion. Some are green (Features) and the rest are beige (Buildings). Some Features have to sit on top of a stated terrain type, such as a tree/bush/pond. Beige borders around Buildings are akin to fences, acting as a barrier to house sheep in pastures. (More on this, later.) When placing a Building Tile, remove your left-most Building Marker from your Income Board. Sit it on the tile. You can only get four Buildings during the game. (You can build as many Features as you can afford.)
Each tile is unique; their descriptions/icons are all in the Appendix. They all provide benefits to your farm in various ways. Some are immediate pay-offs; others are passive traits or discounts throughout. The number in the blue shield states its end-game points value too. (An ! instead of a number scores via a certain end-game factor.)
Placed a Farmer here, but didn’t spend the full quota of action points? No drama. You get to draw one Resource Card for every leftover action point. This can either be from the face-up flop of cards or blind from the Resource Deck. (Spending remaining action points like this applies to all five of these actions.)
Hold Back The River – Contribute To The Dike
You can contribute to building the dike. Spend as many action points as your Farmer allows by paying resources of the same type, one per action point. Move the corresponding resource cube one space along the Construction Yard Track (above the Sheep Market) per resource you pay. If a resource cube is mid-way along this track, then you too must contribute the same type of resource. (Or pay 2x cards of the same type as a substitute.)
Once the resource cube reaches the end of this track, place a Dike Segment on the left-most Dike Space. (Start with the largest piece – one of the 3x brown segments – which is ‘four’ spaces long. After that, one of the 4x dark green segments: ‘three’ spaces long. Then the 6x light-grey segments: two spaces long.)
These act like a physical barrier, holding back the flood. If you have points remaining after a Dike Segment gets placed, you can then play more cards to contribute to the next segment. In such an occurrence, this can be any resource type. Then move your Dike Point Marker along the Dike Track as many spaces as cards you contributed. Did you land on (or pass beyond) a Progress Token? Immediately pick one of the two rewards on it. Hooray!
Finally, you must ask an opponent if they want to help contribute to the dike. (You cannot ask if they have the matching resource beforehand!) That player can then provide resources – up to as many as you did. They too could finish a dike segment, and then start a new segment, should they wish. They move as many spaces along the Dike Track as resources they contribute. You move one bonus space if they pay at least one resource. (It’s possible – via three specific Buildings – that players may contribute without paying a Resource Card.)
Take Offence – Build/Move Fences
Place a Farmer here to spend action points on buying or moving fences. (One action point per fence.) Buying a fence costs you one card; moving a fence doesn’t. When you buy fences, remove them from your Income Board, left-to-right. You place/move fences on your Farmyard Board on gaps between squares to form pastures. If a pasture has a fence running around it without gaps, you may house one sheep per square within it. Building Tiles act as substitute fences. Gaps in pastures mean sheep will escape and cannot sit there. You may relocate your sheep at any time for free.
Fleecing The Market – Buy/Sell Sheep
Send a Farmer here to either sell your sheep or buy more – one transaction per action point. If selling, remove sheep from your Farmyard Board and place them in empty spaces on the Sheep Market. The value of each sheep equates to the current Value Track. At the start, this is three coins per sheep. (This fluctuates though, flood-depending.) If buying, remove sheep from the Sheep Market and add them onto your pasture(s). Pay the value per sheep according to the Value Track. Whether buying or selling, you may only perform this in one single row of the Sheep Market. (Even if you can afford more.)
Hand Management Ahoy! – Draw Resource Cards
The final option is to draw Resource Cards – one card per action point. Either take cards from the four in the public flop and/or blind from the deck. When taking cards from the flop, don’t replace them until after your turn.
Lambing Season – The Upkeep Phase
After the last player places their third worker, move the Phase Marker up one notch into the orange II. This is the Upkeep Phase of Lowlands. There are six mini-steps to obey here, but don’t panic. They’re simple and listed on your Reference Sheet, so you won’t forget them.
1) Your sheep breed. Every two sheep on your Farm board do a ‘happy sheep dance’ and create another sheep. Take x sheep from the supply and house them on your Farm board. You can house one sheep per square within a fenced-off pasture. (Note: certain Building Tiles/Features allow you to break this rule.) If you cannot house the sheep, you forfeit the offspring.
2) Check your Income Board. When you remove Buildings and Fences from your Income Board, you start to reveal Income icons. These include gaining cards and coins. Players receive these in turn order. (The other icon here is the circular Labourer. As soon as you uncover this, place one of your Labourer chits next to one of your Farmyard actions spaces. This boosts their productivity: gifting you +1 action point, a -1 resource discount, or a better exchange rate at the Sheep Market.)
3, 4 and 5) Everybody retrieves their Farmers from their Farmyards. Reset the Sheep Market, so it returns to its default starting capacity. Then the First Player Marker goes to the player furthest along the Dike Track. Tie-break? This goes to the player whose Dike Track Marker sits on top.
6) Last, reveal the next face-down Flood Card. Add the corresponding number of Flood Pieces. If a twelfth Flood Piece gets added to the row of Flood Spaces, start again in the left-most space. Sit it on top.
Shear Peril – High Tide
The blue space along the Phase Track, marked III, is the High Tide Phase. The Phase Track goes I, II, I, II, III, Reset, and then I, II, I, II, III, Reset, and so on. The High Tide Phase is less frequent than the Work and Upkeep Phases. This is the point in the game where you check the dike, versus the size of the flood…
If the Dike Segments sit higher than the Flood Pieces, the dike holds. Hooray! If the Flood Pieces sit higher than the Dike Segments, the dike breaks. Uh-oh… If there’s a tie in height, which row is longer at this moment? If it’s the Dike Segments, then the dike holds. Flood Pieces? Then the dike breaks.
If the dike holds, check everyone’s status on the Dike Track. You earn one coin for every Dike Point you are ahead of the player with the least Dike Points. (Dike Points equal one per two spaces you move along the Dike Track.) The player in the last place along the Dike Track, therefore, receives zero coins. Then move the Value Marker one space to the right. (Increasing the value of sheep, but decreasing the value of Dike Points).
Dike breaks? Check everyone’s position along the Dike Track. Take one Dike Breach Token for every Dike Point you are behind the leader along the Dike Track. The player leading the way on the Dike Track, therefore, receives zero Dike Breach Tokens. These are punishing when it comes to final scores! Then move the Value Marker one space to the left. (Decreasing the value of sheep, but increasing Dike Point value).
If this is the first or second High Tide Phase, move the Phase Marker up one notch and continue. You’re back to the Turn of the Tide Phase again. After the third High Tide, it’s time to move onto final scoring, in the Storm Surge Phase…
Wool It, Or Won’t It…? The Storm Surge
First of all, score and resolve all Buildings and Features with an ‘!’ in the VP shield. (One of the Storm Surge Buildings allows the owner to return six Dike Breach Tokens, providing they have six or fewer. This is massive, because…)
Then assess the dike. If it held, everybody cheers and gets rid of all their Dike Breach Tokens. If the dike broke, then your farm’s in trouble! For every Dike Breach Token you have, you must give up one sheep to the supply. Not enough sheep? Then pay coins equal to the current value of sheep that you owe. Not enough coins? Then you lose one point per coin you fail to pay. Ouch!
Players then score according to their position along the Dike Track. Check the Dike Point Value (above the Sheep Value). Multiply your Dike Points by the Dike Point Value. (If the Dike Point Value is at zero… you score zero points for this!) Also score your remaining sheep, according to the current Sheep Value.
Score the face-value of your regular Buildings and Features. Coins are worth 1VP each. Finally, you get 1VP per two remaining Resource Cards you have at the end of the game. Add them all up. The player with the most points wins and earns the title of Lowlands legend!
Off You Go-lands
Congratulations! You now know how to play Lowlands.
If you haven't already picked up a copy, you can grab one right here at Zatu Games! However, if you're on the fence about Lowlands, feel free to check out some similar games such as Carcassonne, Merchants and Marauders, and Pandemic: The Cure.