The scene: rival Netherlands farmland stretching along the coastline. Your fingers flex around your shepherd’s crook as blackened skies loom over your farm. The bleating of your flock becomes drowned out – there’s rumbling thunder overhead. The roar of the crashing tides are close; so close you can taste the salt in the air. A moment of sheer panic punches you in the stomach as waves race towards the shoreline. Will your farm survive this storm? Welcome to Lowlands.
This is Lowlands, a Euro-style farming simulation by Z-man Games. At first glance, I’d forgive you for assuming Lowlands is an Uwe Rosenberg design. In fairness, you’d be somewhat correct. Rosenberg played a ‘creative consultant’ role in Lowlands’ design journey. The designers on the box, though, are Claudia and Ralf Partenheimer. But this isn’t an Agricola 2.0 – this has a different trick up its sleeve. Lowlands features a semi co-operative mechanism thrown in among a traditional farming game, and it’s engrossing.
There’s A Storm A-Brewin’
The aim of Lowlands is to turn your small, humble farm into a thriving points bonanza. The problem is there’s a storm brewing, and your farm is on the vulnerable Dutch coastline. As the name suggests, your land’s beneath sea-level. And if you’re not careful, the incoming flood will wipe out your farm, sheep and all…
The answer lies in the form of building a communal dike along the coast, holding back the water. This flood barrier sits along yours and your rivals’ farms. Is the best philosophy to take in such circumstances ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’? Should you team up with your opponents and contribute towards building this dike? Or should you let those other farmers fool around with the dam, and focus on your own land, instead?
If Agricola And A Semi Co-op Had A Love-Child
Each player has their own farm board, comprising of a 4x5 grid. Six starter fences form a 2x1 bordered pasture, with two ‘sheeple’ (sheep meeples!) inside. So far, so Agricola. And true: over the course of structured, formulaic rounds you’ll aim to build up this farm. You’ll try to buy more fences from your limited stock. You’ll want to take advantage of animal husbandry as sheep multiply. You’ll look to construct building tiles for points, as well as their unique, ongoing benefits. You can point to the aspects of gameplay where Rosenberg’s influence seeps in.
But that’s where Lowlands’ similarities to Agricola end, though. How you reach the above destination is a different journey. The game focuses on hand management, alongside a blend of action points and action-selection. Lowlands has a series of cyclical phases to it, and you play a set number of phases until the Storm Surge finale. It’s at this point where it’s established if the dike truly holds, or breaks. The outcome of this has a major impact on end-game scoring.
I won’t go into great depths here about every intricacy of Lowlands’ rules. For that kind of thing, click here to read my How To Play Lowlands guide.
Before The Flood, There’s Work To Be Done
Rounds start with the reveal of how many Flood Markers get added to a growing tide. Quantities range from 1-6 Markers. Given a number range on the card’s reverse (1-3, or 4-6) you can guesstimate this. The reveal is always dramatic, with either communal cheers or gritted teeth. They join a tessellating row on the main board, representing the visual, shared threat: ever-rising tides.
There’s six Work Phases and Upkeep Phases that intertwine. The Work Phase is the beating heart of Lowlands. Players each have three farmers, of value 2, 3, and 4. You take turns placing these, one at a time, onto action spaces on your own farm board. In Upkeep, you earn income, and your sheep breed (if there’s room to house them). A new flood card gets revealed too, meaning more Flood Markers. After the second, fourth and sixth Upkeep Phase, a High Tide Phase occurs. This is tension personified. This is when you check if the dike holds back the water, or if it doesn’t.
Shear Strategy: The Work Phase
The Work Phase is where you weave your strategy. You’ve got five actions to pick between constructing buildings; contributing to the dike; gaining fences; buying/selling sheep; or taking cards. Each farmer’s number (2/3/4) represents how many action points it provides. You don’t block or deny your opponents actions during this phase – you block yourself, instead! You can overlay a farmer on top of your own (to repeat that action), but it costs you a coin. Money counts as points, so is it a worthwhile investment?
This system indulges gamers that thrive upon efficiency management. Your ‘4’ farmer is your most valuable. Where best to spend it? Three of the five actions (buildings, fences, and the dike) involve spending resource cards in different manners. Hand management is crucial. The claim-cards-for-action-points space becomes nigh-mandatory, particularly during the early stages of the game.
Building tiles have both a stated cost in action points as well as resource cards. Think of these like the unique buildings in, say, Caverna. Buildings score points, offer discounts, let you house sheep, and more asymmetrical features. Again, it’s the Rosenberg Factor. There’s a quota of public buildings available, which get replenished. Considering there’s 46 ‘Farm Expansion Tiles’, you’ll build a different farm ‘engine’ every game. You won’t always get to build your ‘favourites’. Some tiles relate to trees or ponds on your farm board, offering further decisions regarding tile placement.
When constructing buildings (or any other action), you spend leftover action points as ‘change’ by picking up more cards. There’s a public flop here, too. There’s an even mix of stone, wood and brick cards in the 66-card deck. If none of the face-up cards appeal, draw blind from the deck. You’ll want to pick specific resource types if you have your eye on paying for a building. Tiles are first-come, first-served, though. Eagle-eyed players pay attention to which resources you pick! Lowlands offers lots of player interaction in this regard.
No Offence, But Lesson 1.01 In Sheep Farming Is…
More fences create larger bordered pastures, so you can house more sheep. (One sheep per square on your grid.) Every pair of sheep mate in the Upkeep Phases and sheep are worth end-game points. Left a gap between fences? Sheep will run away! Come on; that’s lesson 1.01 in sheep farming…
It costs one action point and one card to build one fence. Moving a previous fence still costs an action point, but no card fee. This action is a great way to spend cards you have no need for right now. Some building tiles have ‘walls’ around them, which act the same as fences. Smart placement of buildings help you create pastures for fewer action points, then. Once buildings get placed, they’re placed for good. Place with care! Fences offer flexibility, though.
When you construct fences, you remove them from your Income Board. (The same occurs when you construct building tiles – you place a building marker on them.) Removing these reveals income beneath, a bit like in Great Western Trail. You earn this income – extra cards or coins – later, in Upkeep. Gaining regular shots in the arm – particularly free cards – is crucial. Other income are Labourers, tokens you place on action points to increase their output. They’re powerful, and opting where to place them is gratifying.
Buying or Selling sheep costs one action point per sheep bought/sold. This is like a mini commodity speculation market. The value of sheep can rise and fall throughout the game, which is a direct correlation to the state of the dike. (More on this, later!) Timing when to buy and when to sell can prove lucrative. However, I always found this to be my least-used action space. This is the one action that doesn’t involve cards. You need cards for the final action, though: contributing towards the dike. Let’s dive into the compelling semi-coop nature of Lowlands…
Three Little Pigs Make A Dam Out Of Sticks
This is the biggest, most intriguing decision you have when playing. Contributing towards building the dike? Pay as many same-resource cards as your action points allow. Then you must ask an opponent if they’d like to contribute on your turn. That player can then pay the same resource type, and up to as many cards as you did.
Once the players contribute a quota of identical resource cards, you place a dike segment. These blocks sit in front of the Flood Markers, attempting to keep the water at bay. It’s a striking, stark visual. Once placed, the next person to contribute towards the dike gets to pick the next resource type. It’s like a warped version of the three little pigs building a flood defence mechanism against the Big Bad W… erm, Water. These segments start out large, but become smaller and smaller. You have to work much harder to keep up with the water’s pace in the latter stages. This might frustrate, but early-game it feels like you make loads of progress.
Every card you contribute here moves you that many spaces along the Dike Track. If someone agrees to help after your request, you gain a bonus movement along this track. Will they begrudge you a bonus movement, if it means they too can progress along it? Advancing along the Dike Track has an array of meanings. There’s modular threshold bonuses when you reach certain spots. You can earn points off of your final position on it. There are also major benefits to leading this track during the three High Tide Phases. There’s penalties for falling behind, too…
High Tide And Squeaky Bum Time
During High Tide, you check: do the Flood Pieces exceed the length and height of the Dike Segments? If the dike’s above/beyond the water: hooray! It holds, and the player furthest along the Dike Track earns coins. (As many coins as spaces ahead they are of the player in last place on the Dike Track.) Everyone else earns coins in this manner, with the player at the rear of the Dike Track earning nothing. They’ve contributed the least, after all.
If the water’s above/beyond the dike: uh-oh! It breaks, and the player furthest back along the Dike Track gains Dike Breach Tokens. They receive as many Dike Breach Tokens as spaces behind they are of the leader on the Dike Track. Same applies to everyone else too, if they’re spaces behind the leader. The leader takes no penalty. After all, they’re the shining example in the community!
Depending on success or failure, the Value Marker moves. This causes the cost (and end-game points value) of sheep to either rise or fall. The more the dike holds, the higher in value sheep become, but Dike Track points decline. The same occurs vice versa. The more the dike fails, the value of sheep declines, but your position on the Dike Track pays out more.
End Game Points Teetering On A Fulcrum
This has a monumental swing on points at the end of the game. If the dike holds in all three High Tides, for example? That results in your Dike Track points getting multiplied by: zero. All those potential points lost! But hey, your sheep are worth 5 points each in that scenario. Better hope you extended your fences to hold lots of sheep, and that they bred at every opportunity!
In some twisted way, you might even want the dike to fail. Contributed to the dike a lot, but your opponents haven’t? You’ll want to earn points for your work! Also, at the end of the game, Dike Breach Tokens come back to bite players. If the dike breaks in the final High Tide, for every Breach Token you have, you lose a sheep. Ouch. But if it holds? Throw all your Breach Tokens away. Phew! There’s a devious ace in the hole, in the form of one Building, the ‘Dwelling Mount’. The owner of this can omit up to six Breach Tokens at the end, even if the dike breaks. So they might try to sabotage proceedings so this occurs, knowing they alone are safe! (They’re in trouble like the rest of your if they’ve got seven or more Breach Tokens, though!)
This all provides a keen incentive for participation towards the dike. In some ways, it’s not about leading the Dike Track. It’s about not getting left behind. The genius mechanism at play is the mandatory requirement. You have to ask another player if they’d like to contribute on your turn. This becomes a psychological battle. Have you been paying attention to which cards the others have picked up? If you ask them, can they contribute by paying the current resource? Would they want to? Do they have their eye on spending those resources elsewhere, on buildings or fences, instead?
The Dike Track leader sometimes becomes a ‘target’. Players might not ask them to contribute. Players might not want them to extend their lead, even if they could be an asset to the communal flood barrier. It’s a conundrum in the area of cutting your nose off to spite your face! One thing’s for sure: if you gauge that the dike’s in trouble early on, you can plan for that. Don’t go super-hard into sheep farming, if they’re not going to pay out the points (per effort you’re putting in). Focus on progressing along the Dike Track to earn points that way. But not too much, so the dike holds!
Paint Jobs, Punchboards, And Final Thoughts on Lowlands
The card stock in Lowlands is decent and chunky, but I have to be honest. I had one of my worst-ever experiences trying to punch this without it tearing. I needed a knife to prise every single coin, token and tile out of the punchboards. If you’re like me and take great pride in your components, this is a wincing, non-relaxing task. It’s not a great first impression.
Also, the wooden components had awful coatings of paint. As if they’re faded, or aged, in a deliberate ‘hipster’ manner. But no. It’s more akin to zero budget or care having gone into the paint on the building markers or discs. They’re some of the cheapest quality paint I’ve seen for a modern game in this kind of price bracket. This might not matter to some gamers, but as a passionate hobbyist, it matters to me. I felt let down by Z-man Games in this regard.
The artwork offers a muted colour palette, but that works in the theme’s favour. There’s a lot of agriculture-green (sounds like a Dulux paint!). The iconography is digestible for seasoned Euro-gamers, the target market, after all. Player reference sheets explain it all, anyway. For your first few games, you’ll refer to the rules for what certain Building Tiles mean, but that’s not unusual.
If you can look beyond the initial poor punchboards and wooden components, then you’re in for a treat. The gameplay on offer in Lowlands is so unique for a Euro-style farming game. It takes the animal husbandry side of Agricola and breeds it with a Dead of Winter-esque semi-coop vibe. Only, there’s no hidden traitor roles, here. You decide which path to take as the game unfolds. But picking your side as the Storm Surge closes in? Seeing the rising tide encroaching, threatening to undo all your hard work? Lowlands is a captivating game of keeping your friends close, but your enemy closer. And there’s no greater power than Mother Nature, when she’s hell-bent on destruction.