Every so often board games come along that stir the inner magpie within. Meadow is one such game, with its luscious art style and evocative table presence. It’s the kind of game people rubberneck as they pass it by (walking into a lamppost, as a consequence). One glance at the nature on display in Klemens Kalicki’s Meadow, and you’ll feel as though you’ve wandered into a painting by Monet or Constable.
Art does something to us; it tugs at our heartstrings and plucks at our emotions like a harp. The question is, then, can Meadow’s gameplay live up to the impressively high standards of its card art design?
The Sights You See And The Memories You Make
Meadow embodies a pleasant stroll, rambling in among nature. You’re observing the greatest dance of all take place; you’re witnessing how nature entwines. The cards you collect are the sights you see and the memories you make. The aim is to build a tableau chock full of set collections, to earn the most victory points. Your tableau represents numerous flourishing ecosystems, full of flora and fauna. You’ll need to draft the right cards, then use clever hand management to play them in order.
Path Tokens are the driving force of your turn in Meadow. Each player has four (five in a four-player game). On your turn, you get to use one of your Path tokens and you have two choices. Either spend one at the mainboard to claim a card (and then play a card). Or, you spend one at the Campfire board to take an alternate action and try to claim bonus points there, too.
From Small, Humble Beginnings…
You start with a single starter Ground card. This represents not only a terrain type but also the symbol of a creature that calls that habitat its home. A beetle in among fallen leaves; larvae in among the grass. From these humble beginnings, you will build your biological community! You also start with a five-card hand featuring North, South, East and West cards. There are 45 cards in each deck, each having their own theme. (More on these, later.)
The mainboard itself is a 4×4 grid, which houses 16 face-up cards. Around three of the four edges are 12 triangular cutouts, sitting alongside the rows and columns. These notches are where you insert your Path tokens. They’re shaped like a wooden signpost you’d find on a footpath – a triangle face and a square end. Everyone’s tokens have numbers 1-4. Placing a Path token into a vacant slot in the board? Count inwards (on the cards) according to the number on the token, and claim that card into your hand. Then you get to play one card from your hand into your tableau. Then the next player places a token in a vacant spot, and so on.
Déjà vu kicks in here if you’ve played Quadropolis. Meadow differs in a vast capacity to the Days of Wonder title. If, however, you’ve played Quadropolis, this feature will fall into place with the click of one’s fingers. But this is where the comparison ends. The tableau-building side of the game reminded me of a different game…
…Build Yer Own Ecosystem
Each card has a requirement symbol (sometimes two, or even more) on it. You need to have that symbol (/symbols) present in your tableau to play that card. (All except the East deck, which are Ground cards. These provide a Ground symbol and a standard card symbol – such as a tree, bug, fungi, flower, and so on. These are like the base level of your ecosystem. You can always play a Ground card without needing any prior requirements. You can play up to 10 Ground cards during a game of Meadow – and trust me, you’ll need a few of them!)
South cards have easy-to-intermediate requirements on them. A bicoloured shrew, for example, requires a single bug. If you have a card with a bug symbol on it, your action could be to fan the shrew on top of it, making a column. In doing so, the shrew has nommed down the bug, and earns you the points on its card! But the Ground symbol – the terrain – remains.
Problem is, you no longer have that bug symbol present in your tableau because you’ve covered it up. At least the shrew provides you with a new symbol of its own: a paw print, a.k.a. a small mammal. On your next turn, you could play (or draft and then play) a different card requiring a paw print symbol. In turn, you place it on top of the shrew, and the ecosystem grows. Once you’ve placed a card, you cannot then relocate it. That’s not how real food chains work, either!
Landscapes, Discoveries, And Roads
Some cards require a combination of Ground card symbols. (Meaning you’ll need that quantity of matching Ground cards in your tableau, first.) Others, such as the Eurasian Hoopoe, demand a couple of card symbols. Here both symbols must be visible within your tableau. You place the Hoopoe on one of the two prerequisite cards – your choice. This allows you to plan ahead to an extent, by leaving certain symbols present for later turns.
West cards have tougher, multiple demands, but with it, the scope for higher rewards. Some have demands with arrows pointing left and right. This means that you may place this card in a column adjacent to that symbol. Other cards are Landscapes. Instead of critters or plants, these are locations, such as a windmill or a calming stone bridge. These need a Road token to play. (You start with one Road token for free; the others you’ll have to earn.) Later on, you can place Discovery cards on top of Locations. These are items you might find along the way: a horseshoe, a map, or a toy soldier. Discoveries require at least one Location card, among other symbols.
Short on the symbols needed to play cards? You can always throw two cards away out of your hand to compensate for a missing symbol. This feels expensive, but at the same time, it can be a smart investment. It could save you a lot of hard work – albeit at the cost of your hand size…
Silky Smooth Actions
At the halfway stage of the game, the South cards get removed from the grid. (Three out of six rounds in a 2-/3-player game; four out of eight rounds in a 4-player game.) They get replaced with the North deck. These are even tougher cards to complete, but worth up to four points per card.
These actions in Meadow are silky smooth. Pick where to place your Path Token into the 4×4 grid. Claim the card into your hand. Replenish the grid with a card from the corresponding deck. Then play any card from your hand. Once everyone’s placed all their Path tokens, everyone gains back their tokens and a new round begins. (Again, this part takes obvious inspiration from Quadropolis, and that’s not a bad thing.)
Hand management plays a large role in Meadow. The idea of playing cards now (that act as a prerequisite to play another card later) reminded me of Everdell. To be successful in Meadow, you need to build a tableau that can feed and power itself. You want to open your options every turn so you always have a card you can play. (This card helps you play that card, which then lets you play this card.) Ground cards aside, South, West and North cards all provide points, if played. You want to get lots of them into your tableau – especially those North cards in the latter half of the game.
Gather Round The Campfire
This leads onto an interesting point because I’ve only explained half of Meadow. There’s a second board: the campfire, remember? This has a series of square notches in it. Instead of placing your Path token and claiming a card on the mainboard, you can forgo that. Each Path token has a different specific action on it. You can activate it if you go to the campfire board as an alternative.
The ‘1’ token lets you take any card from the 4×4 grid. This is handy if the card you need is blocked by other Path tokens from all angles. ‘2’ lets you take two Road tokens – key, of course, if you plan to play lots of Landscape cards. ‘3’ lets you look at the top three cards in any one deck (N/S/E/W), claim one, and return the rest to the bottom. This can be a game-changer. Desperate for a particular symbol, but there’s no way to gain any using your Path tokens? (“Arghh, I need a bird! Where are all the birds? Stop taking all the birds!”) No problem. This lets you gamble by picking a deck, and who knows – you might get the kind of card you need. It’s also the only way to get a South card in the second half of the game – beware!
There’s a cunning spanner in the works, though. None of these actions then let you then play a card from your hand this turn. And like I said earlier – gaining cards into your hand alone doesn’t cut the mustard. At some point, you’ve got to play them! The one thing this does is it increases your hand size. Sometimes you might have to do this to build yourself back up (if you’ve thrown cards away to make up for vacant symbols).
The fourth ‘4’ Path token lets you play two cards from your hand this turn. This also diminishes your hand size, but it can be a powerful move, especially towards the end of the game. You know you’ve only got a certain number of turns left, thus limited time to play your cards. Utilising this tool felt too important to pass up. There are, of course, restricted spaces for Path tokens to sit around the Campfire. You’ll have to prioritise this if you want to take advantage.
On the campfire board, during set-up, you’ll place random card symbol chits between the tree stumps. If, when you visit the campfire board, you have two of these adjacent symbols present in your tableau, you get to place a goal token around the Campfire. These are first-come-first-served. They’re a question of timing. Can you visit here so you best utilise the token’s action and at a time when you can place a bonus token? (Especially if you’re about to cover one up in your tableau?) If you can place all three of your goal tokens during the game, that’s 9 extra points in your pocket.
The Everdell Domino Effect
Meadow feels competitive, and interactive… to an extent. You are, after all, blocking each other in a gradual manner with regards to the 12 access points to the grid of cards. It’s tough keeping on top of what everyone else has collected, though. Most of the time you’re looking down at your own tableau, and your own hand of cards.
If you play your cards right, they’ll pay for each other in a domino effect. When you can achieve this (like in Everdell), it’s so glorious. When you can’t, it can feel vexing. If someone drafts the one card (symbol) you really need, it’s irritating. Then you need a Plan B; a rethink’s required. At least you have options in throwing two cards away to stand in for missing symbols. This option felt like a last resort, though – it’s slow to re-gain cards once you reduce your hand size like this.
Experienced players realise that North cards are crucial for big points. Many of them require having an array of different terrains in among your Ground cards. This is a superb balancing technique. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll often need to place additional Ground cards. Why? Because they provide the base symbols needed for any ecosystem to grow upon. But if you leave it too late to build those Ground cards, frustration can occur. Like any game, there’s danger in putting all your eggs in one basket. Relying on getting one specific terrain or symbol puts your fate in the hand of Lady Luck. If the symbol/terrain you need is absent on the board, you can risk it by digging through the East deck. But if you still don’t find the one you need? A whole turn wasted, and oof: that stings.
Gratuitous And Unnecessary… But It Blew Me Away
Like the circle of life, we’ve circled back around to the art. Illustrator Karolina Kijak deserves a standing ovation. There are 200 unique cards here, and each is more quaint, serene and endearing than the last. The symbols on them are clear, and upon close inspection, each card has a tiny code on it. This corresponds to a Card Index (separate from the rulebook). This lists all 200 creatures/items found on the cards and an interesting fact about them. Then there’s an empty column left for you to fill in, labelled ‘Place and date of observation’. Gratuitous? Yes. Unnecessary? Without a doubt. Is it a feature that blew me away with sheer charm and class? Oh, yes.
Another extra are four deck holders (one to hold each of the North/South/East/West decks). They’re foldable and simple enough to assemble. Their design might look akin to Santa’s sleigh, but they do what they promise and look fantastic on the table. Again, not a feature that’s needed – but boy, is it one that makes me happy. The artwork on these are books, satchels from generations past. They’re like shelves, home to your memories in among the meadows. The icing on the cake is they fit snug into the plastic insert.
Given the importance of the Path tokens, it’s pleasing to see them made of decent, durable cardstock. Their iconography and numbers are stand out and are large enough to read. The round marker is a custom meeple, a laser-printed hiker. The two main boards are full of apt shades of earthy greens. I’m tripping over myself talking about the components, here. I’m full of superlatives, and I’m delighted about it.
Final Thoughts On… Meadow
There’s a lot to love about Meadow. This is a captivating hit from Rebel Studio. Games of Meadow feel like an engine-building exercise, but one where your engine’s never the same twice. It’s like leaving a fox, a rabbit and a cabbage by the river bank as you cart them over one at a time. Every time you add in another card you add in extra symbols, but at the same time you cover others up. Your tableau feels alive. The set collection angle, in this regard, never feels complete, but in a good way. It’s a neat twist.
It is worth noting that Meadow sits within the 60-90 minutes category. I know I’ve mentioned Quadropolis, but Meadow is a step up in complexity. You have to weigh up the importance of the Path tokens numbers, versus their actions at the Campfire. You’ll have internal conversations with yourself. ‘Should I use this ‘4’ Path token to grab that card, because it’s the only physical way for me to gain it? But ‘4’ could see me playing two cards in one turn, if I use it at the Campfire!’
There’s a solo mode (similar to a 2-player game). There’s also five sealed envelopes in the box – mini-expansions – filled with extra cards. I won’t spoil too much about these, but what I say won’t surprise you. Meadow encourages you to open these envelopes – adding the contents into the game – if you fulfil certain requirements. (“Open after you’ve visited a nature reserve.” “Open after a trip to a forest where you saw a wild animal.” “Open on the 24th December.”)
You can tear them all open at once, and add the thematic cards into their decks. But somehow that feels sacrilegious and against Meadow’s grain. Meadow goes to such extents to make you fall in love with nature. I owe it to Meadow to earn those extra cards; earn the right to rip open those envelopes. It’s given us so much – the least we can do is stay within the spirit of the game.