10 October 2018
Wave goodbye to your typical Eurogame
Eurogames and agriculture. They go together like a pig and mud, like cattle and cud, and like, well, two sheep during Agricola’s breeding phase. At first glance, Lowlands appears to be cut from the same well-worn, soil-splattered cloth as its pastoral ilk; there are boards on which you’ll arrange pastures and their grazing inhabitants, workers you’ll place for maximum point-harvesting efficiency, basic resources for you to collect and invest in action- or point-boosting buildings. Raise your eyes from the idyllic green fields of your farm, though, and you’ll spot the swirling foam-tipped waves that lap against the top of the game’s central board, eroding and rearranging the foundations that lay underneath the seemingly untouched appearance.
These waves represent, literally and figuratively, the sea change at the centre of Lowlands. The water threatens the sheep farms of the players, spurring them to invest their resources and time in building a dike to hold back the rising flood. Both the sea and the dike holding it back are represented by wooden pieces that are stacked on top of each other as the water and barrier rise; it’s a simple trick, but one that makes for a stunningly visual spectacle across the board.
It’s not quite as simple as working together to do what Canute could not, however. You’re still trying to ensure your sheep farm prospers ahead of your rivals’ – something that pouring all your resources and workers’ time into building a dike makes difficult. Ignore the dike, though, and your co-operative neighbours will be rewarded at your expense. If the dike breaks, you might even find your flock washed away, which is as devastating as it sounds.
Lowlands’ shifting value marker carefully balances its collaborative and competitive gameplay, both reflecting the changing value of sheep in the community and inviting players to help just as much as they need to – and no more. This ‘just enough’ mantra is reinforced by the mandatory requirement to ask another player to freely contribute to building the dike after you do, making the act of waiting to see how long you can leave it before the water starts lapping at your toes and you’re forced to spend your own action a master class in passive-aggressive collaboration.
Outside of its crowning semi-co-op subversion, Lowlands is a far more familiar affair with which fans of Uwe Rosenberg will feel especially at home; in fact, Lowlands’ rulebook proudly proclaims that Rosenberg himself contributed to its development, with a stamp signifying its place in the ‘Uwe Rosenberg Collection’ and the designer’s personal recommendation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the action away from the excitement of the rising tide feels distinctly less groundbreaking, not wandering far from the fields that Rosenberg himself has tilled. The management of workers and labourers to create pastures and expand your farm will likely feel like second nature to seasoned Agricola fans, who may find that the focus on the coastline leaves the land a little too shallow to properly dig into.
Lowlands often feels like the rising sea that courses along its board. Rather than completely washing away the familiar and starting anew, its pure originality is kept at bay by recognisable gameplay that is reshaped just enough by the fresh blend of collaborative and competitive to feel unique. Its gameplay flows as effortlessly as waves lapping back and forth, and its impeccable integration of the new and old makes it an extremely enjoyable and comfortable experience to recommend. But, at the same time, it feels like we’re just seeing the edge of an entire ocean of creativity and innovation just beyond the barrier – and part of us would like to see what would come flooding in if it broke.
A familiar theme and gameplay hide a highly original twist on the classic agricultural Eurogame. There’s no doubt Lowlands is immaculately designed and a joy to play – we just wish it went even further with its innovation when the results are this good.
Designer: Claudia Partenheimer, Ralf Partenheimer
Artist: Andrea Boekhoff
Time: 50-100 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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