07th Sep2021

‘Meadow’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Sometimes in board gaming, we talk about games having a “relaxing theme” or perhaps of being a game that suits players who want a less competitive vibe. I imagine for designers, it must be tough to translate this idea from theme into mechanics – with perhaps a good example being Wingspan, which uses both “friendly” and “competitive” objectives to help players choose the kind of experience they want. Along similar lines is Meadow, which is a tableau building game that nails its nature theme perfectly, but can’t help introducing elements of contention into its turn structure – and it’s all the better for it.

Meadow is quite a simple game, in principle. The board features four rows of cards that flow down from three decks placed into lovely little cardholders that sit at the top of the board. Initially, these decks are marked East, South and West, with an additional North deck which “swaps in” for the South deck at the midpoint of each game. The players will ultimately take turns to take cards from this board and place them into their hand (and possibly their tableau) based on a handful of fencepost shaped tokens in their colour.

Each of these fenceposts has a dual usage. Firstly, each one has a number from one to four, with a fifth post also showing a wildcard (which can mean any number) that is only used in two player games. Each fencepost represents a turn of the current round, so in a two-player game when you start with five fenceposts, you’re going to get five turns. If you use a post for its number value, you’ll take the pointy end of it and place it into one of the notches on the board – you’ll then count the number of spaces shown on your post into the board, and take the card shown. In this way, as fenceposts are placed against the board, the number of options that players have reduce and that contention begins to take effect. After a player has taken a card, they may then play one, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Alternatively, a fencepost can be used “the other way around” with its flat end placed into a second, campsite board. The campsite board usually has five spaces, but in a two player game that reduces to three, and each value fencepost does something different. One allows a player to place two cards that turn (but not to take one) whilst another allows the player to draw cards from any deck, take one, then put the other two on the bottom, another allows the player to take two Road tokens, which later allow them to play valuable Location cards. The idea here is that on each turn, a player chooses either end of their fencepost to play, then follows then takes the appropriate action. Every action is simple to perform, and its easy to understand when and why you might do something.

In relation to that understanding, let me tell you about the tableau aspect of the game. Meadow is almost entirely about chaining different icons together to score points, and at the end of the game (usually after six rounds) the player with the most points on all cards in their tableau will win. Each player begins with a dual-sided starter card showing either a bug and a leaf litter, or a grub and a grassland pair of symbols. Some of the cards on the main board are also “basic lands” like this, and are worth no points, whilst others will have a cost of several, mid-game symbols that are worth a lot of points.

Your objective, to ensure you score the most points, is to build on those basic lands until you have high-value cards in your tableau such as those cards showing apex predators, large birds, or even man-made structures. As an example, you might have a bird card in your hand that requires both a bug and a grub in order to play, so on your first turn, you’ll place one of your spiked fenceposts against the main board in such a way that enables you to get whichever symbol you lack. You’ll then play that card right away and pass. On your next turn, you might see a small predator that feeds on birds, so you’ll take that and add it to your hand, but instead of playing it (because you now just have a bug and a grub on your tableau) you’ll play the bird you took last turn – covering either the bug or the grub the process. On the next turn, you may choose to play the predator and cover the bird.

The key thing to note about the above is that the points are never covered – only the symbols. So in this example, we would no longer have a bird symbol because it would be covered by our small predator (and either of the bug or grub would be covered by the bird) but we’d still have the points shown on both the predator and bird cards. The bug/grub cards in this example wouldn’t have points on them, but they would still show their basic land type, which is also needed for many other cards. What I found about Meadow in general was that each time I built out my tableau, I had to carefully balance the amount of cards I had that didn’t score (basic lands) with the options I needed to keep playing cards. As a general rule of thumb, you want to play at least one card every turn, and any turn where you don’t do that, you’ll need to make up for it with the “two card drop” action at the campsite.

Over the course of two or three games with the same group, this rapidly swings Meadow from a seemingly innocent ramble through nature (bear in mind that every single card is unique and a card index details what is shown on them) to a cutthroat exercise in decision optimisation. Frequently, you’ll find it’s a challenge to play a card on your turn, and your brain will switch to the least bad option – do I take roads to place a location card and a memento after? Do I take that card from the board just to spite so-and-so beside me, even if I don’t think I can play it? An often overlooked rule is that any symbol needed can be “replaced” by discarding two cards, and the most valuable way to use this rule is to remove options your opponents want, rather than to throw away your own best plans.

With beautiful artwork, simple rules and a fiendish little puzzle, Meadow is a fantastic addition to any game shelf. It is similar to Wingspan because both are based on nature and tableau building, but Meadow never becomes about complex engine-building like Wingspan does, and as such, it plays much faster and it is much more difficult to make mistakes as a result. I think Meadow is one of my favourite games of 2021 so far, and I urge you not to overlook it as a cutesy nature-themed game that isn’t challenging – that couldn’t be further from the truth.

****½  4.5/5

Meadow is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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