Published by Gold Sieber
Designed by Klaus Teuber
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
£25 / $40
2 to 4 players
about 90 mins
There was a time when I looked forward to every single Klaus Teuber design. I could put the disappointment with Adel down to taste, there were always class acts like Flying Dutchman and Vernissage coming along, and he regularly showed signs of impending greatness. And then, Settlers. The world turned upside down, my faith in many gamers and the market was wrecked, and by extension that in Herr Teuber. The continuing programme to milk the Settlers money train, and a poor spin-off in the shape of Entdecker have not improved my demeanour. So, in true Siggins style, I stood back, calmed down and faced the options: ignore all future Teuber games, fearing my judgement was shot, and leave them for others to review, or, reset the dials, adopt an open mind, and keep playing them. With hindsight, the decision was easy and, oddly, was helped by the Kartenspiel which while not great is still a very good piece of design. So, here I am. As to whether Lowenherz, a Spiel des Jahres nominated game, was an ideal re-entry point, we shall soon see.
Lowenherz is a game partly about power and control, but is mainly about land. Enclosing it, protecting it, mining it and relieving others of their hard-won holdings. The scene is medieval Europe, the mood is combative (though we don't talk about this) and the player who has claimed the most points by game end is the winner. The first statement to make is that Lowenherz is an original game. Although its sub-systems have been seen before in other Teuber games, it is fresh in both the combination of those mechanics and theme. And there is hardly a sniff of Settlers, and no dice. Hurrah!
The map shows a square grid onto which you will place your starting forces - three castles, three knights and some walls around your one manor. The aim of the game is to surround further lands with walls, centred on your castles, and to expand the areas into neutral and then other player's territory.
The best part of the game, but also one that prompts its main weakness, is the card deck. This is basically a random sequence of action cards that are revealed one at a time, bidded for, and then implemented. Each card has three sections, showing what it can be used for - but more on that in a moment. The card is then discarded and we progress through the entire deck - this regulates the game length (when the cards are gone, it's over) and its phasing. By the latter I mean that the cards cleverly change flavour as the game advances - for instance, early on you can get money, later on it is difficult or non-existent. One of the reasons the game is a little tough on the first play is that you don't know this card profile until you've played once or twice. But once familiar, it is a neat feature and another factor to build into the decision making equation.
A typical turn runs like this. A card is turned showing the three action bands - typically money at the top, the chance to build a border wall, and the chance to expand. Other possibilities are political cards and valuable multiples - two walls, two expansions and so on. The lead player (rotated in traditional fashion) lays down a card showing which section he is interested in. Player two does the same and so on*. If a section is uncontested (eg Johnny alone goes for the money), then it is implemented in card event order. If it is contested, ie two or more players want the walls, then they haggle (one player paying the other), and if this fails bid money 'in the fist', the highest bid winning the rights and the losers are left with nothing to do. There is also a watershed in the game - triggered personally when you have three complete enclosures, and as a game when everyone has three - whereafter walls have no more use. This focuses attention even more on the other actions available.
So as you can see there is a fair element of tactics here. Knowing what previous players have laid, you can choose to contest and risk winning nothing, or you can go for a less appealing 'lone' option, always with a mind to what subsequent players will do - and you can rest assured that a double expansion will be of interest to most.... Superficially, the slight 'problem' is that some turns you will be doing nothing. This does not please some gamers, me included, but here there is a pretty sound reason for it. You know that bidding may mean you do nothing, but to balance this, you do conserve your cash, or even gain more if you sell the option. Unless you are very unlucky, this cash will ultimately put you in a strong position. As in a number of recent games (Age of Renaissance for one), you cannot keep spending. Eventually everyone must stop and take the cash option to replenish their treasury. More importantly, having cash holdings is extremely useful towards game end, so much so that bids can be won with one or two gold because no-one has anything left. I would actually go further than that and say 'Cash is King' at the end and can make the difference between winning and losing.
*A variant is already doing the rounds where cards are played face down and revealed simultaneously, which may be interesting and quicker, but I suggest you play 'as designed' to start with in case there is a reason not to.
The interesting part of the game is how, having secured them, you spend your actions. Money is easy - you get a slug of income for future use. Wall means you can take a wall piece from the bag and place it on the map - expanding borders ready for enclosure. Expansion means you can either place a knight in an existing territory, or extend and existing domain by two spaces - moving walls as required. Both of these are powerful and much in demand. A crown means you can 'go to the piles' as in Vernissage and take a political card of your choice - these are all useful.
That is, believe it or not, the bulk of the game. This sequence repeats throughout the game, threatening to get a little samey but just about keeping on the right side of boring. The real action takes place on the board and the only other rules you need to know is that there are mines scattered around that occasionally pay out, and are thus worth having, as are towns. Points are scored by enclosing areas (the larger, the better) and lost by losing them again - the clever twist here is that you lose incrementally - one point per square lost - but gain only on a sliding scale. So make sure the shape of your terrain is defendable and unlikely to be 'snipped off' - long corridors are bad news... And finally, you may only expand (read attack) into a neighbouring area if you have more knights than the defender.
And that, broadly, is it. The game is one of a central repetitive and restrictive core, but attached to that are a number of options which, in typical Teuber style, force lots of small decisions that will shape your overall performance. It may seem insignificant that you have done nothing but expand for three turns, but the simple placing of one rival knight will quickly bring on the pains and that hard won terrain can be lost just as quickly. The event cards are well handled, you have a real sense of progress as your lands expand, or impending defeat as a neighbour enters a knight 'arms race'. Although I didn't get this sense in the early games, by game three I was waiting for my next turn to see if I could improve my lot - always a good sign I find.
Components are up to the luxurious Goldsieber standard, and come in their usual big box, but thanks to the strong Pound and some more aggressive retail pricing, this game can be bought for £25 in London. That is more like it. At £30 plus I'd be thinking twice about recommending this one, as it is I'd say it is a good buy. The 'jigsaw' board is nicely done, and can be laid out in a number of ways allowing some variety in future games. The walls and castles are plastic mouldings and are very nice, the cards are full colour and should last a good few games before wear sets in.
The rules (translated by Richard Ingram) are straightforward and clear. Lowenherz is easy to learn, and very accessible. We had no queries all game and everyone was quickly into the rhythm - something that you can always rely on Goldsieber to deliver.The game has been playing in around 90 minutes, right at the end of the 60-90 minute range claimed on the box. I would frankly find it very surprising if it came down to the hour; the bidding decisions alone can take a while over the course of the game. Perhaps this relates to the two player game which I haven't yet tried, though many have claimed it is a viable undertaking. For its length, Lowenherz strikes me as a reasonable use of time. If it could come down towards the hour, I'd feel happier, but this is largely a reference to the repetitive bidding. Less could well be more.
Thematically, Lowenherz is almost a non-starter. After the first couple of games I termed it soulless, which is not that far from the truth - in this respect it is worse than Adel, and that is saying something. Devoid of atmosphere, even the thinly applied patina of medieval baronies and expansion is unconvincing, and I found nothing to 'grip'. I am always wary of a game featuring symmetrical deployment, and doubly so when the 'medieval' theme is reduced to a couple of castles, knights and walls. The result is a game that plays almost without engaging the brain at the emotive level. Yes, it is one that has plenty going on, and requires constant attention, but only in much the same way as chess - will he play another knight there, thus upping the ante? What will happen if his walls expand this way, or that? Can I get to his mines?
Looking to the bright side, Lowenherz makes a good stab at making a multi-player abstract playable and interesting - something that games like Burgenland/Terra Turrium and Spiel der Turme have singularly failed to achieve. While they too have interaction, they have even less to grasp on the thematic front. I think Lowenherz scores higher here, but not by much, but this is aided by inherent balance and mechanics that will not, generally speaking, cause much in the way of upsets. It strikes me as a fundamentally stable system, 'damped' so as to give close results and the cadence of the game is such that if you lose on the swings, you'll get something later on the roundabouts. An interesting strategy is to try and time these gains and losses.
All this would certainly be borne out by our later results which have all been blanket finishes. I suppose most would take this as a positive quality but I do always have a slight feeling of discontentment, which gets worse the longer the game under inspection. Why? Because it would seem that if you have spent an hour or two plodding through a system that consistently provides close results, then it almost seems pointless - you enjoy the travelling but the arrival is an anticlimax. Not quite roll a die to see who wins, but in the same ballpark. I'd rather a game wherein you could say, "Jack played that really well. He should have won by a mile." In Lowenherz this may well not happen (though I'd be pleased to stand corrected), and he may even be just one point ahead. Are you with me here or am I off on one of my mad tangents? I suspect time will tell.
I suppose that comparisons with Settlers would be invidious, and perhaps also irrelevant, but I would say that in terms of control, tactics and enjoyment, I'd rate Lowenherz just a little higher. For variety, atmosphere and systems, dice rolling aside, Settlers is by far the better game. The interesting point here is that, as with all Teuber titles, I play them three to five times before I even get to the point of reaching a verdict. Considering this is more plays than most games get, then he must be doing something right. They also seem to improve with time and experience - my initial impression based on two games was not complimentary, but game three was substantially better and games four and five have been comparatively enjoyable. There is in that sense a learning curve that I endure, but most will find fascinating.
Lowenherz is a good game and if it has satisfied me, even with its obvious anti-Siggins barbs, then I am sure it will please the Teuberphiles no end. The feedback I am getting indicates an acceptance rating slightly down on Settlers but rather up on Entdecker, and this would be about right. It certainly isn't great, I doubt it will have anything like the impact of Adel or Settlers, but it is a game I will happily play in the future and you will doubtless enjoy. I also think it is a much better gamer's game than Mississippi Queen, 1997 SdJ winner, but in no way as palatable to the family market.
How much you enjoy it will depend on your attitude to such control/abstract exercises with, it must be said, a substantial repetitive element. It could be argued Modern Art has similar traits, yet that is a game I would consider streets ahead of Lowenherz - so perhaps it is in the theming, handling, the decisions, and the game length. Nevertheless, there is plenty of decision making here and a pleasing build to a close, and often exciting, conclusion. What again troubles me is that a game like this can be designed with little apparent thought being given to theming. It is clearly abstract, and feels that way, yet could have been so much better. Whatever, a pleasant surprise, I hope a basis for better games in the future, and a partial return to the fold for Mr Siggins. Recommended.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Mike Siggins