Foothills board game: A four-sided review

The Foothills board game is a 60-minute two-player worker placement game. Described as a ‘Snowdonia experience’, it uses the same art style and many of the mechanisms seen in popular euro game Snowdonia. But it is very much its own game.

The suggested age range is 10+, which feels about right. While at heart this is largely a resource conversion game, the decisions you make can really leave you in trouble. And there are a lot of variables you need to consider to play well.

Foothills isn’t an overly thematic game. But as with Snowdonia, it largely makes thematic sense and helps give a flow to the game. Clear the ground, lay track, build stations. And the lovely whimsical art style adds to the atmosphere. In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find 60 cards, 100+ wooden bits, 120-ish cardboard pieces and a cloth bag. The quality is solid throughout, and the iconography is clear and simple to understand. At less than £30, I’d call it solid value for money.

Teaching the Foothills board game

Rather than a board, the play area is a grid of around 25 cards. These are divided into eight lines (each containing 2-7 cards) and you use six lines per game. This adds replayability, as well as variety, to each play. Players have five action cards they put in front of them as a tableau. The fronts of these cards are the same for each player, with each card showing one of the game’s five main actions. But the reverse sides are different for each player, showing alternative weaker versions of those actions – but on different cards. For example, cards with action ‘A’ on the front have a weak version of action ‘D’ on the back.

The standard actions (A-E) will be familiar to Snowdonia players. Collect stone/iron resource cubes from stock; remove rubble cubes from cards (placed during setup); lay track/create stone cubes from rubble cubes; build stations (using various resources); and move your surveyor. There are no wooden track pieces, with that micro step being replaced by simply spending iron cubes and placing one of your track markers on a card cleared of rubble.

Turns are snappy in Foothills, with each player getting just one action per turn. You choose/carry out an action, then flip its card. But if you’re thinking the game sounds more basic than Snowdonia, don’t be fooled. While there is no weather and no trains, the poor old surveyor is being made to work overtime. Every card in each train line has a surveyor spot which becomes available once it has a station built on it. These introduce all kinds of special one-off abilities, adding a variety of effects similar to Snowdonia’s weather cards.

Tough decisions

Many of the toughest decisions come from choosing your action card. Timing is key for grabbing opportunities left by your opponent. But flipping a card can means that action won’t be available until you flip over another. It’s even worse late game, if actions are no longer doable (you must be able to perform the action to use the card). Luckily, some weak-side action cards let you flip over extra cards. But neither player starts with one of those…

Which brings us nicely to extra action cards. Snowdonia players will be pleased to here that, despite your solitary worker, the pub is still open for business. Going here (with the surveyor action) lets you put one of your action cards aside for end-game scoring. There are 10 extra action cards available (two for each slot). So you pick a replacement (for the same slot) and carry on as normal. You can even end up with no card in a slot, if it’s late game and you’d rather grab some points – and the two replacements for that spot have already been taken.

These end game bonuses do what you’d expect: give extra points for the likes of track laid, stations built etc. But most of your points will come during the game for doing the same things as they happen. As well as some lines having completion bonuses to scrap for. And many surveyor spaces having ways to trade resources for points. There are loads more little details. Such as the game – Snowdonia style – moving to its own conclusion if you take too long to do things. But hopefully this will be enough to whet the appetite.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Foothills does what I like a ‘version’ of a game to do. Rather than simplify and dumb down, it takes the core of the original in a different direction with a clever new mechanism. This does feel like a Snowdonia ‘experience’. Because while having played Snowdonia will give you a head start on what’s going on, it feels like a very different game. And this is no dumbing down either. If anything, I find this more of a brain burn. But it doesn’t feel asymmetric – perhaps an opportunity missed.
  • The thinker: I have been surprisingly impressed with this game. As it’s a two-player game, you’d expect it to be tactical. But despite this, the limitations of your actions mean you have to be combining quick decisions with their overall strategic impact on your options. The box says 30 minutes, but if you’re thinking as much as you should I’d put it much closer to an hour. As with any euro game, it’s all about efficiency. And you really need to search around each turn for any little advantage you can find.
  • The trasher: While you do need to pay attention to what your opponent it is doing, this is largely a heads-down euro experience. Yes, you can jump into spaces you know your opponent would like. And look out for opportunities they accidentally leave you. But largely this is about turning stuff into stuff to get points. Clever, but not my thing.
  • The dabbler: I like the look of the game, but frankly the array of options is overwhelming. Also, you can’t just do what you want to do. Because you can leave yourself unable to do the next thing you want to do – without doing something else, or a few other things first lol. It’s also hard to know what’s best. Everything seems to score points, but you don’t really have an obvious goal. Especially as putting action cards aside for end game points doesn’t seem to make much difference. OK, but not for me.

Key observations

Our first play of the Foothills board game was a poor experience. The game went way too long and kind of fizzled out. Why? Because we weren’t doing what we were ‘meant’ to do. As with Snowdonia, the game can end itself (if you pull white cubes from the bag). But this is easy to mitigate against and may never happen. Alternatively, you can build all the track – but neither of you may want to do that.

After the game, I went to the BGG forums. Lots of people were reporting the same problem. One of the designers was saying people were doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Track is a great way to score, rather than putting cards aside. But of course he knows that after play-testing. The problem was assuming we’d know that. As a publisher, you shouldn’t presume anything – and you’d think Surprised Stare and Lookout Games would have enough experience to know that. It’s a shame, as I can see people playing once and walking away.

But even once you know how to speed things up, one/both players need to engineer that. Snowdonia always feels like you’re moving towards a conclusion. Either the game is forcing your hand, or you’re running out of point scoring options. With Foothills there are loads of ways to eke out extra points, so that urgency to finish isn’t there. And its ‘the game will finish it for you’ mechanism is less robust. Various forum posts have ideas for fixing this, including some from the designers. But none seem perfect.

Two-player Snowdonia vs Foothills

Another point is, why not just play Snowdonia? I agree two-player Snowdonia is great. Especially the ability to completely block your opponent out of an action (for that round) with good timing. It scales beautifully from two to five players and is one of my favourite games. But this argument misses the point. Foothills is a very different game. And people wouldn’t be making this comparison if it were set in space or something, as it really does feel unique. They’ve invited the comparison by calling it a Snowdonia experience. But in truth, the games feel miles apart despite the similarities.

And I don’t agree Foothills fails to create the stimulus-response play good two-player games do. I regularly hold off on actions until I know my opponent can’t respond, or line up two actions I think I can get away with back-to-back due to my opponent’s game position. But admittedly this is usually to get minor advantages. A cube here or point there, rather than completely blocking something. However, in a good euro game, the odd efficient point is what wins a tight game. That’s a style of game you either like or don’t, so millage will vary.

Conclusion: The Foothills board game

Despite that awful first play, and the game end rules flaw, both me and my better half have fallen for Foothills. A relatively simple set of actions soon make way for a cunningly complex ‘point salad’ euro game. And there’s more than enough replayability to have kept us interested over repeat plays. But we only stuck with it because we owned it and because I had faith in the designers/publishers. If I’d played it at a cafe, con or club? I’d probably have given it a ‘4’ and walked away. Which is a great shame, because it’s probably closer to an ‘8’ for me now and a definite keeper. A rough diamond? Sure. But a diamond none the less.

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