Reviews

Meadow: Downstream – Expansion Review

Meadow's expansion has made a splash in our household

Expansion Details

  • Rebel Studio
  • Expansion for: Meadow
  • Availability: Coming to retail in North America Q1 2023

A review copy of this expansion was provided by the publisher; however, my opinions are my own


Skip to Review; Skip to Final Thoughts

Overview

Meadow is a game themed around nature and exploration – I thoroughly enjoy it for so many reasons. I was incredibly excited when Rebel Studio announced the Downstream expansion and even more so when I got my hands on a copy before its official release in the USA.

Downstream adds an aquatic element to the game. In addition to hiking in nature, players may choose to spend time on a kayak observing the creatures and plantlife of rivers, lakes, and streams.

The expansion comes with a double-sided river board that nestles up to the campfire board. There is a new drafting area for the 55 river cards included, watery ground cards, and kayaker markers that are used for traveling downstream. In addition, there are new card types and tokens, 12 observation cards to be shuffled into the original decks, solo play cards, and a bonus envelope.

Review

Although the full game with the expansion content takes up quite a bit of table space, there is no reason to be intimidated. Downstream is in alignment with the base game both visually and thematically, and also works well with it mechanically. What new rules there are to learn are not difficult to grasp if you already understand how to play Meadow. It seems like Downstream could have been a part of the original from the beginning. 

The turn structure in Meadow is simple – players start with action tokens that are primarily used to draft and play cards. The Downstream expansion has added an extra action each turn in the form of a new river trail token that must be used to draft a card from the river board. The other action tokens still serve the same function as before and may not be used to draft from the river (except for the “?” token which can be used anywhere).

River cards work similarly to the other observation cards – they have play requirements and add symbols that serve as the foundation for additional card plays. These cards do not grant points – instead they afford kayak movement, represented with an oar symbol. Although these cards don’t add points directly to the meadow, they offer plenty of indirect point opportunities. Bonuses can be collected along the path, and strong paddlers may even make it to the end of the route and which offers a significant end-game point load.

There are limited chances to draft river cards, so players must make wise decisions if they’re hoping to focus on kayaking. There are plenty of easy-to-play cards that may seem tempting but don’t allow for much movement – take that bait too often and you will barely scratch the surface of the river’s bounty. Players who focus heavily on river travel must discover efficient ways to play high-movement cards. The more difficult a river card is to play, the more movement it affords.

Downstream offers the strategic variability that I felt Meadow was lacking. There are now many pathways to victory – literally and figuratively. On the river boards there are forks in the stream (these are more prominently featured on the wild rapids side). Often one pathway will get you to the final destination more efficiently and the longer path has tempting bonuses. Players might choose to engage in a race to key sites on the river to get first pick of the best bonuses, as well. In addition, players will constantly have to decide between adding points to their meadow versus paddling downstream.

The simple addition of a new ecosystem – the watery ground cards – adds dimension to the meadow-building process. When I play Meadow I rarely hit the 10-card limit for the ground cards. The new ecosystem (and how fish interact with it) has ensured that my husband and I are hitting that limit every game. It forces us to make meaningful decisions about how build our card tableau and adds a bit of needed tension.

The new content is integrated very well. It feels consequential but does not overshadow the original game. Can a player completely ignore the river when playing with Downstream? I don’t think so. The simple fact that at least one action each turn will be used to draft a river card ensures that the watery environment will be integrated into your tableau in some form. It will be important to gather some points and bonuses from the river, but a player does not have to put all their focus on racing down the river track to remain competitive. Players choosing to focus on making it to the end of the river path will have to give up some points in their meadow in order to achieve some heavy paddling, and those who are happy to only go about halfway will lose out on some points that can be found at the end of the watery path. It’s a give-and-take that makes the different strategies feel balanced.

Each player will be getting an extra action each round, so Downstream will add to the game length. This has not felt significant yet, but we have mainly played two-player games. I have not tried the expansion with a full table yet, but I do know that the four-player games of Meadow can feel a bit too long to some – I would imagine this compounds that issue somewhat.

It is possible to fit the new expansion into the original box without altering the insert. The empty river card holder will fit into one of the extra wells if it is turned upside-down (we shove a baggie of tokens underneath for efficiency). It would be nice if it slotted in as well as the original card holders do, but this solution works and saves on shelf space.

Final Thoughts

After my first play with the Downstream expansion, I knew it was something I would want to add to nearly all my games of Meadow going forward. It adds variety and strategic variability without losing the identity of the original game. The only reason I would go through the trouble of separating the new content from the old is if I were introducing Meadow to my children or players new to gaming. The expansion doesn’t add a lot of heaviness, but there are a few new rules to learn that could make teaching the game a little more involved.

The expansion comes with over 70 new cards. This seems like a good amount of variability (the fact that they are pretty to look at is just icing on the cake). There are a few new symbols added, but not enough to make the game feel like something it is not, and what has been added integrates well with the symbol system that was previously established. Everything about this expansion seems to blend into and enhance Meadow without undermining what was already there.

I love the river trails. Not only is the river board double-sided, giving two different float experiences, but it also immerses me a bit deeper into the theme of outdoor exploration. The element of trail movement was not demonstrated in this way in the base game, but it works incredibly well here, adding a lot more decision space and a slight bit of tension.

The new pathways to gathering points are the most welcome additions for me. I appreciate that the expansion does not trap players into a specific strategy and felt I had more agency to explore different ways to play. Opportunity cost in the form of kayak movement versus meadow points was a wonderful idea – finding a balance between the two is challenging and fun. I feel that Meadow benefits immensely from this change.

The expansion enhances the game while preserving its spirit. When I play with Downstream I still feel like I’m playing Meadow, but with a few significant improvements. It is one of my favorite board game expansions released in recent memory and elevates the entire experience for me. I highly recommend this expansion to anybody who already loves Meadow.

My Personal BGG Rating: 9.0
Excellent – very much enjoy playing

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