Review: Above and Below

Also check out the Board Everyday Podcast, where we talk more about Above and Below!

You know the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, that’s usually the case, and it’s especially true with boardgames. I’ve played some phenomenal games that look boring as all get out from the outside, and I’ve played absolute stinkers that are almost works of art. Above and Below, from Red Raven Games, was one of those games where I was hesitant – it looked pretty, but was that all there was to it? Well, let’s take a look!

Above and Below is a game for 2-4 players by designer and artist Ryan Laukat. Each player takes on the role of a villager looking to rebuild their home after fleeing from a barbarian attack. Upon founding their first hut, a vast underground cave system was revealed, making expansion possible both above and below the ground.

To start the game, each player gets a board on which their villagers will reside. This board has three different zones: the first zone is where your “ready” villagers stay, the next is for “exhausted” villagers, and the last is for “injured” villagers. Along the bottom of the board is an advancement track where various goods will go during the game, thereby increasing your income each round and giving you points.

IMG_4223There is also a reputation board which will track the game rounds, each player’s reputation, and houses the villagers that are currently available to be trained. This board, along with the goods tokens, is placed in the center of the table. Underneath the reputation board goes rows of building and outpost cards, displayed face up ready to be purchased.

The game is played over seven rounds. On their turn, each player will take one of five actions, utilizing the villager (or villagers) that will be performing the action. Play will then pass around the table with each player taking one action per turn until all players have passed. Once all players have passed, the round ends, things are refreshed, and a new round begins.

Let’s dig into the actions to see what you can do on your turn:

Explore – Unlike the other actions, the explore action requires that you have at least two ready villagers when it is performed. You start by drawing a cave card and placing the villagers you are sending “below” on top of the card. Then you roll one die to see which encounter you’ll be…um…encountering. I’m going to talk about how the encounters work later, so we’ll fast forward a bit and say that if you pass the encounter the cave card goes underneath your houses, and if you fail it gets discarded. Move both villagers to the exhausted area (usually…more later) of your player board.

Harvest – Some of the buildings and outposts that you acquire will produce goods. You can send one or more of your available villagers to go harvest one good each from a house or outpost card. These goods can be placed next to your board or immediately onto your advancement track. Exhaust your used villagers after taking this action.

Build – To take the build action, you need a ready villager that has the hammer icon at the top. Exhaust the villager, and take a face up building or outpost from the available rows. Pay the cost in coins and place the new card –  buildings go in the row next to your starting hut, outposts cover up cave cards from successful encounters. Buildings will give you special abilities, produce goods, increase your income, and sometimes give you extra points at game end. After buying a building, draw a new one immediately.

Train – To take the train action, you need a ready villager that has the quill icon at the top. Exhaust the villager, and use coins to train a new villager from the five available at the top of the reputation board. Each villager will have at least one die icon (with at least one lantern under each die) and possibly a hammer or quill as well. This new villager comes into your player board exhausted from their training.

Labor – Exhaust one or more of your villagers to gain a coin for each. If you are the first person to take this action, also take the cider token from the reputation board.

Along with these five main actions, there are three free actions which may be taken prior to a main action:

  • Refresh the building or outpost market by paying one coin and drawing four new cards (this only pertains to the regular buildings, not the special key or star buildings)
  • Put something for sale by placing it in the top left corner of their player board
  • Buy something that is for sale from another player. Negotiations can happen, but you can only pay in coins and you have to pay at least 3 coins.

IMG_4184Once the round is over, it’s time to replenish the villagers that were trained, refresh goods on production buildings, and add a cider token to the reputation board if it was taken. Now is also the time where you rest your hard working villagers.

To rest your villagers, you first count the number of beds that you have on your buildings. Everyone starts with three beds, and future buildings might give you more. For each bed, you can move one villager from the exhausted section of your player board to the ready section, OR from the injured section to the exhausted section. Each bed can only move a villager one section, and each villager can only sleep in one bed. So if you had two villagers exhausted and one injured, the end of your rest would leave you with two villagers ready and one exhausted.

Along with beds, potions and cider can help refresh your villagers. A potion will move a villager from injured to exhausted, and cider will move them from exhausted to ready. You can use both a potion and a cider on the same villager, but it must be done prior to using any beds.

So that’s pretty much how the game plays, but let me go into some detail about encounters. When you choose to explore, you’re going to take at least two villagers and move them onto a cave card. Then, you roll a die. The result of this die roll will correspond with a number on the cave card – this is the encounter you’re about to have. One of the other players will flip to that number in the encounter book and begin reading.

This is a sample of an encounter, straight from the rulebook:

You descend a deep chasm until you reach a wide, dark chamber. Rancid, cloudy water covers the cave floor, and soon you see glowing red eyes in all directions. You raise your lantern and realize that you’re surrounded by giant rats, their brown, oily coats slick and wet. They close in, ready to make your party their next meal. Do you try to run and hide from the rats, or do you stand and fight?

RUN AND HIDE: Explore 3 (coin), Explore 4 (mushroom)

STAND AND FIGHT: Explore 7 (five coins, ore)

The person reading to you will read everything except what is contained within parentheses. So you’ve got your story block and then, in this case, two choices: run and hide or stand and fight. Each choice will tell you how many lanterns (representing your successes) you will need. If you choose to run and hide you will need either three or four lanterns…if you fight you’ll need seven, which is significantly more.

aab02To see how many lanterns you have, you will be rolling dice for each of your villagers. At the top of their tile, each villager will have at least one die and a number of lanterns under that die. So if the die face on the tile is a 3 and there are two lanterns underneath, you need to roll at least a 3 to gain two lanterns. Some villagers will have two die faces, indicating that the better you roll, the more lanterns you will get from them.

Now you need to choose what to do and declare it aloud. So if you look at your two villagers and the maximum number of lanterns that they can produce is four? You’re probably not going to stand and fight. After you decide, you roll your dice, stating which villager you are rolling for. Once you have your results, you can see if you passed or failed.

As you can see, the rewards are better for the harder choices. Let’s say that you took three villagers along and the maximum number of lanterns you could get were seven. You decide to stand and fight. After your rolls though? You only have six lanterns, which is a failure. At this point you can choose to exert one of your villagers and get one extra lantern from them (or two of them for two extra, and so on). This villager will wind up in the injured area of your player board at the end of the encounter.

At the end of the game you’re going to receive one point per building and outpost you’ve built, points based on your advancement track, bonus points from buildings, and then your reputation points…which can be negative if you’ve made choices which were a bit more nefarious.

Above and Below is by no means the first game to use the storytelling mechanic. Tales of the Arabian Nights, Agents of SMERSH, Once Upon a Time, and many others are out there. But Above and Below has done a few things to set itself apart from the rest.

First of all, the art. If you listen to our podcast you know that art will resonate differently with every gamer. But this art is fantastic. Truth be told, the art was what drew us into this game. My wife saw this one flying in and out of the BGG.CON library last year and was intrigued by the look of the game. Ryan has given this a very inviting look, and the diversity in the villagers is refreshing to see. At the end of the game, you will be able to look down at the village you’ve created and see that it all connects, which plays into the theme of the game.

IMG_4181The encounters in Above and Below present the player with a good deal of choices, and you can sculpt your own story using these choices. You might be walking through a cave and see a dim glow coming from the water. Do you investigate, or do you carry on? There might be a creature which is lying unconscious. Do you wake her and try to assist, or rob her while she’s incapacitated?

Of course, these choices aren’t just aesthetics for the story alone. Your rewards will change based on what path you choose, and your reputation may go up or down based on the morality of your decisions. It’s more like a choose your own adventure game in that regard. Sure, you’ll wind up with more money while robbing others, but you’re going to wind up losing points at the end for those actions.

The encounters are well written and evocative. Laura and I have noticed that when the other person is reading, we typically have our eyes closed and are envisioning the scene. The underground world is full of fantastic creatures and sights, all of which are well represented in the encounter book.

One of the best things about Above and Below is that is the gameplay isn’t overly complex. While the game does a great job of actually mixing in other mechanics and not just relying on the storytelling element, the other parts are intuitive enough that it really allows players to concentrate on the storytelling aspect as the backbone. This makes it an excellent game to play with those that are newer to the hobby. 

Of course, because the stories are so well written players will tend to want to explore as many times as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the rest of their village. True, the goods found below ground are more valuable than those found above, but you need to be able to pass those encounters.

My only concerns with the game are relatively minor. When reading the rules, you are told that you can exert a villager to gain an extra lantern…which will place them in the “injured” area of your player board. New players will often get “exert” and “exhaust” confused and mix things up. When I explain the game, I try to use the word “injure” now.

IMG_4222I’ve played this at every player count now and it scales really well. With two players, however, we did notice that there was a high possibility of running into the same encounter twice over the course of a couple sessions. Now obviously if you play the game enough this will happen anyway, but we started separating the cave cards out that we used in one game until we ran out in the next. Again, very minor and only an issue with two players.

So what do we think of Above and Below? It’s fantastic. We’ve played a few storytelling games and this game is the one I would pick above (har har) all others. Obviously the storytelling element won’t appeal to everyone, but it adds such a different element to the game that it’s worth checking out at least once. And if the storytelling IS your cup of tea? Go get this game right now. It’s a decision you won’t regret!

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