Above and Below Board Game Review

Above-and-Below-Review-1

Barbarians ransacked your last village. Fleeing over mountains, deserts and seas, you find the perfect spot to set up a new home.  Then, you discover a vast network of caves running underground. Everyone knows caves are full of danger. Peril! But also adventure and riches!

The question is; can you build a thriving village above and a bountiful series of outposts below?

Above and Below - The Game

Above And Below is a hybrid worker placement / story-telling game for 2-4 players by Ryan Laukat. Each player is given their own player board, which they will add to with cards they acquire to create their village tableau. The player boards themselves show spaces for your worker tiles (active, exhausted and injured) as well as iconography for the actions you can take with each worker (explore, harvest, build, train and labour).

Each player starts with three worker tiles, certain types of which allow you to train new workers and build new buildings/outposts. The Starting player assigns one or more of their worker tiles to an action space, unless they want to explore, in which case they need a minimum of two workers. After the action is resolved, the worker tiles are placed into the “exhausted” area of the player board (depicted by a crescent moon shape), and play moves on.

Playing Actions

Each action you can take in Above and Below has its own advantages. For example, several building cards available have a set amount of resource tokens (such as fish, ore, rope or parchment), which you can harvest from the card by using the harvest action. Other buildings have a recurring resource, meaning when you harvest that resource it will refresh at the end of the round.

When you harvest a resource, you can assign any number of workers and gain that many resources from your buildings/outposts, which are then placed into your advancement, track on your player board. The advancement track grants you more income and victory points for the resources you place there.

The build action lets you buy a building or outpost from the available flop(s), although to build an outpost you must first have an explored cave card in your tableau. You must also use a worker with the hammer symbol to build anything. The train action is simply recruit a new worker, paying the appropriate cost. For this you must use a worker with the feather symbol.

The labour action feels a bit like a last resort. If you don’t want to or can’t do anything else then send someone out to labour for a coin and a cider token. The cider token allows you to move a worker from the exhausted area back to the ready area on your player board. It’s quite handy when you don’t have enough beds in your buildings to rest all your villagers at the end of a round.

The explore action is where things get interesting. It’s also where the story-telling element comes into play. You must send a minimum of two workers to explore. When you do, you draw an explored cave card and roll a die, the result of which indicates which paragraph in the encounter book another player must read out to you.

In any given paragraph, a player is presented with a problem, a character or a physical barrier and then a choice of what action to take. For example, your party may come across a massive wooden treasure chest. Do you attempt to open it (explore 7) or continue on your way (explore 3) (explore 4)?

Each worker tile has dice and lanterns depicted on it; the numerical value on each die is the number you must roll to acquire the number of lanterns shown below it. The “explore 7” condition is the number of lanterns needed to (in this case) successfully open the chest, when the player would gain rewards. You must declare which of the options you are rolling for as well as which worker and if you fail you either get nothing or if there is a lower lantern condition, gain the rewards for that.

When you harvest a resource, you can assign any number of workers and gain that many resources from your buildings/outposts, which are then placed into your advancement, track on your player board. The advancement track grants you more income and victory points for the resources you place there.

The build action lets you buy a building or outpost from the available flop(s), although to build an outpost you must first have an explored cave card in your tableau. You must also use a worker with the hammer symbol to build anything. The train action is simply recruit a new worker, paying the appropriate cost. For this you must use a worker with the feather symbol.

The labour action feels a bit like a last resort. If you don’t want to or can’t do anything else then send someone out to labour for a coin and a cider token. The cider token allows you to move a worker from the exhausted area back to the ready area on your player board. It’s quite handy when you don’t have enough beds in your buildings to rest all your villagers at the end of a round.

The explore action is where things get interesting. It’s also where the story-telling element comes into play. You must send a minimum of two workers to explore. When you do, you draw an explored cave card and roll a die, the result of which indicates which paragraph in the encounter book another player must read out to you.

In any given paragraph, a player is presented with a problem, a character or a physical barrier and then a choice of what action to take. For example, your party may come across a massive wooden treasure chest. Do you attempt to open it (explore 7) or continue on your way (explore 3) (explore 4)?

Each worker tile has dice and lanterns depicted on it; the numerical value on each die is the number you must roll to acquire the number of lanterns shown below it. The “explore 7” condition is the number of lanterns needed to (in this case) successfully open the chest, when the player would gain rewards. You must declare which of the options you are rolling for as well as which worker and if you fail you either get nothing or if there is a lower lantern condition, gain the rewards for that.

Likes & Dislikes

That’s pretty much the whole game. You have only seven rounds in Above and Below to amass as many victory points as you can. This is achieved through reputation, buildings and the advancement track. I have a couple of problems with Above and Below, its not that it’s a bad game, far from it, it’s fun, charming and beautiful. But… There’s too much to do in just seven rounds.

There is a whole host of buildings and outposts, some of which are very expensive so by the time you get enough cash together to buy one its round six already, which in itself is an issue; getting to a point where you have the money to buy the more expensive buildings takes a good few rounds, by which point someone else might’ve bought the one you want first.

I should say the expensive buildings have some scoring mechanisms for the end of the game so it’s in your interest to get one as early as possible and work towards it or work towards one and hope nobody buys it before you. There’s also a bunch of free actions you can take like putting goods up for sale, which seems completely unnecessary.

The story telling element in Above and Below is, for the most part, great; the only issue I have with it is that the resolution of any given encounter has no flavor, you either gain rewards or you don’t, which to me is a little half-hearted. Maybe Tales of the Arabian Nights has just spoiled me.

That being said, Above and Below is beautifully presented, the artwork has a dichotomy of light and dark, quirky and gloomy; the colour palette is vibrant for above and muted for below. The writing throughout the encounter book is excellent, sometimes funny, and sometimes very dark and the choices players are presented with are usually interesting if somewhat limited.

There is a whole host of buildings and outposts, some of which are very expensive so by the time you get enough cash together to buy one its round six already, which in itself is an issue; getting to a point where you have the money to buy the more expensive buildings takes a good few rounds, by which point someone else might’ve bought the one you want first.

I should say the expensive buildings have some scoring mechanisms for the end of the game so it’s in your interest to get one as early as possible and work towards it or work towards one and hope nobody buys it before you. There’s also a bunch of free actions you can take like putting goods up for sale, which seems completely unnecessary.

The story telling element in Above and Below is, for the most part, great; the only issue I have with it is that the resolution of any given encounter has no flavor, you either gain rewards or you don’t, which to me is a little half-hearted. Maybe Tales of the Arabian Nights has just spoiled me.

That being said, Above and Below is beautifully presented, the artwork has a dichotomy of light and dark, quirky and gloomy; the colour palette is vibrant for above and muted for below. The writing throughout the encounter book is excellent, sometimes funny, and sometimes very dark and the choices players are presented with are usually interesting if somewhat limited.

Final Thoughts

I do enjoy Above and Below for what it is. The biggest problem I have is that I wanted more. More time in the world that Laukat has created, which is meticulously thought out with information on the different creatures you may encounter as well as giving the players motivation to build their village.

You instantly feel like you should try to do your best for your villagers since they’ve been through hell already. It just feels like there’s so much to do but unfortunately, so little time.

The Good

  • Playing the game is an enjoyable experience.
  • The artwork is beautiful.
  • Encounter book is well written.
  • The puzzle is interesting.

The Bad

  • Not enough time. Only seven rounds.
  • You can’t plan much of a strategy.
  • No resolution to encounters (just gain rewards or don’t).
  • Unnecessary actions.

The Good
Playing the game is an enjoyable experience.
The artwork is beautiful.
Encounter book is well written.
The puzzle is interesting.

The Bad
Not enough time. Only seven rounds.
You can’t plan much of a strategy.
No resolution to encounters (just gain rewards or don’t).
Unnecessary actions.

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