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Boardgame Review – Above and Below

Above and Below Board Game BoxAbove and Below is a wonderful game for 2-4 players that combines city-building and storytelling to produce a family-and-gamer-friendly game with a quirky nature and beautiful art.

In Above and Below you attract workers to your village and use their unique abilities to help build buildings, explore underground caverns and gather resources. The “Above” part of the game combines light worker placement and resource management, while the “Below” part is an enjoyable “choose your own adventure” storytelling mechanism. Together they create a charming and enjoyable game that can be appreciated by many kinds of player.

The game’s designer, Ryan Laukat, is the talented and prolific designer and illustrator of City of Iron, Eight-Minute Empire, Artifacts Inc, and more recently Islebound, which is set in the same universe as Above and Below. Ryan brings his unique style and superb workmanship to all of the art in the game, and production values are high. Everything in Above and Below is of excellent quality, and the rule book is clear with plenty of images and a helpful explanation of every icon and symbol that appears on the cards.

Above and Below Board Game Trulli

Buildings inspired by Italian trulli?

Despite the fantasy setting it’s easy to identify with the milieu of Above and Below – the bright blue skies, cypress trees and stone buildings evoke Puglia, the region at the heel of Italy famous for its “trulli” buildings, although I’m not sure the area is known for its underground caverns or races of fish people.

The back story to Above and Below is that you and your fellow players are essentially refugees, seeking to make a new life after your home was destroyed by barbarians (all very zeitgeist-y). You have discovered a potential site for your new villages and as well as the welcoming scenery above ground, you’ve found a network of caves below ground that offer valuable resources. The caves however are far from empty – they are populated with a number of races, individuals and creatures, from giant snails and spiders to the Pigfolk, the Glogos and the elusive Moss King.

Your task in the game is to recruit people to come and help build your village, develop buildings above ground, explore caverns below ground to create outposts (more buildings), and collect resources by exploring the caverns and interacting with their inhabitants.

At the end of the game your successes in each of these areas are totalled and the player with the most Village Points is the winner.

Game Mechanisms – Worker Placement Meets Storytelling

Above and Below at its heart is a light-medium worker placement and card drafting game. Everyone starts the game with 3 similar villagers, one building, and a handful of gold pieces.

Above and Below Board Game Villagers

Sample villagers – three builders and a teacher

Instead of meeples, your workers are lovely individually-drawn chits with a variety of abilities, mostly expressed as die rolls. Each of the 36 character chits is different and you will get to know your favourites after a while. Six of them are “rares” that only turn up occasionally, which is a nice feature that keeps things interesting in later games; after quite a few plays we still haven’t encountered the Liquid Woman for example.

Some villagers are teachers that can be used to recruit new villagers (extra workers on your team), some are builders that are needed to build the buildings, and some are neither but have superior adventuring skills. When you use workers to perform tasks they are moved to the resting area of your board, and recover between rounds, providing you have beds for them.

At the end of each round, which lasts until everyone has used all the actions they can take with their villagers, each player earns a modest income (from 4 to 8 gold pieces) based on the number of resources on their resource track. Plus a number of villagers recover from their exhaustion, ready to work for you again.

Your actions during each round are limited by the number of rested villagers you have, but the different options are:

  1. Buy a building from the supply and add it to your village. Simple. Pay the building cost, exhaust one of your builder villagers (move them to the resting area), add the building to your tableau, and take any benefits on the card. Oh yes, every building has a benefit, and buying the right ones for your strategy is vital.
  1. Recruit a new villager from the supply. Use a teacher to attract a new villager to your team, paying the appropriate cost and moving both to the resting area. Learning the ways of your village is clearly exhausting work, but once rested your new dude will be ready to build, teach or adventure on your behalf.
  1. Harvest. Some cards give you resources which need to be harvested before you can use them. Exhaust a worker and grab your loot.
  1. Labour. This is the “can’t do much else” action which gives you a gold piece and sometimes a barrel of cider. Oddly, cider lets you recover a tired villager from the resting area without needing a bed (it has exactly the opposite effect on me I have to say).
  1. Explore. This is where Above and Below comes into its own as a unique game – grab some villagers and head off into the underground caverns……

Choose Your Own Adventure

Above and Below Board Game Buildings

Some overground buildings from the supply

Most people will have read a “choose your own adventure” book when they were kids, possibly even the original Fighting Fantasy books from the 80s if you’re a bit ancient like me. In these you’re given choices as to how the book plays out – “You meet an old wizard wearing a jewelled bracelet, do you (a) greet him kindly and help him on his way [turn to page 212] or (b) beat him senseless and steal his bracelet [turn to page 87]”.

Above and Below comes with its own adventure book called the Encounter Book, which contains over 200 short encounters of this kind. Every time you send some of your villagers exploring, you will randomly select an encounter and another player will read it out, presenting you with a number of options at the end, some of which will be more easily achieved, and others which will seem to be more rewarding – you’re never quite sure – but will require more adventuring success (better die rolls). The player reading the encounter won’t tell you what rewards you can get though; you have to use your intuition or rely on blind luck to decide which course of action to take.

Each villager’s adventuring skill is shown as a number of lanterns next to a die roll; the more lanterns you can get for the lowest die roll, the better. The more villagers you send on a mission and their relative adventuring skill will modify your chances of success, but ultimately the outcome of any encounter is down to the dice.

For example, you may encounter some angry Glogos (you’ll meet theses guys a lot) who won’t let you pass. Your options are:

  • Turn back – you need to get 3 lanterns, and your reward is… you won’t know. Probably not much.
  • Befriend them – you need to get 4 lanterns, and your reward is… you won’t know. It’ll probably be better than just turning back.
  • Attack them – you need to get 7 lanterns, and your reward is… again you won’t know, but you’d hope it was something good.
Above and Below Board Game Outposts

Some underground outposts

So you never know when choosing your action what you’re going to get when you succeed. Sometimes you get bounced onto another paragraph and get another choice to make. But importantly you have to choose your action before rolling the dice – if you choose to attack and only roll 4 lanterns, you’ve failed the encounter and get nothing, apart from two or more exhausted villagers.

A successful encounter also gives you a cavern card in which you can build outposts, special kinds of buildings not available to be built above ground, with unique powers and bonuses; for example, only some underground buildings offer the chance to harvest mushrooms or amethysts, they’re not available above ground.

Fish and Mushroom Management

One important aspect of the game is the collection and management of resources. As befits the quirky setting of Above and Below, the resources you’ll collect are fish, mushrooms, fruit, rope, pots, paper, ore and amethysts, in order of rarity. Some of these you can collect from card abilities, but others you will need to seek out underground by exploring; competition for resource-yielding buildings is usually fierce, and you probably won’t be able to grab everything you want from the card supply.

Above and Below Board Game Resource Management

Player board showing resources and villagers

Once you’ve collected some fish and mushrooms and whatnot, you face a tough choice – do you put them on your resource track immediately, or wait until later. You have to fill it in from left to right, but the resources you put down first are worth less VP at the end of the game compared to the end of the track. So you can fill in the track quickly with the more common resources to access the more valuable spots earlier, but then you have to put the rarer resources in the higher spots, making it harder to get what are now valuable resources for you.

If you decide early to put fish on the 1st resource track spot, and collect 4 of them during the game, they’re only worth 4VP in total at the end of the game. If you save them and manage to put them on the 5th spot on the resource track, they’re worth 4VP each. That’s a lot when winning scores can be as low as in the 40VPs.

If you can grab one or more of the buildings which give you a resource every round, and do it early in the game, you can be well on the way to a win provided you stick them on the resource track right at the end once you’ve harvested them all. The downside is there are only 5 of these cards in the game, out of over 50 buildings, so not a huge chance of them appearing when you want them. Plus you’ll miss out on increasing your income, as more filled resource spots means more gold every round.

More likely you’re going to want to balance harvesting resources with going underground and winning, stealing or just stumbling across them. After all, exploring via the Encounter Book is what makes Above and Below shine; if you want a pure resource management game, you should probably be playing something else.

Powerful Buildings! Grab ‘em!

Above and Below Board Game Star Buildings

The “star” buildings that appear in every game

The same 6 “star” buildings feature in every game of Above and Below, and these can be game winners. It’s likely every player will want to grab one of these at some point, because they give a sizeable amount of end-game points – 2VPs plus 2VPs per villager, or 7VPs plus 2VPs per outpost. However these buildings are expensive at 11 to 17 gold pieces, so they’re hard to buy until late in the game.

There is strong tension between wanting to spend your income and exploring loot on normal buildings to help you get bonuses and resources, and saving it to buy a particular star building… that another player might grab just before you and ruin your strategy. You have to keep your eye on what other players are up to – maybe they’re hoarding paper and amethysts, or recruiting lots of villagers – in order to out-compete them for the best buildings.

Protect Your Reputation – Or Don’t Bother

Various activities in the game, particularly when exploring, can result in you gaining or losing Reputation Points, which are tracked on the main board for each player (confusingly you move down the track as your reputation increases). Stealing from old ladies is likely to lose you reputation points, whilst saving them from a giant spider will improve it. Worthwhile end-game bonuses await the players with the best reputations, but they may not be enough to tempt you to stop stealing and cheating grannies during the game!

Replayable? Oh Yeah.

Above and Below has an impressive amount of variability to make each game a little different to the last. The buildings and villagers that appear for purchase in each game are only a fraction of the total. Only 4 of 9 “key” buildings are used in any game. There are over 200 encounters and probably more to come – surely somebody will come up with a new book with a different feel that can be slotted into the game? And some village characters, like the lazy Cave Cat, only come into the game as a result of specific encounters, so you may play many games before coming across them.

To add another level to one playthrough, check out the storyline variant on BGG by Mike Mayer.

Above and Below – Final Word

Above and Below is a game with wide appeal. Provided you’re happy to enjoy the story aspect of the game and accept the random elements, you should pretty much always have a nice time playing Above and Below. A gamer can play it with non-gaming family and friends and not feel as though they’re just going through the motions. Younger kids can enjoy the encounters and dice-rolling even if they don’t switch onto the resource management and card drafting tactics, whilst wiser players can entertain themselves trying out different strategies for winning.

All in all, Above and Below is a game you will still enjoy even if you lose, which, as an expert in losing at boardgames myself, I certainly appreciate.

And once you’ve immersed yourself in the wonderful world of Above and Below, watch out for the sequel coming to Kickstarter in late 2016. In Near and Far you can (quote):

  • Search for a lost city in a strange and wonderful world of ruins

    Above and Below Board Game Near and Far

    The sequel to Above and Below

  • Manage and recruit adventurers, each with a unique identity
  • Travel through a gorgeous atlas of 11 maps that act as the game board
  • Read from a book of stories unique to each location, or choose a character and follow their quest, making decisions along the way that will affect their fate
  • Buy skills for your character over a ten-map campaign.
  • 2-4 players, 90 minutes.

And that, dear friends, is an instabuy.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Jon Dunn

Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.