Above and Below

Above and Below. Red Raven Games, 2015. $50. Designed by Ryan Laukat. Illustrated by Ryan Laukat. 1 Reputation board, 4 Player boards and matching cubes, 7 dice, 44 House cards, 24 Outpost cards, 25 Cave cards, 36 Villager tokens, 81 Goods tokens, 50 Coin tokens, 31 other tokens, 1 First player card, 1 rule book, and 1 Encounter book. 2-4 players. Ages 13+. 60-90 minutes.

In the fantasy world of Above and Below, the designer has woven a worker placement/resource gathering Eurogame with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book and in the process created something very interesting. During their turns, over the course of only 7 rounds, each player tries to build the best village they can both “above” (on the surface) and “below” (in the caverns beneath). Players alternate taking actions by assigning their villagers to: Train (pay for a new villager), Build (pay to add a house or outpost to your village), Labor (gain coins), Harvest (gather goods from your houses or outposts), or Explore (enter the caves below and have an “encounter”). Village (victory) points come from building various cards and from placing Goods on your Advancement Track.

While much of the game seems to be a very pretty, but fairly standard Eurogame of assigning villagers to gain more stuff (villagers, houses, outposts, coins, etc.) that translate into victory points, what makes Above and Below really different is the Explore action. Players assign two or more villagers to Explore and then draw a Cave card, roll a die, and read off the cross referenced number to another player who then takes the Encounter book and reads the appropriate paragraph. After a brief, often entertaining narrative, players must choose how they will respond to the encounter and then roll dice to determine how many “lanterns” their various villagers gain. The number gained determines level of success or failure. Succeeding grants the Cave card which is added to your tableau and provides a space on which to build a future outpost.

Much of this rather expensive game feels like all too many Eurogames. Assign worker (villager), build/gain/hire, translate goods and cards into points. Despite the well written rules and evocative artwork, for much of the game play it’s nothing special. But the Explore action, reading aloud a well written, often amusing and interesting short paragraph, and then having to make choices and roll dice, somehow elevates this game into something more.

If you want a light strategy game with a novel narrative approach, check out Above and Below.

This review was written based on a privately purchased retail copy. No compensation was involved.
c2016 by Richard A. Edwards