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

The Big Book of Madness

The Big Book of Madness. Iello, 2015. $40. Design by Maxime Rambourg, Illustrated by Naïade. 8 Magician sheets (with player aid on back), 56 Spell cards, 136 Element cards, 1 game board, 17 Grimoire cards, 48 Curse cards, 35 Madness cards, 1 Invocation marker, 1 Round marker, 1 Active Player token, 16 Element tokens, and a rule book. 2-5 players. Ages 14+. 60-90 minutes.

In this cooperative game of magic and madness, the players take on the role of aspiring student magicians who have opened an ancient grimoire, releasing powerful monsters from its pages. Each page (Round) releases a monster who has an immediate effect and then places potential curses on the board. If reached before being destroyed, curses will have negative effects on the players. If you can destroy all the curses before the end of the round, you vanquish the monster and gain a bonus; curses have varying effects and if even one remains at the end of the round, a negative effect will occur before turning the page. And with the turn of each page, the monsters become more difficult.

To achieve victory the players must work together, using resources and spells, to try and destroy curses before they take effect. This requires communication, planning, and sharing. One of the basic spells everyone has allows you to give another player an action out of turn, another lets you put an element into support where anyone can use it. Getting the right elements available and having the right player use them at the critical moment is imperative to destroy curses, and ultimately, if you destroy all the curses placed by the final (boss) monster, you win the game.

During your turn, you can use your spells (if you have elements to pay for them), learn new spells (if you have the elements to buy them), acquire new element cards (by paying for them with element cards), cure Madness cards (using elements to return them to their deck), or destroy curses. You are limited only by having enough elements to do what you want.
Madness cards, given to you by curses and monster effects, just clutter up your hand which is why you want to cure them. If your hand is ever made up of only Madness cards, you are out of the game! And if the Madness stack ever empties, you lose immediately.

Since having the right element cards is essential, the game sometimes seems a bit random. A bad draw can doom you to apply the effects of a curse. Acquiring the right element cards can help build your deck to mitigate this randomness, but that takes time and the early curses depend on your starting magicians’ decks and lucky draws.

The huge amount of player interaction makes this one of the best cooperative games I’ve played. The artwork is beautiful and evocative. The rules are easy and straightforward. Each game is a different challenge since the group’s starting magicians determine your element cards and different powers, the grimoire is built from a subset of random pages, and the curse decks will provide varying curse effects, making it highly replayable. And if you find it too easy, which I did not, you can increase the play mode (adding more curses) to make it even more challenging.

A fast, fun, and very enjoyable cooperative game.

This review was written based on a privately purchased retail copy. No compensation was involved.
c2015 by Richard A. Edwards