Above and Below is a hybrid action-management storytelling game that has players splitting their time between building up their village and exploring the cave system below. Each turn, you assign villagers to various tasks including building structures and harvesting crops or heading down into the caves to find treasure or disaster. It’s a very interesting playing dynamic which appeals to Eurogame-style players as well as adventurous players who might care less about resource managing.
Game play starts with three villagers and three beds. In each round you can exhaust a villager by having them do a specific task. This can be as simple as picking fruit. Play continues until each player has no ready villagers. Then, a new round starts and you refresh as many villagers as you have beds. It’s nice to play a game that respects the restorative properties of a good night’s sleep. Certain villagers can perform special actions such as recruiting new villagers or building new structures (some of which contain beds) and if you play smart, you can create a pretty tidy little expansion engine where your village grows each round and ends up with more to do the next.
You can also send villagers down into the caves under your settlement to look for rare resources and treasure. You must send at least two at a time (it’s too dangerous to go solo) and this exhausts the villagers in the same manner as doing things above ground. When you head underground, you take a cave card and roll a die. One of your opponents reads a specific passage from the encounter book and you choose how your villagers deal with the situation. If that reminds you of a “choose your own adventure” story, you’re exactly right. For whatever choice you make, you’ll have to roll some more dice to see if your eager spelunkers pass or fail the test. If you pull it off you could return to the village with gems or mushrooms or even a new villager from one of the underground species. Most importantly, if you succeed you keep the cave card which becomes an available location to build special underground buildings.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
The game clearly wants you to split your focus between the surface and subterranean world. After all it’s “Above AND Below” not “Above OR Below” but there is no specific rule that says you have to do both. Players who prefer standard collection and building style games may not want to risk coming back empty handed by exploring. Building a strong surface economy is a very valid way to play and probably even a little too much of a winning strategy. Players who are enamored with the story of the game or would rather leave their success up to fate can spend a lot of their time below ground and hope to get serious rewards. Bringing home a few new (free) villagers along with a little treasure can really help you toward victory. If you’re lucky, you could find enough in turn after turn of exploring to win without building much of anything, but more often your industrious opponents are going to go away the victor. A mixed strategy is probably the best bet and you’ll have to build some infrastructure to make cave exploring viable anyway.
WHY WE PLAY
These sort of hybrid games ask a very interesting question: Why are we playing this game anyway? Even if it’s not the winningest strategy, some players will want to explore as much as they can simply for the story and decision making opportunity the caves provide. There are upwards of 200 caves to explore with all sorts of circumstances and results. The art is beautiful too, which is even more impressive especially considering the artist Ryan Laukat is also the game’s designer and the publisher. Yes, Red Raven Games is a one man show and every aspect of this game is top notch. On one hand this game has something for every kind of player, but on the other it doesn’t reward all kinds of players with an easy path to victory. You have to ask yourself why you play games in the first place.
When all is said and done, I’m happy to say that I loved this game. I loved the world and the art. I loved the play style and the sort of sideways version of a worker placement dynamic. I plan to bring this to any game night I attend.
Where will you find your fortune? Will you build in the city above or explore the caves below? What do you want to get out of your games? Let us know in the caves… I mean comments.
Image Credits Sax Carr and Red Raven Games