Ryan Laukat with Red Raven Games is becoming quite the name is board game design. Islebound and Near and Far are respectable games in the community, but the newer installment, Above and Below, has made a much larger splash than the previous games, for good reasons. Read on to see how this story-ridden worker placement game sets the bar far more above than below.
One of my personal favorite parts of this game is the story. It follows up a previous game, Near and Far, where you are a people who have moved from barbarian destroyed lands to find a new start. After braving their perils along the way, the newly founded settlers are making a life for themselves in a new community. In order to make a name for themselves, they must settle, adventure, harvest, and trade their way to fame and fortune. As player’s build their town and band of members up, they gain strength for larger adventures and need only keep their members healthy and well rested for the next day’s journey.
A large part of the story you find in Above and Below, that I’ll get into more mechanically in the playstyle discussion, is the Adventure action you can take with your people. It takes you on a miniature narrative in the depths below the city that are full of wondrous, mythical, and interesting things. In those depths, players make decisions that can lead to huge rewards of wealth, or leave them empty handed and worse off than before. Risk vs reward is the name of Above and Below, but the storyline behind it makes the risk much easier to stomach.
Above and Below plays like a classic worker placement game on the surface (no pun intended). You can use your party members for various assignments. Send them to the work camp and gain gold or harvest goods from the land you own while specialized workers can accomplish other tasks as well. Builders can purchase new land and add it to your estate, whilst trainers add new members to the society. The decisions aren’t as complicated as many games out there, and the dynamics aren’t hard to follow. Actions take moments and don’t have many repercussions or effects. Essentially the gameplay itself is teachable in minutes, but choosing which actions to take, and in what order to take them, is what makes the game complicated enough to attract strategy fans.
I left out the most fun action so I could explain it separately. Players can choose to use 2 or more of their members to go on an adventure below the surface each turn. They must choose how many to send before embarking on the mission and this can matter, a lot. Using your characters for the other actions is how you guarantee success and taking them on a rendezvous to the underground can end up costing you quite a bit. Most of the missions require 3 to 5 “torches” and some require up to 7. Each of your characters can be used for any of the aforementioned actions, and risking them on a journey means they can’t be used for the guaranteed payday of hard labor, but not taking enough means you won’t always be able to accomplish the tasks assigned to you.
See, everytime you enter the depths you are randomly assigned a narrative; in that narrative, you will be called upon to make decisions. You won’t know which decision is best (although it is usually apparent if there is a BAD choice), and the better rewards require more torches. Each of your characters can hold a small number of torches, and you can “exhaust” them for more, but this takes medicine to help them recover or extra turns where they can’t be used. Thus, sending down two guys with two torches underground isn’t always the best bet. Sending down four men with seven torches means you can always grab the best goal, but what if the narrative you are assigned only requires three torches… well, you just wasted all that potential on the surface. Risk and reward my friends, risk and reward.
Scoring, Where Opposition Exists
This game, in terms of rounds, is not very long. You get 7 turns to do everything you want to do, and then it’s time to tally it all up. Scoring isn’t complicated, but there are a number of ways to skin a cat. You get victory points from buildings you purchase, directly or indirectly; buildings can be valued or give value to things you own. Some buildings add victory points for each person you have, some add points from owning different goods, and some for empty land. Everyone scores additional points (or loses them) for their reputation gained (or lost) from adventures they go on. Lastly, there is a scoring system based on the number and types of goods you collect. The more you collect, the more each one is worth.
With only a few ways to score, it is easy to see what your opponents are going for. Trading is available in the game, so there are some altruistic options available for mutual benefits between players. Also, all buildings are up for grabs, which means, if you see your opponents collecting something, there is power in buying things that could help them. Sometimes hurting someone else is as effective as helping yourself.
The simple truth is, this game is a lot of fun. The story is fun, the turns are fun, and the narratives are fun. There aren’t a lot of things to hate about Above and Below. It’s not going to win any awards for a tournament game, and it’s not going to replace Twilight Imperium, but it’s going to become a staple in your home for when you have less than a few hours and just want to relax, share a few laughs, and enjoy good, friendly competition.
If you would like to pick up a copy, you can find one in the link below!
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