Above and Below Review
Red Raven Games hit the Kickstarter again with their title, Above and Below early in 2015 and it’s a huge success. It had garnered more than $ 142,000 from the expected goal of $ 15,000 (that’s a huge success I tell you that). Ryan Laukat is the man behind Red Raven Games and the game itself and managed to get himself a quite established fan base in the board game hobby. I pledged this one right like instantly just because I knew in my heart and mind that it was the perfect time to back one of his game (after missing out Empires of The Void, City of Iron, and The Ancient World). Maybe partially because that his illustration skill was totally developed into an amazing one and the other was because the game offers something unique than other games in the market.
So what is this Above and Below and what kind of game is it? As it is on the title, Above and Below is a storytelling board game, and what I mean by storytelling it’s not like Dixit in any way (that’s the first thing came to my mind in the first place, Dixit). It’s a different storytelling than Dixit but honestly come to think of it, I failed to understand why Dixit is called as a storytelling, it’s a bit far off I think. Yes, you can tell a story, but the real essence is giving out a clue. That clue might be a story. But enough about Dixit and more about this game.
In this game, storytelling may be the strongest factor of the game, which makes it unique from other games aside from the simple worker placement and resources collecting. The storytelling aspect comes from a specific action in the game, which is explore / exploration. When players decide to do an exploration action, they will be read a specific story from the encounter book by on of their fellow players. From this story / encounter they will choose to react / what to do given the options available to them. Though each story / encounter that players have is short and unrelated to each other, it’s up to players imagination and will to make up a connection to those encounters they have for more better immersive game play (but that’s not affecting the game play in any way), in fact you can even ignore the stories and just go for the mechanic (though this isn’t the real intention from the designer).
Above and Below offers a mesmerizing world of fairy tale and imaginative world with beautiful universe created by the designer himself. His illustration style has brought him the title of Hayao Mizayaki’s of Board Games and it’s not exaggerates at all. The background story (might be a follow up from his previous game, The Ancient World) is that each of you lead a runaway villagers from their beloved home which had been invaded by either titans or maybe disasters or ravagers. In search of a new home, you’ve come to a place where you think it’s suitable / best to be your new settlement. As you starting to settle in that place, you found that it has an underground tunnel system that already been there for quite a long time before your time. Now the sense of adventure engulf you with excitement, hence the game begins. So you will send some of your villagers (or all of ’em, it’s all up to you) to venture the underground hoping it will gives you fortune, interesting results and such.
Another compliment to the designer, Ryan Laukat for making such a breathtaking universe, his own original universe. What I like the most about it, aside the beautiful scenery (peaceful blue sky and dark blue underground walls) is the villagers. The villagers have their distinctive feel in each one of them. They’re not only human, there are many other interesting races, Hogman (I guess this following the same universe from City of Iron), Glogos, even robots. The way that it’s made to be uniquely general makes it uncommon in the worlds of races (like elves, dwarfs or orcs and such) which I found it to be more masculine but not this, this can be enjoyed rather by anyone, male or female or children.
Aside from having a beautiful artwork, the game also comes with a top notch component quality. The cards are linen finished, tiles are smooth and the box is very sturdy (love it very much). And for the KS edition, it has exclusive custom shaped wooden resource tokens that replace the resource tiles (and you still get the tiles). Of course this upgrade the game components by a mile, since the presence of the wooden resources really add a stunning vibe on the game presentation, and gosh touching wooden instead of cardboard tiles are definitely way way much better.
But of course not all components are perfect, I consider the player mat and game board have minor issue on the finishing. The surface is smooth, which is good, but unfortunately it is not durable, easy to worn out by scratches and frictions (so be sure to keep it safely when storing and playing them).
The Game Play
Though the game centers on the story-telling side, it also offers interesting good mechanic for players. The game last 7 rounds, yes too short. I am not talking about the play time ‘short’, but more about how short players to build their engine to get really started, but that’s make the challenge in the game. I just feel it’s not enough, want to play more and more, finish too soon. In each round players will take turns taking an action with their active / ready villagers. They can send 2 or more villagers to explore the underground tunnel or recruit another person as new a villager, send them to work labor to gain coins, harvesting resource from one of your buildings or build a structure (building or outpost) in your village. The round ends when all players already pass. Villagers that already used to take an action are send to the exhausted area in player’s board (or injured area).
Since the core of the game is about exploring, I will start with that first. Exploring action is the only way to develop your underground area. By exploring new caves, you can build outposts available in the center of the table. To explore the main requirement is having at least 2 villagers, they’re too scared or maybe not that stupid to go venturing to uncharted tunnels (and dark) alone. The player rolls a die and consult on the result table listed on the top most card from the cave pile. This will point out what encounter that player will have. Another player will have to go through the encounter book and find that paragraph, read it aloud to the active player. This paragraph contains a short backstory of the encounter to set up the scene and gives the player a set of choices to make (without saying the rewards and penalties). The player must choose one and resolve it. This usually requires the player to gain a specific number of exploration points in order to succeed, by rolling a die per villager that participate on the exploration. If the result is equal or higher than the required amount, it is a success, but even if it not, the players can still choose to exert their villagers (work extra hard) to get 1 point from each villager to count toward the result. But, as consequence those exerted villagers are injured (players will have to heal them with potions during the end of the round). Villagers have different values and chances of success, some of them also have special bonus for certain actions. If the exploration is a success, the player gets the card and the rewards listed, if its a failure, the action is wasted.
Another action is to recruit more villagers. In their turn, players can send a villager with a scribe icon to recruit one of the available villagers by spending a certain amount of coins listed. The new recruited villager cannot be used until next round, they place it on the exhausted area.
Another action is build. Players can choose to build a building (above the ground) or build an outpost from their completed exploration cards. Yes, outpost can only be build if there’s an empty exploration card in the player’s table. Players can choose from the available buildings, the starting star buildings, key buildings or from the draw lines. Players can also pay one coin per turn to discard all the cards from a line and draw another set of cards before or after doing this.
Another action they can do is to send villagers to harvest resources from their buildings. Some buildings provide resources and they need to be harvested first in order to be used or considered owned.
They also can send villagers to do labor. Labor is getting a coin per villager sent to do labor. The first player to do this action on a round, gets a cider token from the main board.
Once a player do not want or cannot do any action, they can pass for the round.
Once the round ends, players will get income based on their resource tracks. And they can spend potions to heal the injured villagers. And then the villagers that have a bed can sleep and rest to be ready in the next round. If there are more villagers than the number of beds, the rest are not be available next round.
Aside from the storytelling, the game also emphasizes about the village building aspect. Players can do actions to make their village better and generates points for them in the end game. So basically players get points from building that they’ve built, end game points from buildings, reputation track and advancement track. Let’s focus on advancement track. In this track each space contains 2 different information, points and coins. As I already mentioned before the coins are generated during income phase in the end of each round. Points from this track are only counted at the end of the game. This points work by set collection. Players can place one kind of resources in each slot. The slots are limited to eight, as many as resource kinds in the game. These slots aside from opening your income raise but also worth points at the end of game based on the number of resources in the slot. The more slots you occupied the more income you will get (up to the maximum of 8 coins). You open these slots by placing one kind of resources in each slot. For example you place a fish token on the first slot, and the next slot you must place another resource that has not yet been placed in previous slots. So if you get an already placed resources, you place it on the specific slot. At the end of the game, each resource worth points based on the value listed on that space. So getting many resources in slots further along the track would give you a lot of points.
I definitely love this game. All of my plays were amazing, with lots of stories, interesting encounters and fun simple resource collecting. I like everything about the game, nothing less. Even down to the box quality I just cannot hold myself to not give out my thumbs.
The game is simple, easy to play for casual and non-gamer but also offers a good deal of Euro style game of worker placement, set collection and tableau building. I always thought that the game really answers on two sides, the casual side which leans heavily on the story telling aspect of the game and the avid side with enough meat inside the game. But getting only one of them is still balance throughout the game. You can totally ignore the Euro aspect of competitive game and just focusing the story you are trying to complete in the game or you can ignore the story and just dive in to get maximize points from your actions. For me I like the story aspect so much, you can get very immersive with the story. Even though the encounters are not related to each other, but you can relate them with you own ways, to make it more interesting. There are a lot of encounters in the book to build your own story in each play, but if that’s not enough for KS edition, its backers have a small expansion that consists of a separate book for new encounters. This should keep you busy to arrange a good and interesting story by yourself.
I like the choices that players must take during encounters and the consequences and rewards behind them. But of course you want to win (but that’s not priority for me in this game), by doing things right.
So the game really fits for casual players that really want to enjoy the story, and for gamer that also demand some meat inside it.
So for me this game is easily one of the best games out there, definitely one of the best in 2015. Lets just hope there will be more encounter expansions, I hope in PDF so you can just download it.