The straps of your pack dig into your skin uncomfortably as you shuffle ever forward into the unknown. The darkness flees from the glow of your lantern, cowering just at the edge of the halo of pale orange light. Above and around you, the weight of the stone pervades your every thought, and the air is stifling and stale. Up ahead the path splits, leading further into the heart of the cave system. You hold your lantern aloft to try to get a better look, the light glinting off sheer stone, but providing no answers. Before you can decide what to do, a heavy thump of a footfall draws your attention from the left hand tunnel. Then another. And another. Closer and closer they come. Your heart pounds in your chest as a hulking silhouette lurches forth from the shadows. What do you do?
If reading that gave you the warming tingle of nostalgia for Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA from here on out) stories, then have I got the board game for you!
Above and Below was designed (and illustrated!) by Ryan Laukat and published by Red Raven Games, and funded successfully on Kickstarter in 2015. It’s basically what happens when you leave your collection of CYOA stories and board games unsupervised, and they start exploring each other’s supple young bodies.
Up There For Thinkin’
The “Above” part of Above and Below plays pretty like a worker placement game: you have your player board, your starting home, and three starting workers (a builder, a trainer, and an unskilled labourer), and you have a whole suite of actions you can take: sell, build, harvest, train, explore, and labour. All of these actions, bar selling, require at least one worker who is then exhausted after taking that action. Some actions, like building and training, use money and workers. The “build” action allows you to buy and construct new buildings for your village which usually give victory points and another benefit. Some buildings allow you to harvest a finite number of resources (as a separate action), some generate resources every turn, others give you items straight away, a few just add beds to your village (important for refreshing exhausted workers), and a few even give bonuses at the end of the game by meeting certain criteria. Typical worker placement-y type stuff, you know the drill.
Training allows you to add more people to your village (probably for the best because my village only had three dudes at the start so the bloodline was doomed). As I mentioned, there are three types of workers: builder, trainer, and vanilla. More villagers can be added to your village as you play, and the only real difference beyond what type of villager they are is how good they are at exploring the caverns (we’ll get to that in a sec). So if you don’t care about exploring the cave system under your village then it doesn’t really matter all that much which villagers you pick up beyond whether they are a builder, a trainer, or a regular Joe.
It’s a nice tidy set up and is a functional, if somewhat limited, worker placement game. But the magic really happens when you grab your backpack and lantern and go spelunking.
Down There For Dancin’
If you plan to go exploring the unknown, you better bring a buddy. To take the “Explore” action you need to dedicate at least two of your townsfolk to venture into the depths but you can send more if you like. On average your town might have between 3 and 5 people living in it (though one of our group ended up with 7 or more) so sending two of those villagers exploring puts a big dent in the amount of actions you can take. And you’re not even guaranteed you’ll get anything out of it!
The aim of exploring is to clear out caves, which are then placed on the lower half of your player board, under your above ground buildings (which is a simple but just lovely bit of theming). Once this is done you can then purchase “Outposts”, which are similar to regular buildings but are usually a little cheaper or offer rarer types of resources. This provides a really nice risk-reward conundrum for the players, so going exploring does feel like an exciting and possibly foolhardy idea!
The actual exploration itself is quite simple, and this is where the CYOA story comes into it. A player who goes exploring takes a cave card and then rolls a D6. The result will correspond to a passage in the hefty encounter book that comes with the game, which the player to their left then reads. It’ll be similar to what I’ve written at the start of this post, and using that as an example the player might then be asked:
“Do you stand and face the creature [Explore 5], or take your chances down the other passage [Explore 3]?”
The “Explore X” above basically means you need that many successes on your rolls in order to win this encounter, and this is where those other villagers I mentioned come in. You roll one die for each villager on the expedition, and villagers have a notation on their cards that show how many successes (the lanterns) they generate on a die roll. Most will generate maybe one success on a roll of 1 or more, and two successes on a roll of 4 or more but some will be particularly good at exploring, generating two successes on a roll of 2 or more and three successes on a roll of 5 or more. If you plan on going exploring then these are the guys and gals you want to snap up when they’re available. Thankfully you are not completely beholden to the dice, as some of the buildings I mentioned will allow you to reroll a dice when exploring, and you can also “Exert” a villager to guarantee one success (this means they’re injured so they need two rounds of resting in a cozy bed to recover).
I’ve been looking forward to playing Above and Below for a long time, so I was delighted to finally get the chance. First Impression? I’m a big, big fan, and so was everyone else at the table. When playing above ground you are constantly up against those crucial decision points that makes me love worker placement games; and when you venture down below you are at the whims of the encounter book and your poor little party of explorers are on their own in a strange land. It’s just a really great play experience and felt perfectly complete. We took it out, played it for two hours, had a great time, and put it away. I’m really looking forward to playing it again, and I feel like each game will be its own little microcosm of a world and a story, but I’m not pouring over decisions I made and thinking “what if”. I do love having those moments in something like Rex or Game of Thrones, but here I’m perfectly happy to box (no pun intended) that particularly playthrough of Above and Below away and appreciate it for the fun gaming experience that it was.
This is a “first impressions” post so I don’t want to jump the gun too much but this is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten from a board game in a good while and it feels like it will be high up on my list of favourites for this year. Red Raven have also recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign for their next game Near and Far, which is being billed as a sequel to Above and Below. If its anything like this little gem, I’ll be adding that to my collection sooner rather than later!