2-4 players, Competitive, Tableau Building Cave Dwelling
Designer: Ryan Laukat
Artwork: Ryan Laukat
Publisher: Red Raven Games
Note: Review copy provided by Red Raven Games
Overview of Gameplay
Above and Below has players building up their own personal little village not only above the ground, but below it through a cave system as well. The layout and setup of the game is primarily focused on your own player board which is where you will be performing all your actions. During a typical turn for a player you will choose a number of villager tokens to send on specific missions depending on what you are looking to accomplish. These missions are Exploration, Harvest, Build, Train and Labor. Normally you can send whoever, where ever to do these missions expect for Train and Build as there are specific villagers with those talents needed. So, let’s kinda go over each of the actions to give you a better idea of what you are doing here.
Exploration involves sending TWO villagers at minimum down into the caves to not only find adventure but to plot out new areas to build. This action is very involved as you will be rolling a die to see which story excerpt will be read out of the Encounter book. There are hundreds of little stories to be discovered and a large amount of different cave cards to be drawn so no two adventures will be alike. From there you have to perform a skill test which involves rolling a number of dice based on how many villagers you sent to explore. If you succeed you not only gain the rewards listed in the encounter book BUT also the cave card which then is placed next to your player board. This is an important step as you will need these cave cards to build in the caves going forward.
Harvesting allows you to collect resources from any buildings that produce. For each village sent to harvest you can collect one resource. These can be placed on your player board on the advancement track or even placed to sell. The advancement track is another way to gain more end game victory points.
Building allows you to pay for and build a new structure. You choose from the plethora of options on the table from the regular buildings to the cave outposts to the key houses and finally the star house cards. Each different kind has specific things it helps players with, like the star house cards are super expensive but they give lots of victory points for specific things. And this is where your primary VP’s are gonna come from either from direct points from buildings or by giving you resources to help in other ways.
Training allows you to pay coin to train up a new worker for your village. This basically allows you more actions to be taken during the next round, HOWEVER you want to make sure to have enough beds to support them all. At the start of the game each player has 3 beds and three villagers and as the game progresses you can acquire more beds from building new structures that have the bed icon on them. Each different villager also has different dice values for the exploration tests and can possibly help with training and building as well.
And finally, we come to Labor. This is the simplest of all the actions as you just gain one coin per villager sent to Labor. Additionally, if you are the first player each round to do this action, you also gain a cider barrel. These are used during the End of Round phase to bring exhausted (used) villagers back to active status and are extremely helpful if you don’t have enough beds to support bringing back everyone during the end of round.
So around and around players will go each taking a single action until they have exhausted all their villagers on the player boards. At this point the end of round begins where the round marker dives a little deeper into the caves and any new villagers are added to the reputation board. Your exhausted villagers all rest up in your available beds and return to active duty and players all collect coins based on how far they have advanced on the advancement track and any additional income that buildings provide.
These steps are repeated for a total of seven rounds at which the game ends and the final vp’s are calculated. Whoever has the highest score wins!
There are quite a few components to go through here and they are all of a good quality. The cards have a nice linen finish and feel great. The player boards and villager tokens both have a good thickness to them. The rest of the tokens are of average quality throughout with all the resource and coin tokens all cardboard. There are four colored cubes that are made of wood to track each players reputation and of course the dice which are pretty standard dice.
There are really only 2 different game boards used in the game. Each player’s regular player board and the reputation board. The reputation board is where you will keep track of each players reputation (of course), the current round, the villagers that are available to train, the cider barrel tokens AND finally it has a nice little diagram of all the different resources in the game ordered from common to rare. That is particularly useful when deciding if you want to place certain resources on your advancement track. The further they are placed up the track, the more valuable they become at end game scoring. And the more of the same resource you place, the more they are worth. SO, placing a super rare resource earlier in the track might be better since you won’t see them as much.
Overall the boards and components are of a good quality. Nothing really screaming “unique” or anything but also nothing bad here either. Your setup will mostly consist of various tableaus of cards and tokens surrounding these boards.
The box is so-so. It obviously looks really nice and has a good sturdiness to it, looks great on the shelf especially next to any other of Ryan Laukats games. However, the insert is very bland just coming with a small white cardboard insert that doesn’t really do anything to help with setup. The game also only came with two extra plastic baggies which is a nice thought but not nearly enough to store all the components this game has. This is my one biggest gripe about the game actually, the setup and takedown. There is a total of eight different kinds of resources and the game comes with a total of 81 tokens to represent all these not to mention the potion and cider tokens AND the villager tokens and coin tokens. Now I pity the fool who would just throw all these into a single bag and call it a day. These need to be sorted by type and placed in their own bags. The resources COULD be thrown together I suppose, leaving a large pile of resources to dig through but ehhhhhh.
In any case you will need to supply more of your own baggies to sort all these out which in turn basically makes the insert irrelevant.
Visual Appeal /Theme
Visually the game is stunning. If you are familiar with Ryan Laukats other games you have pretty much come to expect a glorious artistic presentation already. And not only that by the Encounter book that is included has TONS of little story pieces that are written but a number of individuals that really add a tremendous amount of flavor and theme to the game. There is a small thematic story told at the very beginning of the rulebook which Is a pretty standard “your old village was destroyed so let’s build a new one” kinda thing. However, it’s the small story bits in the encounter book that add all the flavor to the game. The little adventures and struggles your personal villagers go through to get their new village up and running is very interesting.
Also, I just love how the card tableau you build all looks like it belongs. What I mean is as you start adding more and more building cards next to each other it LOOKS like they run together with the artwork. Like everything just belongs, and it is this way no matter which buildings you throw up. Even with the cave outposts, they all look amazing and I LOVE the thematic gameplay where you have to explore a cave section BEFORE you can build an outpost. That is a super nice touch and really adds to the feel of the game.
I can say I had very few troubles with this rulebook. It has a nice visual component list at the very beginning which helps in determining what certain tokens do. The setup is numbered with description and visual representation of what needs to be done. The walkthrough of actions is numbered with large headers and easy to understand paragraphs also with picture examples. There were a couple instances where something was mentioned that I didn’t understand until I got towards the end of the book and found the explanation in the “Other Rules” section. This did make learning as I was going a little more difficult but I mean, all the info is there. There is even an index and easy to follow turn/round order at the back of the book for easy reference.
Player Interaction/Fun Factor
So, player interaction is kind of lacking here. I mean the most interaction you really have with other players is when you read the encounter book story segments to them. The rest of it is just who buys what building first mostly. You take turns performing actions which are mostly fast although there are LOTS of building choices usually which could lead to some lengthy deliberation. Also, the exploration only involves the active player and the player to their left to read to them. So, this can kinda slow down the game for those not involved. Although I actually found listening to these bits of story entertaining even if I wasn’t involved.
I had a lot of fun with this one. I also own and really love another of Ryan Laukats games, Near and Far, which is what this game gets compared to most often. I can say Above and Below is a simpler version of Near and Far. There differences to be sure so I feel like each stands on its own very well with Above and Below feeling like a game that you would bring out for a decently quick one-off game and Near and Far being a lengthier on-going style.
Optimal Player Count/Replay Value
I would say 2 or 3 players would be optimal for Above and Below. Four players can drag a bit with all the reading and building choices but at three, everyone is mostly involved most of the time. At two players each player is always on the move with their turns it seems.
The replay value is tremendous here JUST because of that encounter book. I mean there are good sized decks of building cards so each game you will see different buildings pop up and the same could be said for the stack of villager tokens. However, the real meat is that encounter book with its hundreds of story bits. The thing is, to encounter a story you have to roll a die and see which story you will get. And this is also dependent on which cave card you draw and which stories are available on that particular cave card. It does an excellent job of randomizing all these stories so you probably won’t get the same story twice.
Positive Final Thoughts
Overall, I really liked this game. It’s easy to learn and easy to play but with an interesting amount of strategy involved. There are only seven rounds so the game plays pretty quick, perhaps too quick as I found myself WANTING to continue playing if only to collect more resources to fill up my advancement track. Honestly, I could see myself bringing this out MORE often than Near and Far just because of its simpler game style.
Negative Final Thoughts
My only real beef is the lack of a good storage solution. I feel this game in particular needs it based on the sheer variety of tokens and organization they demand for easy setup and takedown.