Every once and a while someone comes along in a field that raises the bar for everyone else. In the tabletop game industry, I believe Ryan Laukat is that person. He is not only a board game designer, but he is also the artist for his games as well, and if you haven’t seen his art, you are missing out! Today, I am reviewing his game Above and Below. Above and Below is a story-telling game for 2-4 players ages 13+. It takes anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes to play and retails for $50, but can be found for about $40 on Amazon.
In this game, you take on the role of a survivor whose village was destroyed by a horde of barbarians. You journeyed across many foreign lands searching for a new place to call your home, until one you finally found the perfect spot. After building your first hut, you discovered there was more to this place than met the eye. There was a series of underground caverns full of treasures, resources, and adventure! You organized your new village to not only expand above ground, but below it as well! Let’s set up the game for 2 players.
1. Give each player a Player Board, seven coins for Player One and eight coins for Player Two, one Starting House, and one of each of the three types of Starting Villager. The Starting Villager will start in the large grass area on the left side of the Player Board.
2. Place the Reputation Board in the center of the playing area. Populate it with the Round Marker, one Cider token, five Villagers, and a Cube matching the color of each player on the reputation track. Place the remaining Villagers and Special Villagers in separate face down piles near the Reputation Board along with any Goods, Coins, Potions, or Cider tokens.
3. Place 4 random Key House cards face up on the table.
4. Place all 6 of the Star House cards face up on the table.
5. Shuffle the House cards and Outpost cards and place them face down in two different piles. Deal the top four from each pile and put them face up next to their respective decks.
6. Place the Encounter Book, Cave Cards, and Dice near the playing area.
Above and Below is played in a series of seven rounds. In these rounds, you can perform five different actions:
1, Explore – Draw a Cave Card. Place at least two of your Villagers on the Cave Card. Roll a die to determine which Encounter another player will read to you from the Encounter Book. Resolve the Encounter by making a choice from the options presented to you and rolling dice to determine if you were successful or failed.
2. Harvest – Use a Villager to harvest a Good from one of your House or Outpost cards.
3. Build – Use a Villager with the hammer icon and the required number of coins to purchase/build a House or Outpost card.
4. Train – Use a Villager with the quill icon and the required number of coins to purchase/recruit a new Villager. (This new Villager will start in the exhausted area on your Player Board.)
5. Labor – Use any Villager to work and earn one coin. (The first person to perform this action will also receive a Cider token which can be used to move a Villager from exhausted to active, if enough beds are not available for all your Villagers.)
After the first player performs one of the above actions, the next player may then take an action. Play continues this way until both players have no more Villagers to perform actions or pass. A new round is then started with a different starting player, new Villagers, Cider token, and Goods refreshed if necessary. Players then rest their Villagers and receive their Income.
My wife and I don’t always agree on the games we play. She generally likes a lighter, quicker game, whereas I like the heavier European games with lots of thinking involved. However, this is a game we both thoroughly enjoyed. For starters, the game is just aesthetically pleasing to look at. The more I look at the artwork in this game, the more I love this game. Secondly, I like that there are multiple ways to win the game. This isn’t a game where if you do X and Y, you will automatically win. You can collect Goods for points. You can build Houses or Outposts, which give you both points and goals to give you more points. You can also earn or lose reputation. Since different cards and Villagers present themselves in different order game to game, you’ll have to adapt and choose which path you wish to follow for that specific game.
What my wife and I really love about this game is the Encounter Book. There are hundreds of different scenarios which you will be faced with. In this scenario, you can choose different paths to go down and that will dictate both your reputation and your reward. My wife and I found ourselves exploring more than any of the other four actions, just because it was so much fun. It is like Ryan Laukat took those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and adapted it to a board game. This game play mechanism is what made this game a huge hit with my family, friends, and everyone else I have introduced this game to. It is also why I believe this game should be the top game of 2015. Our only complaint is that the game was over in seven rounds. We felt like we were just getting started and then the game ended. You can extend the number of rounds if you so choose, but they test these things for a reason.
I would like to conclude with some additional fun facts about this game. Another one of Ryan Laukat’s game, Islebound is said to have player tokens that can be used with Above and Below. Also, there is supposed to be an expansion for Above and Below, which is called Near and Far and will be an instant buy for any fan of this game. I know I can’t wait for it to come out, and I have already found myself buying several of Ryan Laukat’s other games, because this man is a genius with games!
This game was provided to me for free by Red Raven Games in exchange for an honest review.
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Copyright 2016 Stuart Dunn