When I first entered the world of modern board gaming, one of the first games I discovered and fell in love with was Above and Below. The art was beautiful, the components were top-notch, and the game play was fun and engaging. However, what made it stand out above other games I had tried was the story element. On your turn, you could explore and read from a story book that immersed you even more in the game. The more I played this game, however, the more I realized that the stories were a little biased towards doing the right thing or choosing the moral good. You could read them and realize, if I don’t make the right choice this is going to hurt my reputation and potentially cost me the game. Plus, there were only so many stories, so eventually you were going to experience them all. The additional stories (Desert Labyrinth and Underforest) offered through future Kickstarter projects helped with the story selection immensely, but I still wanted more!
In July 2016, Red Raven Games launched a Kickstarter for Near and Far (the sequel to Above and Below). The game play was a little bit different, but the heart of the game, the stories were back, so of course I backed it and waited impatiently for May 2017 to arrive so I could play it. The first big difference I loved was that there were specific characters to play with. Instead of being some generic wanderer, you could play as one of eight specific characters that range from a lizardfolk to an automaton. Each of these characters had their own stories in the storybook that you could explore to flesh out their backstory, which added a personal connection and made the stories take on more meaning, not just optimizing your decision for maximum points.
Another difference big difference which was a game-changer for me was the campaign mode. Instead of playing on the same map over and over again, you and your friends can play on ten different maps. Each map has specific stories related to that map, with each map having more stories than ability to visit each play through. In addition to that feature, some stories branch off into their own follow-up stories which reveal a deeper and richer story. Lastly, your characters could level up from map to map, acquiring talents and creating a little bit of asymmetric powers for them in future maps.
I haven’t played through every map so far, but the ones I have so far have been highly enjoyable. I love the great art, as always. The metal coins that came with the deluxe version have a nice weight to them, and the plastic gems have a tactile feel as you excavate them from the mine. I especially loved the tents you placed on the map as it give a nice 3-D look to the map as it was further explored. However, there was a lot of cardboard in the box … A LOT! Now don’t get me wrong: the art on the cardboard pieces was very beautiful, but from character standees to food, banners, and even pack animals, there was tons of cardboard. I understand this is to keep costs down, but a campaign game like this that you’re going to play over and over again deserves more wood in it! Enter MeepleSource!
MeepleSource creates beautiful wooden pieces to upgrade your game and make it feel more deluxe. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can get replacements for the characters, banners, food, and pack animals. I personally have the characters and pack animals currently and am debating the food and banners at the moment. They really make the game pop more and I love that when it is a game that is going to see my table regularly. It is the first game I have done this for, but I can see myself doing it for future games as well, because I was very pleased with the quality and how closely the art matches the art from the game. It was a seamless integration!
In summation, my final thoughts on this game are a bit of mixed bag, but mostly positive. I love the art, the campaign, the story, and playing experience that my family and friends receive from this game. This is a worthy sequel to Above and Below, and while it won’t cause me to remove Above and Below from my collection, it is one that I will play when given my choice of the two. What I didn’t like about this game were a few minor game-play features. In the town, there were a few places you have to visit sometimes, but you don’t really want to. If I want some coins/gems or both, I have to go to the mine. Sure, I can place a tent, but it doesn’t feel that rewarding. The Mystic Hut lets me collect a treasure, but I could do that on the map as well. Lastly, the Threats dealt with on the map are nice for placing a tent and getting some end game points, but I needed a balance of short and long term as well to make me want to engage them.
I must not have been the only one who felt this way, because Red Raven Games has launched a Near and Far expansion on Kickstarter called Amber Mines that addresses these issues. I don’t want to call them problems or fixes, because the original game wasn’t broken. Each of my above niggles have modular expansion options that you can add or subtract to the game to create a new and different experience. Looking over them, I like them all and can’t see myself ever playing the game without any of them (when the expansion is finally in my hands), but I think the game should be experienced as it was originally intended, before you add more to it. That’s not to say don’t buy the expansion. Just don’t dive in head first with the expansion before playing the original as is first. So I guess what I am saying is buy this game! Buy the expansion! And if you’re like me, buy those MeepleSource upgrades too! This is a game you will be playing many times over!
This game was purchased with my own money. All opinions are strictly that.
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Copyright 2017 Stuart Dunn
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