Game Review - Above and Below

Hey there everybody! Last weekend, I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Above and Below by Ryan Laukat, and I really wanna talk about it… so… how ‘bout a game review!

The Story

The thing that really got me excited about Above and Below (aside from the fantastically charming Ghilbli-reminiscent artwork) is that this game features storytelling very very heavily. Narrative in tabletop games, especially non-role playing games, fascinates me. And above and below has some of the best world building in a board game that I’ve ever seen.

In Above and Below, each player is trying to build a town. Simple enough. You do this by training new villagers, building new structures for your town, and exploring.

Something that helped win me over is that each of the villagers that you can recruit and each of the many types of building you can construct has their own distinct artwork. There is a lot of personality here that helps make the village you create really feel like your village. Also, it’s a little touch, but even the way each of the building cards connect to each other really helps build some atmosphere.

Let me emphasize this, at the end of Above and Below, you haven’t just collected cards. You have built a town. If there’s a downside here, it’s that it can be very easy to just want to build the things you think are cool instead of actually trying to win.

But what really steals the show is the exploration mechanic. During your turn, rather than recruiting, working, or building, you can send a party of adventurers into the frightening world of Below to see what they can find. Whenever a player decides to explore, another player reads a randomly selected scenario from the encounter book. There are close to 200 different scenarios to run into. I have played this game 10 times in the last week and I haven’t seen the same scenario twice. They aren’t terribly long, just a short paragraph followed by a couple the player can make to resolve the scenario, but they are extremely compelling.

In a way, this sort of hurts the game. More often than not, my friends and I wanted to go exploring just to see what we could find.

From a design perspective, the best thing here is that these aren’t just isolated one off scenarios. They all exist in a cohesive world. Above and Below is a board game with well thought out lore. After the first couple times you run into the subterranean glogos with their aggressive spear-like scales and glowing red eyes, you’ll know what I mean.

Without further ado, let’s break it down:

The Good

  • Stellar Artwork - The game has a very charming and distinct style. It’s clear that a lot of thought and care was put into the art design.

  • Amazing Narrative - There is sooo much writing here. And it is all well done and engaging.

  • Solid Gameplay - None of the pros would matter if the game wasn’t actually good. Luckily, there is a lot of depth here. I always felt like I have plenty of options on my turn and I had a chance to develop a focused strategy over the course of the game.

The Bad

  • Exploring is….too fun? - This sounds strange but it might be true. Pretty much everyone I played with would rather spend their turn having a little adventure than actually trying to win, because exploring doesn’t always feel particularly productive. The rewards often seem random/unpredictable so you might expend a lot of villagers thinking you’ll get a big reward and it turns out to be something useless to you.

  • There is a lot going on -  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing once you know what you’re doing. The problem is that it takes a lot of playing to really feel like you have a good grasp on the mechanics. The game is not particularly complicated by any means. But there are always a lot of options in front of you and it can be very difficult to tell how well you are doing over the course of the game. By the time you think you have latched onto a strategy, 5 of the game’s 7 rounds are over and you are left scrambling.

  • Where the heck is the Cave Cat?! - This game comes with 2 Cave Cats that can only be recruited by exploring, and I haven’t found them yet! Come on Red Raven Games!

 

At the end of the day, this game is easily worth more than the $36 it’s going for on Amazon. It’s a solid game with great art and can be a great way to work some fun storytelling and roleplaying into a game session. I’ve even convinced a couple friends to try D&D after making up some fun voices and backstories for our villagers. If anything I’ve said here interests you, definitely go pick this up. You will not regret it. That goes double if you are a designer. I would absolutely have paid the $60 for the Kickstarter edition just to support the kind of creative narrative ideas that Above and Below plays with. I cannot wait to see what they do with the sequel...