It’s almost been a full year of What’s Eric Playing! Keep up with me on Twitter for some fun news once we hit the anniversary.
I don’t think I’ve done a “plot-heavy” game since Betrayal at House on the Hill, so it might be time to pick one back up. With that in mind, let’s look at Above and Below, a storytelling / town-building game from Ryan Laukat and Red Raven Games. Originally funded on Kickstarter a while back, A&B starts with a sad tale — you barely escaped the destruction of your previous village and wandered for a long time until you found this, a great new spot that looked like the perfect place to build a new village. Little did you know that you would find a vast network of caves underground that you could explore and build in to expand the scope of your village even further. So will you expand your reach aboveground, harvesting and building to make your village the best it can be? Or will you instead turn your eye to the depths below, exploring and building through the expansive caverns? Or, y’know, will you do some combination of those? Keep reading to find out more! (That being said, you’ll probably do some combination of those.)
There are a lot of parts here, so I’m going to take them one at a time. First, assign each player a color and give them a player board, setting aside some room for the center player board. Set each player’s token (it’s a cube) on the torch space on the player board, as well. After doing this, you should have something that kind of looks like this:
You’re going to want to leave a fair amount of room. Next, it’s probably a good idea to dump out the goods, potions, ciders and the coins. I wouldn’t worry too much about sorting the goods — I never do and the game plays just fine. As for coins, give each player 7 coins. It’s very difficult to find that in the rulebook, so I’ll emphasize it a few more times as we go through this. Also set a cider on the cider space on the player board. You should now be at this point:
Now, you’ll want to set out the villagers. There are a lot of them, but don’t worry, this isn’t too hard. There are three types of villager backs:
The ones with the hut on them (the leftmost picture) are the starter villagers. There should be a set of three for every player: one with a quill, one with a hammer, and one with two dice on it. Give every player a set of these three and put the remainder back in the box:
Note that if you’re playing with four players, set the starting villager with a hammer into the moon area of your player board. This means you won’t be able to use them in your first round, which is a bummer. Now, set aside the villagers with the cave on the back — they can’t be acquired through normal means; they can only be earned by the extremely worthy (spoiler alert: I haven’t gotten any of them as of writing this review, sad). The remaining set of villagers can be bought, so shuffle their tiles and put five on top of the center board in the spots labelled with coins. Your player area should now look like this:
For the final piece of setup, you’re going to want to find all the different types of decks of cards in the game. Easily for you, they’re differentiated by their backs:
The one with the three beds on the back is a starting card, and each person should get one and add it to their village. It gives them three beds, meaning that each of their starting villagers has a place to sleep (more on that in Gameplay). Next, lay out all six of the star cards — every game includes them and all can be bought by players. The key cards, however, have no such guarantee. Shuffle them and place four of those out (preferably not with the key cards, as to alleviate confusion).
Next, shuffle the regular house cards (the only non-cavey looking ones we haven’t mentioned yet) and put four in a row, face-up. Do the same for the cavey-looking cards that have houses on them (Outpost Cards). For the last ones, the cavey-looking cards with numbers on them, just shuffle them and set that deck nearby, face-up.
You should be about ready to start! Choose a starting player, and in addition to the 7 coins every player should have, do this:
- 2 players: Give the second player an extra coin.
- 3 players: Give the second and third players an extra coin.
- 4 players: Give the fourth player an extra coin.
That should be the last of it! Here’s what your play area should look like:
So, Above and Below is broken up into seven rounds, each with a variable number of turns. Players take their turns starting with the starting player, in order, until they pass. Once you have passed, you cannot play another turn for the rest of the round (meaning you can’t “un-pass” later on), so some players may get more turns in a given round than other players.
At its core, Above and Below is a game about selecting actions and assigning villagers to do those actions. Some might call that “worker placement”, but them’s fighting words, so I won’t. What will happen is that on your turn, you can choose any action (even if you’ve chosen that action already this round) and assign any number of villagers to perform that action by moving them to the “exhausted” area on your player board (the one with the moon).
Let’s go through the various actions available, one at a time:
When you explore, you are choosing to send your villagers into the cave system below to hopefully find new places for you to build outposts. That being said, nobody’s quite sure what awaits them in the depths. Explore is pretty unique in that you are required to use at least two villagers to perform this action on any given turn. If you’ve decided to explore, take your villagers and take a Cave Card (the one with the dice on it) and roll one die. That number is the scenario number and should be read out of the accompanying Encounter Book for this game. Usually we’ll just have the player on your left or right read it, and it may look like this:
You are writing a review for a storytelling game and realize you left the encounter book across the room, which you consider to be very far away because you’re quite honestly kind of lazy. You figure you might be able to make up a scenario yourself and put it in your review, but if you get too meta the whole thing is going to fall flat and look kind of half-assed. Do you write a meta-scenario about writing a scenario, or do you just get up and get the book?
GET THE BOOK: Explore 3 (+1 reputation), Explore 5 (paper, coin)
WRITE YOUR OWN SCENARIO: Explore 7 (amethyst, four coins, +1 reputation)
There is a specific way to read this! You should read everything that’s bolded and italicized, and NOT the rewards! That means you’d say “Get the book: Explore 3 or Explore 5. Write your own scenario: Explore 7”. The exploring player then picks a choice, not an explore value (either “Get the book” or “Write your own scenario”) and after stating their choice rolls one die for each villager they sent exploring. Yes, you must designate which villager you’re rolling for before you roll. The dice on top of the villager’s token indicate how many lanterns they give for rolls of that number or higher. That means that also, yes, some villagers are objectively better than others. That’s just how those sorts of things go. Especially these two, which I lovingly refer to as Fish Friend and Frog Friend:
They are the best and neither is a freaky fish guy.
Again, you must roll at least that number to gain those lanterns, so if your lowest number on a villager token is a 2, it is possible for a villager to generate no lanterns if you roll a 1. That being said, you can always pump a bit more energy out of them — you can, if you’d like, choose to Exert your villagers, which forces them to generate 1 lantern in addition to however many lanterns they normally generate. This also injures them, so they’ll go to the “injured” area (with a cross) rather than the “exhausted” area.
Note that in the example I gave, if you choose get the book and generate at least 3 lanterns, you get the Explore 3 rewards, and if you get 5+ lanterns, you get the Explore 5 rewards. This means it is possible to fail and get nothing (or worse, as some encounters have penalties for failure). That being said, I do not believe it is possible to lose a villager in an encounter. I haven’t read them all (and neither should you!), but that seems to be the case. If this is incorrect, let me know in the comments.
If you succeed, you take the cave card and add it below your row of houses and adjacent to any other cave cards or outposts you’ve already gained previously, in addition to your rewards. If you fail, you put the cave card on the bottom of the deck. Either way, you move your villagers to the exhausted (or injured, if exerted) area.
Brief aside – Reputation
As you might notice, you may gain reputation or lose reputation for doing good things or crappy things (such as helping or stealing from an old woman) during the explore phase. If you gain reputation, you move down (deeper into the caves, I guess?) and if you lose reputation, you move up. This means that you may land on a space with positive or negative village points, and you would take those at the end of the game. There is also a reward for players with the most reputation at the game’s end, so good reputation is good.
As an initial note, you can only build with one villager per turn, and they must have a hammer symbol on their token. A villager taking this action can either construct a house or an outpost by spending money and taking that card, adding it to their row of houses or outposts. You MUST have already gained a cave card to build outposts. If you haven’t, you should probably explore or build a house instead. If you’re building a normal house or outpost, flip a new card off the top of the deck once you’ve claimed your house or outpost. If you’re building a star house or a key house, do not flip another card.
Note that most houses and outposts have additional abilities (such as a bed, which lets you move another villager from the exhausted area to the ready area), but there are a whole lot of symbols that I don’t feel like I can adequately cover here. Generally, however, they are things like:
- Gain something, such as a potion or a coin when building or exploring.
- Village points for something, such as owned goods, outposts, empty caves, or villagers.
- Extra income, such as income for goods, an extra coin per round, or a potion as income.
- Rerolls, allowing you to reroll a die for each reroll symbol on cards you own.
The ones that I want to talk about in depth, however, are these:
These are good-generating symbols, meaning that you can use these to produce goods for your village that you can later harvest. However, there is a difference between these two — the one with two dots only produces two goods and then nothing else, and the other produces one good per round, meaning you can harvest it more than once. For more details about that, let’s look at harvest.
This step is pretty simple, so I won’t spend much time here. For every villager that you move from ready to exhausted with this action, you can take one of the goods from a house or outpost that you own that is generating goods and add them to your collection.
You can then keep them for later, add them to the Advancement Track on the bottom of your player board (more on that later), or, on subsequent turns, put those goods up for sale.
As an initial note, you can only train with one villager per turn, and they must have a quill symbol on their token. A villager taking this action trains up another villager, who can then be used on later turns to do other actions. That being said, you only have three beds to start, so too many people might just have to stay exhausted…
Couple things about this — first, you must pay the villager’s training cost, which is by their token on the reputation board; second, training is exhausting for both parties, so the new villager that you recruit must be added to the exhausted area, rather than the ready area (though there are a few cards that change this); third, do not draw a new villager yet, as that will be done at the end of the round. Got it? Good.
Labor is mostly uninteresting, but has some strategy to it. When laboring, every villager you send to the exhausted area gains you one coin. If you are the first person to labor that round, you also take the cider token from the reputation board. Congratulations! You’re the proud owner of a cider. That’s about all there is to say about that.
Free Action: Add Good(s) to Advancement Track
This isn’t totally an action, but at any point you can move goods from your collection to your advancement track. You must place them in the leftmost empty slot, but once you’ve put a type of good in that slot other goods of the same type must go in that slot. For instance:
In this example, you can only add more fish to the 3/7 slot, as you have already put ore in that slot. If you wanted to add paper, for example, you could add it to the next slot, but if you wanted to add ore, you must put it in the 1/6 slot.
The two numbers above each slot correspond to the points you earn per good in that slot and the income you have if that slot is nonempty (so if you have two fruit in the fourth slot, you’d have six points and seven income). As you might imagine, the income doesn’t stack, so you’d only get seven coins total at the end of each round.
Once a good has been placed in the achievement track, it cannot be removed. Be careful with that part.
Other “Free” Actions
There are a few free actions that you can take, but you must do these before you take any action (or pass for the first / last time in a round). You cannot do these actions once you have done any of the five actions mentioned earlier.
This lets you buy from a player or put something up for sale. If you’re buying, you can buy any good that’s in a player’s selling area (the top left of their board), provided you pay at least 3 coins for it, for some reason. You must agree on a value, so someone can’t just throw three coins at you and take something.
If you want to put something up for sale, you can, but you can only put one thing up for sale at a time. You can sell goods, potions, or ciders.
You might hate all the houses or outposts and want to get rid of them. That’s fine! Great, even. Once per turn, you can pay a coin and pick a row. That entire row goes to the bottom of the deck and four new cards get drawn (either houses or outposts, not both). As you might guess, you also can’t refresh the star or key houses.
Once you’re out of villagers or just don’t feel like exhausting any more of them, you can pass to end your participation in the round. Again, you must pass if you’re out of villagers, but you CAN take free actions first, in case you wanna spend a coin and just spite one of the people planning to build, I guess. Or for trading purposes.
Once all players have passed, the round ends. This means you have some cleanup to do:
- Slide the round marker forward one cave. If you cannot, the game ends.
- Put a cider on the cider space on the repuation board, if it’s empty. It usually is.
- Refill villagers. Slide the villagers to the left to fill in the gaps (if any) and then refill them from the stack of villager tokens.
- Rest villagers. This part actually has two steps:
- Use potions / ciders. For every potion you have and use, you may move one villager from “Injured” to “Exhausted”. For every cider you have and use, you may move one villager from “Exhausted” to “Ready”. That’s handy!
- Use beds. For every bed you have, you may move one villager either from “Injured” to “Exhausted” or “Exhausted” to “Ready”. You cannot move any villagers from “Injured” to “Ready”, even if you have extra beds. How can someone sleep in two beds in one night? Doesn’t. make. sense.
- Collect income. Every player starts at four coins of income (see the four on the bottom of your player board) but might have more income based on the status of their Achievement Track or the buildings in their village. Give them their income.
- Refresh goods on buildings. If you have a house or outpost with a good and an arrow symbol, put a good on it if it’s currently empty.
- Pass first-player card left and begin next round. The person with the first-player card starts the next round, if seven rounds haven’t been played.
Once the game ends, the player with the most points wins. So count up points! There are definitely easier or harder ways to do this, and you might want a calculator to just keep track, but you do you.
Tally up the points from the Advancement Track, making sure you give players points per good in the slot.
Each building is worth a village point in addition to what it says on the card, which is definitely something I’ve always known when playing this game and not something I just realized right now.
Reputation! Each player scores the reputation bonus by their token, if there is one, which may be positive or negative. Something something karma. The player with the most reputation gains an extra 5 points, with second-most gaining 3 and third-most gaining 2. If there are only two players, only the player with the most reputation scores, but they only score three points. If there is a tie, give the tied players the average of the two levels they’re tied for.
Other cards give score bonuses for a variety of things — either straight points (pictured on the card) or points for owning certain things, like harvested goods (either in your supply or on the advancement track) or buildings of a certain type or villagers.
Compare scores. Again, if you have the most points, you win!
Player Count Differences
Generally, I prefer this at more than two people just because I have other two-player games I enjoy more, not because it’s particularly bad at two. I kind of like it squarely at three? I feel like there’s interaction in having more players pulling from the same sets of cards / villagers. It also helps because then you can plan out your turn while other people play instead of having to just read their encounters every time. It’s not that I don’t like it at two, I just would probably play something else.
I wouldn’t say it’s massively different (other than some scoring eccentricities and the no-building-round-1 thing) with 2 or 3 or 4 players, just that more players makes the game take a bit longer and means you have more competition for the same number of cards.
- I find that there’s a slightly better-than-average strategy, but it’s easily countered. There are a couple key houses that let you recruit new villagers straight into your ready area, which is pretty great, and another star house (guaranteed to be in every game) that gives you an extra two points per villager you have. If you basically do nothing but buy villagers each round (and somehow manage to buy that star house, I guess?) that’s a fair amount of points, but in addition to normal gameplay it could potentially win a lot of games. However, if you either don’t get those key houses or that star house, it’s pretty much moot.
- Generally, higher Explores lead to better rewards. You just get more stuff, even if it comes at a slight reputation cost, if you go for the higher-level rolls. Incidentally:
- You should try to optimize your party for Explore 7. If you can get Explore 7 every time you explore, you’ll get a surprising amount of good stuff. I usually send in three people who get four lanterns if I roll a 1 for each of them, so if I have to I can exert them and have a guaranteed 7. It’s generally not too big of an issue.
- More income is just … better. If you’re not either filling your achievement track or getting +income buildings, you’re going to struggle later in the game.
- If you’re going for the achievement track, try not to put the most common goods in first, as you’ll be able to get a TON of points for them later. Generally, in order from common to rare, you’ve got mushrooms, fish, fruit, rope, pots, paper, ore, and amethysts. If you can get to the final level of the Achievement Track and fill it full of mushrooms, you’re going to be in great shape, point wise.
- Some villagers / buildings are just better than others. Generally, outposts tend to be superior to houses just by virtue of requiring a cave card, and the villagers are randomly ordered but some are just better. And I hear there might even be special villagers that you can only get by exploring…
- Don’t forget that you can refresh the building row. It might help other players, but if you REALLY need some better options, you can pay one coin on your turn to dump the entire house or outpost row and draw new ones.
- Don’t forget about beds. If you don’t buy beds, you can only, best-case, unexhaust three villagers each round, which isn’t that many, long-term. You generally don’t want to let your training outpace your beds.
- Laboring can be surprisingly useful. Getting that extra cider might be very helpful, and sometimes the extra coin or two can be exactly what you need to buy a star house that you need to turn the game around.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is amazing. This game has absolutely beautiful art, and I love playing it and looking at it. All the villagers are varied and great, the boards are beautiful, and the game just attracts attention every time it’s played. I find that the art is definitely one of the major reasons I come back to this game over and over.
- Exploring is so much fun. The interactions are fun and well-written, and you have to make choices which are routinely pretty great, in my opinion. If you like a cute storytelling mechanic, this game has a bunch of that.
- Generally a fun building game with a lot of different options. You can focus on building or exploring or harvesting to try and have the best village around, and I enjoy the building aspect as well as the exploring aspect.
- Pretty light. It’s not a heavy game that’s going to weigh on you and burn your brain, it’s just a fun game about building up a village and going exploring.
- I love the mechanics around Exploring as well. Not just for the story elements, but the actual “villagers can do either X or Y, and you have to roll to see how well they do” is probably one of my favorite game mechanics that I’ve seen. Not sure why I like it so much, but it really appeals to me.
- Long rulebook. It takes a bit of doing to get this to the table, especially when I have to teach new people. There’s a lot going on!
- I find that the game starts to become anti-exploring in the late game. This is a bummer for me because I love exploring so much, but given how luck-based it is it’s a far better move strategically to go for guaranteed points over random chance in the late game, especially if it’s close. This makes me sad, but it’s kind of how the game has to work.
- Fairly random. Especially trying for a lucky reward from Explore or a lucky draw from the Villager / House / Outpost deck, you’ll find that luck can be a bit swingy in this game. Thankfully they have a lot of luck-mitigation mechanics (new villagers cost the most, you can “refresh” housing rows on your turn, etc.) that combat this. It’s just Explore that’s kind of a mixed bag. Which I’m mostly okay with?
- I wish it were a bit easier to get the “Explore-only” villagers. It’s kind of a bummer that I’ve played it a few times with people and we’ve never gotten them.
- A little long for me, given that it’s pretty light. I find that it’s a pretty straightforward game, but with reading and the occasional analysis paralysis it can take a pretty long time to play. I still enjoy it every time, but this is a once-per-game-night kind of game for me.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall? I like Above and Below a lot. In my opinion, you come for the art, but you stay for the gameplay, which is a pretty solid way to be. I think it’s a solid entry in my game collection that’s pretty different than anything else I own (as you might be able to tell from the lack of links to any other games I’ve reviewed), as it synthesizes the more-traditional “build a village” game with an awesome storytelling component that really makes the game interesting (and gives an opportunity to really get into it in a way that other games don’t as much). Generally, I think it’s a step in a great direction for Red Raven Games, and if Above and Below is this good, I can’t wait to try Islebound or their recently-announced Near and Far.