Wednesday 14 February 2018

Cardboard - Above and Below board game review

I spend a lot more time than I really should on being jealous of the talents of others, and one of my recent targets of envy is artist and designer Ryan Laukat. Being imaginative enough to design games, artistic enough to illustrate them and organised enough to get them published would be a stretch for most people, but Ryan Laukat somehow manages to do all of them at once. But is it possible to juggle so many elements without dropping something along the way? Time to pick up a lantern, head out for adventure and find out!

Above and Below - box art

Above and Below is part action-selection and part storytelling game. The storytelling part was a big draw for me as I had lots of fun with Tales of the Arabian Nights a couple of years back and love the interaction involved in reading out a story for someone and making choose-your-own-adventure style choices. My problem with Arabian Nights was that for the most part it was just a big bundle of (fun) chaos, and I was hoping for something a bit more structured with Above and Below.

Cracking open the box, it's immediately obvious that the components are great quality and that the artwork is stunning. The rule book is reassuringly short, well laid out and clearly written; it's so easy to refer back to and the handy symbol reference guides at the back were so useful.  I love a rule book that starts by telling me a story and pulling me into the theme, but Above and Below goes one step further with a beautifully illustrated page of panels describing my epic escape from barbarian hordes and my intrepid journey across deserts, mountains and seas to find just the right place to make a new home.

Home, it turns out, is a cosy looking little house that will soon be the first of many in our shiny new village. This is, however, a competitive game of barbarian-escape-village-building, so we'll need to make sure ours is better than everyone else's by racking up 'village points' from building structures and harvesting resources. These tasks fall to our little group of starting villagers, who will need to work on the new buildings or train new villagers to help out, depending on their own skill type as indicated at the top of their token (quills for recruiting, hammers for building).

Above and Below - player mat

The villagers also have a level of adventuring skill, which is handy, because it turns out that our new stomping ground is built bang on top of a network of underground caverns, filled with shiny things and begging to be explored. You can see how adventurous your villagers are by looking at the number of little lantern symbols they earn on a specified die roll (i.e. more lanterns on a lower number is better). Exploring the caverns will give you space to expand your village under the ground with 'outpost' buildings.

A game of Above and Below takes place over seven rounds, tracked on a central reputation board. Each round, players take turns assigning actions to their villagers and moving them from the 'ready' area of their player board to the 'exhausted' or 'injured' areas, depending on what happened during the action. When they don't want to take another turn (normally when they've run out of villagers) they pass. When everyone has passed, the round ends.

Villagers then get a nice rest; for every bed symbol shown on buildings in the village, players can move one villager by one area on the player board i.e. from exhausted to ready or from injured to exhausted.

Sometimes you might need a bit more help getting everyone recovered, especially if the village has a bit of a bed shortage, and this is where potions and cider come in. Potions move a villager from the injured area of the player board to the exhausted area. Cider allows you to move one villager from the exhausted area to the ready area (because everyone knows that being drunk means you're ready for work, right?)

Villager actions can include:


During game setup a few different types of structure are laid out to choose from when building. There are standard houses and outposts that will make up the bulk of your village.

There are also four 'key' buildings which can give you some handy extra powers like dice re-rolls or extra potions. These are drawn from a little deck of nine key buildings, meaning you'll see different ones come up each time you play. The six 'star' buildings are high-cost, high-points-value structures that you tend to purchase nearer the end of the game to get additional points for particular resources, structures or villagers. These six cards are the same each game.

To take a build action you would move a villager with the hammer symbol from the 'ready' area of the player board to the 'exhausted' area and then pay the cost in coins shown on the top left of the building card you want to add to your village.


A villager with the quill symbol can be moved to the exhausted area of the player board in order to train one of the villagers on the reputation board. These all have an associated cost in coins, getting cheaper the further from the supply deck you go. At the end of a given round, any villagers left on the track will slide as far as possible to the cheaper end of the track and the gaps get replenished from the supply.

Above and Below - character select, reputation track and round marker

This track gives you some interesting choices - do you take the cool villager that's just appeared now but pay a fortune for him/her/them or wait for them to get cheaper and risk someone else pinching them in the meantime?


Villagers can be exhausted to harvest goods from houses or outposts. Harvested resources can be placed in the advancement track from left to right, which is one of my favourite bits in the game. Not only does it look pretty filling up with the different resources, but it gives you another little area to strategise within.

Above and Below - Red Raven Games - advancement track

Your position on the advancement track determines your base income for each turn, so you're pretty desperate to fill it up in order to bring in more cash and buy better buildings. However, which resource you place in what space can also be important, because its worth in village points at the end of the game is marked above each slot. Once you place a resource in a slot, if you choose to put more resources of that type on the track they would have to be placed on the same spot. So, for instance, if you know you'll be generating a lot of fruit from your buildings you don't necessarily want to put fruit into the first slot (worth 1 VP); you'd much rather it was a couple of slots further up where each fruit would be worth 2 VP. But whilst you're waiting to get different resources to fill the earlier slots, you could be missing out on valuable extra income per turn. Decisions, decisions!


You can exhaust a villager to gain a coin if you're short on cash or things to do. If you're the first player to labour on a turn you also get a cider token. Mmm, cider...


This is the exciting one - adventuring! Time to choose your party and grab the Encounter Book to go exploring in the caverns.

Above and Below - Encounter book and cave card

You can send as many villagers as you like on an adventure, but there have to be at least two (it's dangerous to go alone, take this!). Once they've selected a party, the active player draws a cave card and places the intrepid adventurers onto it. The cave card shows reference numbers next to each side of a D6 which you use, after picking a side with a die roll, to determine which story paragraph should be read from the encounter book. The player to the left of the active player reads out the paragraph along with any choices available and their target numbers. The reader doesn't disclose what the potential rewards or consequences are (but they are totally free to feel smug about knowing).

The active player states their choice and then rolls a die for each party member. This roll is compared to the 'explore' dice shown on each character's token to see how many lanterns they earn. Total lanterns gathered can then be compared to the target number for the player's chosen option to determine if they've succeeded or failed, and the reader goes on to explain the rewards or consequences. If you're slightly short of lanterns you can 'exert' one or more villagers to gain an extra lantern for each one. This is lovingly referred to in our house as 'breaking a leg', because exerting a villager puts them straight into the 'injured' area of the player board. Ouch.

There are also a few free actions you can take without exhausting a villager: putting an item up for sale, buying an item someone else is selling, or paying a coin to refresh the available houses or outposts in the supply.

Once seven rounds are complete it's time to count up scores, and the player with the most village points wins.

Above and Below has been a big hit with us. It's a beautiful game with a theme that draws you in from the start and a thoughtful, clear rule book that speeds you along your way to starting your first turn. There are always plenty of choices to balance, building your village up is fun and the story book really helps to keeps everyone well engaged outside of their own turn.

I can see the storytelling element of the game being the point that divides people's opinion of the game. As with Arabian Nights, there's a big random element here and it can sometimes mean that you make a fairly high villager commitment for potentially little or no reward. Personally, I love this part of the game and find the randomness fun. I enjoy reading the stories for other people, making the choices when it's my turn and reaping the rewards on the rare occasion when you've made the right choice and rolled the right dice.

Long term replayability can be a bit of a worry with anything story-based, but having played a few times now we've only come across a repeat story a couple of times and the gaps between plays have been long enough that no-one could remember what options were chosen last time anyway. Perhaps if you played the game intensively over a short period then repeat encounters could become a problem, but as one game among many this won't be an issue in a lot of people's collections.

As I've already mentioned, the artwork is lovely and I could rave about it for ages. I'll try to be concise, though, as you can make up your own mind easily from the pictures!

Above and Below - resource tokens

From the smallest tokens through to the player mats, everything is colourful, thematic and well marked up with clear iconography. My favourite artwork, though, is on the villager tokens. The character art here is amazing, with a huge array of diverse and interesting characters to breathe life into your little adventures.

Above and Below - Red Raven Games - character art

Despite the choice of villagers available, fate has more than once dictated that I end up with Team Hipster Dude, but that just becomes part of the story!

So my conclusion appears to be, yes, Ryan Laukat can do everything.

We are, by the way, talking here about the kind of person who was at home with a high fever when he came up with the idea for area-control game Eight-Minute Empire, completing the prototype 20 minutes later. I was at home sick last week, and the most productive thing I managed was a mug of Lemsip. If he didn't make such darn lovely games, I'm slightly afraid I'd have to hate him just a little bit. Oh, and he has a podcast, too.

Take a look at what we thought of Near and Far, Red Raven Games' sequel to Above and Below, here.

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