Above and Below is a charming combination of storytelling and town building game that has players splitting their time between building a village above ground and sending the more daring/foolhardy villagers into the caves below ground with the promise of riches and adventure.
The game is split into 7 turns and takes roughly 90 minutes to play. The game itself is beautifully illustrated by the games designer Ryan Laukat and I would say that it is his use of colour that I find the most appealing here. Everything is a rich hue of green, brown or blue and it really adds to the charm of the overall game.
During the game each player takes it in turns to assigns their available villagers to various tasks; an individual villager can work around the village or if the player is feeling adventurous they can also send a parties of brave villagers into the cave system in search of treasure.
It is quickly apparent that Above and Below really wants you to appreciate the how important it is to get a good night’s sleep. The recovery of villagers revolves around the number of beds your village has.
You start the game with three villagers, each with their own bed and each round you can exhaust a villager by having them do a specific task. Some villagers can perform special actions such as recruiting new villagers or building new structures and play travels around the table, with each player performing a single action with they remaining villagers before moving on to the next. This continues until all players have used their ready villagers (or leave villagers doing nothing) and a new round begins. Players can then refresh as many villagers as they have beds for, leaving the villagers without beds exhausted and unable to be used in the next turn.
Players also have the option of sending villagers into the caves below the village in search for adventure (and also treasure). Players must send at least two brave adventurers into the dark and this exhausts the villagers in the same manner as the villagers doing sensible things above ground. To start an underground adventure, the player turns over a Cave Card and rolls a die; One of your opponents reads a specific passage from the encounter book and you choose how your villagers deal with the situation. Successful adventurers might receive rare goods, earn riches or increase the reputation for your village; unsuccessful adventurers might cost you gold, or resources or village reputation. Successful jaunts into the caves will also grant you the Cave Card, which you need if you are to build any special underground buildings
If you played games like Tales of the Arabian Nights by Eric Goldberg then you will be familiar with the adventuring mechanic, although I would say that Above and Below is more strategic than its predecessor; there were several instances where I sent the equivalent of my village idiots down into the caves, intent on trying to complete the simplest task available, just so I could get the Cave Card in order to build the next bit of my underground domain.
Whilst I think it’s probably possible to win the game by just focusing on the Above OR the Below elements; from experience it seems that a good mix of both is likely to be the best winning strategy. There’s nothing stopping you however completely focusing on plundering the cave system with your Dungeon Delving Murder Hobos or just trying to build up your village into an above ground Empire. I think therefore the game has a wide appeal and with over 200 caves to explore in the adventure book; the game is unlikely to lose playability quickly.
All in all, I very much liked Above and Below, but that’s no surprise; I was very fond of Tales of the Arabian Nights and Above and Below appeals to me in the same way that Tales of Arabian Nights did; with the added strategy and beautiful artwork, I would say we are on to a winner.
I would say however, that the game is not long enough. In seven turns, you can just about get your village developing. On our first play through it crept up on us all of a sudden meaning that our last two rounds changed from the enjoyable saunter into the underdark into a mad grasp for power. I think the game would be improved dramatically if there were more turns per game; but perhaps the 90 minute length is part of it’s charm.
I would recommend Above and Below for any gaming shelf; a fun game with excellent story and resource building elements, excellent artwork and a fun engaging play style.
8 out of 10 Dungeon Delving Murder Meeples