Posted by: gschloesser | December 6, 2016

ABOVE AND BELOW

Design by Ryan Laukat
Published by Red Raven Games
2 – 4 Players, 1 1/2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Above and Below - cover

NOTE:  This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website

Many gamers are familiar with Tales of the Arabian Nights, the story-telling board game designed by Eric Goldberg.  The game was mainly a humorous affair, with numerous  strange, bizarre and unusual encounters resulting in various stories being read, often causing unforeseen and sensational situations and scenarios.  Player decisions would direct them to a specific page and paragraph in a massive tome, with the resulting story further developing the game’s plot and direction.  The game was usually humorous and fun, but there was, as gamers would often comment, not much “game”  present.  Indeed, it is  usually considered an experience rather than a strategic or challenging game.

Above and Below is designer Ryan Laukat’s attempt to combine the storytelling feature of Arabian Knights to an actual strategic game.  Players represent refugees who recently fled a horrific barbarian invasion and eventually found a new land to settle.

While in the course of establishing their new village, a massive system of underground caverns and passages has been discovered.  The explorations of these passages results in a plethora of unusual encounters that, while dangerous, could result in the discovery of tremendous wealth and riches.

Above and Below - boardPlayers begin the game with their home village board, three villagers, a starting building and a few coins.  The central “reputation” board primarily depicts the reputation and  round tracks, and various game components, including available villagers and buildings that will be placed around it.

During the course of the game, players will put their villagers to work doing various tasks.  These can include, among others, training new villagers, harvesting goods, constructing new buildings and exploring the underground labyrinth.  The ultimate goal is to construct the most prosperous village.

Players alternate using one or more villagers to take an action, after which those villagers are exhausted and are done for that turn.  Once all players have utilized all of their villagers, the turn concludes.  The possible actions are:

Above and Below - buildingsBuild.  Several buildings are available to construct each turn, including special “star” buildings and underground outposts.  The cost to construct a specific building is listed on the card and is paid in coins.  In order to construct a building, the player must utilize the skills of a villager who possesses the building attribute, clearly indicated by an appropriate symbol.  The building is placed next to the player’s starting board and the player may gain and/or utilize the benefits it conveys.  Benefits can include additional money, more beds (needed to house villagers), goods to harvest, ability to manipulate dice rolls, and more.

It is important to note that underground outposts cannot be constructed until a player has explored the underground, which earns him among–other possible items–a card upon which outposts can be constructed.  These underground outposts can convey important benefits, so it is worthwhile to venture into the underground in order to be able to construct them.  Plus, the  underground exploration is the most fun aspect of the game.

Train.  More villagers means more potential actions a player may perform on his turn.  Each turn five villagers are available to recruit and train.  Of course, new villagers cost money, and a player must utilize the training skills of the an appropriate villager.

Further, once a villager has been exhausted, the player will need enough beds in his village in order to entice them back.  So, is wise to acquire buildings depicting beds in order to maintain one’s villagers.

Harvest.  If a player has acquired buildings that produce goods, villagers must be employed to harvest those goods.  Some buildings produce goods each turn, while others only provide a one-time yield.  Any villager may be utilized to harvest these goods, which are then either placed on the player board, or held aside for later placement.

Placing goods on a player board will increase a player’s income each turn, as well as provide end game victory points (coins).  There are eight slots along the bottom of a player’s board where goods may be placed once harvested.  Once a particular type of good–there are eight different types–is placed on a slot, only that type of good may be placed on that slot in the future.  Thus, if a player places ore in the first slot, all future ore harvested by the player must be placed there.  Slots must be filled from left to right (lowest value to highest) and goods may not be moved or removed once placed.  This is very important, as the higher slots will earn more income and victory points, but players must build to those levels.  Thus, decisions must be made whether to place goods early and earn extra income, or hold off until the more valuable slots are reached.  If a player is producing a regular supply of a particular type of good, the player may wish to wait, as victory points will be earned for each good.  So, it may be better to earn more points of each of those goods at the expense of immediate income.

Explore.  This is, for me, the most fun part of the game, as it involves the story-telling aspect.  Players may send two or more villagers into the mysterious underground caverns in hopes of finding fabulous riches and new places on which to construct outposts.  The more villagers sent, the greater the chance of success.

The player first draws a new cave card and rolls a die, consulting the chart on the card to determine the paragraph number that must be read from the “Encounter” book.  A fellow player reads the corresponding paragraph aloud.  The paragraph, which can be one or even several paragraphs, describes an encounter, usually with some subterranean dweller or situation.  It will then present the player with a choice of possible responses (flee, interact with the character, offer money, accept item, etc.).  The player must then attempt to meet the numerical requirement of that choice by rolling dice.

Above and Below - cave cardsEach character tile will depict 1 – 3 dice, each with a value ranging from 1 – 6.  This is the number (or greater) that must be rolled on a die in order to be successful.  For example, if the die value depicted is “3”, the player must roll 3 or greater on a die to be successful.  Underneath the die symbols are one or more lantern symbols, which are earned if the player successfully meets the die requirement.  The player rolls dice for all of the characters in the exploration party and tallies the total number of lanterns earned for the successful dice rolls.  If the total number of lanterns equal or exceeds the number required by the choice the player made, he is successful, at which point his fellow player reads the results of that successful encounter.  If the tally was less than the required amount, the player fails and the appropriate section is read.  However, a player may boost his total by one for each villager in the exploration party that he is willing to “exert”, which may often spell the difference between success or failure.  Exerted villagers are moved to the injured area of the player’s board and generally take one more turn to fully recover and once again be available for use.

Success usually results in the discovery of money, resources, artifacts, etc.  Often, reputation increases as fellow villagers are impressed by one’s bravery and cunning.  The player is also allowed to keep the cave card, which provides space upon which an underground outpost may be constructed.  Failure is often relatively painless, but sometimes does cost the player reputation.

The encounters and ultimate results are fun, as the stories are often clever and entertaining. There are often numerous choices a player can make, with the more difficult ones to achieve generally resulting in greater rewards…or more severe penalties. Achieving the required results of these more challenging choices can be tough and usually requires numerous villagers to be part of the exploration party.  Of course, it also usually requires a considerable amount of luck when rolling the dice!

One is tempted to send large parties into the depths, but this usually leaves few, if any remaining villagers to perform other needed tasks.  So, often the choice is to send just two or three villagers, which usually makes achieving the more challenging choices nigh impossible.  This is a rather disappointing aspect of the game, as there isn’t enough turns or  money to acquire a large number of characters and the necessary beds to keep them active.  Thus, the exploration parties are usually small, so the more challenging choices must be declined.

Labor.  If a player is short on cash–or has little else to do–he can use a villager to labor, thereby earning one coin.  The first player to perform this action on a turn acquires a “cider” token, which can be used to move a villager from the exhausted area to the ready area, even if the player does not have the required number of beds.  This can prove quite useful.

In addition to these actions, a player may offer one good, cider or potion for sale by placing the appropriate marker on the “for sale” space on his player board.  This good may be purchased by an opponent during his turn at an agreed-upon price, but no less than 3 gold (an amount that seems artificial and unnecessary).

Once all players have completed all of their actions and passed, new villagers are made available, players rest their villagers and collect income.  Generally villagers move one step (injured to exhausted, exhausted to ready), but this process may be sped-up by using potions and/or cider.  Of course, a player must have enough beds to house those moving to ready status without using cider.

Base income is 4 coins, but is supplemented by the number of spaces on the advancement track occupied by resources and certain buildings.  As in many games, money is tight, so increasing income is important.

Play continues in this fashion for seven turns, after which final points are tallied.  Players earn a point for each building, plus some give additional points.  Each resource on the advancement track earns points equal to the level it occupies.  For example, if a player has three rope tokens on the “3” space, he will earn 9 points for ropes  Finally, players can earn or lose points based on their reputation level, with 5 points going to the player with the greatest reputation.  Of course, the player with the most points wins and becomes the toast of the village.

As mentioned several times, the storytelling aspect of the game is the most fun.  It reminds me of my old Dungeons and Dragons role-playing days, encountering unusual and enticing situations that force one to make decisions that often result in surprising results.  I enjoy this aspect of the game, although it is not without its problems (as mentioned above).

The rest of the game is good, but nothing exceptional.  Earn income, recruit characters, purchase buildings, harvest resources–all pretty familiar territory.  Everything works, but it doesn’t provide a scintillating gaming experience.  Luck plays a major role, particularly in the exploration aspect. One can send in an exploration party that has a good chance of success, only to see bad dice rolls thwart their efforts.  In a relatively short, 7-turn game, there is little chance to recover from one or two failed explorations.

The brevity of the game–in turns, not time–is problematic, as there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to build a nice engine, acquire enough resources or buildings, or field large enough exploration parties to accept the more challenging quests.  Further, I find the rewards for successful explorations–particularly the mid-level ranges, which is just about all of the challenges players can face–to be skimpy.  Two or three characters are needed to have a reasonable chance at success, and this number usually represents the  majority of a player’s characters.  That is a big investment and usually prevents the player from doing much else on his turn.  For that type of investment, one would hope for a better return.  Usually, however, the rewards are skimpy.

Above and Beyond is certainly an improvement over Tales of the Arabian Nights in terms of being a more strategic game.  However, while I certainly applaud the effort, I find the most fun aspect of the game–the story-telling and encounters–to be too luck dependent and problematic.  Indeed, it is possible to win the game without even venturing into the depths.  That should not be the case.  While I am a growing fan of designer Laukat’s efforts, I am not overly fond of this one.

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