Review: Above and Below

Above and Below is a unique mixture of a storytelling and town-building game for 2-4 players. Each person plays a small group of villagers who are attempting to build a settlement, while exploring the labyrinthine caverns which they discover beneath them.

Mechanically, the game is incredibly simple. You start the game with three villagers and you take turns giving them one of a number of tasks: recruit more villagers, build new buildings, “harvest” commodities from an existing building, earn gold and explore the caverns. The main resource is gold, and each new building or villager will cost you. As you put a villager to work, they become “exhausted” and if you don’t have enough beds on your building cards at the end of each round, not all of your villagers will recover for the following round. The game takes place over 7 rounds and the player with the most victory points – earned via buildings, reputation and having different commodities – wins.

Thus far, I could be describing a game like Agricola or Puerto Rico. When you decide to explore the caverns however, it suddenly turns into a completely different game! You pick a cavern card and roll a die – the result gives you a paragraph reference to look up in the story book provided. Did I mention the story book? If you played Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy books, it will look very familiar. Most paragraphs give you a bit of descriptive text and offer you a choice. Most often, the option you choose then results in you making a skill test – and this is where you’ll wish you took an extra villager with you. If you don’t quite get enough successes, you can exhaust one or more of your villagers for extra successes, but that means that you won’t be able to use them again until they’ve been healed in some way.

Potential rewards are more commodities, gold, reputation and even new villagers (I never encountered one of those, sadly). What’s more, once you have explored a cavern, you can go on to put a building in it.

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There are a huge number of paragraphs in the storybook, meaning that there is a lot of replayability. There is slightly less variety when it comes to the buildings and villagers, but I guess these take more of a backdrop.

Appearance-wise, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Designer Ryan Laukat doubles as the artist and has given it a whimsical, cartoony style all of its own. The humourous, often surreal tone of the encounters in the story book reminded me a lot of Adventure Time Kingdom Death: Monster this is not. The seven rounds pass incredibly swiftly and while mechanically simple, there are some interesting strategic choices and multiple pathways to victory. Our game came down to a close contest between a player who had focused on increasing his reputation and another who had focused on getting as wide a range of commodities as possible. There isn’t a huge amount of interaction between the players, other than the fact that your opponents might get to the buildings and villagers you want first.

Overall, this is a cute family game with plenty to enjoy for both young and old alike.

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Review: Carcassonne: Star Wars

Carcassonne is one of my formative tabletop gaming experiences, and I’m obsessed with Star Wars, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would grab myself a copy of Carcassonne: Star Wars at the earliest opportunity.

Last year we were been bombarded with licensed Star Wars games at the family end of the spectrum. Some have been surprisingly good, such as the new Risk: Star Wars (which more closely resembles the highly regarded Star Wars: Queen’s Gambit from 1999 than it does Risk) but most of them have been simple reskins of existing games, with very little imagination put into them. Carcassonne: Star Wars fits more into that category, but it does add some interesting tweaks.

In classic Carcassonne, each player takes turns laying square tiles and placing their pawns, or “meeples” onto various features in order to claim them – ultimately for points. Meeples can be placed in cities, on roads, in cloisters and in fields. You can’t put your meeples in features which have already been claimed by other players, but you can connect your features to another player’s feature. So, for example, if your opponent has a huge city spread over several tiles and worth lots of points, through tile careful placement you can share or even steal those points. On the surface, it’s a gentle game about bucolic life; beneath the surface it can be fiercely competitive.

Carcassonne Star Wars Box CoverIn the Star Wars version, these types of features are replaced by things with a more spacey feel. Thus, cloisters become planets, roads become hyperspace routes and cities become asteroid fields. Each player has a “faction” – rebel, imperial or scum – and many of the tiles have symbols which match those factions on them. Claim a hyperspace route with a symbol on it and you get bonus points. But the biggest change is in the claiming of features. While you still can’t put your meeples on another player’s feature directly, if you do manage to combine your feature with your opponent’s, instead of sharing you fight! You roll as many dice as you have meeples on that feature, plus one for each tile with one of your faction symbols on it and the highest single die wins. The loser has to remove all of their meeples, getting a compensatory point for each die they rolled.

For some, this might sound like a terrible move, changing a game with no conflict in it to one where you’re rattling dice every couple of turns, but you might be surprised. My wife and I have a standing agreement to not play standard Carcassonne any more because it tends to cause arguments, but she really likes the Star Wars version. Why? Because it changes the game from one of passive aggression to, well, direct aggression. The loser of every fight not only gets compensation but gets their meeples back which they can place elsewhere. In classic Carcassonne you can have these long drawn out power struggles which ultimately don’t get anywhere and use up resources that you can no longer use, and that can result in long periods where you can’t actually do anything. The Star Wars version ensures that those dull periods much shorter.

As a standalone version of a classic game then, I think it has quite a lot going for it. My only real criticism is that they could have gone further with the theming. The overall branding looks a lot like those cheap Star Wars advent calendars and Easter eggs you get in supermarkets – sadly no chocolate is included however. It’s a real shame that the vaguely human shaped meeples weren’t replaced by Star Wars starfighters; the stickers which go on the meeples are a little tacky. Each colour is given a character name – Luke Skywalker (red), Yoda (green), Boba Fett (orange), Darth Vader (black) and Stormtrooper (white) – and I have issues with these. It’s nitpicking, but I do feel that we should have had the Emperor instead of the Stormtrooper. And in light of the “Where’s Rey?” controversy over Star Wars Monopoly a few months ago, it would have been more gender inclusive to have replaced Yoda with Leia. As the game is set during the original trilogy era, that would have fit better thematically as well.

Despite these issues however, as an interesting variant of Carcassonne, this more than holds up. It has had repeated plays in my household since I got my copy and I guess that’s as good a recommendation as any. The space battles make for a somewhat more dynamic game and I certainly rate it more highly than classic Carcassonne without any of the expansions (although personally, I’m a the Princess and the Dragon fan).