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.
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.