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).

Review: Pandemic Legacy (spoiler free)

After being out of print for months, we should have Pandemic Legacy Season One back in stock next week, in both Blue and Red boxes (the content is exactly the same). Last autumn, Pandemic Legacy took the board game world by storm, rapidly becoming the top rated game on Board Game Geek and garnering rave reviews from the likes of Shut Up and Sit Down and the Dice Tower. Now that the hype has died down somewhat, is it worth your time and money? (tl;dr: YES!)

My own group is now just a couple of games away from finishing the full campaign, so I’ve seen most of what you get in the box. Don’t worry though; I won’t give anything away here – just the basic rules and aspects which will be apparent to you in your first game.

At first, Pandemic Legacy closely resembles Pandemic, the cooperative game it is based on. You are playing a team of 2 to 4 medical professionals going around the world attempting to cure four diseases in a race against time before they engulf the world in a global pandemic. Each character, such as the Scientist, Researcher or Medic, has a special ability. You each take turns going around the board and collecting and exchanging cards (you need sets of cards to discover cures for each of the diseases), and between each player’s turn, the diseases slowly spread. Where the diseases spread to is randomly generated by a deck of cards, but you can at least partially predict which ones are likely to come up because the discard pile is regularly shuffled and put on the top of the deck. You all lose the game if you have 8 outbreaks (where 3 or more disease “cubes” are placed on a single city and new cubes are placed on the neighbouring cities), if the cubes representing one of the diseases ever runs out, or if the deck of player cards ever runs out.

The first way in which Pandemic Legacy differs if that you give each of the characters you play a name, which you write on the character card with a pen. These are fragile human beings, with relationships, who can be hurt. If they are ever in a city where an outbreak takes place, they receive a “scar” – a special penalty that will stay with them throughout the rest of the campaign. And if they have two scars and are ever required to take a third, they become “lost”. You are no longer allowed to play that character and have to tear up their character card.

Some people won’t be able to deal with the idea of writing on cards, putting stickers on them and tearing them up, but it’s actually an incredibly immersive aspect of the game. Losing a character is a big deal! Risking a character who is on the verse of becoming lost is painful. You become invested in the characters you play, their relationships they have with each other and the scars they carry. My wife was playing Scientist “Josephine Butler” in our first game, when she was caught in Kinshasa when an outbreak occurred. This gave her the scar “PTSD” which meant that every time she began her turn in Africa, she lost an action. That fateful mistake is something that we’ve had to deal with in every game since.

Pandemic Legacy stickers
Stickers used in the Pandemic Legacy game

The board also changes. Whether a player character is there or not, each time a city outbreaks, its panic level rises. At panic level 1, everything remains broadly the same, but at level 2 any research stations in the city get torn down and you can no longer play a card to fly into that location. By the time you get to panic level 5, all civilisation has broken down and the city is extremely difficult to get into. I’m sorry to say that the aforementioned Kinshasa is in such a state in our game, and the less said about Japan, the better.

On the positive side, while your character’s scars, city panic levels and game events conspire to make things ever harder for you, you do get certain bonuses at the end of each game depending on what you did. If you manage to eradicate a disease in a game, in subsequent games you can choose to make it easier for you to cure that disease in the future. Build a research station in a city and you have the option of establishing a permanent base there. Your characters can gain new abilities and you can add special bonuses to cards in the player deck.

The story in the game is told via the “legacy deck”. This is a stack of cards which you go through from game month to game month (the story takes place over 12 months and if you lose in one month you get a second chance before having to move on to the next), giving you various objectives and new rules. The game comes with a series of sticker sheets which look a bit like bureaucratic advent calendars, which are full of new stickers and new rules which you add directly to the rulebook. There are also 8 boxes inside the box which contain new components as the various new twists and turns emerge.

Overall, the game is fairly well balanced and has one other (thematic and grimly ironic) mechanism which adjusts according to your group’s ability. If you win a game, the government deems your services to be less important and cuts your funding in the form of Event Cards in the player deck which give you powerful bonuses. Start losing again, and your funding/Event Cards increase. There’s also a mysterious box which you open if you lose four games in a row. I have no idea what it contains and am not in a hurry to find out!

I can’t really write any more without revealing any of the plot’s twists and turns; suffice to say, they happen! The precise details however will vary tremendously from game to game. With all the plot twists and immersive aspects, it feels very much like playing a DVD box set of your favourite procedural drama. Indeed, if I have one wish for “season two” of Pandemic Legacy, it is that they make the inter-character relationships even more dynamic and dramatic.

The most controversial aspect of the game is that it has a limited number of play throughs. To run through the entire campaign you will get to play the game between 12 and 24 times depending on how good you are; most people seem to end up playing around 16-20 games. That works out at around £3 a game, although if you haven’t played Pandemic before, you’d be well advised to play the basic “legacy-free” game a few times before diving into the storyline. You can also play the game with your own personalised board any number of times after the campaign is finished. You will have to make your own judgement over whether that represents value for money or not; for me, it was worth every penny and I have many games in my collection which cost about the same amount and yet I’ve played fewer than 16 times.

Overall, I thought Pandemic Legacy was tremendous and has the added bonus of providing me with a box large enough to hold the original Pandemic and its three expansions in one place! I really look forward to seeing what future Legacy games we have to look forward to. Bring on Seafall!