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: 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!