So much western fantasy is dark these days. Game of Thrones, Dark Souls, The Witcher–all of it is brown and grey and violent. Above and Below, by designer and artist Ryan Laukat, is contained in a fantasy world of sky blues and vivid greens. It’s filled with quirky characters, from frog people to sentient cats to the lizard-like glogos that live underground. Everything here is friendly, soft, and charming.
No small part of that charm is Laukat’s art, which is imminently inviting and key to setting the tone of this pleasant light/mid weight euro. Looking back at the art he’s done for both his own games and for other designs, Laukat seems to enjoy deep, rich colors (particularly blue, green, and gold), and it’s on full display here, to great effect.
The premise of Above and Below is simple: your village was forced to flee and relocate. After finding a good location on which you can rebuild, you discover a vast network of caves underneath filled with mystery. We’ll get to the caves and the mystery later. First you’ve got to manage some beds!
Beds are very important in Above and Below. Where in other games you might have to feed your people to keep them alive, here they just need a good night’s rest, or else they stay “exhausted”….perpetually. Ok, maybe it’s not so soft. I don’t know what’s up with the beds in this world, but they’re very important. Unless you have booze–that’ll also do the trick.
You start off with three beds and three people in your village, but as soon as your recruit another villager you’ll find yourself one bed short, and you’ll probably not have enough money to also buy a new building with a bed in it. Which means that on the next round you’ll need to figure out who you want to revive and who you want to keep in a state of perpetual exhaustion.
Most of the game is going to be spent making decisions like this, where you need to sacrifice some of your workers for the next round to get what you need this round.
Because of this, it fits in a weird space among other worker placement games. It doesn’t have the push-your-luck element of Stone Age, where you’re just trying to squeeze as much benefit out of your workers as possible each round, while ultimately staying afloat. It also doesn’t have the deliberate existential agony of Agricola, where actually building something while also keeping your family fed is a victory in and of itself. Instead it’s something different.
I’m having a hard time elucidating what I find so odd about this part of Above and Below. Let’s think in terms of the economic concept of time preference. Explained simply, time preference is how much one values income immediately over income in the future. This is how interest rates develop in the real world.
In most engine building games, your time preference starts out low and shifts to extremely high by the end of the game (because unlike the real world there’s a known end point in a game that forces your hand). Through the Ages beautifully displays this with its “Work of Art” card that provides fewer and fewer points as the game progresses towards the end.
With Above and Below, it’s an engine building game, yes, but it forces your time preference to be very high from the start, only to get higher. It’s like the engine building part is compressed and compacted. It’s going to culminate with players trying to buy one of the special “key” buildings that can produce a large number of victory points, but you need to be planning for that from the start. The one single complaint I’ve heard across the board is that the game ends too quickly (a mere 7 rounds), and it’s something I have to warn new players about as part of my rules explanation.
This creates a small disconnect between what the game is trying to get you to feel, and what actually happens. It becomes far too easy to reduce your villagers into just their abilities and think about your actions purely in terms of the math involved. This isn’t necessarily bad–the game presents interesting decisions throughout and encourages risky plays–but it’s a hair disappointing.
What’s not disappointing are the subterranean caves. We’ve already covered 2 of the 4 main actions (recruiting villagers and buying buildings). The most exciting one is exploring. This requires at least two of your villagers to do (a hefty cost) but the rewards can be great. When you explore, the person to your right is going to read to you a randomly chosen (via dice roll) selection in the story book.
I love these stories. They’re quirky, varied, and provide just enough of an insight into the weird ecosystem Laukat has created to make you want to keep reading more and more of them. At the end of each story the player is presented with two or more choices–each choice has a difficulty rating to it, and a combination of dice rolls and how good your villagers are at exploring will determine if you’re successful.
The rewards from these explorations are the primary means of gathering various resources, although frequently they seem more or less random. Sometimes you’ll get a reward that thematically makes sense (“helping the old fishing lady lands you a fish”), but most of the time the exploration action is like an elaborate slot machine. Furthermore, because the value of the reward seems to always correlate with its difficulty, 98% of the time you’re going to be choosing the most difficult choice you think you can succeed at, irrespective of what that choice actually is in the story.
I say it’s like a slot machine, but don’t let that diminish your view of the game too much. It’s a really fun slot machine. It’s not uncommon for us to goad players uncertain of what action they want to do into exploring, just so we can hear another story and see if they can successfully push their luck into a big prize. Exploration is certainly the most fun part of the game, and Above and Below would be far worse without it.
The final of the four primary actions is gathering resources, and this involves a clever little mechanism that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other games. Certain buildings will generate resources for you (fruit, mushrooms, fish, amethyst, etc), and when you gather these resources, they, along with resources acquired through exploration, are placed on a track along the bottom of your player board. Once you place a certain resource type there, all others of that type are also placed in that spot.
The kicker is that as you gather different types of resources, filling the slots, your income each round increases. However, the value for each of those resource types also increases. So say you grab a rare amethyst early in the game and place it in the first slot. This is great! Not only does your income go up, but you can place more common resources, like mushrooms, in the later slots where they’re going to be worth 2, 3 or 4 victory points each rather than just 1. It’s nothing special, but it is clever and can affect your decisions in the later parts of the game as you try to load up on one particularly valuable resource.
Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
Above and Below has really sunk its claws into me. When I type out my thoughts, I come across as negative on the game. But as I play it more I keep enjoying it more. It’s not strategic enough to appeal to hardcore euro gamers, but it still contains many interesting decisions. It’s not long enough to feel expansive and epic, but I want to keep learning more about its fantasy world.
Maybe it’s like a short story itself–a pleasant diversion that teases something greater. It’s fun to play, but it’s more fun to just let it play you. To go on those adventures and take unnecessary risks to see what kind of treasure you can find; to select the frog-person villager simply because it’s a frog-person.
I shouldn’t like Above and Below this much. I’m supposed to like those deep strategic experiences filled with tough decisions! But something about the charm of this world brings me back again and again. I don’t know if it’s the game for you–if randomness frustrates you, you might want to steer clear. But somehow it’s a game for me.
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