Review: Above and Below

From Red Raven Games, Above and Below is a worker placement, resource management game, with a dollop of storytelling. For 2 to 4 players, each oversees the expansion of a village, slowly recruiting new villagers, and constructing new buildings to make your community flourish. However the location you established your new home is over a series of inhibited caverns which beckon to be explored further.

The game is played over a series of rounds. Each round a player activates a worker and conducts a specific action. This can be to harvest resources and gain coins, or to use coins to purchase new villagers and buildings. The worker you select is moved from a ready section on your individual play board to the exhausted section, indicating the villager have been used for the round. Play continues until every player has passed. There are a few free actions that can be taken which don’t require the use of a villager, such as selling and buying goods from other players.

At the start of each round, villagers move from the exhausted section on your player board to the ready area. However you are limited by the number of bed icons in your village. If you have only 3 beds and 4 villagers are tuckered out from working, you will have one of those villagers still too pooped to do anything the following round. There is a way around this using a special cider resource that acts as a temporary bed (spending the cider resource in the process). Note also that not all villagers can do the same actions. Some actions like constructing buildings, or training new villagers require a one with the appropriate icon on them (indicating their specialty).

In addition to readying your villagers, you also gain coins depending on the variety of goods you possess. Your outposts and buildings can produce goods, but it takes an action to harvest them. The value of the goods moves along a track in set increments. It does not matter the number or specific type of good, only the variety of goods matter. However the trick is that some goods are either rare, uncommon, or common.

Interestingly, you likely want to harvest rare goods first, as they are difficult to attain. It’s the common goods that you want to stack up and harvest later. Not only will they be worth more coins but they also offer more victory points (which I’ll explain in a moment). Note that if a player gains more goods similar to those already harvested, they stack up on spots already occupied on the player’s board and not in a new position on the goods track.

At the end of the game, a player will gain victory points based on the value of constructed buildings in their village. Certain buildings also have special end game goals. Some goals award bonus points for having the most villagers or the most buildings. Some may award extra points for certain types of goods, etc.

In addition to this you have victory points awarded for the goods harvested. You get points for each good you have, however their value depends on what spot occupied on the goods track. So a great strategy is to try and get uncommon and rare goods first to occupy the lower victory point spaces, as you won’t accumulate as many of them. Instead you want to wait on harvesting the really common goods as you can gain a lot of them easily, hopefully being worth more points individually at the end of the game.

All of which I described is your basic worker placement, resource management, engine building game. You get workers and buildings to produce certain goods and try to work out some special combo that will award you bonus points, giving you a goal to work towards earning as many victory points as possible. The twist however is the explore action.

As mentioned before, your blossoming village sits over a series of caves. As an action, you can send villagers down to explore the underground caverns. Almost every villager is capable of exploring, however their skill in doing so varies. You must first select at least 2 villagers to try and explore. You then draw a special cavern tile and roll a die with the result indicating what passage to read from an included book. The passage will present a situation and a choice for the player, along with the number of successes (lanterns) needed. The player states what choice they will make and rolls some dice.

The number of dice and chance of success is indicated by the icons on each villager. Some villagers are very able to explore and will award a single lantern on a 2 or better. Others may be more difficult to obtain lanterns but can potentially award more of them at a single go, while some, well, are just plain awful at exploring. If you obtain enough lanterns (successes), you are awarded a special reward along with the cave card that functions like another building. Fail and you get nothing. However you do open up a slot under your village, meaning you can later construct an outpost to occupy the caverns you tried to explore.

Some decent rewards can be obtained while exploring, not to mention effectively getting a free building. Even if you aren’t successful, you can still open up a slot to purchase unique cave outposts for your village. Also many rare goods can only be found exploring the caves. However some of the challenges while exploring can be dangerous. You might have a villager injured. Being injured is effectively a further exhausted step on the player board. At the end of the round they can be moved up to the exhausted slot using a bed, but will still be out of commission for the following round.

The Good – It’s an enjoyable little worker placement, resource management game. You have limited options and are under a short time frame to do them. There is so much you want to do during your turn, but the opportunities for doing so are limited. Meaning you have to strive and make the best choices possible. As with a lot of worker placement games, you are also in a race with other players. Take too much time getting enough coins accumulated and you might find that building you wanted scooped up by another player.

There are opportunities to do a little trading. Some resources are only for manipulating the status of workers. But as you have so few workers which recover only through having enough beds for them to rest in your village, you begin to explore other options to get villagers ready for the next round. So while cider and potions might not offer any coins or victory points, they can allow you to recover more workers for future turns.

The icons and design of the cards and tiles are well done and easy to read. The art is also interesting with a simple, muted, fantasy look. The components are well made and are of thick stock. The explore book is spiral bound, but is of good quality pagestock.

The Bad – I sometimes find the game could go just one or two more turns to really get your engine built. You can occasionally get stuck with some poor building and villager choices. There are ways to clear out buildings and get new ones, but it costs precious coins. While you can always get something out of the villagers or buildings, you might be wanting to work towards a specific goal and can’t quite snatch up the perfect villager and/or building to make your engine. So the randomness can be irksome. There is also a little bit of a learning curve as icons on the cards could be a little cryptic at times.

The exploring of the caverns is also a mixed bag. In reality, the number of villagers and lanterns you obtain rarely have much impact on the outcome. You can get lucky and snatch up a great reward, or you could be immensely successful and just have been stuck with getting a challenge awarding you only a measly common good. Despite the original feel of engaging choices through exploring, you begin to see a common thread in the types of choices you have. The explore portion of the game can be wildly unpredictable. So much so that it can feel the rewards are not worth the villager resources needed to commit to doing it.

The Verdict – At first glance this is your typical worker placement game which is not too innovative. However what sets Above and Below apart from other similar games is the cavern exploration. Yes, you get a certain vibe from the explore situations and they can be a little predictable. Be heroic and you’ll likely gain more reputation and likely more rewards. Act like a jerk or run like a coward and you’ll take a hit to your reputation (losing victory points) not to mention walk away with nothing. However I find this part of the game central to its charm.

You end up with this storytelling feel from the game as you play. Sure you can dump the theme and just go through the motions expanding your village, robotically gaining workers, and erecting constructions. And you can take a similar approach to the exploration portion as just a mechanical exercise. But if you embrace the narrative aspect of it, the exploration action can be a fun part of the game. And that opens up the experience such that you aren’t just building an economy engine, instead you’re recruiting people to slowly expand your village from a simple hut to a thriving community, with a vast number of cavern outposts to match the bustling structures you have above ground.

Above and Below is too light and likely too random for those wanting a deep, heavy, resource management game. However it has enough meat in the mechanics to make for interesting choices, which in turn results in the village engine you create though the accumulated buildings, outposts, and villagers satisfying. Wrapped up with this is the storytelling experience while exploring the caverns below, offering a choose-your-adventure style of play. It’s an enjoyable game. A worker placement game with a twist and worth picking up.