The barbarians have come. You always knew they would, it was just a matter of time. Running for your lives, you managed to grab what little supplies you could salvage before everything was lost for good. The few that made it out alive have escaped the slaughter, but the toughest part is yet to come. For now you must start anew. Reclaim your life, rebuild your home, and strengthen your people. For the barbarians will one day come again. Above and Below is a fascinating game for so many reasons. Immediately, the gorgeous artwork and stunning graphical design demand your attention. Designer, publisher, and artist extraordinaire Ryan Laukat never ceases to astound with his unique use of vibrant colors, exaggerated caricatures, and thematic gameplay, and 2015’s Above and Below might be his best work yet.
2-4 players take on the daunting challenge of trying to rebuild their civilization after a devastating barbarian attack. To do so, they must seek out and recruit masters of the trade to come back and work for them, construct homes and businesses to create an economy, and scavenge for anything that may help defend against the next inevitable Barbarian attack. As luck would have it, the land upon which you have decided to establish your new home sits atop a seemingly endless system of caverns, a veritable underground civilization right below your feet. Fortune favors the bold, it would seem.
On your turn, each player may only take a single mandatory action available to them. These include the aforementioned recruit, construct, and explore. Additionally, players may harvest any goods they have waiting or labor to earn money for your community. To perform any of these actions, you must exhaust a single character that meets any necessary requirements. Every player has their own personal board, and each board is exactly the same except for the color of the banner in the top left. The board is split into three notable sections separated by rows of trees: the injured area to the far right, the resting area in the center, and taking up most of the left side is the available area.
At the beginning of the game all players start with three identical characters (though the images may be different, the values on all starting characters are the same). The various symbols on each character are where the crux of the gameplay lies. You’ll notice a quill, a hammer, and some dice icons. These denote which potential actions these characters can take. Anyone with a quill can perform the recruit action, while the hammer allows those characters to build. Every character will have at least one dice symbol on it, with a single side of that die showing as well as a number of lantern symbols below it. These allow a character to go exploring, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
To perform an action, simply slide whichever character you’re using from the available space into the rest area and then proceed with that action. On the central game board, which contains various information pertaining to all players such as round and reputation trackers, is a row of 5 spaces at the top with coin values ranging from 2 to 5. At the start of the game 5 random characters will be selected and placed in these spaces. When you send a character off to recruit, you may choose from any of these 5 to bring back to your village, assuming you can pay the cost. Any character you recruit immediately gets sent to the rest area but a new one does not get replenished immediately.
To construct a new building, simply repeat the same process with any character that has a hammer icon; slide him to the rest area, and then choose any building card that you can afford. A number of these will be laid out at the start: standard buildings will replenish immediately after building one, while those marked with the key or star symbols will be chosen randomly at the start and do not replenish. These will bring with them a staggering number of potential benefits: from goods and resources to harvest, additional income every turn, potions that you can use to help speed up a character’s recovery if they have been injured, and perhaps most importantly, more beds. You see, your villagers need a place to sleep. So for every person you have working, you’ll need an equal number of beds to make sure they are fit to get back to work in the morning.
At the end of every round, all characters will slide one space to the left assuming there are an appropriate number of beds for them. If not, you get to choose who must skip a day of work. A couple of things can help offset some early-game bed shortages, such as a barrel of cider or a potion. The first player to perform the labor action (which exhausts a single character like with any action and simply earns you a gold coin) receives the barrel token from the main board. This does not replenish until the end of the round, so only one player can receive this per round, but may save them and acquire more later. During the refresh phase at the end of a round when players are moving their characters, they may use a barrel of cider to act as a pick-me-up for a single character, substituting the use of a bed and moving them from the rest area to the available area. Similarly, over the course of the game you may acquire potions. These work just the same, but may only be used on characters in the injured area to move them to the rest area.
One of the biggest highlights of the game is the explore action, which requires a minimum of two characters to perform but may include more to better your odds. And this is where the dice come into play. When a player chooses to explore the vast underground network of caves, they draw the top card from the face-up deck of unexplored caverns and roll a single die. The card shows 6 different results on it, each corresponding to one side of the die and to one of over 200 different narrative excerpts from the encounter book. Another player will flip to that entry and read the following paragraph out loud. These are highly thematic yet disassociated little excursions that your characters partake in which always require a choice from the adventuring player. Two, sometimes three paths lay before you, and you must commit to one of them without knowing the potential rewards.
All of them require a roll of dice to see if you meet the required success value. Every lantern symbol on each character represents a potential success, and the side of the die shown above it is the value you must meet or exceed to earn those successes. Roll for each character individually and then combine the acquired lantern symbols to see if you are able to pass the test. Each character may also exert themselves should you desire, which will place them into the injured section when they return to the surface instead of the rest area; however, this allows you to increase your successes by 1 for each character that did it. Should you succeed, you’ll earn rewards pertaining to that adventure, but most importantly, you’ll gain the empty cave card you used to begin your quest. This is placed below the row of above-ground buildings you have, and is essential to expanding your community. You see, when performing the build action, you can choose to construct a building either above ground, or an outpost below the surface, but to do this, you must have an empty cavern card to build upon.
The final action a player can perform is to harvest. The most common way to earn resources is to construct buildings or go exploring. Should you successfully explore, these resources are automatically placed into your reserve; however, when you acquire a new building card that shows a resource icon on it, the resource is placed directly onto that spot to be harvested on future turns. Depending on the type of icon next to the resource (either two dots or an arrow), the resource may only be attainable twice total before it’s depleted, or it will replenish a single token if empty during the refresh phase at the end of every round. These tokens are primarily used for scoring purposes, because at the bottom of each player board is another row of empty spaces. Each space has two values listed above it: a victory point value and a coin value. When you acquire resources, you may place them into these spaces to affect income earned every round or total victory points gained during final scoring.
Placing resources on this track is considered a free action (of which there are a couple), but once a resource is placed here, it cannot be removed. Furthermore, you cannot have the same resource in multiple locations – but it can be stacked on top of an existing token of the same type to increase how many victory points you gain. At the end of every round, players will earn an income starting at a base value of 4. Certain buildings may add to this amount, as will the resource track. The higher the resource track, the higher your starting income is, as shown above. Some resources are easy to get, while others can only come from exploring, so choosing when and how to place the resources can be a crucial part of the game. Additionally, at any time during the game (your turn or not) you may also put a single resource up for sale that other players can purchase. Place it in the top left spot of your board where your banner is, as noted by the 3+ value, which reminds you that the good must be sold for a minimum of 3 gold. The rest is up to players – bargain as you will, but the transaction must be of a transfer of gold and not a trade of goods.
And that’s it. After 7 rounds, players total up their victory points. All buildings and outposts count as a victory point, and the influence track, which is altered by buildings and exploration, awards points depending on how far you’ve reached. The player with the most points wins, with your standard list of assorted tiebreakers if necessary. Above and Below is decidedly brisk despite the amount of decisions you have to make, and that’s simply because your turns are over in a flash. Analysis paralysis is of little concern, although it’s still possible to get bogged down by the occasional dilemma of trying to find the best use of each character available to you. There’s very little direct player interaction here, aside from the occasional buying and selling of goods, but that’s okay. The narrative that you inevitably start to weave as you recruit more workers, expand your village, and explore the caves is a strong, compelling force that elevates this already exceptional game and separates it from the pack.
Time: 90+ minutes
Set Up/Clean Up: Average/Average
Component Quality: High
Final Verdict: Excellent