Above and Below Review & Board Game Guide

Your last village was pillaged and burned to the ground by a band of barbarians. But, not to worry. The new camp has turned out to be situated atop of a maze of underground caves, littered with treasures, resources, adventures, and some interesting characters…

Above and Below
  • Build a village and explore the caverns below
  • Manage your villagers, each with a unique identity
  • Read from a book of encounters, building an amazing and memorable...

Brief Overview of Above and Below

Brief Overview of Above and Below

Part worker placement, part engine-building, and part story-telling, Above and Below has lots of different concepts all rolled into one. 

Your job now is to make a new life for yourselves, with your last village having been ransacked by barbarians. By designating actions to each of your villagers every turn, you must explore the deep caverns beneath you for resources, while at the same time find a place for them all to sleep.

Each exploration action will uncover all kinds of adventure in the depths below, which will be read out from the encounter book.

In the end, the points are tallied up, and whoever has built the most successful society wins.

Versions & Expansions

Above and Below Sequel Near and Far

Near and Far

Above and Below has no expansions, but it does have a sequel: Near and Far. This time you take on the role of four explorers searching for a lost ruin. On your mission, you’ll recruit adventurers, hunt for treasure, and compete to be the most storied traveler. There’s certainly plenty to keep you busy.

There is a bigger focus here on story-telling than in Above and Below. Overall, aside from sharing a few similar mechanics, it’s very different from its predecessor.

Near and Far
  • 2 to 4 players
  • 4 game modes: first adventure (for beginners), campaign (a series...
  • Play as one of 8 different characters, across 11 different maps

Unboxing Above and Below

Unboxing Above and Below

Above and Below comes with the following:

  • 1 reputation board
  • 4 player boards
  • 1 encounter book
  • 1 rulebook
  • 12 starting villagers
  • 18 villagers
  • 6 special villagers
  • 81 goods tokens
  • 1 round marker
  • 10 cider tokens
  • 4 cubes
  • 20 potion tokens
  • 50 coins
  • 7 dice
  • 93 cards

Artwork

Above and Below has some lovely artwork. The main box is very colorful with the big blue sky and green mountains contrasting nicely with the dark caverns below. The charming artwork uses broad brushstrokes that add a pleasant calmness to its appearance, a nod to the pacifist nature of the game.

The same artwork is used throughout and adds nicely to the mood of the game. The different villagers all look on stoically from their individual cards, somewhat surprisingly given the hard graft they’ve gone through to get here. In fact, if there’s one area that disappointed when it comes to artwork, it’s the characters. There are some cool dudes in there – the frog guy and Liquid Woman for starters – but the placid expression on their faces just makes them seem quite vacant.

Quality Components

But that’s not a huge issue. The design and quality of the components are top-notch, with thick player boards that will easily see through many years of regular play. The cards, in particular, stood out, using beautiful bold colors that look great when on your player board.

There’s also a lot of tokens, which can get a little fiddly once the game gets going, but on the whole, everything’s laid out well, with clear symbols and plenty of space.

The encounter book is nice and chunky, too, which is where all your adventures are hiding!

How to Play Above and Below

How to Play Above and Below

Setup

Players start the game with a player board, some coins, three villagers, and a starting house card.

Lay out the starting house cards on the table, and place four random key house cards beneath them.

Then put out the reputation board, with five villager cards from the villager deck in a row alongside. Players should also put their player cube on the reputation marker at zero.

Game Flow and Objective

The game has seven rounds. Each round, players assign actions to their villagers in turn. Once a player doesn’t want to do any more actions, they pass. When every player has passed, you begin the next round.

During these rounds, you will grow your village on your player mat in order to earn points. You can do this by putting goods onto your Advancement Track, building structures, and having the highest reputation, among other things.

At the end of the seven rounds, you count up the points, and whoever has the most wins.

The Villagers

Your villagers are represented by cards that are home to a number of symbols that show the strengths and abilities of each villager. To build something or train a new villager, for example, you will need to have a hammer or quill symbol, respectively.

It will also show two dice symbols next to a number of lanterns. These denote how successful your villagers will be in completing encounters when exploring.

Exploring

One of the main and most exciting actions you can take as a villager is to explore your cavern. To do so, pick a minimum of two villagers and draw a cave card. The cave card will tell you which section to read in the Encounter Book, determining what adventure your villagers will find themselves on. They could, for example, end up surrounded by hungry rodents, meet some interesting cave-dwellers that need help, or find a rope to who-knows-where.

You then have to make a choice on how to proceed. The more difficult options will have bigger rewards, such as coins or mushrooms. While you’ll also gain or lose reputation points based on the morality of your decision.

Success at your chosen task is determined by rolling a dice for each villager and trying to score lantern points. Each villager will have a different number of lanterns they return based on what you roll (for example, one villager might return two lanterns if you roll a three. Another might only return one).

If successful, you gain your rewards and the cave card, which can be used to build an outpost.

Other Actions

You can also spend a villager to perform the following actions:

  • Pay the cost and build an available structure, each of which provides various benefits and levels of victory points.
  • Harvest resources from your buildings, like fish, fruit, ore, or mushrooms.
  • Pay to train one of the available villager cards and add them to your stock.
  • Gain a coin. The first person to do this each round also gets a cider.

Round End

When all players have passed, the round ends. At this point, you gain coins from your position on the Advancement Track, and from buildings with the income symbol.

Then you must rest your villagers. To do so, count the number of bed symbols you have on your house and outpost cards. Failing that, you can also use potions or cider resources to rest your villagers. Any villager that is unable to rest won’t be available to be used next turn. You will spend a lot of time making sure you have enough beds!

At the end of the seventh round, the game ends and the points are tallied up.

Your First Game of Above and Below

Your First Game of Above and Below

Advancement Track

Throughout the game, you can add resources to your advancement track. Each new space on the Advancement Track must have a different resource on it. At the end of a round, you generate coins depending on how far down the Advancement Track you are.

You can also add multiple of the same resource onto the same space. At the end of the game, you will get points for every resource you have on the track.

Just bear in mind, once a resource is on the track, it can’t be removed!

Reputation Track

Players can win and lose reputation during encounters, moving their pawn up and down the Reputation Track as they do. At the end of the game, whoever is higher up the track gets more points.

Special Villagers

Alongside the normal villagers you can use, there are a few ‘special’ villagers available, too, that can only be acquired through certain encounters. Glogos, for example, can build structures for one less coin than a normal villager. While Metal Man doesn’t need a bed to rest.

They’re not all good, though. Take the creepy Liquid Woman. Her awkward presence loses you one reputation.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Decision-heavy engine-building and worker placement game
  • Story-telling element an interesting twist
  • Not too complex – suitable for those new to the genre

Cons:

  • Would have liked more depth to the story
  • Probably not enough meat for advanced gamers

Above and Below is a charming and thought-provoking mix of worker-placement, engine-building, and story-telling. I loved the snippets of stories sprinkled throughout the game when you go exploring. These encounters act as wonderful side-dramas that bring your village to life, zooming in on the people that actually live in and populate it. It contrasts with many other settlement-building and worker placement games that, by their very nature, disconnect you from the workers themselves as you sit high above the board dictating which pawn does what.

A Narrative Experience

The story-driven encounters also present some of the more grueling decisions to make in the game. At their core, the dice-roll mechanic that determines the outcome is a simple calculation of risk and reward. But the added drama the encounter book adds on makes it so much more than that. Do you abandon the poor lost cave dweller to fend for himself? Or put your expeditionary party at risk by helping him? The added effect this has on your reputation means even the amoral among us have to think hard.

Could be more developed

That said, I actually found the story-telling side to be a little bit limited. Once you complete an encounter, that’s the last you hear of it. Instead, I would have appreciated the story arcs having more of an effect on your overall strategy and village. Perhaps some card-crafting could be introduced to spice up your villagers based on their experiences underground, or you could unlock special items (similar to special villagers). This could be easily rectified in an expansion.

Decisions, decisions

Above and Below, though, is ultimately a worker placement and engine-building machine. There simply is never enough workers to do everything you want to do, and you’ll be constantly having to choose between a big instant payout or more long-term effects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the never-ending battle to find more beds!

It isn’t the most in-depth example of this kind of game out there, however – most actions are quite one-dimensional (do this, get that). While the dice-rolling element won’t be for everyone. However, this relatively light level of complexity keeps the game moving smoothly, and it still gives you plenty of decisions to make and strategy to mull over.

Above and Below Review (TL;DR)

Above and Below is a worker placement and engine-building game with a load of story-telling thrown in. As you build your village above ground, your villagers will be sent out on exploration missions to explore the caverns below for riches.

It’s a game fraught with all the decision-making and sacrifices you’d expect from the genre, but with the added drama brought in from the different scenes you have to play out as your village expands.

The balance of the three key mechanics means none of them quite pack a full punch, but the combination itself makes for a unique and incredibly enjoyable experience for gamers at all levels.

Conclusion: Verdict?

Above and Below is a great blend of story-telling, engine-building, and worker placement mechanics, while also pitching itself incredibly accessible. This makes it a neat option for a mix of different gamer types and abilities.

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling a little detached from a faceless settlement/civilization engine-building game, Above and Below fantastically flips that on its head, adding in a sense of ‘people’ to the decisions you have to make. And boy, do those decisions come thick and fast.

Where it lacks is that it spreads itself a little too thin by trying to be all things to all people. It’s good at lots of things, but not the best at any of them. But this shouldn’t put you off. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable game and its unique mix of each mechanic is what makes it special. Had it decided to go any deeper with any element, Above and Below would become a much more complex beast, likely losing its flow and charm in the process.

Above and Below
  • Build a village and explore the caverns below
  • Manage your villagers, each with a unique identity
  • Read from a book of encounters, building an amazing and memorable...

Have you tried Above and Below? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this game. Drop a comment below and let us know!

Stats at a glance

Players: 2-4

Ages: 13+

Medium

90 Mins

Publisher: Red Raven Games

Published: 2015