I’m sure most readers of this site will be familiar with a release from 2015 that may have hit the ground with just a tiny bit of hype – Friedemann Friese’s 504. For those of you scratching your heads, 504 attempts to arrange a blind date for madness and innovation with the genuine expectation that they won’t both hate each other in the morning. Like finding two sets of lego, one Star Wars and one Pirates of the Caribbean but without instructions for either, 504 is all about mashing together a range of classic Euro elements that provides players with 504 different combinations and therefore 504 different games.
And as many of us I think expected, despite 504 proving worthy of much admiration for it’s innovative and gutsy approach, mashups are an incredibly difficult trick to pull off. However, Friedemann is certainly not the only maverick present in today’s crop of game designers. In fact, if you’ve read any review of a Ryan Laukat game, chances are excellent he’d have been referred to as a ‘Renaissance Man’. Over the course of just three years Ryan has designed and illustrated around 8 games under his Red Raven Games banner, which when considering the multiple expansions available for said games and the volume of worked required by wearing both caps, is a rather staggering achievement.
Porcupine mermen? Nope, Glogos!
Perhaps it’s that same workload that may have finally driven Ryan to madness. Sure, plenty of successful genre mashups exist within the hobby, but Storytelling and Euro? Is such a thing even possible? A game in which I’m as likely to stumble upon an underground temple as I am calculating optimal engine building? I’d be inclined to dismiss such a clearly misguided idea, but then again I’ve heard that mashup of Taylor Swift and Nine Inch Nails and to my everlasting shame enjoyed it. We live in a world where anything is possible.
Above and Below presents us with an elegantly simple setup – your tribe has been displaced by roving barbarians and after journeying for many miles have found a place where you might be able to plant roots once again. But it’s not after long before you discover that beneath the fertile ground runs a series of caverns, impossibly vast. You could happily ignore the cavernous labyrinth, choosing instead to build new structures and farm the land. Or you could throw kindling upon the embers of your adventurous spirit, throw caution to the wind and explore the dark passages. Which will it be?
Art & Components
Pears, mushrooms and fish? Must be haute cuisine.
Laukat has quickly established his own distinctive style, something akin to the more imaginative worlds you’d expect to find in the best of children’s literature, a lyrical charm as at home in a science fiction world as in that of a more mythic fantasy. I can see how it may prove too whimsical for some, but for me Above and Below is an absolutely gorgeous game to unpack in front of the eyes of new players. All the card-stock is of high quality, the tokens bountiful and beautiful, but it’s Laukat’s use of colour that lifts the spirits of everyone at the table – deep blues and rich greens combining to create an atmosphere of tranquility.
Even the villager tokens provide a small insight into Laukat’s design approach, each one uniquely drawn with a care that makes it easy to imagine the personalities of each lingering beneath the surface. There’s a moderate number of symbols that players will need to acquaint themselves with, but the iconography is clear and comfortably learned after the first play. Lastly the Encounter Book, its spiral bound 50 pages whispering arcane promises of enterprise. But more about that in a bit.
Playing the Game
Buildings above and…er…below
More than any other review I’ve penned for CBQ thus far, I don’t really want to discuss rules or turn sequences or player actions. It’s enough to say that the rulebook is clear and concise and that there aren’t any particularly complex mechanisms. Relatively standard Euro stuff that involves assigning workers, managing resources, adding new structures to your village that provide either engine-building bonuses or end-game victory points. Whoever has the most victory points at the end of seven rounds wins. It’s nothing you haven’t encountered before and likely will encounter again.
Why the reluctance to detail how the game actually works? Well, because to understand whether or not the game is actually worth playing, it’s everything that happens below the ground that really matters. On the surface, the typically Euro mechanics are all solidly competent and might prove a relatively satisfying game in and of themselves, but I could think of at least 10 games I’d prefer to play if given the choice. But in the dankness of those caverns, cut off from the light of the sun where you’d expect nothing to grow – it’s there that the game truly blossoms into something quite special. Well, blossoms is perhaps a poor choice of words. What grows in the darkness is more like a mushroom, and sampling that mushroom is going to send you on quite the trip.
The most enticing action available on a turn, provided you have two villagers yet to be assigned, is that of Exploring. Take a cave card from the deck, roll a die, and the player to your left will read the matching paragraph from the Encounter Book.
Explore 3 requirement met.
It takes less than a few minutes for descending passageway to suffocate all traces of sunlight, and yet the way is still clear, some otherworldly light guiding your steps. Soon your path is interrupted by an unnatural wall, strange symbols carved into the stone that clearly mark it as man-made. At least, you hope ‘man’. You spot an indentation that might conceal a lever or handle, but you could always retrace your steps to a fork in the passageway you passed earlier. Do you search the indentation with your unprotected fingers, or heed the words of your instinct encouraging you to turn back?
THIS IS CLEARLY A DOORWAY THAT MUST CONCEAL A TREASURE OF SORTS: Explore 4 (read paragraph 15) Explore 7 (read Encounter 27)
YOU REALLY LIKE THE WAY YOUR HAND LOOKS WITH FINGERS INTACT: Explore 3 (2 mushroom)
Each villager provides anywhere from 1 to 3 lanterns, but these lanterns can only be activated by rolling a die that meets or exceeds the requirements. For example, Theo (he looks like a Theo, so I’m going with it) will activate 1 lantern if you roll a 2 or more, or if you roll a 5 or more Theo will activate 3 lanterns. That ‘Explore‘ number listed in the above example? That’s the number of lanterns required to succeed. Choose which option you’re going to attempt, indicate for which of your two or more villagers you’re rolling, and reap the rewards if you manage to pull it off. Since anything in brackets is not read out during the encounter, you’ll never know which option will prove the more beneficial up front.
It’s also never clear which choice might be the more rewarding. You may choose to Explore in the hope of finding gold so that you can afford a particularly profitable building, but given the limited time it’s always a risk. And this is also the first moment where certain gamers may punch out of the experience. Whilst risk is certainly not an alien concept in most Euros, the notion of assigning workers to an action that may not even provide the resource you need is anathema. This is also the first indication that Above and Below is far less for the Euro-lover who enjoys a rich and coherent theme, but rather for the lover-of-theme who wants to add a little more Euro to the experience.
Worth noting too is that the Encounter Book is no Tales of the Arabian Nights. Few encounters provide details around the resolution of your choices – most simply provide the reward and leave the denouement to your imagination. Don’t expect to happen upon any mysterious djinns who could be tricked or romanced or enslaved, resulting in the kind of stories that players will recount for years to come. Where Tales’ encounters ARE the jambalaya itself, Above and Below’s are designed to be the range of spices that elevate an already hearty meal.
This player would receive 6 coins at the start of the next round, and 3 victory points at game end. So far.
But don’t get me wrong, many of the 200+ encounters have thus far surprised me in a number of ways – quirky, surreal, genuinely amusing, these spices aren’t dried and bottled but rather straight from the herb garden. Successfully exploring in addition to the rewards of coin or ore or mushrooms also net you the cave card, upon which some of the games most powerful structures can be built. This is a very clever means of ensuring that even if your villagers return with pots and fish when they had hoped for rope and amethyst, players are never without options for mitigating the risks.
The second mechanic I’d like to focus on in lieu of a rules explanation, is that of the Advancement Track as an illustration that beyond the Encounter Book, Above and Below does implement a few mechanics which will scratch the more cerebral itch in a most satisfying manner. Each village board has 8 slots, which just happen to correspond to the 8 types or resource available. Each of these slots provides two benefits when filled – namely additional coin at the start of each round, as well as victory points depending on the number of resources in each slot. The trick is that each slot can only house one type of resources and must be activated in order, and there are differing quantities of these resources available.
For example, the first of the 8 slots will give one extra coin at the start of each subsequent round when filled, as well as one victory point for each resource in that slot. But the last slot gives an extra four coins and a whopping six victory points for each resource in that slot. Mushrooms are the most plentiful whilst amethyst are very rare, so ideally you want to fill the early slots with rare goods and the later slots with plentiful ones. But the longer you wait to start filling the advancement track, the more you may struggle with limited coin to be able to recruit additional villagers or build structures.
ZZ Top, the early years.
I’ve seen it mentioned in a handful of reviews already so it’s not a thought I can claim ownership of, but the overriding sensation of playing Above and Below is one of placidity. You may fight the odd strange beast in the caverns, but there’s a distinct absence of player confrontation. Recruiting villagers is peaceful. Building new structures is peaceful. Even when your journey below ground throws up the strangest of encounters, there’s a dreamlike quality to every action you take. There are moments when you almost relinquish any desire to win the game, when your curiosity to see just how peculiar things get below ground far outstrips any notion of victory. Or perhaps it becomes almost impossible to ignore the magnificence of a particular villagers moustache, it matters not how effective he may be but rather that he completes your village of similarly hirsute personalities.
If neither the strategic nor narrative aspects of the game are strong enough to stand alone, is it possible that the sum of the whole could be greater than that of its parts? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. Above and Below succeeds at precisely what I imagine Laukat hoped it might. It’s a unique experience with enough strategic depth to ensure that no single approach will consistently win out, and yet also this playful whimsy that endows Above and Below with an almost therapeutic quality.
I suspect for many this mashup of styles will prove discordant. But for those not clinging to preconceived notions about what genres should be allowed to sing in harmony, grab up your belongings, pick up your torch and follow Laukat into the inky depths.