Game – Above and Below

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Remember how back on International Tabletop Day, The Boy, Ben, Nicole and I played a new game?  Well, it turns out that we all liked that game so much, that both couples got copies of our own.  The Boys and mine may have been a gift “for H” for her birthday, but really, we have gotten lots of group use out of it.  The premise is this: the village you live in has been destroyed, but you escape with your basic tools, and a couple friends.  You wander around for a long time until you find a new location suitable for establishing a new location, but in the course of your daily life, you discover a series of tunnels and caves ripe for exploring and establishing outposts just under your new settlement.

As mentioned in the Tabletop Day post, it’s not the easiest game to set up.  There are four different kind of building cards and not all of these are used every game, and the backs look quite similar.  There’s another set of cards for determining adventures, and again these are similar on a quick glance to the underground building cards.  There are three kinds of villager tiles, and a whole mess of resource tiles.  It takes easily 5 minutes to set up, and that’s when you know what you’re doing.

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Additionally, the setup rules in the book aren’t the easiest to understand, especially if you’re playing with a different number of players than you’ve used in the past.  When the girls and I played the game last week, I had to re-read through the introductory pages a couple of times before I figured out how playing with three people affects the rules differently than with four players.

My final gripe with the game is that it feels too short.  The game is tracked through rounds, of which there are seven, as you travel further underground on the progress track.  Every time we’ve played just the seven rounds, I get to the end and say to myself “But we just started!  I haven’t been able to get much accomplished!”  This led to us deciding on a house rule of “down and back” – this gives players a total of 13 rounds, and even this is not perfect.  By the time 13 rounds end, everyone feels overpowered, and the number of villagers is depleted, and  money is changing hands fast and furious.  I wish there were a way to do a visually significant 10 rounds, as that seems to be the sweet spot for everything, but…c’est la vie.  Hey game designers – look into this!

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So – now that I’ve got all the bad stuff out of the way, what’s great?  Well, we love the replayability.  The adventure book for going down and exploring the caverns has nearly 200 scenarios, which are randomly chosen through a combination of card and dice roll.  I don’t know how many we’ve done so far, but even if there has been a repeat or two, they are so infrequent that it’s easy to forget what happened.

Additionally, the art is beautiful.  Every piece is lovingly illustrated – the villager tiles are especially interesting, and the creators did a fantastic job of providing a very diverse cast of “characters” so that players can find their favorites.  This also plays into the world-building which is pretty terrific.  Glogos and fish people, a frog man and the liquid woman.  The social and political dynamics of the caves are an area that you’ll get to explore as part of your underground adventures.

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Overall it’s a terrific game.  There are some slight quirks, but these are ironed out by having knowledgeable players.  For newbies, it can be a bit difficult to understand what’s going on, and that’s the kind of situation where a “How to Play…” video on YouTube can really help you out.  There are a lot of different pieces and cards to keep sorted, but just grab some extra snack and sandwich baggies, and it becomes much more manageable.  It may not be the best game for beginning board gamers, but it’s a fantastic intermediate level game that is great even with early readers.

Have you ever played Above and Below?  Played a game that sounds like it?  Do you get frustrated setting up a game, or feel like there are games that end right around the time you’re getting the hang of how to play?  What other board games do you like?  The Boy and I are always on the hunt for new ones…

Details: Above and Below, available at your local game store, or on Amazon.

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