Above and Below – First Impressions

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Last night I got the chance to play last year’s hit by Ryan Laukat. The broad strokes of the game are pretty familiar, in the sense that you have to manage workers to do things like build buildings, gain resources, and gain new workers. It’s all pretty standard stuff, with a small exception.

As the title suggests, you can build buildings both “above” and “below” the earth. You can build as much as you above ground, but to build below ground you need to explore new locations. This is done by sending workers underground, and using a die roll and a card flip to locate a paragraph in a big book that describes an encounter. This bit of narration gives you some setup, and then presents a choice. For example, you meet a guy who ate a poisoned mushroom, and you can rob him or help him. Most choices require rolling above a certain threshold to successfully execute your choice, so whatever you choose doesn’t automatically happen. This reminded me a whole lot of Tales of the Arabian Nights, but paragraph games like this exist elsewhere.

This whole system has a couple of neat effects. The first is that it offers just a bit of narrative detail to a game that otherwise wouldn’t have those elements at all. Without the story section, this would just be a standard light eurogame, pleasant but kind of boring. But the story section gives it more personality. It also does a bit of world-building, giving the game its own sense of atmosphere. There are recurring creatures that you see in different encounters, and the game has fun illustrations that help create a unique experience.

It’s fascinating because the story system doesn’t really need to be there at all. It feels a little ostentatious, like it was put there because it could be. It’s not super well-integrated into the rest of the design either, at least at first blush. The story results mostly drive the exploration of new underground locations, along with a few resources, and this is something that can be accomplished with a simple die roll and no story at all. But I like that it’s there, and it shows that a bit of creative thinking can take what would otherwise be a somewhat stale game and make it something more memorable.

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One thought on “Above and Below – First Impressions

  1. Agree with your first impressions. Not much game there, but the random stories make it more of a fun experience. In the end though, I feel like Islebound, it’s older brother, drops the story and instead lays on the theme throughout the (similar) mechanics, as you travel from port to port with your merry band of crewmembers, and has a more engaging layer of complexity, and player interaction, that makes me not really miss the story element.

    Very curious to see how the system he has created continues to grow into what should be an even more story-driven game, Near and Far.

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