Above and Below isn’t just a fantasy game with a few odd kinks: it’s a personally defining and beautifully rare gaming experience that holds up a mirror and shows you who you really are. What kind of leader would you be? Does your moral compass tend to swing south at the first sign of profit? How would you cope when faced with the opportunity to help someone in trouble? Would you leap to the heroic defence of a victim when they’re at their lowest point or leap in and steal their shoes while their guard is down?
Okay, it’s not THAT drastic…but these are all situations you may well find yourself in playing arguably one of the best games and most emotionally involving games to arrive in the last few years.
The Fighting Fantasy craze of the early to mid eighties saw hundreds of children and teenagers caught up in adventure game-books that regularly sold in excess of a quarter of a million copies each (Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon alone did 300,000 in the first year of publication). Above and Below is a game that takes all those exciting, multiple choice adventure situations and combines them with just about every other mechanic in the gameverse: dice rolling, deck building, coin-stacking and even talent recruitment are thrown in.
Your starting villagers, a mixture of adventurers, builders and teachers, are used to variously explore dungeons, labour for more wealth, harvest existing resources and recruit new villagers in order to build a winning combination of victory points.
Although it’s true that you can play the entire game without once stepping into the great ‘below’ it cannot be denied that adventuring underground is at the heart of the most exciting dimension of the game. Every little expedition taken by your motley crew of two-plus explorers offers you an opportunity either to take advantage of someone’s misfortune or to do the right thing and profit from it a different way.
Often, these encounters will offer more concrete results for the more sociopathic, self-serving and casually corrupt players at the table – the Arnold Rimmers of the groups, if you will – however, there is a very important flipside to that coin.
A reputation path.
This deceptively brilliant addition to the game shows that there’s always a consquence to every action and will regularly have players sliding up and down a static point-track that charts their playing style from the hugely heroic to the downright cowardly (who will often be both financially and resourcefully richer by the end of the game). It could be argued that the point penalties on this track are slightly to lenient to the more selfish players but there certainly benefits to playing the game with a righteous heart.
An entirely different method in the race for victory is simply to build your village and your villagers in a way that generates a profit and resource stream, alternately using builders and teachers to expand your community in a direct grab for victory points in what is effectively a race over seven painfully short rounds (the game has a maximum of four players). These victory conditions include a wide variety of combination cards that reward the depth of your exploration in the great below and also your leadership and cunning in all your above-ground architecture.
The only real drawback to Above and Below is that it offers a very different and quite dramatic gaming ‘hook’ – if you’re a craze gamer then you’re likely to want to play it at the expense of just about everything else…at least for a year or so. It’s one of those games you can get out every night and have a completely different experience playing…and the dynamic alters drastically when you add or subtract a player and change up the format.
There might be a game out there somewhere that combines adventure and strategy better than above and below, but there’s definitely not one out there that will make you laugh as much. Any game that includes the question. ‘Will you sing a song of piggy mystery?’ is – for quality of entertainment – probably up there with the best of them.
At the end of Above and Below, you’re left with a number of vitally important questions: should you have spent more time below? Should you have built a bigger community? Should you have been more or less moral and heroic? Most importantly of all: what sort of creature actually IS a Glogo?
Above and Below was originally written by Davey Stone during Summer 2017.