It’s no secret—we love Kickstarter. It has frequently afforded us the opportunity to find some really great games and get an in-depth look that we might not otherwise get while perusing a game store shelf or Amazon. If we’re being honest, sometimes these games are not so great.
And sometimes they’re so good that afterwards we hate the designer a little.
Above and Below from Red Raven Games is one such game. At a glance, it’s a component-heavy worker placement game about a displaced tribe building a new village and exploring an underground cave system. In practice, it’s a wonderful adventure that seamlessly combines a twist on the tried and true worker placement mechanic with storytelling elements.
The concept is simple: Your last village was ransacked by barbarians, and you’ve finally found a great place to build your new home. While building, you discover an intricate system of subterranean caverns and decide, what the heck? Let’s check ‘em out. And maybe build stuff down there too.
To pair with this game, we needed two beers: our “Above” beer was the light and refreshing Trail’s End Pale Ale by Rusty Rail Brewing Company, and our “Below” beer was the dark and chocolaty Left Hand Brewing Company’s Black Jack Porter.
How it pairs
First off, Above and Below is just plain pretty. The art is simple in style, suggesting that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet pragmatic in design—not getting in the way of anything important.
It was one of the easiest big-box games that we’ve ever taught to our group. The whole game is played over seven rounds, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but there’s so much possibility that the whole game, with four players, took about ninety minutes. It’s also worth noting this is the listed playtime on the box, so kudos to Red Raven for really dialing in their play time.
There’s very little downtime between players, since each can only take one action on their turn, with several turns to a round (based on your number of workers). Most interestingly, the workers are small cardboard placards, rather than meeples or tokens—each worker is unique, and can serve multiple purposes. Some are better for exploring while other are necessary for specific actions like Training villagers and Building houses.
The storytelling element comes into play when a player decides to explore the caverns. The passages to read from are short, typically only a paragraph or two, with at least two possible choices for each—usually having to do with encountering some sort of heinous creature, like a giant snake or a shrew with a speech impediment. Some stories even span multiple passages based on your choices, which we always found exciting to encounter.
The Trail’s End Pale Ale, our “Above” beer, was fruity and mild, in terms of bitterness—like being, well, above ground. It’s brewed with Citra hops, which gives it more of a tropical aroma, making it a tasty pale ale for even our none-pale ale drinkers. Even more fitting is the allusion to the journey made by our tribe, ending finally at the perfect place to rebuild. (Tip: You should also check out Rusty Rail’s Rail Spike IPA.)
The Black Jack Porter, on the other hand, was a heady, dark beer with notes of chocolate and espresso, perfect for spelunking—although our lawyers suggest that we don’t advocate drinking and spelunking. (Tip: We also don’t suggest alternating between a pale ale and a porter based on your game actions, as Anthony learned the hard way.) As with the Trail’s End, we enjoyed how the “monster of the deep” label art personified the expeditions below ground in the game.
Players should be wary of come-from-behind victories in Above and Below; a seemingly-clear winner as of round four or five can easily turn things around by round seven, as we saw—Eric swept up out of nowhere, despite not having as many resources as anyone else, and managed to secure a couple of Star Houses that netted him enough bonus points from his villagers to win the game.
The rest of us then called the barbarians and let them know where his new village was located.
Know any other innovative worker placement games? What are your favorite “Above” or “Below” beers?
About Above and Below
- Published in 2015 by Red Raven Games
- 2 to 4 players
- 90 to 120 minute play time
- Minus points for rules not mandating that monsters’ lines be read in a scary voice
About Trail’s End Pale Ale
- 5.4% ABV
- Limited to Pennsylvania… for now
- Even people who don’t care for pale ales will say, “Hey, this is pretty good”
About Black Jack Porter
- 6.8% ABV
- Slight malty sweetness with hints of dark chocolate and espresso
- Brewed in Colorado (what’s your excuse, Coors?)