|Above and Below (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
If you’ve been paying attention to the site, there are a few things you could probably deduce. The first is that I like city building games. Suburbia, Quadropolis, Lords of Waterdeep – they all got enthusiastic support for the way they let you feel like you’re actually contributing to the creation of something. The other thing you could probably deduce is that I love story in my games. Tales of the Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Fog of Love, Holding On. All of those got praised for the way they managed to force enjoyable (and occasionally meaningful) narrative into a game format in which it doesn’t necessarily thrive. Today’s review is for Above and Below and it’s a city-builder with strong narrative elements. That seems like it’s guaranteed to be a hit for little ol’ Michael.
Let’s find out if that’s true.
The first thing that will strike you about Above and Below is that it’s aesthetically lovely – cheerfully cartoony but still grounded in a kind of spooky otherworldliness. The core conceit of the game is that there’s a sunny overworld (the Above) that is marked by rich blues and vibrant greens. Lurking underneath though is the Below, a land of caves, secrets and mysterious creatures. Land in the Above is rich and plentiful, but you can also build outposts in the Below by exploring and claiming caverns into which you can place powerful and desirable buildings. To construct in the Below, you must become a denizen of the darkness.
You start off the game .with a handful of villagers, each with a simple set of statistics that define how useful they will be both above and below. Villagers come marked with a set of dice indicated along the top and those show the values you must roll in order for them to contribute success to a risky endeavour in the murk underneath the landscape. Each villager, save for some of the special types you find as a result of special encounters, has their own unique art – while they don’t come with names they do therefore come with personalities that are flavoured by their capabilities. You’ll probably have your favourites.
Your village will begin with a few beds in which your villagers can sleep. That’s important – You can only rest those for whom you have a bed and cohabitation is not permitted in this curiously Disney-esque view of pastoral life. Those villagers can be expended in productive tasks. If you have managed to create a flow of goods, you can harvest them. If you have sufficient money and an awake builder you can construct one of the options available in the shared architectural offering. Similarly if you have enough coin and a conscious villager in possession of a quill you can add a new villager to your population. You can have your villagers toil for coins, or you can gather up a few of your idle workers into an adventuring party and send them exploring.
Above and Below comes with a manual, which you would probably expect. It also comes with a spiral bound book of adventures, which you probably wouldn’t. If you’ve ever played Tales of the Arabian Nights you’ll be familiar with the basic idea – a randomisation process directs a reader to a passage of narrative text and the player decides which of the presented options they would like to pursue. Sometimes these choices lead to new passages of text that follow on, winding an intricate little tale through the legends of your villages. Othertimes you’ll be given a perfunctory dismissal and the gaming equivalent of the bum’s rush out of the door. You’ll encounter everything in here from underground villages of riches to entrapped demons of cunning and danger. The Below is roiling with weirdness and excitement and it’s an interesting counterpoint to the comparatively bucolic Above. It’s the difference between the Shire and Mordor, and the only thing separating them is a layer of topsoil.
The aim of this adventuring is usually to acquire caverns into which you can build, but there are other rewards too. Sometimes you get a reputational boost that will be worth points at the end of the game. Sometimes you get coins of a suitable denomination that they carry value in the overland. More often you’ll get ‘goods’, which contribute to your end game score in an interesting way – they become increasingly valuable per different type the more you have, and you get points for each that you find. The last few goods you acquire will be worth multiples of the first few, and if you can find a way to regularly harvest them from your growing steadings you’ll be on an express path to victory. It’s set collection with a weird degree of opportunistic randomness, where sometimes a lowly pot might be something you crave more than all the most sparkling jewels in the kingdom. Some buildings give you a small cache of goods you can harvest over time, others continually produce resources you can gather until the end of the game. That is provided you can spare the villagers to actually farm them.
There’s a lot going on in Above and Below and its seven rounds of play feel borderline parsimonious as a result. The struggle to recruit enough villagers to take advantage of all the opportunities you will eventually have is forever frustrated by a lack of money and a lack of beds. The housing crisis in your village is first and foremost one of self-inflicted puritanism. You need to ensure the vital propriety of everyone having a bed to themselves. You need to ensure that even if you would be able to solve your labour shortage simply by relaxing the Victorian code of morality that has the force of law in your lands.
The city building portion of Above and Below is satisfying – many of the buildings don’t do anything substantially more interesting than give you victory points, but others can be chained together into the makings of a powerful economic engine. Farms will grow fruits, underground pools will provide sustainable fishing. Other buildings will offer you income in exchange for the goods that you have harvested and stored, permitting you to generate considerable wealth from a kind of pastoral passive income. The higher scoring buildings tend to require adventure, but you can certainly do reasonably well as a stay-at-home farmer.
The underground adventures too are addictive, like pulling the handle on a subterranean slot machine. You get offered choices, decide what you want to do, and then hope the rewards are commensurate with the effort you invested. Every villager down in the dark-lands is one that can’t toil in your fields. However, the rewards are more unpredictable than they are in the overland and this might be exactly what you need to diversify your portfolio of produce. A random gem provided at the end of the game might be worth six or so points compared to the reliable, cheap ropes that you have been harvesting since turn one. If you have no means by which gems can be produced, adventuring can give you several turns worth of points with a single lucky outcome. On the other hand the reward for carefully navigating a twisty maze of passages might be that you get a couple of coins and a metaphorical black eye. Life’s a lottery, be lucky.
Both of these parts of the game then are satisfying and enjoyable, with meaningful rewards that let you choose whether you emphasise infrastructure or the thrill of uncertainty. They both contribute to your eventual success or failure, and let you take advantage of the skills of your villagers in sensible ways that feel impactful.
So, why does Above and Below feel so… disjointed?
It’s an odd state of affairs. Everything seems like it aligns in Above and Below and yet every time I have played I’ve felt like it left an itch in my brain I just couldn’t scratch. It came so close to being genuinely great that I was puzzled that I felt vaguely discomfited at its conclusion. Each of the two parts of Above and Below follow a reliable rail from the start of the game to the conclusion, and those tracks cross over in sensible ways. Caves from the Below are used to construct buildings in the Above, villagers for the Above are used to explore the Below. Goods from the Below contribute to income in the Above and…
… and this is where I think the design shows a significant crack. It’s like two halves of a mirror that were broken and put together almost perfectly but if you look closely you can see the weird gaps in the reflection. The goods you collect in Above and Below serve as a source of points and income, but they don’t serve as an interesting thing to collect in and of themselves and I think that’s where the system breaks down. It would be fine by itself but these gears grind in misalignment with another problem in the design.
The exploration passages in Above and Below are… well, above average. They’re not great literature by any stretch of the imagination but they are reasonably evocative and competently written. It’s possible to get a great deal of immersion out of them if the person reading is willing to get into the spirit of things. It’s a bit like working your way through an old Choose Your Own Adventure book as if it were written by the folks at Infocom. However, I think you’d have to stretch the definition to call these sections interesting, at least as far as the decisions go. Truthfully, they are barely decisions at all in any real sense.
I’ve mentioned above that in many cases you have more to do than people to do it, but that’s not something that’s likely to be experienced uniformly. If you’re in a game where beds are abundantly available you’ll soon find that you can hire enough villagers to make every challenge trivial. There are also barrels of cider available that can be used to substitute for a good night’s sleep. When you have an abundance of staff as a result of a housing surplus or the weaponization of alcoholism, you’ll find that you can comfortably accomplish everything you need with villagers left over. And at that point, exploration loses even its initial minor peril.
In every exploration challenge, you roll a die for each villager you send on the expedition and they will contribute success or not on the basis of the dice symbols marked along the top of their token. Most of the exploration challenges top out at seven or eight successes, and minimal success is usually set at the level of two or three. If you have five decent explorers you can send out after your building or harvesting then you’ll steamroller every challenge sent your way. You can all but guarantee a reward, and often guarantee the best reward you can get.
You don’t call your shots, you just pick from a set of options. If I’m offered the chance to ‘run away’ or ‘fight’ I pick one of those but they’ll be broken up into a sliding scale of reward. If I get three successes I might get one thing, five might get me another, seven another still. But I don’t have to say which of those I’m going for – I get the one that the roll tells me. In order words – it’s reward without risk. I don’t run the danger of losing out on any reward by aiming for the best and badly rolling. It’s like a game of blackjack where after you hit you get to reject the card. There’s such a linear, algorithmic relationship between villagers and rewards that you can map it out mathematically and you lose almost all of the energy that would otherwise go along with the gamble of decision making.
Those options and rewards too lack personality and any meaningful relationship to the villagers in your party. It feels intensely like it should matter more who you send on an adventure. It feels like some rewards should require particular skillsets or that having the presence of quills in the party would open up some choices that otherwise would be locked. None of that matters though. Roll your villagers into a clown-car and send them off into the below on the basis of their dice probabilities. That’s literally all they ever contribute. Can you spare them? Throw them in the car. They have no cost, convey no risk. There’s never a reason to not send a villager you can spare.
That’s especially true when it comes to mitigating poor rolls because even bad explorers have their use as cannon fodder. You can choose to exert members of your adventuring party for additional successes, which sends them off to the equivalent of your hospital where they’ll need time or potions to be rejuvenated. But again, this is something you decide after the roll. Your expenditure of resources is always exact and pre-meditated. While you don’t know what the reward will be for your efforts you do know you’ll almost never not get something if you want it.
That’s not what I’m talking about though when I say that the game just doesn’t integrate sufficiently to feel seamless. The below provides goods, opportunities, cash and reputation for the above but there’s precious little in the way of meaningful return traffic. I’d liked to have seen a lot more cohesion here. Goods have a variable rarity, but that doesn’t feel important. You might be in a position where gems are more plentiful to you than fruits and there’s no link other than ‘order of procurement’ that indicates actual value in the game. If you found one gem early on and never found any more gems ever again, it would still be less valuable than the ten lengths of rope you found in the ending turns of play. It means that everyone has their own weird economy of value, but in order for that to feel weighty it should be grounded somewhere and it would have been good to see it grounded in the adventuring. Unfortunately it just wouldn’t really work out when the text passages are preordained and the rewards predecided. More interesting adventuring and trading would be predicated on a game economy that worked more coherently. Say you met an old goblin in the below. He asks you for two mushrooms in exchange for a gem. For some players, that would be a very foolish exchange. For others, it might be worth its weight in gold. When goods have random value, it becomes very difficult for anyone to really feel like they have any value at all and the consequence of that is irrelevance of the economy.
And this is perhaps where the problem of the game is most manifest – nothing feels like it really matters in the below other than the chances you have of being able to roll large numbers. It doesn’t feel like you’re discovering an odd and alien ecology. It doesn’t feel like you can plan or stockpile for opportunities. Imagine if you had different places you could go and they all had their own internal economies. The rich gem miner might go to the dwarfs where gems are appreciated, whereas the farmer with plenty of fruits and mushrooms may find the starving goblins a source of more lucrative opportunities – and greater risks. As it is, exploration feels like a black box where rewards and penalties are the unpredictable outcome of dice. More integration between the economy and the Above and the Below would solve a lot of that. You’d have a reason to focus on building a sustainable engine rather than hoping for things you simply hadn’t found before. The choices you are offered in exploration are dull and uninteresting because in the end the rest of the game doesn’t line up in such a way as to give opportunities for them to be interesting. The goods system in Above and Below is fascinating, but made less relevant by the simple fact that it doesn’t really mean anything in a story context. That’s a massive flaw in a storytelling game.
Shut Up and Sit Down once notably argued that you don’t add parts of a game together – you multiply them. Half a game and half a game doesn’t sum up to a full game – it multiplies to a quarter of a game. I’m not 100% convinced the arithmetic works out in that way but I think they’re spot on in that the impact of underdevelopment isn’t merely subtractive. Above and Below feels like a game where the individual unit tests of would return green across the board, but the integration test of putting them together fails in important, predictable and preventable ways.
That said, I think I’d consider this a very successful proof of concept of a game that can genuinely warrant being called good. It succeeds in being a fun game more often than it fails. There’s potential greatness in here though and that’s what makes it frustrating. However, it’s also a game where I imagine that the rougher edges can be smoothed out with more expansion content should that be forthcoming. More meaning to the production of goods in the above, and more meaningful decision making in the below, would do wonders here. Above and Below is not a broken game by any stretch of the imagination. Just one that needs more attention given to its occasionally ragged edges.