Over and Under
If there’s any one thing that sets the designs of Ryan Laukat apart, it’s the fact that nothing ever really “goes to hell.” Even when you’re fighting world-crushing titans in The Ancient World, they never quite get around to crushing the world. There are no Nazis to pilfer your 1930s loot or kidnap your significant other in Artifacts, Inc. Even warfare in Eight-Minute Empire represents minor setbacks rather than crushing routs. By and large, Laukat’s games are set in a bizzaro universe where optimism and progress rule the day.
Now, that might sound dull. I couldn’t blame you if it did. Because, sure, it’s conflict that drives our games, and a game without conflict hardly feels like a game at all. Which is why it’s such a relief that Laukat’s designs are brimming with conflict — it’s just that it’s the sort where nobody ever gets seriously hurt, where you’re racing to be the most optimistic and most industrious, where the goal is to have the most good things happen to you rather than avoiding the bad. It’s childlike, almost, if that didn’t feel like an underhanded insult. Innocent. Pure.
Above and Below might be the greatest exemplar of Laukat’s spirit of optimism thus far.
That atmosphere is drawn deep into the lungs of Above and Below, oxygenating its blood with a can-do disposition that purges all traces of player conflict. In fact, players — cast as village leaders attempting to rebuild their wrecked town in a new land — hardly have anything to do with each other at all, to a point that will certainly be too slim for some. At worst, you can claim a building or hire a settler that somebody else was eyeing; the rest of the time, you might sell them something nice (though this is rare) or read them a pleasant adventure story (quite common). You will never attack a rival, never undermine them, never burn down their fishery and steal their jugs of fish-sauce.
And that’s totally okay.
Let’s rewind a bit. The story begins — and this is a game that wants very badly to be a story — with a band of refugees settling an untouched land. The countryside is empty of enemies, has enough space for every town to expand comfortably, and abounds in resources. There’s no reason to fight over anything. Even if there were, these war-sick émigrés probably wouldn’t want to. And if they get bored, below the earth are miles and miles of tunnels and caverns and subterranean galleries. These are far more treacherous than the surface, packed with nasties and dark corridors and ankle-twisting falls, a perfect outlet for man’s need for adventure and harm’s way.
In a sense, it’s a statement. Enough with war, it seems to say, this is a place where you won’t be clashing with your fellows because there’s no need to clash with them. And while I doubt Laukat put that sort of spin on his own work, it’s evident that this was designed from the ground up to be a pleasant sort of experience, not a gut-knotting one.
At the heart of the pleasantries is the encounter book, though it takes a bit of explaining to arrive at it. See, each town is populated by villagers, and you assign them to do things around town. Sometimes you’ll have them construct new buildings, or go off to recruit a new settler, or labor in the fields for money and refreshing cider — which is a game mechanic, not a joke. Like most of Laukat’s designs, there are multiple resources to manage, not enough villagers to do everything at once, and a scoring system where you get points for assembling sets of special tiles. In this case, gathering stuff like pottery, rope, gems, or fish means you can ensconce them in your village. There’s a clever twist in the scoring where you want to have stacks of goods at the back half of your track, but in order to get there you’ll have to find and store stuff you don’t plan to focus on — so sometimes it’s good to specialize, other times to generalize, and always to have an eye out for what buildings are available.
This is where the encounter book comes in. While you could, in theory, spend the entire game building on the surface, the best structures tend to be built below ground. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to do this until you’ve cleared a cavern for construction. This means every so often you’ll have to gather a group of villagers — the same limited guys you’ve got tending your orchards and making friends — and send them on an adventure. Then you draw a card, roll a die, and someone else gets to read you a nice little story.
You meet an unpleasantly fuzzy spider standing guard at a round doorway. It smells of head-cheese and unwashed testicles. Its bristles are like an old feather-duster where the feathers have been worn down to scratchy quills. It rattles at you and screeches, and you discern that it wants a hug. Do you dare to hug it out, or return the way you came?
HUG IT OUT: Explore 5 (two coins, potion) Explore 7 (three coins, ball o’ wax, +2 reputation)
RETURN THE WAY YOU CAME: Explore 3 (coin, -1 reputation)
Check your explorers, roll some dice, maybe suffer a non-serious injury or two, pick up your rewards. Easy as that. You could even skip the story stuff, if you were a heartless dullard. The writing isn’t exactly War and Peace, but it gets the job done. The effect is somewhat similar to a different storytelling game, Tales of the Arabian Nights. The main difference is that Tales was all about its 300-page book and little else, giving you all sorts of caveats and statuses and ways to modify the outcome of an adventure, while Above and Below is primarily about building your village. Here, the encounter book is a detour, less than 50 pages in length and thoroughly pared-down in complexity. It’s a nice way to pick up bonus resources, earn a cavern to put a structure into, and hear a pleasant story about a jaunt beneath the surface of the earth. It sets the tone perfectly, and after a few rounds it’s wonderful to observe how your village supports your spelunking while your spelunking supports your village.
In the end, you’re judged by a number of criteria — how big your village got, how many resources you hoarded. The usual fare. The real reward, however, is in just how simple, enjoyable, and — yep — optimistic the experience is. It can drag with more players, especially in those later rounds when everyone has finally put together a good adventuring crew, so I recommend playing with only two or three people.
But when it really gets going, it’s an almost serene experience watching your village grow from one bunkhouse to a number of fisheries, pottery kilns, gem orchards, real orchards, and a whole bunch of townsfolk who seem as content as you are, even when you’ve put them in the hospital and you don’t really want to spare the potions or beds to heal them.
Oh, one last thing: you can find special companions in the caves. Sending a cat-person to gather ore, only for him to fall asleep in a sunbeam for the entire afternoon, is as light and as fun as light fun gets.