Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Once Upon a Die

Years ago (so long ago, in fact, that my regular group of board gaming friends was an entirely different collection of people), my friends and I would occasionally mix things up with a game called Tales of the Arabian Nights. An unwieldy and cheaply published affair with loads of tiny chits and a shoddily drawn board/map, the game's main allure was its "Choose Your Own Adventure" element. The game came with a giant story book of little one-paragraph adventures, to be read by a fellow player whenever you had an encounter in the game.

The fun was almost entirely tied up in this book. The game itself was lackluster, so much so that even when it was reprinted in a new addition a while back, I made no effort to track down a copy. But I always hoped that someday, someone might come along and make a better game to go along with the storytelling gimmick. That game -- or, at least, the attempt to make that game -- has arrived in Above and Below.

In Above and Below, each player takes control of an emerging village. Workers can be assigned to construct new building tiles, recruit new specialized workers, or explore the mysterious underground caves beneath their village. And with exploration comes -- you guessed it -- a short story, read to you by a fellow player.

Above and Below lacks some of the corny charm of the Arabian Nights game, which isn't a bad thing. And to compensate for anything lost is a more reasonable game with at least some measure of strategy. You're in competition with fellow players to acquire the same building tiles and advanced workers they'll want. There are several types of resources to be gathered. The in-game scoring system for those resources has a fun little wrinkle for maximizing your points. So yes, there is more going on here for a serious gamer to like.

But there are dice. Every action you take involves you rolling a six-sided die against a target success number. Better workers can produce multiple successes on a single roll, and/or succeed more frequently because of easier thresholds for success. Dice aren't exactly a death knell for me in a serious board game, but they certainly have to be used in a way that feels fair. I'm not entirely convinced that Above and Below does. Each player rolls for himself, not affecting the game as a whole -- so one player can go on a streak of good or bad luck. And there aren't really enough rolls in the game to be sure it all evens out; the roughly 90-minute game lasts for only a small number of set turns.

Now the game does let you hedge your bets, allocating more than you "need" to a task in case of bad rolls. And maybe that kind of risk mitigation enough. Because let's face it, a game whose primary feature is "story time with your friends" is not likely to be the go-to game for a hardcore group of Euro-game fans. On the other hand, if you do take your games at least semi-seriously, then the potential is certainly here for you to fail at the game through no fault of your own.

So where does that leave Above and Below? Well, I'm not quite sure. I know I would play it again. And I know I thought far more highly of it than the old Tales of the Arabian Nights that I imagine it replacing. So call it a B, perhaps? It's not something I would necessarily request first on game night, but neither is it something I'd shoot down if suggested.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Do you still have to say "Pass the book of Tales"? If not, I don't know how it could possibly be better.