Upsideville is the quintessential little US town (probably somewhere in Maine), it has all the staples you’d expect of a good town, a decent High School, a great drive-thru, and your atypical friendly neighbourhood police sheriff. Yes, living in Upsideville is pretty great. Or at least it used to be, there is something else there now too. The veneer of the American dream is being slowly scratched away, eroded by some indeterminate malevolent force. A darkness, a Creature if you will, is warping, twisting and turning that white picket fence into a dark splinter of its former self. It’s happening to the Townsfolk too.
If that sounds like Stranger Things the board game you’d be 99% right, you’d be a hair’s breadth away from being IP infringing right. If you love that show and love board games look no further (put down the Stranger Things Monopoly and step well away from that Eggo monstrosity). If you’ve not heard of or had time to binge watch that show, then you’ll be glad to hear that no prior knowledge of it is needed to fully enjoy this game - you’ll just notice all the little nods to it while you play if you are familiar.
So, Inbetween; it’s a game of good versus evil, of the Townsfolk of Upsideville rallying against an insidious menace that is trying to destroy the very fabric of reality. On the flipside of that, it is a game of a Creature from another plane of existence, that is trying to reach through and conquer ours, and in doing so, it will pollute and twist our world to fit its own. And that is the key point in this game, the flipside, the other version, the duality, it rings out in theme and mechanics. It is a game of direct conflict, take that style mechanics and is ultimately a tug of war, not just for the town on the whole, but for the people that make it.
The game starts with ten of the townsfolk, five in each dimension; Town and Creature - this does not mean that those individuals are safe or lost, far from it, it is simply their starting state; an Inbetween (see what they did there?). A player’s turn is denoted by the Activity Marker, a wooden cylinder where the ends indicate the player’s turn, it moves and flips at the end of each player’s turn, and it is really important, as sometimes, sometimes you’ll play out of sequence, depending on how the game progresses. On your turn, you’ll play a card from your hand, and matching the symbol on that card allows you to shift the Safety Marker one space. Each Townsperson has four spaces, four levels of safety, from Alert to Secure, or Nervous to Devoured. Getting three characters secured or devoured is one of the possible victory conditions.
Alternatively, you can clone the symbol type on the card and add that to any Character; so I can make Rodney both a Sheriff type and a Community type - making him far easier to secure in subsequent turns. This is a really interesting, and clever way of balancing out the character mix.
Now, when the Activity Marker is on any character where the Safety Marker is anywhere but the top space, it will trigger the character's ability. And these are really quite special, forming a large part of any strategy, and it is here that the twist comes, and it is this twist that makes this game for me. Firstly, the player whose dimension the Activity Marker is in gets to increase their (potentially game-ending) Awareness - which also grants a terrific one-shot ability for use at the beginning of the player’s turn. After this, the Character ability kicks in - regardless of whose turn it is. The effects vary from character to character, but they are all very worthwhile, and many a game I spent my time struggling to keep Timmy Guarded (spots 2 or 3) just so I can use his ability.
The combination of Activity Marker movement and character ability require a degree of planning, of orchestration, ensuring you have the cards and energy to dish out some much-needed damage to your opponent, or that they manipulate the game state to your advantage. These manoeuvres have a sense of a plot twist, or a major beat in the story you are unravelling.
Something I particularly appreciate in this game is duality, it seeps through from the theme into the mechanics, forming two very different player roles and styles. All the cards have multiple abilities, all the character cards are dual sided. Inbetween is a duel between two forces that are equally, and reflectively matched, but are different, it tricks you into thinking it is a classic Tug-of-War game, but that implies a fundamental equality between the two sides. The fairness in this game stems from the differences between to two roles, not their similarities. There is a subtle asymmetry to Inbetween making the two roles noticeably different, and interesting.
Inbetween utilizes multiple Game End/Victory Conditions which is something I love in my board games as it opens up gaming strategy and variability. Not only does this make each game potentially very different, but in a tug of war game, this system can result in some fantastic surprises. Rather splendidly, these conditions all work in tandem for at least the first half of the game, and depending upon how the game progresses you will often have at least two of the three options remaining open as viable victory methods, and it is, as I can personally attest to, very easy to switch between strategies and have your ass kicked.
I really like the art in this game, it would have been all too easy (and dangerous) to duplicate the Stranger Things pencil style artwork, instead Board & Dice call upon Seweryn Borkowski and gang to produce something that reminds me a lot of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn series - which is no bad thing at all! And the box! It has to be one of my favourites on the shelf, mainly because of how different it is - no logos, no text, not even the game name. Front and back are full art - and I love it.
One thing I would like to see tweaked, however; is the abstraction of the components, blue, red, and purple cubes look at odds within the theme and art style, and the little counters are unnamed which when playing takes you out of the game, more so for the Creature: “I’m going to play this little cloud thing, and Terrify Jamey.” Maybe not all players use all the in-game terminology all the time, but its absence means that I can’t. A very simple thing, but the lack of names, in a game which is otherwise very on point with its theme, stands out.
Every turn is valuable, with each action that you do something you are also not doing something else. There are interesting choices in this game, and as the game progresses those choices become weightier. It encapsulates the tug-of-war rather brilliantly, with an attitude of it is better to win the game rather than Secure/Devour that character. It is a game of pivoting possibilities, where your luck or your tactics can change quickly, and with dynamic effect, but the game never feels out of control. It is a game that can be a little tricky, or maybe finickity to teach, as each Phase has sub-sections to it, and cards and actions have multiple ‘moving’ parts, but it is a game I feel really rewards repeated plays. Inbetween it is one of my favourite two-player experiences, giving me everything I want in a game in a very small package.
This review was based on a full priced retail edition that I pre-ordered and paid for out of my own money from my own pocket.
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Thank you for great review!