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Creature Discomforts – InBetween Review

Before you even get to the game itself there is something odd about InBetween, and it starts with the box.  The picture is of a sunny, verdant and American front yard, car parked there in the drive, child’s bicycle leaning up against the picket fence, the house all clean and inviting and presumably smelling of apple pie and filled with wholesome hugs on the inside.  There’s no name for the game, no credit for the designers.  In fact, apart from this vision of suburban tranquility there really is not much to see here at all, so we look at the side of the box, and here we find the information we seek.  InBetween is a two player contest designed by Adam Kwapiński, and he lists Agricola as one of his favourite games, so I am already partially onside.  While we’re here, let’s just turn the box over and see the loveliness that lies underneath, presumably the back yard of the pictured house, or maybe the view on the other side of the street.

InBetween Card Game

The lovely recto…

Oh dear.  We really should not have done that.  The vision that greets us on the base is a hellish, melted, infernal alternate view of what was hometown America, a once-seen-never-unseen mess of burning, Giger-esque delirium that may just lure us to our ends, and in a deeply unpleasant manner.  This, folks, is Upsideville, and it lives on two different planes, in the human and creature dimensions, and it will be up to you and one other player to lure the inhabitants to your side by any means necessary, either to devour them or to secure them and, thereby, win the game.

You’re turning me…Upsideville!

To be honest, the name of the town – Upsideville – does not really do it for me.  It could have been called Turnover Town or Vacillating Village and would have had much the same effect, a light titter here, a shrug of the shoulders.  But we will leave that small matter aside, because for all the reported references to Stranger Things, part of the Netflix tsunami unseen by me, the place Upsideville reminds me of most is Silent Hill, that game for the PlayStation from the embers of the last century that set my nerves on edge in a way that an experience has rarely done before or since, torn, like InBetween between the normal world and some hellish other reality.

InBetween Card Game

…and the hellish verso.

InBetween riffs on the same theme, workaday locations transformed into traps and the stuff of nightmares, characters running the gamut of emotions from calm and stable to terrified and shattered.  Give the inhabitants of the town enough to believe in and you, the human player, will save the day, but get them terrified enough and you, the creature player, can drag them to destruction, cackling manically all the way.  If this sounds like fun to you and somebody else then we can get started on what is in the box.

Portability is high!  Cards and little else!

InBetween is light in terms of components, but that does not necessarily mean that it skimps on the gameplay.  Race For The Galaxy is little more than a pack of cards, of course, and here, too, cards make up the core elements of the game.  Each player has their own smallish deck, there are eighteen double-sided character cards, only ten of which are used in each game, a few tokens, and really that is it apart from the rules.  InBetween scores high for portability, and if it can match this in terms of what it offers when out on the table then it could be very useful indeed in a collection.

InBetween Card Game

Components are of impressively high quality.

Setting up is easy.  You simply arrange ten of the character cards in a circle, alternating between the human and creature dimensions, while each player shuffles their deck, draws three cards, and also receives a supply of five energy cubes.  In terms of getting ready to play, that is very nearly all there is to do, so InBetween scores highly for ease of set up.  Each player also receives an Awareness card and an excellent guide to the structure of each turn and what those icons on the character cards mean.  The text on the character cards is a little small, presumably to make way for the great art, but all their abilities are printed additionally on the back of the rules for good measure, which is a helpful touch.

Easy to play!  Hard to play well…

InBetween has that beguiling quality of being easy to learn but difficult to play effectively, and that is always something that I admire in a game.  At its most basic, players really have three quite basic choices on their turn.  They can play a card from hand, receive energy cubes equal to the number of characters in their dimension (to a maximum of ten), or they can discard any number of cards and redraw to five.  Where InBetween gains its strength is that these simple choices intertwine with each other in a wonderfully balanced way.

InBetween Card Game

Artwork is excellent and hugely evocative.

Let’s break those three choices down into a little more detail.  Playing a card amounts to little more than just that, but it allows you to move a Safety marker on a character who matches the icon on the card, shifting them away from your opponent’s influence, or to place a matching symbol token on any character, rendering them liable to future influence.  The tricky decision is whether then to use the card’s special ability, which usually costs energy, and that is in very short supply indeed.  2 Energy might not sound like a whole lot of wattage to have to spend, but each of those cubes is precious.

Resting and Preparing are necessary…but need to be timed well!

Once you run low on energy, of course, you will need to take the Rest action.  If you currently have several characters in your dimension on the board then this can result in a bumper crop of cubes, but equally you may be forced into doing this because you have to, and it loses you an opportunity to influence a character.  Just as expensive in terms of loss of influence is the discard-and-redraw option, called Prepare, but given that a player only begins the game with three cards in hand and that Preparing allows a draw to five, it is a tempting option early in the game.  It is up to you to decide how much that puts you on the back foot.

InBetween Card Game

Energy is scarce and valuable.

At the end of each turn the current character card is assessed, the one with the player turn marker on it.  If it is InBetween, so in one of the two dimensions but without influence, then nothing happens, but if there is a Safety marker on the card then the player who controls that character may increase their Awareness by 1.  If the card is firmly in one dimension or the other then its ability also triggers, which can be very helpful indeed…or disastrous.

Stay aware!  It could win you the game!

Awareness is also important, because once per game each player is allowed to trigger their Awareness ability, and it becomes more powerful the longer it is left alone.  Let it sit and mature for long enough and you can trigger something very useful indeed, and if you ever reach an Awareness level of 6 then it is game over and you either save or devour the town, depending on which side of the table you sit.

InBetween Card Game

The one-off Awareness ability gets more powerful the longer you leave it.

While an Awareness of level 6 wins the game for that player, gaining full control over three characters will do the same, while if only five character cards remain in play then the winner is the player who has the majority.  These different win conditions all serve to keep each player looking over their shoulder, and means as well that InBetween comes with a decent amount of bluff thrown in for good measure.  Did the Creature move that token because they have a matching card in hand or to hinder me?  Are they really after that particular character or is it a distraction?

Asymmetry?  A balanced thing!

Although I have not mentioned it yet, it should be clear that InBetween is asymmetrical, each player competing with their own deck of cards which is different from their opponent’s.  Normally these kinds of games only really come into their own when players know what is in their opponent’s deck and what they might have to fend off, but that requires several plays against the same opponent, and not all games are inviting or interesting enough to get to that stage.  InBetween neatly sidesteps this by keeping things simple.  The Creature only has seven different cards, for example, with four copies of each, so it is a cinch to get to grips with the deck, likewise to get some idea of what might lie in wait.  The Human’s deck is more diverse, but also includes Equipment cards which stay in play and grant permanent abilities.

InBetween Card Game

The turn marker moves around the circle.

InBetween does an awful lot in a small package, and as a game unfolds the decisions become trickier with each passing move, to the extent that players can experience that adrenaline-fulled terror that might not be a million miles away from the fear of being dragged into another dimension, although here it is more to do with what your opponent might do next.  For a game that requires little more than a shuffle of two decks to get going, there is a satisfying amount of thought that needs to be taken about what move to do next and where your focus should lie.

Area control for two?  Here are your choices!

It reminds me of 7 Ronin in some ways, which I reviewed a while ago, and also of Sun Tzu, both head-to-head games with area control at their heart.  All three of these are very fine indeed, and I would have a tricky decision to make if I were to choose one above the other two, but InBetween is a strong contender to come out at the top of the pile, because there are so many different things going on.  It feels very much like a modern game, something that was designed recently, partially because it has multiple ways to influence the cards, but also because it integrates them so well.

InBetween Card Game

Some characters appear on other cards, giving the town a sense of community.

Of course, not all modern games do that, but the best ones succeed at it, and InBetween has that extra quality of showing that its designers have thought long and hard about its design.  I have mentioned the great artwork, which is everywhere, but there are other wonderful touches too.  I particularly liked that some characters turn up on multiple cards as they visit other characters – it is a small detail, but one that subtly reinforces the idea of Upsideville as a living, active community rather than just a collection of names and special abilities.  That those abilities match the characters so well and so thematically is a bonus.

Final verdict?  Nothing InBetween about it!

InBetween may well end up being lost in the gaming explosion of the modern age, but it deserves to do better than that.  This is a solid and rewarding piece of design, atmospheric, thematic, tense and fun, and with a fair amount of variability built in.  For half an hour or so it has the capacity to immerse its players in an experience that feels like more than just pushing cubes around a bunch of cards, and it ought to do well, although the small and understated box does count against it.  For a meaty head to head experience in half an hour, though, InBetween does most things right, and for that reason I am happy to give it 8 out of 10.  Maybe with a bit of luck it could even become some kind of sleeper hit – after all, Stranger Things have happened.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.