Review – Stranger Things: Upside Down
|Artist||Giovanna BC Guimarães, Henning Ludvigsen|
Stranger Things: Upside Down puts players in the roles of the characters from the titular Netflix series. Set during the first two seasons of the show, players work together—with the help of Eleven—to face down the perils invading Hawkins.
Stranger Things: Upside Down is a cooperative adventure in which players race to save Will Byers. Played on a board split between the town and the Upside Down, players move about the map, taking actions and fighting foes.
At the start of the game, stacks of tokens are seeded around the board, representing the monsters and challenges players will face. Each player takes a hand of 5 cards and a character dashboard. The dashboards list the characters’ starting locations and special powers, and also feature a “fear track.”
Players begin their turn by moving. All players have a base movement amount, but they can add extra movement by playing action cards. When traveling through the Upside Down, players may be forced to gain fear.
Wherever a player stops their movement, they then take an action. If an enemy is present in that space, the action must be a combat encounter.
When fighting or resolving a challenge, the player plays as many action cards as they like. Then, they reveal the stack of challenge tokens corresponding to their action and add up the tokens’ values. If the value of their played cards is equal to or greater than that of the tokens, the action is successful and the tokens are discarded. Otherwise, the player fails the action and gains fear.
If the player’s space contains no enemies, they can instead take a non-combat action. These include:
- Reduce fear
- Gain an item from the item deck
- Peek at challenge tokens
- Recruit allies
- Activate an Eleven power
- Rescue Will
Some of these actions still require players to beat a stack of tokens, but those actions are voluntary; only combat is mandatory.
After the player has taken their action, they refill their hand to 5 cards. If the deck runs out, the game timer advances to the next act and the discard pile is reshuffled. (Players immediately lose if the deck gets depleted for a third time.)
Once the player has moved, resolved an action, and refreshed their hand, they draw “scene cards.” Scenes are the turn-to-turn negative effects that keep the challenge going. Some action cards may require extra scenes to be drawn, so players should think carefully about which cards they use.
Play continues in this sequence until the end of the game. If players accomplish the scenario objective, they win, but if a player’s fear track gets maxed out or the deck gets depleted 3 times, they lose.
Stranger Things: Upside Down uses the co-op framework of “move and do good stuff, then resolve bad stuff.” As is the case with most cooperative games, players must focus on the main objective, while simultaneously putting out fires across the board.
The game design feels somewhat formulaic, but the mechanism of having to commit cards to a challenge before knowing its difficulty is interesting. It asks players to decide between spending extra cards—thereby depleting the deck faster and possibly overpaying—or pushing their luck in hopes of beating a challenge with fewer cards. On top of this, the fact that some cards force players to draw extra scenes adds another wrinkle to the decision (i.e. “If I commit another card, my chances of success will increase, but then we will have to resolve an additional bad event.”)
The Stranger Things theme comes through somewhat, in large part because of the graphic design and character powers. The challenges and encounters, however, are quite abstract; comparing numbers on cards to numbers on tokens doesn’t exactly feel like fighting the Demogorgon. I don’t think I would have minded so much if there was more variety in how the challenges work, but as it is, the game largely boils down to playing cards against token stacks. After a while, it can feel repetitive.
Production-wise, the game looks nice, with a striking board and detailed plastic miniatures. It manages to visually capture the Stranger Things atmosphere, which is a major plus.
All told, Stranger Things: Upside Down is a mixed bag. It’s a competent design with some original ideas, but the main focus of the game—fighting token stacks—starts to feel stale after a while. The Stranger Things IP works well, though, which certainly elevates the experience. I would say it’s worth a try if you’re a fan of the show, but it may have limited staying power.
A review copy was provided by Asmodee.
The Bottom Line
Stranger Things: Upside Down is a competent design with some original ideas, but the main focus of the game—fighting token stacks—starts to feel stale after a while. It is worth a try, especially for fans of the show, but it may have limited staying power.