You don't have to look very hard to find discussions about theme in board games. For some, theme is just window dressing and comes in a distant second to mechanics. For others, theme is the most important aspect of a game, and these players will often forgive some mechanical flaws if the theme is tight and immersive enough. Into the Echoside's theme is undeniable, persistent, ridiculous, off-putting, hilarious, and completely inconsistent, and there is no denying that many people are going to scoff at the game simply because of the theme. I'll be the first to admit that I sought out a review copy of the game out of morbid curiosity, as I'm not really familiar with the Insane Clown Posse, or any of the other Psychopathic Records artists' music. This game can't actually be any good, right?
Into the Echoside has been quite the fun surprise. The theme is absolutely bonkers, but the gameplay is solid, and it does some fun things that I haven't seen in other center line deckbuilding games. Like other center-liners, Into the Echoside lays out a row of cards for players to purchase and interact with, the cards are worth points, and the player with the most points at the end of the game wins. Karma is the currency of choice here, and, upon first blush, it's the only currency in the game. Nearly every card simply has a Karma cost. If you can afford the cost, the card is yours and, like other games, there is always a cheaply priced card, in this case Juggalos, to purchase for players who can't afford, or don't want, anything from the center-line.
So far, so simple. Into the Echoside changes things up slightly by adding a second row of expensive Epic cards that also act as the game's timer. Once a certain number of Epic cards have been purchased, the game ends and players tally their scores. Where it deviates further from the norm is in the existence of a completely separate deck of cards called the Flavor Deck. Cards from the Flavor Deck aren't added to a player's deck like normal; instead, they are played immediately for some random benefit. The Flavor cards are always beneficial, but there's no telling exactly what the next card will bring, so Flavor is not always guaranteed to provide players with what they might need in the moment.
Into the Echoside also has a Wheel of Fate that various cards and effects will have players roll on during play. The game includes a 12 sided die for this purpose, and there are 12 options on the Wheel of Fate. Like the Flavor Deck, it's entirely random and adds a touch of chaos to the mix, but the results are almost always a net positive for the triggering player. For players that like to rely on luck, like myself, the Flavor cards and Wheel of Fate are a fun way to spice up the gameplay.
These random elements aren't necessary to be successful at the game, though, and players can avoid them fairly easily in favor of cards that have a static effect. Additionally, most cards in the game are associated with one of three Crews. If a player manages to play three or more cards of the same Crew, they get a Unity Benefit. The Dark Carnival benefit is +2 Karma, the Psychopathic benefit is to draw a card, and the Underground benefit is to draw a Flavor card. It's nice to be able to tailor your deck towards the benefits you prefer, and there is even a mechanic that allows players to shift the Juggalo deck around in order to find the Juggalo that matches the Crew they are building around.
There are two ways to play Into the Echoside, both a standard mode and an advanced mode that adds Fiends and a few extra Items into the main deck. Fiends work very similarly to the Trophy cards in Ascension X: War of Shadows but have a much wider array of abilities and uses, including some really interesting ways to mess with your opponents. When you purchase a Fiend card with Karma, it stays on the table in front of you until you decide to use its effect during any of your turns. The advanced mode is the only way to play because it makes the game a lot more interesting and provides many strategic options, so unless you are brand new to deckbuilding, I'd recommend playing with the Fiend cards included from the get-go.
Another fun aspect of Into the Echoside are cards with Stomp and Shield effects. Cards with a Stomp effect can be discarded from their owner's hand during an opponent's turn in order to Stomp a card just played or a Fiend ability as it is being used. Cards with a Shield simply can't be Stomped. The ability to Stomp each other means that players stay engaged during the other players' turns, and it makes players consider the order in which they play cards. Each card in Into the Echoside has to be fully resolved before a player can play another, so a player with really strong cards in hand may try to lure their opponent into Stomping a less powerful card earlier in their turn, so that their better card can go unmolested. The Stomp mechanic adds a high level of player interaction and engagement to the game, and really makes the other players feel like opponents, rather than just other people playing the game with you.
A note on “chrome”: Into the Echoside's cards are decent quality, the board is nicely made with some excellent art, and the rulebook is well laid out and makes learning the game a breeze. The rulebook lists five variants, including a team variant, for players who like to mix things up, and it describes the most ridiculous tie breaker I've ever come across. One of the cards in this review copy has an obvious mar on the back, but otherwise the cards are consistently colored. The art itself ranges from simple photoshop-filter portraits to some awesome illustrations of evil looking clowns and demons, but overall everything gels pretty well within the wild hodgepodge of the theme.
The bottom line:
Into the Echoside is a solid deckbuilding game with a decent level of player interaction, and some interesting ideas painted with an absolutely outlandish theme, made even more-so by the fact that it's based on, and around, a group of real world musicians. If the game had no real world connection, and was simply themed around a nightmare horror clown-world, it would be an easy recommendation to anyone who likes deckbuilding games and horror themes. As it stands, based on how I've seen people react to the game without having played it, the Insane Clown Posse tie-in may end up doing the game more harm than good, which is actually quite a shame. This is a fun game with fun mechanics. If you like ICP, or other Psychopathic artists, and tabletop games, then Into the Echoside is a no-brainer. Even if you aren't a fan of the musicians, don't be so quick to judge this one just based on the theme, there's a great game under the clown makeup.
Get this game if:
You enjoy deckbuilding games.
You want a competitive deckbuilding game that let's you directly interfere with your opponents during their turns.
You like games with outlandish themes.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike deckbuilding games.
You simply can't get past the theme.
The copy of Into the Echoside used for this review was provided by Psychopathic Records.