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Top o’ the Essen- an Inis Review

Inis Box Art

Surprising as this might be to anyone reading this, I really enjoy playing board games (WHAT?!!?) and try and keep my finger on the gaming pulse; at least for the parts of it which interest me anyway. Some of the biggest buzz out of Essen was about Inis. So, I took a look and thought to myself “hmmm, it looks alright but nothing special”. Now I have a copy and that view has been changed ever so slightly.

I’m pretty new to area control games. The closest thing I have come to it so far, is probably Tyrants of the Underdark (check the blog for a fantastically written review by yours truly). Whilst it is an area control game, it only feels like half of one to me since it’s also half a deck building game too. So I went in to my first game of Inis with some trepidation, 3 players and a bunch of snacks. This is what happened (spoiler: the snacks got eaten):

Inis Impressions

First impressions are important, anyone who has ever been in a relationship or had a job interview will know this well. It’s one thing to see a board game in photo’s or videos and build an image of what it looks like in your mind, but quite another for it to turn up.

My first impression of Inis? That box is HUGE! We’re not talking Scythe huge or Mechs vs Minions huge, but it was definitely larger than I was expecting. I was thinking it would be “regular” Ticket to Ride sized, bit it’s a bit larger. After seeing the size of the box, I did start shredding the wrapping off with the childish glee of a 6 year old version of myself at Christmas… to be very surprised with what I found. Coal… wait, sorry. That’s the 6 year old me talking. Ridiculously oversized map tiles! These tiles are approximately 8 inch triangles, so if there’s a lot of land out, expect a lot of table room to be eaten.

OK, oversized map tiles are not the only thing I found in the Inis box, but they definitely set an interesting first impression. There are also some miniatures for 4 separate clans of celts, a capital city, some stongholds, and some sanctuaries. Last, but not least are the most important part of Inis: the cards.

Smart Art

Before I get into the gameplay, and the cards and what they do, I really want to talk about the artwork for Inis. I initially believed that the art was done by one person, but have since found out this is not the case. The reason I find it interesting is because the art on the map tiles is truly beautiful. They’re all covered in really eye-catching watercolour like images which are linked to the places they represent. For example, the swamp is well done and consists of deep greens and looks… swamp like. Even the map tile for the plains which is… well, plain (and covered in rain) is really well put together.

Tiles

Tile

But then you get to the art on the box and the art on the epic tale cards. The epic tale cards and the box art are almost a lesson in psychedelia. I wonder if perhaps the artist went foraging for mushrooms in the forest, found the wrong ones and had a “religious experience” and decided to create the art at this point. Don’t get me wrong, the art is striking and exceptionally well done, but full on trippy.

Epic Tale

No Mike, but good Mechanics

Inis does also have some interesting mechanics which I’ve not seen anywhere else. When you do the draft at the beginning of the round you start with 4 cards, you choose one and then pass the other 3 on. On the second pass of the draft you add your drafted card back into the mix, keep 2 cards and then pass the rest on. You then do the same again, but take 3 cards from the hand and pass one last one on, which you and your opponent(s) have to keep.

The other interesting mechanic Inis has which I have never seen before, is that all of the action cards are handed out except one which is kept face down throughout the round. So, that card that you could be holding out for, may not actually be there after all. It may not be original (I haven’t played every game ever) but it definitely makes for some interesting gameplay.

Action Cards

One last little nugget of awesome I found with Inis, is that to decide the direction of play, whoever is in charge (the Brenn) flips a token (like they’re flipping a coin) and play proceeds the way it lands. It’s another little thing to make gameplay interesting and makes Inis a unique beast.

Digging for Victory!

The idea of Inis, is to complete one (or more) of the 3 victory conditions at the beginning of a round. The conditions are to spread your clan out into 6 different territories, occupy territories where there is a total of 6 sanctuaries or be chieftain (have the majority of people in) of a territory with at least 6 other clans in it. Wow, when it’s written down, it sounds so easy… it’s really not.

When the game starts you put out enough tiles for each of the players (4 for a 4 player game, and 2 for 2 players) and then randomly decide where the capital is and place 2 clans wherever you like. That’s when the nastiness begins.

There will be blood

You start with your drafted hand of 4 cards (don’t forget about the mystery one on the table), but there is only one kind of each card. So, only one person could use a proper attack card, one person can “discover new land” and get more map tiles out, and one person may well have the card which for me rules them all… the Inis version of a “NOPE” card. It means that it cancels out the action of another player. By the same token though, there is more than one card which will let you move or place a clan so the race to be chieftain is still on.

Whoever is chieftain of each province gets its corresponding advantage card. As the name implies, this can give you a useful bonus such as being able to place a clan in a territory you’re already present, or being able to draw another epic tale card after playing one. This is the first point where people could start competing over who is the chieftain in places since the bonuses can be extremely useful- but can also be utter rubbish (I’m looking at you Plains).

Inis 3

Then, there’s the previously mention toad-licking-psychadelic epic tale cards. The epic tale cards from Inis are actually based around epic tales from Celtic history, which is a fantastically thematic and pretty respectful touch. Oh, and they give you some pretty helpful bonuses when you play them. These can range from being able to see the mystery card on the table, to being able to sneak a couple of clans in to certain places to try and overthrow the chieftain.

Pretending (Like Chrissie Hind)

To keep Inis balanced and to stop people from sneaking the win as can often happen, the designer introduced the great equaliser. When you’re close to fulfilling a win condition, you need to pick up a “pretender token” as you have now become a pretender to the throne. It’s Inis’ version of putting a huge target on your back. Obviously, once you have done so, people try and stop you from winning and thus keep things close. However, you can also throughout the game collect deed tokens (which make me really want a Guinness) which means you can reduce the win condition by one (for example being present chieftain over 5 clans instead of 6) which can help tip the odds back in your favour.

Pretender

Inis or Out-is?

Considering how indifferent I was about Inis when doing my initial research, it has far surpassed my expectations. Inis is a genuinely clever, close knit and close fought game. The rules are simple, the game play is simple, but the tactics and the interactions that you’re forced to have throughout the game are anything but simple; and that is the genius of it.

Combat is really simple too, which makes the game play a lot easier. But, I found that a lot of the time, it doesn’t benefit anybody to actually get into a fight. In my first game I accidentally got into a fight and ended up losing most of my clans, and quite literally handing the win to another player.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect, as I cannot say I have found one yet. The biggest disadvantages I can see of Inis so far is that sometimes you will pick up epic tale cards and then keep them for the whole game because it doesn’t fit in with the type of game you’re trying to play. There’s also the fact that it’s pitched as a 2-4 player game, and it can be played as such, but with 2 players you’re at the whim of your opponent too much during the draft, and with 3 players there’s the problem that if 2 players start to face off then the other one can sneak into a good position while they’re distracted.

Also, the play time which is touted on the box doesn’t seem to be much of a fair reflection either. It is on there as an hour per game but I’ve found that with 2, it can be done in around 30-40 minutes but with 3 it can go on for much longer. Oddly with 4 players it probably settles around an hour and a quarter but I need to have more games to find out how consistent it is.

That being said, if you are able to play at the full player count, Inis is a genuinely fantastic game. All of the gameplay aside, it is a great game for the interaction it gives between players. It can raise the tumult of emotions which I don’t tend to expect from most games. It can make you feel guilty for robbing someone of one (or many) of their clans, or truly devastated if you’re wiped out while causing a battle by accident. Inis can awaken your inner pacifist and you can try and avoid a battle through negotiation and goodwill, and of course give you that elation that an utter trouncing of one form or another can give you. I even found myself grudgingly in awe of a great play when it happens- even when it happens to me, which for me tips the scales from Inis being a good game, to a great game.

Inis has wowed me in a way I don’t feel I have been wowed in a while. I have played an amazing game and feel guilty for judging Inis without having played it. Overall I have to give Inis a Celtic Clan Smashing 9 out of 10.

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Chris Dunnings

I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.

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