5 Chits, 3 Giggles
Here's something a lot of you may not know about me; I'm a baker. When I'm not feasting on cardboard, I'm pottering about the kitchen or a market stall thinking of delightful concoctions and cooking up tasty cakes. Often people like to think of elaborate recipes with complimentary flavours and grand designs, drizzled with the current flavour of the month salted caramel or smothered with Chantilly cream, thinking that it's the way to peoples hearts, but for me? Something different often works, even if the recipe itself is quite basic. After all, I love vanilla and even a victoria sponge only consists of four ingredients, yet it is one of the most popular cakes in the world.
At this point, you're probably wondering why I've opened a review of a board game by talking about cakes. Firstly, are you saying it's a bad idea to make you think about cake? Secondly, and probably not surprising in the least, it's an analogy! While games like Rising Sun, Kingdom Death Monster and Star Wars Destiny/X-Wing focus so much on the luxury nature of gaming (and there's nothing wrong with a bit of that here and there), Inis takes the approach thaf often the best things are borne from simple backgrounds, or to go back to my cake analogy, sometimes the basic recipes provide the best results.
Inis is a three tier sponge cak- I mean, it's an area control game with card drafting and diplomacy, and like Matagot's other games, it is pure gaming delight and not of the angel variety (...and that's this reviews token pun out of the way). Based on Celtic/Gaelic history, you are the chieftain of a clan and your goal is to achieve at least one of three victory conditions by the end of a round to challenge for the win. If you are the sole person who has achieved said goal by the end of the round after claiming it with a 'pretender' token, you win. In the case of a tie, there are means with which to break it, ultimately making it so there will always be a sole winner. The victory conditions are to have clans present in six different territories, be in control of territories with a total of six enemy clans present, or to be in control of territories with a total of six sanctuaries present (a type of building that can be added during the game).
The first part of this game is the card drafting element. Depending on the number of players, each player will draft from the exact same pool of action cards, so even after a couple of games, rounds even, you'll be familiar with all of them. Two and three player games will use a set of thirteen cards, while four players play with an additional four. You'll shuffle the cards, put one secretly out of play then deal the same number of cards to each player. One of the many cool intricacies of this game is the way it does drafting. Most games that do this have you select a card from the set you're given, pick one, put it aside and then pass it on before rinsing and repeating with the new smaller set until you have chosen your hand, one card at a time. With Inis, for each round of drafting you can pick that number of cards (i.e one in round one, two in round two etc) from the set you're given as well as the cards you've previously chosen. This means you're not necessarily stuck with the 'best' of a bad bunch at the beginning, you can simply swap that card for an extra pick from the current selection. This also allows you to adapt a strategy change on the fly. It's a nice touch, and particularly useful in a game where these action cards have such great importance.
This is because after you've picked your starting hand, the real round begins. The first player, known as the Brenn, begins by choosing to do one of two things; play a season card, or pass. Season cards are just action cards that have the season symbol on them, and represent main actions. These range from moving your clans about the map, adding new ones to it, drawing cards or tiles and switching cards. While the total number of these cards is small, they work so incredibly well together in many interesting ways. There are enough choices to make each hand a new challenge or bring about a clever play, but not so many that overwhelms those with AP (analysis paralysis). Often, especially in later rounds, you'll find yourself hunting out particular cards that will help you towards your goal, and cursing when you realise your opponent has probably plucked that one out already. When you're close to achieving the victory condition for having control over six territories for example, you'll want the 'Exploration' and movement based cards, but if you're looking to be chieftain over other six opposing clans, then you'll probably be after those cards that add lots of new units to the map.
Fighting is obviously a major part of any area control game, but it's nowhere near as bloody as you'd think playing Inis. When combat occurs, it is usually started by moving into a territory with opposing players in, but can be initiated through other means too. Before any fight begins however, everybody is allowed to take turns taking shelter in any Citadels present there, which are structures that can and will be added to the game, each one able to hold a single clan leaving them safe from harms way. After that, the battle begins, but it can end peacefully at any moment so long as all parties agree to end the battle. The instigator will choose an opposing player (so yes, battles can occur with multiple parties) and that player must either sacrifice one of their clans or one of their action cards instead if they want to protect their clans for this stage of the battle. Then no matter what they do, the next player in turn order will choose an opponent, and the cycle begins again until either no more opposite clans are left to attack or the players choose to retreat. It's a simple but really effective system, and adds a satisfying level of diplomacy to a game that already does what it does so well.
While I mentioned being able to pass as your main action above, I should talk about that briefly as it's another underrated detail to a tightly constructed game. Passing means you're foregoing your turn to do anything and letting the next player go instead. The round ends when all players have passed consecutively, no matter how many action cards people have played up until then, meaning that even if everyone has several cards, it is possible to end the round without using them. Not ideal considering how they are the only way to get things done in the game, so that's a pretty big loss, but it comes down to power. Passing is risky for this reason, but often it's worth it to get what I like to call 'the last word'. Action cards are useful in battle as well as for getting s**t done, so going last allows you to stay in the game with more of your cards ready, which is a huge strategic advantage, but the others can screw you over by ending the game if you try it too much. It's a intricately woven tapestry that feels just as fresh the first time you look at it as the twentieth. Or like eating a delicious cake, that tastes just as good on the last bite as it does on the first, to keep with my starting baking analogy.
As standard with area control, being the chieftain of a territory gives you an advantage, and in this game that comes in the form of that places special advantage card. Some will give you additional actions and others will give you a passive boost when you do certain things in the game. The player who controls the capital territory though, a randomly chosen tile at the beginning of the game, has the benefit of being the Brenn, which is not only the first player (not necessarily all its cracked up to be as briefly described above) but also a tie breaker. Other potential territory advantages include getting your hands on Epic Tale cards, the games equivalent of a take that mechanic, and these can usually only be gained through one particular action card in the game, but despite the volume of them included within the game, they don't actually make it to the table that frequently in my experience. This is a good thing, as it makes the game far more repayable, with the drawing of these red cards usually providing you with something you haven't seen before and wondering how you'll be able to adapt this to help you in your current goal.
I haven't even spoken about the art! THE ART! The look of the game is so distinct with its large cards, strange shaped tiles and peculiar choice of colours, and I find it equally weird and equally beautiful. To prove my point, search for the hashtag #inis on Instagram and you'll be presented with a wide variety of fantastic looking images that show off the game's beauty. The tiles not only look intriguing but they serve a practical purpose too in making the game flexible yet sturdy enough to survive being bumped around without losing their jigsaw-esque composition. The art on the cards is bewildering though, looking very much like a cartoon drawn by incapable teenagers and coloured in by nursery school kids, but it's very fitting thematically, and I don't yet know if I love it or hate it, which is probably a sign that I actually do love it, because when was the last time you hated something but didn't actually know it?
There's not much more to the game than what I've described already, with the only notable omission being the Deed tokens (essentially a wild card which counts as one of the six requirements to complete any of the objectives). It really is a wonder they managed to fit so much game into such a simple system, and after Kemet and Cyclades, it certainly came as a surprise with its simplicity. Matagot have a really special hold on area control at the moment, and I can't help but feel very excited about whatever incredible recipe they create for their next course. Is there anything else they can add to the genre that will surprise us, or will it try and boil this formula down even more? We'll have to wait and find out.
Review by Russell Chapman