After a glowing appraisal from popular (and arguably best) board game reviewers Shut Up & Sit Down, Inis quickly shot into the spotlight as the hot new thing.
It’s the third in a series of games from French publisher Matagot which fall into the genre affectionately known as “dudes on a map games”, the previous two being the highly acclaimed Kemet and the less highly regarded (but still liked) Cyclades.
All the games do things quite differently, however, and in this review I’ll tell you not only how Inis sets itself apart from the others, but also why it makes a good case for being the best of the three.
Look and feel
The first thing that will strike you about Inis is the very unique look. After having spent countless hours pushing cubes around on infinite boring, bland Euro-style boards with forgettable artwork and rolling dice in Cthulhu/Zombie/Generic Fantasy game #17, Inis blew me away with its aesthetic.
The game is set to a mythical Celtic theme, and Matagot commissioned one of the most highly regarded Celtic artists in the world, Jim Fitzpatrick, to do 60+ pieces of unique art for the game. The style is psychedelic, oversaturated and, frankly, gorgeous. It may not be everyone’s cup of Irish coffee but I’ll be damned if it isn’t great to see a publisher place such importance on look and feel for a change. Every card in the game has unique art, and they all use the over-sized Tarot dimensions so you can really appreciate it.
The terrain tiles are the most controversial aspect, as Matagot chose to go with first person views of terrain rather than making the game look like a map. The idea is to give you the perspective your clans would have. The finishing touch is the jagged map edges which somehow fit together using the power of witchcraft in almost any orientation. These are more the photo-realistic style rather than the acid-trip Celtic artwork, and some people may find the contrast a little jarring.
The miniatures themselves are pretty basic and pretty small – they serve their purpose well in terms of the feel of the game but if you’re into collecting detailed minis and painting them, there’s not a lot for you here.
Inis has been described as a “knife fight in a phone booth”, which is pretty accurate. Usually when people use that term they’re referring to tightly controlled chaotic violence, but Inis is closer to what I imagine a knife fight in a phone booth might actually be like – restrained, hesitant, reluctant – knowing that even as a winner you’re not walking out unscathed.
While Kemet basically rewards non-stop bloodshed, Inis is far more about politicking and clever maneuvering. If Kemet is a baseball bat with nails in it, Inis is a scalpel. Every time you enter a “clash” with another opponent in Inis, both parties can at any time agree on a truce. Otherwise you can choose to attack or withdraw, one at a time, which means if you insist on winning the fight you could be grinding each other down in a battle of attrition until both of you have obliterated each other’s resources.
Before the fight begins the players who haven’t instigated the fight can also choose to have one of their units cowardly retreat to a Citadel (if there is one in the area), where they are safe from harm but unable to take part in battle. Doing this ensures you keep a toehold in a particular area, allowing you to stage your own retaliation. The nature of these clashes thus rewards those who can negotiate the best position, as well as those who can pull off wily battle tactics.
Of course in Inis, you can’t just pick a fight with whomever you want – you’re going to need the right cards. Nothing can be done in the game without playing a card to do it, and the bulk of your actions will be drafted from the same seventeen card pool at the beginning of each round. This means that players quickly gain familiarity with the cards, which allows one to more accurately predict what their opponents might be planning as well as to cut off key actions in the draft. In a four-player game, for example, only four of the seventeen cards will allow you to move from one terrain to another and pick a fight.
There’s also a clever twist to the drafting. Each player is dealt four cards, picks one, then passes the rest. Standard. Non-standard, however, is that each player then adds the card they picked back to their hand and picks two – allowing one to change their strategic direction on the fly.
Variability comes in the terrain tiles which are revealed and added to the board randomly, each of which is accompanied by an associated action card which goes to the player with the most forces in the area, as well as the “Epic Tale” cards, which can be drawn through several different actions but offer powerful, game-breaking effects not available on the standard cards.
So how do I win?
No victory points here – Inis has three different win conditions, and you only need satisfy one of them to win. Essentially, you can win by spreading yourself out over the map, being chief over multiple of your opponents’ units, or being present in areas with a specific type of building.
If two or more players both have one victory condition, well then you’re going to need two. This system keeps the game fluid and dynamic, as nobody is ever left twiddling their thumbs at fifty points behind. The game is about constantly jockeying for position, and picking the right moment to make your bid for victory.
Inis is a game that really starts to reveal its strategy after a couple of plays. Once everyone is familiar with the draftable cards, the winner will be the person who plays the game most cleverly. Diplomacy, combo’ing card effects, pragmatism, timing and superior battle strategy and positioning will separate the player with a rightful claim to the throne from the mere pretenders.
Inis is easy to teach with its streamlined rule set. It’s strategically vast and can be played in an hour with experienced players. It also plays exceptionally well at all player counts, from two to four. It’s a rare gem to find in a time of bloated designs and finicky rule books, and even rarer to find one that shines with just two players. It’s also fairly expensive, coming in at around R1,300. For your money you’re getting gorgeous production values and an even better game with near-infinite replay value. The extra cash is worth it, trust me.
Overall score: 90/100