The wide-open highlands of Inis make space for what matters

, | Game reviews

Boardgames can be accessible in two different ways. One of the ways can kill their longevity. The other way is a fundamental part of solid game design. Inis is a great example of the second way.

After the jump, n x 1

I’m not sure what to make of the name. It doesn’t Google well. During a rules dispute, I had a hard time finding the answer because I kept searching for “innis” and getting stuff about a Scottish clan. Once I realized it was “inis”, with one N, I learned more than I cared to know about an Irish cologne. And the Irish Naturalization and Immigration Services. Also the International Nuclear Information System.

But it turns out there was no need for a Google search. It turns out designer Christian Martinez is precise with language. Yes, the Lost Vale can move someone else’s clan, which makes it a powerful tool for a political victory. In the case of Inis rules interpretations — rare as they are — less is more.

Less is more is its overall philosophy. There are only a handful of action in Inis. Put your clans on the board. Move a clan. Have a simple fight. That’s pretty much it. Your objective is to spread your clans so that you qualify for a political, religious, or trade victory. Those are my terms for the victory conditions, which are arguably the most complicated part of Inis. A little homegrown theming helps players remember them, which they need to do. A fundamental part of the game is knowing how close each player is to any given victory condition. Inis is one of those games that ends suddenly, with everyone groaning that he was just a turn away from winning, if only he’d done such-and-such! It is not a long game. It’s certainly not a drawn out game. A nifty system representing epic deeds means the longer the game goes, the easier it is to win. Inis knows you have other things to get to the table. Or that you might want to play it a second time tonight.

Each of the basic actions is performed with a card. A big, fat, lavishly illustrated, oversized, colorful, magnificent card (I impulse bought Inis based entirely on the artwork). There are just enough so that everyone gets four cards per turn. On your turn, you play a card. That’s pretty much it. Cards — and therefore actions — are also used to take hits in battle. They’re a precious resource.

That’s why every turn starts with everyone carefully considering his cards. Each player is dealt four cards. Consider them. Consider them carefully. You only get to keep one. You’re going to pass the other three to the player beside you. Now consider the one card you kept and the three that were passed to you. Consider them carefully. You only get to keep two. You’re going to pass the other two to the player beside you. Now consider the two cards you kept and the two cards that were passed to you. Consider them carefully. This time, you get to keep three. One of them will go to the player beside you. Now consider the three cards you kept, and the one that was passed to you. These four cards will be your four actions. These four cards will be the sum total of what you can do this turn. Therefore, the cards you passed are the actions you’re allowing everyone else to take. That’s pretty much it. That’s Inis.

(When explaining a boardgame, “that’s pretty much it” is shorthand for “uh, there are some other really important rules”. In Inis’ case, this means a unique card for each randomly drawn territory that forms the game map. The territory’s card is controlled, naturally, by whomever controls the territory. So there’s serious heft to the geography. Territory control not just for the win, but for the tools vital for the win. Also, sporadic rules-breaking cards represent epic tales. One-off spells. God powers, if you will. They have weird names. The rules book explains the mythology behind each card, but it’s mostly a bunch of begatting. It all sounds Celtic/Gaelic/whatever to me. But with artwork like this, I couldn’t care less about understanding the words Dagda, Lug, Cuchulain, or Manannan. It’s a beautiful card. It does awesome things. I’m good.)

In a three player game, the same 12 actions will occur every turn (Inis is also fine with four, and a little underpopulated with two). It’s just a matter of who got which action. And who plays which action when. What makes Inis accessible is that the fundamental gameplay is knowing that handful of cards. When I teach Inis, the basic rules take five minutes to explain. Layer onto those rules an explanation of the cards, grouped by their basic function: cards to place dudes, cards to move dudes, card to fight, dirty tricks cards. That’s pretty much it.

Anyone can learn Inis in short order. But unlike similarly accessible games, knowing how the pieces move isn’t enough to win. Anyone can learn how to play, but that doesn’t mean you have an equal chance of winning. This is the death knell for a lot of games described as “accessible”. When accessible means simple to the point of mitigating skill, strategy, and player interaction, that game is on the fast track to the back of my closet.

But Inis will always advantage players who know not just the pieces, but how the pieces interact. The fundamental gameplay is tracking the handful of actions that will occur on any given turn. When a card is played is just as important as which card is played. If I add a clan after all the combat cards are played, I know the clan is safe. No one will be able to attack it this turn. Therefore if I fight a combat before all the “add a clan” cards are played, I know I can’t react to new clans. Do I pass for now, waiting to see what happens? Do I act now? Does the other guy want me to pass so he can pass and end the turn? If I’m sitting on the geis, a card that simply cancels someone else’s card (aka “the dick move”), I have unique control over what’s going to happen. But if I passed the geis along during the draft phase, or never even had the chance to take it, I know it’s lurking somewhere! I know nothing is a sure thing until it’s been played! And if I have the druid, which lets me secretly pluck a previously played action from the discard pile, I have thrown into doubt everyone else’s calculus about remaining actions.

As the turn progresses, the possibilities narrow. There are only so many cards left. Decisions are all the more important. These are easy interactions to learn, and they’ll play out every turn. But you’re not truly playing Inis until everyone at the table knows them. Inis is accessible, but without sacrificing in the slightest the importance of strategy, and even psychology. With rules simple enough to make room for head games, and head games important enough to determine who wins, Inis is the best kind of accessible. Come for the lovely artwork. Stay for the actual game.

  • Inis

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • More accessible than Kemet, more elegant that Cyclades, and prettier than pretty much any other similar game.
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