By Henri Whitehead
At least once a year, my spouse and kids agree to play Inis (designed by Christian Martinez) with me, and I always cherish every second of those game sessions. When I get to unpack the tarot-sized deck, plastic miniatures, and oddly-shaped tiles, my imagination is already fully-invested in this new reality, and I can think of no better way to spend an afternoon than attempting to be crowned a Celtic King.
Inis is not a perfect game, but often enough for me, it can be the perfect gaming experience. Jim FitzPatrick’s unique artwork always fascinates me because it is not something I’ve seen before. It has such a unique vibe that I find myself always staring at the cards. They are like mini puzzles, and I enjoy unwinding the hallucinogenic illustrations.
The gameplay matches the artwork for its uniqueness. Inis is an area-control game that’s not just about crashing into territories and taking over. A strategy of conflict avoidance can feel just as aggressive as a scorched-earth approach. You can win the game without ever winning a single battle. You can win the game and never outnumber a single opponent in a territory. This is less boxing more fencing. Throwing big punches will rarely result in a knockout. It’s the early innocuous maneuvers that usually push someone over the finish line.
The game isn’t decided by efficiency engines or dice rolls. It runs on a card-drafting system that’s all about timing. When you take the right action at the right time, you will feel like a genius. When you take the right action but at the wrong time, you will feel like a fool. The beauty of Inis’s card drafting is that you always feel like you are in control over that outcome. The draft pool is small enough that bad luck is never quite a legitimate complaint.
Inis never feels like a game that is playing the players. It’s truly one of those games where the players and interactions shape most of the experience. For me, this is its greatest asset, but for others, this is where the game becomes divisive for its potential kingmaking.
I’m fine with kingmaking in Inis because the game is thematically about becoming a king. During my most recent session, my oldest daughter took the victory. A table-meta that has been shaping for years allowed her to form an unshakeable alliance with her younger sister. Knowing the parents always win, they rebuked my offers of a coalition, and instead elevated each other to an unstoppable force that eventually lead to a decisive victory. In many ways, they viewed it as a shared victory. My oldest daughter relied on her sister for the win, but she deserved the throne for her scheming just as much as anyone in Game of Thrones.