I played Inis a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write about it since then. It’s made me think about a lot of things; politics, critical thinking, subtlety, deception . . . and all of those are viable things to write about in conjunction with this game. But in the end, the game is just so interesting and unique (at least among the titles that I’ve played) that it’s been really hard for me to link it to other things.
Of course, I can’t just write a regular review—that wouldn’t be my style. So I’ve decided to try something a little different here. I’ll start with an overview of the game itself, and then move onto something I haven’t tried before on Curio. We’ll just have to see what happens from there.
King of the emerald isle
I had heard good things about Christian Martinez’s Inis, but didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that it looked like an area control game but didn’t really play like one, and that a lot of people were stoked on it. I also knew that the territory tiles were irregularly shaped and absolutely gorgeous.
As it turns out, the story that the game is built around is a fascinating one. Inis lets you play out early Irish legends involving the exploits of warriors and godlike figures in a quest to become the first High King of Ireland. (If you’re familiar with any Irish legends, you’ll see familiar names on many of the cards.)
The game isn’t especially thematic, but the card names and art very well may get you interested in learning more about the early days of Ireland (or, if you’re like me, reading The Wicked + The Divine to revel in The Morrigan’s beautiful serenity and rage). The theme is very cool, but I didn’t feel especially immersed while I was playing.
While the art is breathtaking and the theme somewhat inconsequential, the mechanics are absolutely fascinating. Inis doesn’t play like any game I’ve played before. Everything is a little bit different from games I’m familiar with, from the tile shape to the method of drafting.
Each turn in a three-player game, everyone is dealt a hand of four action cards from a deck of 13 (one card is set aside each turn). Instead of a regular draft, though, you put the card that you just drafted back in the hand that you receive. So you pick one of four cards, and then pass three. You put the card that you drafted back with the three cards that you receive, so you have four cards again. You then pick two, and pass two. You pick three of the resulting four, and pass one. It’s pretty strange, but once you’ve done it a few times, it makes perfect sense.
There are also Epic Tale cards, which you can get by playing certain action cards, and those stay in your hand until you use them.
Beyond that, it’s all about victory conditions. Occupy six territories, occupy territories with a total of six sanctuaries, or be the chieftain over six opponent clans (you become chieftain by having the most clans in a territory). You accomplish these things by playing cards to add territories to the board, add and move clans, build citadels and sanctuaries, start clashes, and so on. Play a card, do what it says, move on to the next player. Mechanically, it’s quit simple. But that simplicity belies some amazing strategic complexity.
I have to be honest: at the beginning of the game, I was not impressed. We added some territories, dropped a few clans, built some structures. There wasn’t much interaction until I instigated a clash just to see what would happen. Turns out not a whole lot, as the clash ends as soon as all players involved agree to end it. And because each clash can quickly result in big losses for both sides, that agreement tends to come fairly quickly.
The mid-game picked up a bit. Six territories came out quickly, opening up that victory condition. We got four or five sanctuaries out pretty quickly as well. One player was amassing forces in what looked like an attempt to sweep in for the chieftain victory. I was adding clans in new territories. But still, nothing super exciting was happening. I was actually starting to think that it seemed almost impossible for someone to win, as anyone getting close to a victory condition would get shut down by another player.
And then I won.
My win really caught me off guard. I had no idea that I was even getting close until the turn before it happened.
Winning the game required numerous factors working in concert. A lot of it had to do with the draft. I drafted, for example, the card that let me place another sanctuary, getting the total on the board to six. I also got a card that let me move clans, which would put me in position for the six-territory win. So two victory conditions were within my grasp. For my other two picks, I tried to grab cards that I knew my opponents could have used against me to foil this plan.
I also had a couple Epic Tale cards in my hand, giving me more potential actions than my opponents. By playing my cards in the right order, I was able to keep playing after they had run out of cards, giving me a few more turns to get everything in place. I also had to make sure that I didn’t play the cards that would get me the victory before certain other cards had come out (Geis, for example, cancels the action from another action card, which would have thrown my entire plan into disarray).
I’m not trying to say that I’m an awesome strategist or that I’m great at Inis (to be honest, I think I just got really lucky and managed to take advantage of it). What I’m pointing out here is that pulling off a win in Inis requires a number of skills that can be remarkably subtle. Skills like critical thinking, perspective-taking, and planning. All of which are just as valuable—if not more—in real life as they are at the game table.
Applying board game skills to your life
So, in the spirit of the skillset that’s required to win Inis, I thought I’d give you five ways to apply the skills you can develop playing board games to your life. Just for fun.
1. Think critically.
In a world now concerned about fake news, misinformation, and post-truth, critical thinking is more important than ever. Don’t assume you understand what’s going on right away. When you’re dealing with a new problem (whether it’s “How do I win this game?”, “What is this article really saying?”, or “What issues are at stake here?”), you can never assume that you’re going to solve it on the first pass.
Instead, take stock of what you know, and second-guess yourself. A lot. Analyze your choices. Spend time reflecting on your own biases. Read between the lines. These are all cliché by now, but they’re more important thane ver. They’ll win you a lot of board games, and they’ll help you be a better global citizen, too.
2. Make the most of your resources.
To win Inis—or any game, for that matter—you need to take stock of the resources at your disposal and figure out the best way to use them. Those resources might be wheat and sheep. They might be titanium and energy. They could be the cards in your hand. Or they could just be your wits and your current position.
No matter what resources you can use, and no matter what the problem you’re trying to solve, take a moment and think about the tools you can use. What’s going to get you the best outcome? Speed? Reflection? Asking for help? Attention to detail? Strategic prioritization? Everyone has their strengths, and to be as successful as possible, you need to know what they are and apply them at opportune times.
3. Try to take others’ perspectives.
Strategy board games are all about outplaying your opponent. Part of that is trying to figure out what your adversary is going to do. You have to see the board through their eyes, analyze your own moves from an outside perspective, and do your best to weigh their objectives as if you were trying to meet them. It’s not easy. Especially in a game like Inis, where victory conditions are very different and can be tough to see coming.
The same skills will serve you well in life. Want to convince someone that your political view is a good one? Figure out why they ascribe to a different system. Want to get a good job? Figure out what the company is looking for and sell it to them. Learning to look at others’ perspectives is one of the most valuable ways you can learn to interact with people.
4. Look for synergy.
As I mentioned, the synergy of cards that I drafted was a huge factor in my Inis victory. Looking for synergy is something that will help you in any drafting game, but it’s especially important in ones where there aren’t that many different options, like Inis. Synergy is going to be important in any game. It could be between different cards, cards and your position on the board, or your relation to another player.
In life, synergy is important, too. You’ll often have to make decisions where you can optimize your results. It might be making new friends or contacts with people who can complement your strengths and weaknesses. It might be finding a job where you’ll be more effective than you are in your current job. It might just be setting up a good set of habits that reinforce each other.
5. Think ahead.
So many of people’s problems would be solved if they’d just think ahead a bit. In games, the consequences are often obvious. Invest in a particular resource, and you’ll control it, but have trouble getting other things you need. Spend a lot of cash on drawing cards, and you won’t be able to play them. Make an attack on one front, and you may leave yourself open on another. I think Inis has a lot of opportunities for looking ahead if you know what to look for.
Trying to make a decision about what you’re going to do this weekend? Think about how you’ll feel on Monday when you look back at your weekend. About to say something nasty to someone online? Think about how they’ll react and whether this is going to end the way you want it to. There are all sorts of places where thinking ahead just a little bit more will be a huge help. Take an extra second to think before you act.
Not just at the table
I’ve only played Inis once, but I imagine that if I played again, I’d find that what I thought were throw-away actions in the beginning of the game actually had repercussions down the line that affected my chances of victory. It’s probably the most subtle game I’ve ever played, and I look forward to playing it again.
That said, I’m not totally sure how I feel about it. While I’m a big fan of strategy, I also like high-tension games, and Inis didn’t seem to ratchet up the tension until late in the game. As I pointed out, though, understanding the game might change that feeling.
Regardless, Inis did make me think about the skills we use in board games and how they can be applied to real-life situations. Next time you’re confronted with a decision—any decision—think about it like a board game. I bet you’ll be more confident that you’re doing the right thing.