Instantly accessible, fun even when you’re on the back foot and deeply replayable.

Inis is an area control and card drafting game set in a world of Celtic Legends.

It’s also a game about sneaking your way to victory conditions, negotiating yourself out of damaging fights and doing your best to overcome what the world throws at you.

The Inis and Outs

You control a group of clans, each of which is represented by a miniature on the board. There’s three main victory conditions that you’ll be going after: having at least one clan in six locations, having one clan in a location with six sanctuary buildings and finally being the chieftan (majority control) in areas with six opposing clans.

Every round in Inis has two distinct parts. The assembly phase, where you’ll be picking out the actions which you’ll take that turn and the seasons phase, where you make your moves on the board. Once every player has performed their moves, the round ends, the new Bren is picked and the drafting begins again.

Players then take turn drafting from an action deck. These cards control all the basic decisions you make in the game, from placing new clans, to moving clans across the world, to picking up new cards.

These action cards are going to inform your strategy for the round. Some of them let you place new units on the board in areas you control. Others let you perform the vital manoeuvres you’ll need to gain a victory condition. Some cards let you send an emissary to a neighbouring area, walking between rival clans with a message of peace, others allow you to come crashing into an area, weapons raised, forcing other clans into a tense fight.

Talking of fighting, even the most passive player of Inis is eventually going to get into combat. There’s no dice in Inis, instead you’ll be fighting by sacrificing one of your action cards. The defender can either sacrifice a card to keep their clans on the board, remove a clan, or move back to a territory that they control.

When you attack an area, the defending clans have a chance to avoid the fight completely by retreating into citadels, which players can build throughout the game. Clans in a citadel can’t be attacked at all and will simply walk out after the battle is over, remaining in that territory. Another interesting thing about fighting is that you don’t have to fight at all – as long as all parties agree not to.

Along with basic movements, more situational and often far more powerful moves can be made if you can secure the ‘Epic Tale’ cards - stories of Celtic legends that could change the course of a game if played at the right time.

The final set of cards you may have in your hand each round are advantage cards. If you’re the chieftan of an area at the end of the round you’ll be starting the new round with an advantage card. If you lose the territory, you lose access to this card on your next turn.

Bren there, done that: Turn order never feels critical in Inis – drafting is still random, and the direction of turns can change at a coin-flip every round. Nonetheless, the player that owns the majority clans in a space with the unique Capital building will get to be the Bren, making the first move and subject to a few special cards.

Even when you’ve finally made it to a victory condition, you still need to take a turn to grab a pretender token, announcing to every other tribe that you’re close to taking the crown. You ONLY win when you finish a round with this token.

Finally, players can pick up deeds. These represent the achievements of your tribe. More importantly, they act as a wildcard for any of those victory conditions i.e a player with two deeds in their hand only needs a tribe in 4 territories, not 6, to win the game. They also paint a giant target on your back, but more on that later.

When a 4X isn't a 4X

First things first: Inis is a very tight experience. There’s nothing in its relatively thin and well-written rule book that doesn’t add something to the game. There’s no fluff, no victory condition that seems insurmountable, and no mechanic that doesn’t bring interesting decisions to the table. Inis isn’t a 4X: There’s not quite enough reward to exploring, you don’t really feel like you’re expanding as your clans and their power ebbs and flows across a game and while you can do a fair bit of mild extermination during a game if you wish, it’s not always the easiest path to victory. But I mention 4x games because it’s the feeling of playing one of these games that Inis evokes for me. Sure, it has card drafting, but that’s not where my head goes when I think about Inis, in the same way it might do where drafting is the central mechanic.

No, it strays to Eclipse and Scythe and other 4X games where I’m struggling for control of limited resources and with limited time. I’ve got no resources to manage, hell, no money at all – I play with the hand that I’ve created and then I see where the game takes me. When it comes to the key, pivotal decisions of the game, Inis captures those decisions beautifully. Attack or retreat, build up forces or migrate those you have, hold a defensive position or slowly, peacefully relocate to more advantageous areas

What makes Inis flow so well is that it manages to keep those decisions meaningful without the need for trackers, resource management, long upkeep phases or rounds that stretch into infinity. Inis can be taught in 30 minutes and games are going to last between sixty and ninety minutes with experienced players.

It also keeps you on your toes with every single action played – you can’t win a game of Inis by only paying attention to your turn and your strategy. Turns may be short, but actions of every player can change the landscape of the board very quickly. Even a clash you have no involvement in can spark strategic thought as you ponder how you can quickly take advantage of the fact you’re now the most powerful chieftan in the land before your enemies can rebuild their forces.

Depending on your own personal strategy, that may feel frustrating, or it may feel liberating. Especially with three or four players, Inis doesn’t give you a chance to develop a grand strategy that’s going to play out through many turns. Even if you’re lucky enough that nobody spots your plan (see our box-out on evening the odds), you can’t guarantee you’re going to be holding the right action cards to pull off your grand scheme. Winning a game of Inis is less about plotting three moves ahead of your opponent and more about being flexible and keeping your options open. It’s less of a game of chess and more of a boxing match, and Inis is going to punch you right in the face all the time.

Drafting and Fighting

How you feel about said face punching is going to come down to how you feel about the way that card drafting system works. I mentioned I don’t see Inis as a card drafting game, but it’s important to keep in mind that every actions of the game are linked to what cards you happen to pick up at the start of a round.

Many of these cards are basic game choices, such as placing clans or moving, and if you get a poor hand, you’re going to be set back. Sometimes you might find yourself on the losing end of a large fight, desperate to replenish and consolidate your clans, staring stoically into a hand of cards focused on initiating a clash. With no default basic actions, there’s a lot riding on those cards.

Pretender tokens announce a victory - and often shortly after, an abrupt defeat

This is mitigated somewhat by the Epic Tales and Advantage cards, but these are very often situational, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to hold on to an advantage card long enough to make good use of it. They give your hand some permanent and semi-permanent options alongside those basic moves, but they aren’t necessarily going to help you bring a plan together.

If this all sounds negative, it’s not: It’s my way of saying that Inis is a game about working with the resources you have, making the best out sometimes bad situations and the satisfaction that comes with realising you can tie several seemingly useless cards together into something amazing. It’s scrappier and faster than grand strategy, and as a result when you do extend too far or fight at the wrong time, you’re normally able to bounce right back again.

Talking of fighting, for a game where the mere act of movement in another players direction triggers an immediate battle, Inis can be a surprisingly defensive game. Make no mistake, fighting in Inis hurts bad. Not only are you at risk of losing previous clans, but you have to sacrifice the very action cards you need to play just to mount an attack. Tales cards you didn’t know your opponent had could throw your battle at the last moment. Even more crucially though, the defending player can often just run and hide.

That’s where those clan-saving citadel buildings I mentioned in the rules come into play. Saving a single clan might seem a small victory if your army is destroyed, but think about those victory conditions where you need just a single person in a territory: the enemy may have won the battle, but you could still win the war.

Anybody can build these citadels using a specific card, and while there are cards that can turf people out into the open, they’re a great example of just how a defensive player can sneak their way to a victory condition.

With so many players vying for control, it might feel like Inis would drag on. This is where the victory-condition-reducing deeds come into play, making it degrees easier to win the game. Most of your deeds are going to come from using actions to gain Epic Tale cards, which either grant deeds for specific actions such as attacking another clan or can be burned for a deed using another action card.

It takes too many actions and it’s too random for deed-hunting to be a concrete strategy, but it creates a more natural progression to a game that normally feels like it lasts exactly if it should. A player with one deed needs to be watched, a player with two is a serious force who will quickly find themselves grabbing those easier victory conditions every other turn or more. What’s more is the only way to remove deeds is wiping that clan off the board entirely which is a rare occurrence.

There’s a few types of gamers who Inis isn’t for. If you can’t stand any sort of luck in your strategy games, the card drafting is a difficult pill to swallow. If you want a game where the depth comes from mechanics and not from reacting to other players, you may find Inis lacking. For absolutely everyone else, Inis is going to be a game that gets brought out time and again. For experienced gamers, it scratches that 4X-like itch without the time and rule-learning investment, and for newcomers its instantly accessible, fun even when you’re on the back foot and deeply replayable.