Ever since I picked up Chaos in the Old World in 2009, I've been enthusiastic about the style of games that it ushered in. These games are confrontational, featuring direct conflict and aggression; but the game is built around a strategic core — rewarding careful planning and timing of fights rather than luck. Previously in GTM I have reviewed (and shared my excitement for) Cyclades and Kemet, two other games of similar style. So, I was enthusiastic to try Inis, also published by Matagot, and I'm happy to report that it didn’t disappoint. Designer Christian Martinez has only a couple of other lesser-known designs, but he can take pride in his wide-release debut.
In Inis, players are rival Irish clan leaders, vying to become ruler of a mystical new island near Ireland. The board is made of interlocking, roughly-triangular "territories". The board starts small and tightly-packed, with only one territory per player, which can be expanded through exploration as the game progresses. Player units are called "clans", which could have been simple cubes, but are, instead, well-crafted figures in a series of detailed sculpts. The territories are attractive and distinctive landscapes, each one unique (and providing a special benefit to its chieftain, the player with the most clans occupying it). One territory is designated the Capital. Its chieftain becomes the Brenn — a temporary leader — who gets to go first and, crucially, wins ties if victory is contested.
The first notable feature of Inis is how few rules there are. For example, a new territory and Sanctuary (a victory objective building) are added to the board every turn, but there's no "maintenance phase" when these are added. Instead, every turn, players draft action cards and then take turns playing them. Of the 13 or 17 cards (in a 3- or 4- player game), all but one are drafted, so every player gets four cards. One of the cards, for example, is ‘Exploration’. The Brenn (the chieftain of the capital province) gets to choose where the new territory is located, and the player who played the card can place a new clan there. The ‘Sanctuary’ card grants the player not only a place of Sanctuary, but also allows them to draw an ‘Epic Tale’, a powerful "special card" that can be held from turn-to-turn until needed. Other cards let the players add new units to the board, move and attack with their existing clans, impede other players' actions, and so on.
Combat is straightforward: when a card starts a combat, beginning with the instigator, every player with clans in the contested territory can choose to Attack a rival or Withdraw. A player who’s attacked can choose to either sacrifice an action card from their hand or a clan from the territory. Withdrawing means pulling all units to an adjacent territory where you're already the chieftain — so you can't suddenly dominate a territory by fleeing into it. Most notably, before every action in the clash, the involved players can mutually agree to end the clash and have their clans coexist. Coexistence can be beneficial to both sides, not just to conserve resources, because of the way struggling for victory works.
There are three victory conditions:
You can win by meeting any one of them, but victory is only checked at the beginning of the turn, so if you meet one, you need to hang on until the end of the turn. You also need to have more than your rivals. If two players meet the same number of victory conditions, which is common, the Brenn wins; if the Brenn isn't among the tied players, the game simply continues. These goals make interactions between the players tense. For example, a rival moves clans into a region you control, and offers peaceful coexistence. Having enemies in your region is threatening and advances your opponent towards goal 1, so maybe you need to violently expel them. On the other hand, their presence also advances you towards goal 2, so perhaps peaceful coexistence is better for you.
A game of Inis progresses from crowded to expansive surprisingly quick: with every turn there are more territories to occupy, more Sanctuaries to claim, and more opponents' clans to become chieftain over. Additionally, a few actions can grant a "deed" token, which acts as a wild credit toward any one victory condition. So, as the game progresses, victory enters the reach of every player, and each one needs to closely watch and control their rivals. The game shifts from "how can I stretch toward victory?" to "how can I make sure nobody gets more victory than me?". It will be common to lose despite meeting a victory condition, which, while frustrating, gives a sense of some satisfaction and a desire for an immediate rematch.