Full disclosure: A review copy of Inoka was provided by XYZ Game Labs.
Another Gen Con game! I think this one came out before Gen Con, but, honestly, my understanding of game release timetables is super questionable. Good thing I’m not working on a yearly board game award committee. Whew. Crushed it. Anyways, Inoka comes to us from XYZ Game Labs, who recently had a very successful Kickstarter for ArchRavels, a competitive knitting game. Really excited to see where that goes; always love crafting as a theme. Inoka is one of their earlier releases, so let’s take a look at the game.
In Inoka, you’ve been named your village’s representative to the generational Achkai tournament to determine your generation’s Nature’s Emissary. Big responsibility for a tiny animal, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You’ve also got a strategy: you can attack, block, or taunt. And that’s it. Unfortunately, so can your opponents. You know block beats attack beats taunt, and that reminds you of something, but you don’t have time to reminisce; you have to be as solid as a rock if you want to win this tournament. Will you be able to cut through the competition like a sharpened pair of scissors? Or will you end up folding like paper?
Not much to do here. Set out the tokens:
Give each player a set of nine cards:
That’s about it! They’ll choose five of the nine to start playing.
Anyways, a game of Inoka is played until one player has earned three Sacred Stones. You earn them by besting your opponents in clashes. To start a round, players may choose any 5 of their 9 Tactic Cards to create a hand, setting the others aside, face-down.
Now, players choose a Tactic Card and place it in front of them. Once everyone has done so, all players reveal and resolve. The Clashes resolve a bit differently in a multiplayer game, but in general, Block beats Attack beats Taunt beats Block, as I mentioned earlier. If there’s a tie, the higher-value card wins (Block-III beats Block-I). Let’s dig in a bit deeper and see what happens.
Check to see who wins the Clash. That player gains Advantage and takes the Leaf Token. If there’s a tie, nobody takes the Leaf Token. Either way, Clash again. If the player with the Leaf Token wins the Clash by playing an Attack Card, they take a Sacred Stone. Otherwise, Clash again with different cards from your hand, and continue to do so until all 5 Tactic Cards have been played. The player who has the Leaf Token after resolving the last Clash takes the Sacred Stone!
All players reveal their Tactic Card. Whoever wins the most matchups wins the Free-for-All. If there’s a tie, then the tied players take their Tactic Cards back into their hands and Clash until one winner is determined. All losing players discard their Tactic Cards and may not use them again this round. The winner takes the Leaf Token and puts their Tactic Card(s) back into their hand.
Once the winner of the Free-for-All has been determined, they challenge the player to their left to a one-on-one Clash. The winner again puts their Tactic Card back into their hand and takes / retains the Leaf Token, and the loser discards their Tactic Card. If there’s a tie, leave those Tactics Cards aside temporarily and clash until a winner is determined. If both players run out, the player with the Leaf Token is the winner. Both players put their set aside cards into their hands and take / discard the cards played in the tiebreaking Clash as normal.
If a new player has the Leaf Token, the player to the left of them becomes the new Challenger. Otherwise, the player to the left of the loser becomes the new Challenger. Players may Challenge until they only have one Tactic Card left, at which point they’re out of the round.
If a player is the only remaining Challenger, or they’ve defeated every other Challenger in one run, they win the round! Give them a Sacred Stone.
End of Game
Once a player has collected three Sacred Stones, they win!
Player Count Differences
I mean, at higher player counts you play an entirely different game, with a free-for-all happening at the start of each round. That’s kinda fun. Lower player counts it’s essentially a very tactical spin on rock-paper-scissors. Either way, the game’s over pretty quickly, so my major complaint about downtime doesn’t really apply here. It boils down to two players playing cards against each other regardless of your player count, anyways, so it’s hard for me to really express a ton of preference for that scenario happening at a specific player count. Long way to say it, but I wouldn’t say I have a particular preference for any player count.
- This game is almost entirely psychological. You need to feint as best as you can to convince your opponent to play cards that are beaten by yours. It’s rock-paper-scissors at its finest, but you lose the ability to play things if you lose too many bouts. You can force players into a bind, so, make sure that you’ve got some options so you’re not stuck.
- I wouldn’t advise leaving out all the cards of one color. It’s usually not great, because again, leave yourself options, but it could work if your opponent is truly not expecting it. However, if anyone has any cards of that color, you may be in a bind pretty quickly if you play your cards wrong.
- Track what cards you’ve seen from your opponent. Keep a note of what they play in other Clashes, win or lose. You can use that to start building up a tally of all the cards they have in their hand. If you know what their cards are, you know what your best odds of winning will be. Just remember, they’re likely doing the same thing to you.
- I can’t see a reason for you to take all of your I-strength cards. It’s good to have one just to surprise an opponent, but taking all of them means definitely leaving at least one III-strength card behind. Unless your goal is to lose, if you want three different colors of cards, take all the III-strength cards so that in a head-to-head matchup you at least tie. I guess you could try to convince your opponents to do it too, but I never would? That would be a strange move. Anyways, yeah, if you have the choice between strong cards and weak cards, take the strongest cards you can; you’ll need them.
- Try mixing it up from round to round. Don’t be predictable, but also make sure you’re strategizing enough that you can actually win. I mean, I’m pretty sure you can actually do decently well playing purely at random, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a viable strategy. It means you’re quite likely to play a I-strength card at an inopportune moment. That’s kind of obviously nonoptimal, so, I’d advise going in with a strategy. That said, if you’re worried that your opponents are starting to get a good read on you, it may not be a bad idea to play randomly for a round / game to throw them off your scent. I do that in Cake Duel from time to time; it works okay. Can’t read me if I don’t know either.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I do actually like the tactical part of this game relative to rock-paper-scissors. I think the interesting hook is that if you lose a round with a card, that card gets removed from your hand. It forces you to make tough and rapid tactical decisions, which is the kind of gameplay I like. Plus, they solved the multiplayer rock-paper-scissors problem, mostly. You just have to keep condensing it down until you get a 1:1 situation.
- Really nice art. It’s a very pretty game, which is almost a shame it has so few unique cards per player. I suppose they could have made every card unique, but that’s almost needlessly expensive.
- Very portable. It’s only 9 cards per person; you barely even need the Sacred Stones if you don’t want them, but they’re so light it’s also hard to justify not taking them. Either way, very easy to take places.
- I appreciate that they included an extra Leaf Token. The extra one is more portable, which I appreciate, but as someone with a tendency to occasionally lose bits, duplicating the Important Bit (or including a Portable One) is a nice thing and much appreciated.
- There’s no state saved between the rounds, so playing best of three is kind of arbitrary. Same thing as Fluttering Souls and a lot of Oink Games. I usually get snotty about this because the decision to play best of three isn’t really some gameplay-motivated thing; it’s just a way to essentially pad out the gameplay time for the box. If there were state saved between the various rounds, then it would feel more justified, but there usually isn’t. And that’s fine; it just means I end up playing rounds until I feel like stopping rather than a predetermined number. Just a consistent personal gripe.
- As with rock-paper-scissors, there’s a lot of potential for the game to be successfully won by a player playing at random. This can be frustrating or liberating depending on how you think about it. On one hand, it definitely makes players feel like their agency doesn’t particularly matter if literally anyone can just up and win the game without thinking about anything. That’s never a great feeling. On the other hand, it’s a very short game based on one of the all-time most random games, so, that’s not terribly surprising. I think it helps to have your expectations calibrated going in, but if you’re bringing this to the Serious Games for Serious Gamers Club, it might not go over so well.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I mean, at its core, Inoka is trying to be an upgrade to rock-paper-scissors. That’s a tough market to be in. Even if you do your job perfectly, you’re still existing in a space that until now has been reserved for a game most people (except for that World Rock-Paper-Scissors group) consider to be random at best. I think Inoka does do a pretty good job iterating on a classic formula (mostly by adding art, which is always a smart move if you’re trying to win me over), but yeah, at the end of the day it’s very much a rock-paper-scissors game. And that’s not bad, though! It’s a great game to play to settle a quick decision among a group of people or host a mini-tournament with (if you have two copies, you can play with up to 8 people, which is interesting). I think in terms of like, snap decision games, there aren’t a lot that play as quickly with its maximum player count. If that’s what you want, a quick and simple little game (or you’re looking to take your rock-paper-scissors game to the next level), Inoka might be a solid choice! I’ve certainly found it interesting.