Full disclosure: A review copy of Inner Compass was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Trying out more upcoming games! This time, we’re checking out a new one from Alderac. I think they’re going to have a dynamite year, this year, though 2019 was already great, between ECOS: First Continent, Point Salad, Walking in Burano, and several other titles (Edge of Darkness!). Lost Atlantis looks awesome, Mariposas looks great, too, and a Tiny Towns expansion is on the way. Great start to the year, so far. Either way, let’s check out an upcoming title from them, Inner Compass!
In Inner Compass, players work to achieve a better understanding of themselves via learning about, recognizing, and then expressing their emotions. All part of the path to enlightenment, but what fun is becoming better for your own sake? Let’s make it competitive. Players will work against each other to try and become the most enlightened before the game’s end. Will you be able to find yourself in the chaos? Or will your inner compass lead you astray?
First up, you gotta make the board:
Shuffle the four components, spin them around a bit, then bring them back together to make a 2×2. Next, give each player a player board, on the Basic side (no powers):
Also give them a bunch of components in their chosen color:
The 15 player cubes should be placed over the 15 spaces on the player board, covering up the pictures. Now, place the Qualities Board near the play area:
Add two random Sticky Note tiles:
And add three random Memo Pad tiles:
The remaining space should be filled by the Inner Compass token. Place the Situation Track near the play area with the 6 Emotion Tokens randomly placed on spaces such that the X is not in the topmost space.
Place the Enlightenment Points tokens off to the site:
Finally, shuffle the Emotion Cards:
Give the start player one, the second player two, the third player three, and the fourth player four, to start. Set the deck within view of all players and reveal one card above, below, to the left, and to the right of the deck. You could do this as north / south / east / west, but compass directions are confusing.
Have each player put their Player Token somewhere on the board (in reverse player order).
Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start!
A game of Inner Compass is played as players search for meaning in their complex emotions, or as they play an abstract strategy game. Or both. You know, you do what’s best for you. Along the way, you’ll score some points, and the player with the most points at the end wins. But how do you get points? Over a series of turns! Each allows you to take several actions.
If you are in a group of two or more spaces of the same color, you may move into any space as a free action before taking your turn. Just keep in mind, if you do use this ability, you cannot move into a space that’s the same color as the one you currently occupy with your Move Action.
Move your player token one space. There’s not much else to this one. You move up / down / left / right. You may move into the same space as another player.
Move or Feel Emotion
You may now do another Move action, or you can Feel Emotion (not both). You do this by taking a card that is in the same direction as your Movement in the last action. If you moved up, take the card that’s above the deck (keep in mind we’re talking absolute directions, not relative ones).
If you took a card that’s the same color as the space you now occupy, draw an extra card from the top of the deck for free. Bonus!
This optional action happens when you want to score some points. You may, after moving, discard Emotion Cards of the same color as your space to gain points equal to that color’s position on the Situation Track.
- 1 Card – Yellow
- 2 Cards – Blue / Black
- 3 Cards – White / Red
Discard those cards. Note that if there is already a player’s token (not their movement token; one of the pieces from their player board) on that space, this cost is increased by 1. This cost does not increase if additional players have their tokens on the space; it is only ever +1. Similarly, if the Situation Token of this color is currently in one of the bottom two spaces of the Situation Track (earning you 1 point), this cost is decreased by 1 (to a minimum of 1).
Take the points, and then move the Situation Token of that color to the bottom of the Situation Track. If this would leave the X in the topmost space, move it to the bottom as well. Push the tokens up so that every space has one Situation Token.
Now, place a token from your player board onto that space. You may take from any space on your player board matching the color of that space. If there are none remaining, you may take from any space on your player board. Advanced Players will note that they gain bonuses from removing tokens from their player boards:
- Wild Card Bonus: Draw an Emotion Card from the deck.
- EP Bonus: Gain that many points.
- Movement Bonus: You may move the token you just placed that many spaces.
If placing that token causes you to have a newly-empty row or column on your player board, you may also place a Value Token on one of the five revealed Qualities on the Quality Board. These give you endgame scoring conditions. If you are the first player to place on that space, gain 3 points.
End of Turn
At the end of a turn, if a player has more than 10 Emotion Cards, they should discard down to 10 cards. Lore-wise, you shouldn’t bottle up your emotions like that.
Additionally, if a card was taken during the Feel Emotion step, flip a new card from the top of the deck into that spot.
End of Game
Once a player has placed both of their Value Tokens, clearing another row or column on their player board (which would let them place a third Value Token, if they had one) instead gains them the Inner Compass. It’s worth 3 points, but it also begins the end of the game. Every other player gets one more turn, and then proceed to endgame scoring.
Add all the point tokens you currently have, and then include bonus points from Quality tiles you placed your Value Tokens on. Don’t forget to count points from the Inner Compass, if you have it!
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
You’re mostly going to see differences emerge in terms of density in this game. At lower player counts, there won’t be many tokens on the board, so everything will be relatively inexpensive (compared to higher player counts, where there will likely be more tokens on the board) since you don’t have to pay the additional card. This does mean you need to plan a bit more, and the game is going to take more time at higher player counts. More players are taking turn and the board is more crowded. Also, the scores might be a bit lower, as players are likely to crowd each other out on the Qualities Board, so not everyone is going to get that 3 point bonus for being the first person to place on something. All things worth keeping in mind. That said, once players get the hang of it, the game moves relatively fast, since you really can only do a few simple actions on your turn, essentially. It’s nice when an abstract game knows how to streamline, like that. Anyways, I’d probably play it at two more often than not, myself, but I do not have problems with it at higher player counts.
- It’s not a bad idea to have a bunch of cards in your hand. This lets you be responsive and flexible, two great things to be in this game. Did someone take the color you wanted? Just go after a different color and wait for that one to rise back up. Need to place a few tokens before the game ends? Go after the lower-scoring ones so that you can get that one-card discount. Just factor in what you need and have the cards needed to get it done.
- Remember: you need to go after a diverse range of spots if you want to be able to qualify for any end-game scoring conditions. You don’t technically have to do this (since you can just move tokens around once you’ve placed the fourth token on one color), but I think it’s more expedient (and doesn’t require placing three of a color in advance). It’s going to be a bit easier to make this work for you if you’re trying everything.
- Prioritize columns over rows, unless you’re playing in the Advanced Mode. In the basic game, columns just force you to spend more time before you can place a Value Token. It might be worth it as the game approaches its end to stall a bit so that you can place more, but early on you really want to crush columns rather than 5-token rows. In Advanced Mode, they compensate for this (a lot) by making the rows provide bonuses, so it’s never not worth it to play multiple from the same row, I think.
- Try to avoid placing on occupied spaces, if you can avoid it. It’s explicitly more expensive to do so (+1 card required). That said, sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for your score, so, go hog wild.
- Getting into large clusters of the same color can really help you be more flexible. For movement, not for token placement. This allows you to use that Free Move I keep talking about to scoot around that segment and potentially approach the same square from different directions. That would then let you potentially grab a different card (or get the bonus card when you might otherwise be ineligible). That’s good!
- You should try to get the bonus card as often as possible. Extra cards are pretty much always good? There’s not much else to this, even though the cards are random. Worst-case you can just discard them.
- As a fun auto-counterpoint, it’s also sometimes very useful to move twice instead of taking a card. This is primarily useful if you’re trying to snake an opponent and score a color you know they’re gathering. The Double Dash will let you move into a square, yes, but the price is that you get zero cards; make sure you’ve got what you need.
- If you want, you can lightly keep track of what your opponent is taking. It might help you get a better idea of what to take if they get dangerously close to scoring, so that’s helpful. If you’re playing at higher player counts, though, good luck keeping track of all those cards (especially since you don’t get to see the bonus cards they take).
- Evaluate which scoring condition is the best one for you before you take one. This is kind of basic, but worth mentioning. Don’t just take one because you get 3 bonus points for doing so; take the thing that’s going to be easiest for you to deliver on fully.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The modular board combined with the Free Move rules are pretty interesting. I like that it makes you feel like you’re never too far away from anything, even if you can’t always make the optimal move. The number of times you can make the optimal move using the Free Move as an augment is awesome, though. Makes the game feel very smooth.
- I like the art style a bunch. It’s very pleasant and conveys the desired emotions thoughtfully but playfully.
- The pieces are also pretty nice, as well. I mean more the Value Tokens rather than, say, the squares, but you know. Everything has a good, solid feel to it and has a bit of weight; it feels like it’s well put-together.
- I was pleasantly surprised at how this game played at higher player counts. I really did think I was going to hate it at 4 players but resolved to try it once and just power through it. It was slow going at the start (3 people learning), but as people got it the game got moving at a good pace!
- I like how the scoring track works, generally speaking. I hate it a bit as a player when another player snakes me and makes the cards I had been saving up essentially worthless, but I think the ability to do that keeps the game feeling fresh and interesting. Maybe I’m more of a begrudging fan of it? Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly.
- I’m also a big fan of how the end-game scoring conditions are randomized and assigned each time. I always like that. It’s great for Kickstarter games since that gives you a pretty cheap and easy stretch goal, but for retail games it allows them to potentially throw a few more into an expansion, if they move that route (or use them to introduce new mechanics in an expansion). It just gives you a lot of real estate to work with, design-wise.
- I think the board tiles are the same on both sides? Seems like a missed opportunity for more board configurations. Oh well, can’t always get everything you want.
- The Movement Bonus is a bit unclear, since there’s a Move Action, as well. The Movement Bonus allows you to move the token you just placed to a different spot, which is neat, but it can be easily confused for a Move Bonus, which would allow you to move your own piece to a different spot. Those have very different gameplay implications, so, just make sure you remember Movement is for the token you just placed.
- The theme has pretty much no impact on the gameplay. I’m always kind of disappointed when that happens. I get it, it’s an abstract game, there’s not always going to be overlap between the theme and the gameplay. But I love theme! And I love this theme! So it kind of bums me out that there’s not more to it beyond a few plucky things in the rulebook (which I do appreciate) and the art style for the game. Alas.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Inner Compass is a great title! I’d love it if the theme made its way into the gameplay a bit more, but, sometimes you gotta theme your abstracts even though they’re still going to be abstract underneath. Emotions and games about emotions are a compelling theme, though, so I’d love to see board games (I see you, tabletop RPGs) work with them in a meaningful sense. But I digress. Inner Compass, as far as abstracts go, is very solidly implemented. Good pieces, simple rules, and complex strategy. Those are kind of the must-haves for a good abstract, in my opinion. Plus, it still plays well with two or four, which is a huge selling point for me. Santorini, my favorite, I love dearly, but I never want to play it at four people. At all. I also don’t like team variants, so, there’s that. Back on track. I appreciate that it includes an Advanced Player Board as well, to add a bit more complexity if that’s what you’re looking for, but honestly I think the game’s solid either way, so, play the way that makes you the happiest. Additionally, I find the art very pleasant, which is always nice for a game. I’m very pleased that I got the opportunity to check this one out, and if you’re looking for some spatial reasoning and abstract strategy titles that aren’t too complicated but have a nice bit of variety and depth, I’d suspect that you’ll like Inner Compass, too!