Full disclosure: A review copy of Inkling was provided by Osprey Games.
It’s been pretty Osprey-heavy around here. Not bad, just something I was noticing. Tried Cryptid a while back, Village Green, and now I’ve got Inkling, Imperium, Merv, and a few others rolling around. Good times. Pretty reliable publisher, which is always nice, though I’ll suggest that Imperium and Merv are a bit heavier than my usual. I actually liked Imperium quite a bit on my first play, but this isn’t that review, so we’ll chat more about that when the time comes. I am not looking forward to photographing a game of Imperium; it’s gonna be long. But if I can photograph Dominations, I can do anything. I’m getting off track, so let’s get into Inkling before I try to talk about Merv or something.
In Inkling, players are trying to clue words to each other. All they’ve got are letters, though. Don’t have the letters you need? No big deal; just work harder. If you squint, doesn’t a P and an I at the right angle look kind of like an R? And what is a B but an upside-down EI? Maybe? Are you buying it? Well, only one way to find out. Will you successfully be able to help your adjacent players guess all your words?
First off, deal each player a Clue Card:
Then, deal each player eight Ink Cards:
And give each player a score sheet:
You should be good to start!
Inkling! It’s a game about guessing words that takes place over three rounds. However, you’re only guessing the words of the players to your left and right, and the more words of theirs you guess and the more of your words they guess, the more points you get! Most points wins. You know how it is.
Each round has three major phases to it. Let’s go through them.
Arrange Ink Cards
This one’s fun. So you can take as many of your ink cards as you want and arrange them however you’d like. Your goal? Attempt to present words on your Clue card to your opponent. You only have three rounds to do this, though, so try to be efficient and useful. The sky’s the limit for how you want to use the cards:
- Partial coverings are allowed. You can use cards to cover letters to make them into other letters, or combine cards to make new letters!
- Rotating cards is allowed. Is that a C? Or is it a U? What about that M? Or do you mean a W? Or, even, an E? You can kind of just spin cards and let whatever happens happens.
- Get creative with arrangements. You can leave gaps between letters, arrange them in a crossword pattern, or even flip cards face-down, as you need.
- You can spell words poorly, if you’d like. It can save on letters, which is nice, but you have to hope that your opponents can do a good job guessing!
Just don’t show your Clue card.
Guess Clue Words
After all players have finished arranging their words, you need to guess the words to your left and right (and your opponents to your left and right need to guess your word(s). Write them secretly on your score sheet!
You may notice that there are only six words on a Clue card, but there are seven slots on your score sheet. You can guess whatever words you’d like, even if you’re not sure they’re correct. You just only get seven guesses. Additionally, once you write down a word, you can’t change it. So only write when you’re sure!
Draw Ink Cards
After every player has made the guesses they want to make, you can replenish your supply of Ink cards. Do so by taking all your Ink cards back into your hand and then choosing up to two Ink cards to place at the bottom of the Ink card deck. If you do that, draw the same number of Ink cards that you put at the bottom of the deck. Then, each player draws three more Ink cards.
End of Game
Once the third round ends, instead of drawing Ink Cards, the game ends! When that happens, every player reveals their Clue cards. Check the clue cards of your adjacent players; you score points equal to the clue’s value for each clue you guessed correctly. Your total score for each of your adjacent players is your guessing score for that player. Their score for your clues is your ink score. Add your ink scores to your guessing scores for your total, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
So this one’s interesting! With party-ish games, generally, you want to avoid the lowest player count because the interesting dynamics start to emerge at higher player counts. In Inkling, I actually prefer it at three! At higher player counts, there’s a lot of words that I can’t engage with in any meaningful way, and that bums me out. I like that the game almost feels cooperative with fewer players, since you’re all able to see each others’ words. When I first played with more folks, I was doing better picking another player’s words, but unfortunately, they weren’t adjacent to me, so I ended up doing pretty poorly. Sad times. That said, I think having even more people available for you to guess would drag down the pacing of the game, since it does take a while to guess folks’s clue words. I’d honestly love a fully-cooperative variant of this game, but in lieu of that, I’m happy to play Inkling at the lower end of the player count spectrum.
- Get creative. This is definitely not a game where you’re going to get exactly the cards that you need in the ordering that you need. You’re going to have to scrounge, especially early. Cover letters, make weird new letters, leave some blanks; you’re going to need to get pretty abstract to make some of your words. And that’s part of the fun of the game, in my opinion; how much can you get away with?
- Consistency is pretty key, if you can afford it. Generally, I wouldn’t use gaps and blanks to mean “a letter goes here”. Gaps are a bit more helpful, there, especially because you occasionally need blanks to cover up part of other cards so that you can turn an O into a U or a C (or something equivalent). If you play inconsistently, then you run the risk of throwing your adjacent players off your trail. You’re probably going to miss out on points that way, even if you think you’re making legible words. At the end of the day, it’s more about what your opponents can process than what you think you can clue; it’s a bit like Codenames, in that regard. Even a super clever clue might go over your opponents’ heads.
- Look for letters your words have in common, and try to keep or make those. Overlapping letters can let you do a crossword sort of thing, but either way those aren’t letters you want to get rid of. Those might be letters that are worth creating, though.
- It’s better to clue one word very well than it is to clue two or three words poorly. In the former case, you’re guaranteed a few points (but probably not enough to win unless you’re going for the ambitious words), and in the latter case you might just end up with nothing. It’s a risk vs. return assessment unless you’re confident that you can stick the landing. If you can, I respect that, but I have tried a few times and been wildly unsuccessful, so I can’t recommend it.
- Don’t forget that you are allowed to spell words basically however you want. You can kind of go buckwild, and there are no rules. Do you need to clue the word BATTLE? Why not just spell it BATL? Hopefully, your co-players can figure it out? I had to spell SPECIES SPECYS, once. You only have so many letters; you gotta make the most of them. This also prompts me to try and spell my longer words in the final round, since I have more letters to work with.
- Don’t leave your guess sheet with any blanks, if you can help it. It’s not worth it. If you’re decently sure of what a word is (is it SITE, CITE?), write down all your guesses. If you can’t fill up your score sheet normally with guesses, guessing nearby words might be what you need to do to get all of the available points. You might manage to get something that you had seen incorrectly! You can also wait until later in the game; there’s no rule saying you have to necessarily guess the word your adjacent player attempted to make. Just make sure you remember what the arrangement looked like!
- Cycling cards might be pretty useful; I usually try to dump at least one card every round. There’s almost always a card that I’d rather not have, and getting 4 – 5 new cards per round is useful, even at the cost of a couple letters I don’t want. That way, I at least am getting more options.
- Actually stand up and walk around to your co-players spots; seeing the word from their point of view might be helpful. Players tend to build their words so that they can read them, which makes sense, but looking at them upside down or from an angle may be somewhat unhelpful.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Another great bit of art from Kwanchai Moriya. It’s splashy and colorful, and the letters look great, too! I’ve been fortunate to get a bunch of games that Kwanchai has done art for in, recently, from this to Shifting Stones to Kabuto Sumo, which just arrived, like, yesterday (as of writing). I love his work; think it’s fantastic.
- I actually like that players have pretty much no idea how well they’re doing until the game is over. It makes me laugh quite a bit when you look at other players’ score sheets and you’re like “oh, my extremely good clues were completely missed by everyone”. Maybe I’m the problem? Probably not. Definitely not. I hope not? Either way, I think it’s a very funny way to play a partyish word game; you kind of build everything up to a finale and hope it works out. Letter Jam has similar energy around the final reveal, and if nothing else, it’s always a good laugh.
- Plays pretty quickly. At least, it can with smaller groups. I assume larger groups are fine, as well, but there’s usually some variance among players and other players can get distracted by words that they don’t care about, so, that usually adds a bit.
- The core gameplay mechanic is pretty entertaining. It’s tough, too! I think it’s a lot of fun to have to build words in weird ways (and a lot of word games play with that, to some degree), but having to build them by manipulating the static images of letters is a lot of fun; you can make some really weird-looking letters that are somewhat legible. You just need to hope your adjacent players agree.
- I appreciate the creativity of this game and how this game forces players to think about letters. This game is super creative. I’m not used to thinking about a G as a C with an ambitious L attached or an O as two Us with attitude or an E as an F, but more so. Having to disassemble these words (and their letters) into component parts has been very educational, if nothing else.
- Pretty portable. Small box! Not like, Oink small, but small enough that it can fit in a backpack pretty easily and get taken places. It’s tough to play in a variety of places, given that it’s mostly cards and wind is bad for that sort of thing, but it can at least get to those places.
- I also like how scoring works. Relying on your adjacent players and vice-versa gives players a real incentive to participate without sandbagging anyone, and I think that’s pretty cool.
- Given that each player only gets one Clue Card per game, there are a preposterous number of Clue Cards. I’m honestly kind of dazzled by it. Is there a fear that players will memorize the cards or something? There’s just … so many Clue Cards. I love the commitment to longevity, but it’s interesting.
- Would love to be able to ditch more cards per round than just two. I sometimes just get absolute garbage when I start the game up, and I’d love to be able to just kick a few cards. Why would I even want a Z, this early in the game? I don’t, is the thing.
- Shuffling square cards remains the bane of my existence, even more so given that players are regularly rotating the cards. This is honestly so specifically minorly frustrating that this almost ended up as a Con, for me. Generally, cards have a way that they prefer to be bent. That line is the easiest way to shuffle square cards. You find it; you’re golden. The problem is, in Inkling, you basically constantly need to be rotating the cards, so you’re almost never looking at a completely aligned deck, rotationally speaking. So that best riffle shuffle line? It doesn’t exist for the deck, so shuffling is a pain. The hazards of square cards, unfortunately.
- While I like that you don’t score before the end of the game, I do wish that it were possible to see what players thought your word was when the word was still on the table. I would just like the feedback, mostly. It’s helpful to know if I’m just missing them completely. One nice thing about more guess-y games like Codenames is that you get immediate feedback; in Inkling, you’re kind of just riding the lightning until the end of the game and hoping for the best.
- Game was definitely made in the UK. This is where I put on my annoying American hat and say Some Words Are Spelled Differently in American English. Got too many Us in their wourds. Our general rule is that either spelling counts, but it’s worth noting beforehand.
- I think my biggest complaint about this game is just that I wish it were cooperative. I like guessing words, but I would love being able to collaborate with other players to figure out what strange concoction the player to my left has been cooking up. As it stands, I’m competing with them, so no value in working together. A cooperative mode for this would really engage me,
- It’s also a bit of a bummer at higher player counts that you don’t get to interact with any players other than the ones to your left and right. I understand why it can’t work that way (because the game would start increasing in complexity exponentially), but I always get bummed when I see other players put up words that I clearly can guess but I can’t do anything about it other than just look off into the sad, sad distance.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Inkling is a hoot. I do kind of wish it had a two-player mode of some kind; one of my biggest barriers to play for a while was just that I couldn’t scrounge up two players to play it with me. Huge bummer, but we try not to dwell on the past. Now we’re in the present, where I’ve gotten to play it a few times and quite enjoyed it! It’s hard not to be somewhat compelled by Kwanchai Moriya’s art, once again elevating the game it touches. I’m just a huge fan. I also do like word games, and this one has a clever schtick. It’s not about precisely creating the word; it’s about using the letters as physical glyphs to construct the word you want to make. I haven’t thought about letters in that way before, and I think it’s a neat direction for a game to take. Just, generally, a big fan. My big complaints about the game aren’t even really issues, per se; they’re more ways that I wish the game existed so that I could enjoy it more. A cooperative mode would be awesome. One place that I struggle is that I don’t get enough feedback from players during the game to make sure that they’re getting the words that I’m spelling, so being able to hear some discussion would really help me align. I also kind of wish it were possible to interact with players who are outside your adjacent zone in some way, but that’s mostly out of a desire to get to guess more words. I enjoy the guessing! It’s fun to see how other players think. Beyond that, I just don’t love square cards, but that’s hardly news. If you’re looking for a novel word game and you’ve got at least two friends, I’d say Inkling might be up your alley! I’ve certainly had fun playing it.
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