Right of the bat, I have to say: I think Inis is one of the most beautiful games I own. Everything from the box cover to the region tiles are stunning! The art on the cards range from looking like a historical painting to looking like a trippy, day-glo nightmare; and it's awesome. I've seen some complaints about the art, and I honestly can't fathom why; the art style is distinct, thematic, and really help make Inis the unique gem that it is, and the quirkiness of the art fits the gameplay perfectly.
Each turn in Inis starts with a coin flip, which determines the direction of a card draft and the turn order for the round. Drafts in Inis work just a little different than most drafts, you can draft from both the cards you were passed AND those that you kept. I really love this, as it gives you even more options to build the absolute best hand you possibly can. Then each play receives a special card for each region on the map they are the Chieftain of, meaning they have majority control of the region. The player who controls the Capital region is the "Bren" and starts the round. You take actions by playing cards or you can pass, and when everyone passess, the round ends; however, unlike most games, passing does not take you out of the round. This is very important, as the timing of the actions you take is very important for winning the game.
In Inis, the way the game is won really is the key to why the game is so special. There are three separate win conditions: controlling 6 enemies, being in regions with 6 shrines, or being in 6 regions. You can also pick up Deed tokens, which act as a wild card for one victory condition. Achieving one of these isn't enough, however. To win the game you must also take an action to procure a "pretender token", announcing to everyone that you have met one or more victory conditions. This lets others react and try to knock you down a peg, or achieve victory conditions of their own. At the end of the round, everyone who took a pretender tolkien. If one person achieved more victory conditions than anyone else, they have achieved victory and is the new King of the Celts. If there is a tie, the game continues unless the Bren is involved, as they win ties, meaning the timing of controlling the capital is key to victory.
Adding to the theme of the game are the Epic Tails cards, which are powered up action cards you can get during the game. These cards depict characters and events from the Tàin and other Celtic myths, and really bring you into the flavor of the game.
The one flaw in the game is that combat can be a bit dull. At the beginning of a combat round players can all agree to end the battle and keep things the way they sit. If not, you pick an enemy in the region to attack and they either lose a guy or discard a card. Cards can be played to affect the outcome, but overall, it's pretty simple and just not that much fun, but combat is really a minor part of the game and moves quick, so it's not a huge issue.
When Inis was first announced as a drafting/area control game, my thoughts immediately went to Blood Rage; but while those two games share very similar mechanisms, they feel totally different. In Blood Rage you wanted to fight, battle, crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their vikings! Inis is more refined. There's combat, to be sure, but also cohabitation. If no one wants to fight, you don't have to! An opponent moving into your territory? That might help you! Inis is all about subtlety maneuvering and positioning yourself right under your opponent's nose to snatch victory at the last second. No game out there feels quite like Inis, which is why it shines as one of the year's best.