Ingenious was the second game I reviewed over at Board Game Geek, back in May. It’s actually one of the oldest games in my collection and one of the key ones that got me back into the hobby. I bought it in John Lewis and it is one of the few good games you can find in regular stores in the UK – something that hopefully will change over time.
Let me start by saying I don’t want to delve too deeply into a description of the base mechanics of Ingenious here – if my first couple of paragraphs leave you a little befuddled, there’s a good video explaining the rules here.
Ingenious is, at its core, an abstract tile placement game (not something I normally go for, as I tend to warm to a good theme, so please do read on if you feel the same way). Players take it in turns to play pieces to a hexagonal board, accumulating points while attempting to limit opportunities for their opponents.
Each playing tile consists of two hexagons fused together on one side, in the same way you can view a domino as being two squares stuck side-by-side. Also like dominoes, each end of an Ingenious tile has a value – but where in dominoes it’s a number, in Ingenious each end has one of six colours. Unlike dominoes, when a player plays a tile to the board, they score points for the entire length of each coloured row they add it to, rather than just the adjoining tile.
So here’s the clever part. Each player records a separate score for each of these six colours on their player board as they go, but the eventual winner will be the person who has the highest score in their weakest colour at the end of the game. This means you’re constantly scanning your opponents’ scoring cards – as well as the board – to see how you can either boost your own poorly scoring colours, or cut off opportunities for your opponents to raise their weaker ones.
This elevates the game to one I would suggest, at the very least, is a must try for any gamer. Even if abstract games usually leave you cold, there’s a good chance this mechanic will be enough to make you want to add Ingenious to your collection, especially as it plays out in under an hour (you can try it online here).
There are several reasons Ingenious is one of my highest ranked games. Firstly, despite its simple nature, two games never really feel the same. There are 120 tiles in the bag and around 100 spaces on the board, making for thousands of combinations. You simply can’t strategise too much as the board position is always changing, you’re picking tiles at random and you never know what your opponent has, meaning you may be playing right into their hands. This is impressive for a game that works with such simple basic pieces.
Secondly, it scales really well from two to four players and also has an enjoyable solo variant. Again, interestingly, the scaling doesn’t really change the way the game plays, but this is no hindrance to the enjoyment or longevity of the game – it’s the oldest game in my collection and I’m still always happy to play.
However, the best thing about Ingenious for me is the mid game tipping point that everything tends to hinge on. Early on you will probably be going all out for points across all colours, but as you enter the mid game and the board starts to fill, each player will have a eureka moment where they either realise one of their colours looks in trouble, or that their opponents are leaving it too late to bring one of their own colours up to an adequate score.
In my experience, the whole atmosphere of the game switches at that point, going from a relatively relaxed game to an incredibly tense one. Getting it right can be euphoric, especially against a strong opponent, while if the penny drops too late you can really feel your heart sink as the game begins to slip away. But even then a lucky tile draw or mistake by an opponent can let you in for what seemed like an unlikely victory.
Two great game elements tend to come into play here: blocking and changing your tiles. A good blocking move at the right time, shutting out a colour, can win you the game. It can also make another player realise they’ve missed that tipping point – it is hugely satisfying to see that dawn on an opponents face.
You can also swap out your entire ‘hand’ if you do not have a tile containing your current lowest scoring colour after you place a tile on the board. This rule tends to negate poor luck handing an opponent the game, as you can usually manoeuvre yourself into the position of restocking your tiles (and you don’t lose a turn doing it).
This mid-game moment can occasionally be a bit of a negative, especially if there is a difference in experience between players. A good player should always beat a new one, despite the randomness of drawing tiles from a bag, and getting the feeling mid game that you’re going to lose can get old pretty fast.
That said, it should only take a few defeats to realise what you’re doing wrong and there isn’t a huge gulf between experience and inexperience, as there is in some other abstract games such as Chess or Othello. Once you’ve got the basics down you can quickly start to learn from your mistakes and from watching how others play.
The other problem some will have with Ingenious is lack of personality. I’m sure the only reason it doesn’t often hit the table with our group is that other games leave more of an impression, due to the story they tell or the theme they adopt. I find it interesting that abstract games which have what is considered a pasted on theme are often lambasted for just that.
I think with Ingenious though, it’s not precisely a lack of theme – it’s more a lack of personality in the production. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the components, with a solid board and chunky plastic pieces. But it screams ‘high street store’ rather than ‘specialist games store’.
The game doesn’t need a back story, or names for the pieces, but a theme for the whole beyond ‘generic’ would help it earn a few more followers. Perhaps they could do a few new versions – simple mediaeval and space themes would probably shift a few more copies, as would a nice, classy wooden version. But this is really a minor quibble.
I play Ingenious because, despite its level of randomness, it offers what I consider one the best level tactical playing fields in board gaming. The switch of style mid game makes it feel like two very different challenges that hang beautifully together and getting this right is one of the best feelings I get playing games. Despite its lack of theme, I feel Ingenious is one of the best board games on the market.