The Inner Compass board game is a 2-4 player abstract that lasts around an hour. I presume the suggested age (14+) is to do with avoiding paying for expensive safety testing, because I’d put this at 8-10+. It’s quite a simple family game with no hidden information or complex strategies.
The game’s theme is apparently about finding meaning in your life, but this it totally and completely pasted on. What you actually get is a clever and original but purely abstract set collection game.
The cartoony art style is interesting, but won’t appeal to everyone. Personally, I’m always happy to see something a bit different. The graphic design works well, while component quality is solid. But the colour choices are a real issue. If you have five card colours, why would you make two of them black and very, very, very dark navy? Terrible in bad light especially. In the box you’ll find 10 small boards (four make up the randomly created main board), around 100 cardboard tiles and tokens, 78 wooden pieces and 69 full-size cards.
Teaching the Inner Compass board game
For a simple game the turn structure initially feels inelegant. But once you get the hang of it, the flow actually works very well. The game is also burdened with some stupid names for the simple things you do, making it harder to grock. While I guess it’s an attempt to add some weight to the paper-thin theme, it just gets in the way. But again, once you get past the first few turns, things slot together nicely.
The four board pieces go together to make a 6×6 grid of squares, in five different colours. The colours are unevenly weighted – as is the case through the card deck (which uses the same five colours). Each player has a piece on the board, and the first thing you do on a turn is move that piece. This is usually to an adjacent square, but can be further (hence the inelegance). Then you’ll (normally – see what I mean?) draw a card.
The card drawing is the first clever bit. At setup, you’ll place the draw deck and place a card to each side of it. The card back shows a compass (see what they did there?) – giving you draw piles for each compass point. Depending on which direction you moved your piece, you’ll draw the card from that point. And if that card’s colour matches the square you landed on, you get an extra card.
Imprinting memories (really…?)
Regardless of whether you drew cards, you now have an opportunity to place a cube on the space you finished your movement on. To do so, you discard a number of cards matching the colour of the space (1-3, depending on colour rarity). Each player can have a cube on each space. But you must pay an extra card if one or more players beat you to the spot.
Your cubes start on spaces (on your player board) again matching the colours of the cards. You take a cube from a matching player board space (or any if you’ve run out of that colour) and place it on the main board, immediately earning victory points. The amount of points is governed by a fluctuating track. When a colour is scored, its marker moves to the bottom of said track. So bad timing (or luck) can see a juicy six points become one just before it gets to your turn. But a generous 10-card hand limit gives you the option to bide your time.
Cubes on your board start out in a 5×3 grid. When you remove enough cubes to clear a row or column, you mark a spot on a bonus board. These give end game points for various things. From having lots of your cubes on the same coloured main board spaces; to grouping them in specific ways (together, apart etc). When someone would place their third bonus marker, they receive a small points bonus and the game is over.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: Getting ‘free’ cards (matching your landing space to the card in the appropriate compass point) feels like a big deal. Getting two cards per turn is clearly much better than one – even if it’s a random one. But should you grab as many cards as possible; or take a more measured approach to your movement and placement? I’ve seen both approaches – or a middle path – do well, which is testament to the game’s quality.
- The thinker: There are layers of thought imbedded in the Inner Compass board game. As well as those discussed above, you’ re thinking about where on your player board to remove cubes. Do you want to rush the end game, putting out just nine pieces? Or slow that down to maximise points? But, is it ever really in your power? Certainly not with more players. I will only play with two – but when I do, I like the game despite its random nature.
- The trasher: Inner compass isn’t my kinds of game. Paying attention to other players’ card draws should really help. But you can’t properly card count because bonus draws come from the top of the deck. Sneaking in to grab six points before another player is satisfying, but rarely in your control – especially with four. So it is way too mellow for me, while the few moments that should feel interactively satisfying rarely feel like you’ve earnt them.
- The dabbler: I see this as a really nice abstract game experience. But I see other players trying to take it way more seriously! The theme is nonsense and the card art is a bit bland. The best bit is the clotheslines on the player boards – but how that relates to my inner compass I have no idea lol. I didn’t notice much variety from the extra end game bonus tiles, or different initial board setup. But that’s not a problem, because I loved it anyway! It’s just a pleasant experience, with just enough difference to keep me interested.
It feels like a bad idea to theme this game so strongly, because anyone coming for the theme will be badly let down. And that may colour their judgement of the game they do find. The game is a nice, chilled experience. Why not flood it with gorgeous abstract imagery and pastel colours, creating something beautiful? An artsy/dreamy theme would work perfectly – like the recent Chakra, or Mandala? And would’ve given a great artist a real chance to shine.
Also on presentation, this doesn’t feel like a £30 big box release. Its abstract nature, and component numbers, make it feel much more like a £20 game (again, like the two games mentioned above). I think the price point will put people off buying. So there goes another opportunity to really find its market. For me, this would fit perfectly into a two-player small box game line from the likes of Lookout or Kosmos. And the black/blue colour clash is ridiculous. An better theme, with patterns as well as colours, would solve the problem.
But I enjoy the game play. There are loads of decisions to make within a small space and it certainly evolves a little after a few plays. And I do love a good spatial puzzle. Obviously I can’t talk of longevity yet. But right now, it’s not a problem. However, I do think it is so much better two-player. I welcome the randomness of the draw deck and the confined board space. As well as the relatively short play time. But the more players you add, the more chaotic – and less satisfying – it gets. I’ll play (but not choose it) with three, but not four.
Conclusion: The Inner Compass board game
I like a good abstract, which is why I reached out about this one. But the rulebook made me a little sceptical. And nothing about this game had me excited when I started to play. But despite that, and the black/navy colour issue, it really won me over as a two-player experience. Both the better half and I have fallen for it and for now it is a keeper. Highly recommended if you like multi-layered abstracts, but only really with two players.