I’ve always enjoyed culturally-themed games, as evident in my review of Wu Wei. There’s something enjoyable about playing more than your typical Sci-Fi, Euro-Fantasy, or even historical game.
However, I’m wary of many games based on other cultures because they’re often written from outsiders’ perspectives. So, when you find one that researches a living culture and gathers their input, my interest is piqued.
Inuit: The Snow Folk is a card-based strategy game that uses drafting each round to either build your village or perform various jobs (that net points in the end). The game represents an Inuit village that tries to grow its population, hunt game, defeat rival tribes, and even perform shamanistic rites and commune with the spirits.
To fulfill this act, there is a Great White between each of the players’ village boards, which is filled with an ever-changing variety of cards (drawn from the game deck). Players use their villagers to take specific types of card from the Great White and place them in their village.
The game continues until Polar Nightfall occurs, a card that’s shuffled into the bottom ten cards, at which point the round finishes. All cards are totaled up, with some being worth more and others variable amounts (usually in synergy with your other cards); the player with the most points is considered the winner with the most prosperous village.
Inuit: The Snow Folk seems daunting at first, with its numerous types of cards, but it’s quite simple. Each player’s turn consists of three steps: Replenish the Great White, Scouting (which is optional), and enact a single Occupation.
The first two steps are how the Great White keeps changing and offering new cards to draft. Replenishing is a mandatory addition of a card from the game deck to the Great White; Scouting is optional addition of cards, using your village’s Scouts, that can be beneficial (more to choose from) but also detrimental (more cards for your opponent(s)).
The third step is where the strategy comes in, as you’re only allowed to use a single Occupation each turn and each one focuses on different card types. Regardless, they all follow the same rules: you may take cards of that Occupation’s focus equal to the number of Inuit you have assigned there (including the automatic one that’s part of the board).
For example, Elders let you add villagers to your board, which is vital because this is how you end up with more than the single base member. If you had three Elders (from adding two Inuit to that category), you may draw up to three Inuit from the Great White and add them to any combination of Occupations.
Each Occupation follows a similar pattern; Whalers, Bear Hunters, and Trappers allow you to add that type of Game, Shamans let you take Rites and Spirits, and Warriors let you defeat Inuit in the Great White and keep their weapons. All these cards score points at the end of the game, so they’re essential to gather what you can.
The only Occupation that doesn’t follow this pattern is Scouts, which are used in the optional Scouting phase. If you choose to Scout, you can continue to add cards to the Great White, up to your total number of village Scouts.
Although first-time players may choose to grab as much as they can in every category, there’s a strategy to focusing on specific cards. Different Game is worth more, so having Bear Hunters will net you more than your Seal Trappers; of course, the deck contains more seals than polar bears, so it may be worthwhile to focus on the animals that are easier to find.
Similarly, Spirits can provide points based on how many Warriors you have or how many Orcas you’ve whaled. You’ll need to be on the lookout for Spirits which boost your own points (there’s only one of each type) and have the Shamans ready to add them to your village.
Rites are individual cards that are not only worth points at the end but also have an immediate effect once gained. Generally, this effect balances the board, causing those who have more Game, Inuit, or Spirits and Rites to discard from their village, but there are a few Rites that do other things.
As mentioned, an important tactic is adding Inuit to your village, as each Inuit card has a different color and symbol. Inuit you’ve added that match your village board net you points whereas those that don’t subtract points; this makes finding members loyal to your village more critical.
Interestingly, there are two types of Inuit: Adults and Children. Each card behaves the same mechanically, performing their occupation as usual, but they have two significant differences.
First, Children have two colors (as they’re born from parents of different villages), allowing them to be faithful to two villages (for whether they add or subtract points). Second, Adults are worth more points than Children during the final scoring; this adds strategy as you decide whether to add the more easily faithful Children or focus on finding the Adults that add more to your prosperity.
The core game provides a lot of routes toward victory, whether it’s focusing on game hunting (or a specific animal), defeating rival Inuit (and taking their weapons), adding as many loyal Inuit as you can find, or even performing Rites and gathering the blessings of specific Spirits. Each game we played often ended up quite close, and we were never sure who was going to win in the end.
Inuit: The Snow Folk also comes with two additional expansions that add new cards and strategy to the game.
The Rising Sun expansion adds new seasons to the game, with Sunrise, High Sun, and Sunset before the eventual Polar Nightfall. Each card of its type affects how the game is played and is different, allowing you to choose specific season effects or draw random ones.
The Spirit of the Great White adds Conflict cards, Legendary Characters, Great Game, a new Rite, and exchanges one of the Spirits. In this expansion, the game becomes more competitive and cutthroat, as players may choose to go to war with another village.
Conflict cards create a new path to victory; defeating Inuit of the enemy color (thus taking their weapons) and having more Warriors than the village of that color at the end. You can also choose to forgo the Conflict or even forge an Alliance, which nets both villages points.
Legendary Characters are worth negative points but provide great bonuses (like counting as two of that Occupation) and can score more points if specific criteria are met. In the meanwhile, Great Game are better versions of the other animals but worth more points.
One of the great things about Inuit: The Snow Folk is the publisher’s note at the beginning of the rules. Board & Dice acknowledge the difficulties in making a game about the Inuit when they are not members of that culture; the authors explain the game was created with the utmost respect and research and included input from Inuit advisers.
The instructions also include a personal thank you from an Inuk consultant, stating their support for the game; they acknowledge the game is a general perspective that doesn’t cover the diversity and nuances of the Inuit, but that it’s respectful and thoughtful. Also, the indigenous advisers hope the experience inspires curiosity in players so they may explore their culture in more depth.
Any game which presents positive portrayals of a culture, is created through research of (and input from) said peoples, and gains the praise of its members, scores high points. I’m very thankful when a culturally-themed game is more than stereotype or appropriation and instead helps bring attention to the culture and people.
Inuit: The Snow Folk does have two critiques from me: player size and artwork.
The first is a mechanical preference, as we found the game works better with 3 or 4 players. As the game deck remains the same, a 2-player game is going to split almost half of it among themselves; you end up with far too many cards on your village, and the scores are ridiculously high.
Also, as you keep the Inuit of other villages in the deck (even if that village has no player), the Great White ends up with many cards you don’t want (as they’ll cost you points) and that you primarily avoid or choose to defeat with Warriors.
My second critique is more subjective and about the art style, which I’m sure some people will question given the art is beautiful. The artist, Paulina Wach, is talented but she is also Polish, and it shows in a very Westernized or European depiction of the Inuit, the animals, the spirits, etc.
For a game that brings attention to an indigenous people, the designers could have used Inuit artists or at least artwork from that culture. This critique is a minor one, however, as it felt a little discordant to be playing a game about the Inuit but with minimal Inuit artwork anywhere.
Inuit: The Snow Folk is a great strategy game that is easy to play but has many paths to victory. Also, the two included expansion rules spice the gameplay up and provide a lot of replayability.
I also give praise to Trehgrannik and Board and Dice for approaching a culturally-themed game with respect and input. Those of us who advocate for indigenous people, as well as members themselves, thank you for your thoughtfulness and positive representation.
Inuit: The Snow Folk is on shelves now. 2-4 players, 45 minutes, Ages 13+.
I give Inuit a prosperous 4.5 Rites of Inspiration out of 5.