Inkulinati is a cuter take on the medieval strategy game

4.18.2024
By Steven T. Wright, Contributor

When you think of medieval strategy games, you probably imagine sweaty soldiers in chain mail hauling trebuchets against hails of arrow fire or knights swinging battle axes at each other. Inkulinati offers a different blueprint: adorable woodland creatures chasing each other up and down ladders etched in dusty parchment. 

Like the medieval illuminated manuscripts that inspired it, Inkulinati certainly makes a lasting impression. The debut title of developer Yaza Games, it’s a unique blend of turn-based strategy and a good-old-fashioned Worms-style brawl where half-doodled animals duke it out to determine the master of the page. Taking place over different Chapters that each present different battles for you to overcome, the game’s Journey Mode puts you through your paces, challenging you to use a variety of units and tactics on your way to becoming a master of the Living Ink.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the germ of Inkulinati started with its striking art style. As Game Director Tina Janas recalled, during a game development class, future Art Director Dorota Halicka showed the team samples of real-life medieval marginalia found in manuscripts of the Middle Ages. That was the spark that ignited the project.

“When we saw all these strange creatures and scenes, including rabbits fighting dogs, we felt the need to make these characters move and give players the ability to control them,” Janas said via email. “The idea of giving players access to magical living ink to draw rabbits, dogs, and other creatures was born. The goal was to create a game in which the player would experience the strangeness of medieval art and witness very strange things happening on battlefields.”

From this humble beginning, it was important to Yaza Games to authentically capture the charm and appeal of this ancient art form. According to Janas, Halicka and the team consulted with medievalists to understand the “meaning and purpose” of each figure, particularly the animal musicians that are all over the game. For example, medieval manuscripts tend to prominently feature foxes, which likely reference the trickster character Reynard the Fox of popular fables, one of which is included in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Cats with fiddles and pan-piping pigs are often explained as an illustration of the inversion of the natural world, similar to today’s expression “when pigs fly.”
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Janas said Yaza Games worked diligently to capture the bizarre humor of these fancified doodles, including flavorful mechanics such as rabbits mooning their enemies to stun them or foxes swiping resources from their opponents. “The design team analyzed the gameplay potential to incorporate as much of their humor into the mechanics as possible,” she said. “…Also, the choice of genre—turn-based strategy instead of point-and-click adventure or platformer—made the project stand out even more.”

From our conversation, it’s clear that Yaza Games faced an uphill battle in bringing their ambitious game to life. Inkulinati started as a spare-time project, and hardly anyone on the team had any experience in managing a company or releasing a game in the first place. As Janas recalled, a successful Kickstarter campaign helped grease the wheels somewhat, but Yaza ultimately had to work to secure funding several times during development. “It made the whole process take a lot longer than we originally expected,” she said.

Janas said that a chance meeting with Obsidian’s Josh Sawyer at the game conference Gamescom helped Inkulinati get on the gaming map. Sawyer noted the similarities between the game and his own medieval-themed title Pentiment, and the two studios ended up working together on crossover content, with Pentiment’s main protagonist showing up as a playable character in Inkulinati.

Janas described Inkulinati’s unusual genre selection as the result of a careful balancing act. The team knew that its art style would attract players who like more casual games, but they wanted to make it interesting enough to keep ink masters coming back for more. As a result, they ran a few focus tests to strike that middle ground between complexity and accessibility, particularly in the opening hours. “We have listened carefully to feedback with a willingness to improve the game based on player experience,” she said.

One of the key aspects of that balance was finding a way to give players more interesting options than simply attacking every round. Janas explained that this thinking led to each unit having unique gimmicks and actions where forgoing dealing damage for a round might produce better results in the next. Inkulinati’s push mechanic is perhaps the best example of this: When an enemy unit is pushed, they go in that direction until they encounter the first empty space. If there is no empty space, they fall off the page, resulting in an instant kill. 

“One particular thing I’m very proud of that changed the title of the game was the moment we came up with the idea of push actions,” Janas said. “It solved a couple of problems we had at the time—and I remember [Nintendo pioneer] Shigeru Miyamoto saying, ‘a good idea is something that not only solves one problem, but can solve several problems at once.’ It was that kind of idea. But in addition to solving problems, it also adds something special to the gameplay. It reinforces the value of positions, adds more humor—people really laughed a lot when they kicked people off the battlefield—and makes the whole game more unpredictable, so the whole strategic depth is deeper and easier at the same time.
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“...In the beginning, there was a defensive move called ‘kneeling.’ No one used it, even though we explained to players that it made it harder for beasts to do massive damage. But the name made it sound like a boring move. We decided to change the name to something more interesting—and so the ‘praying’ action was born. Players started using it a lot more, and we also got new ideas about what these actions should do, and now it is one of the basic, very useful actions.”

Now that Inkulinati is out of early access, Janas said the future of the game is up in the air to an extent. The team would like to add a multiplayer online mode to the game, improve its tutorial, and add another run-based single-player mode focused on beating your own records, among other changes. As of now, it’s not clear if that will happen, but Janas encourages players to buy the game if they want to see more updates. “It depends on so many things,” she said. “...But if a lot of people buy a game, and there is a demand for updates or DLC—it will definitely become more real.”

As a whole, Janas is proud of what the team managed to accomplish with Inkulinati, especially the fact that every person who worked on the game had a big impact on it. Its blend of playful, once-forgotten art and pinpoint strategy stands out in today’s crowded gaming market, just like how its doodles arrest the viewer’s eye in the Books of Hours, an illuminated prayer book popular in the Middle Ages. “From the very beginning, I was worried about whether we could make gameplay that would match the quality of the art style,” Janas said. “And thanks to ideas such as push mechanics, I think we succeeded in making a game where both the art and the gameplay are very good."