Sunday, October 13, 2013

Innovation Review

I first played Innovation at Gencon in 2011.  A guy I had met at the previous Gencon, I was lucky enough to run into again, and he taught us how to play.  I won't lie, that first 3 player game of Innovation was miserable:  the noise of the hall, the analysis paralysis of one player, the open collusion of both my opponents.  After 2 hours I just wanted the game to be over, and I didn't care how.  Meanwhile, out of spite, one of the players was trying to use Fission to reset the board, and just agitate me further.

Despite the fact that we very nearly wanted nothing to do with each other after that first game, we couldn't help but recognize that Innovation was pretty amazing.  So despite that miserable first experience, we both ended up getting our own copies once we got home from Gencon.  We've just never actually played it with each other since.

Innovation is a civilization themed tableau building game.  It was published in 2010 by Asmadi, and was designed by Carl Chudyk.  There is also an Iello edition in the US now, which has better artwork than the Asmadi edition.  I'm not 100% sure how two publishers can be releasing the same game in the same region.

Rule Summary

Innovation has a rather creative setup.  First you separate out all the cards according to their Age, 1 through 10.  You also set aside the 5 Special Achievements.  Make sure each Age is shuffled separately, then take one card from Ages 1 through 9.  These are now Achievements.  Array the decks for Ages 1 through 10 in a circle, and place the Achievements you pulled out in the center.  The Special Achievements are still to the side.  Now each player gets a reference board, 2 cards from Age 1, and then simultaneously places one card in front of them.  This will be their first Melded card, which I will explain momentarily.  The player with the first card in alphabetical order goes first.

All the cards properly set up

On a player's turn, they get 2 actions.  The only exception to this is the first player, who's first turn will consist of just 1 action.  There are 4 actions you can take, which are also summarized on your reference board.  They are Draw, Meld, Dogma and Achieve.

The simplest action is just Draw.  You can draw a card from the highest age you have as a top card on you tableau.  If that Age pile is empty, you can draw the next available highest.  So if your highest top card is a 3, you can draw a 3.  If the 3's are empty you draw a 4.  If the 4's are also empty, you draw a 5.

Another possible action is to Meld.  You simply take a card from you hand, and play it to the table.  Each card has a color, red, yellow, green, blue and purple.  If you already have a card of that color, you must place the new card on top of the old card.  In this way, you will only ever have 1 top card of each color.  So the first red card you play just goes out.  But every red card you play after that, covers up the last red card you played.

The next type of action is the one the entire game revolves around, and that's Dogma.  Every card has a set of symbols, and a unique Dogma tied to one of those symbols.  For example, a card might have 1 leaf and 2 castles, and have a Dogma with a castle icon.  So as an action, you can do that Dogma.  Everyone else around the table will check to see if they have as many or more of that Dogma's icon than you.  If they do, they get to do it too, before you do.  Lastly, you will do the Dogma effect, and if anyone else did too, you get a bonus Draw.  So, as an example, if I did that previously mentioned castle Dogma, everyone else would check to see if they have as many or more castles than me.  If they did, they would do the action before I get to.  I would also get to draw an extra card at the end of the Dogma.

Some Dogmas are Demand Dogmas, which always start with "I Demand...".  These work the similar to regular Dogmas, except they usually function as attacks.  Everyone who has less of that Dogma symbol than you, will have to perform that Dogma.  They usually steal cards from opponents in various creative ways.  If a player has as many or more symbols for the Dogma than you, they are safe from it.  Also, you never get a bonus Draw from other players performing a Demand Dogma.

The last action available to you is Achieve.  Remember those 9 Achievement cards you pulled out at the beginning?  There is one for each age, 1 through 9.  If you have a top card equal to or higher than the Age of the Achievement, plus 5 times as many points as that Age, you can Achieve it.  You take that Achievement and slide it under the Achieve side of your reference board.  As one last example, the Age 3 Achievement, requires you to have a top card of 3 or higher, plus 15 or more points in your Score pile.

This leaves a glaring gap however.  How do you score points in order to Achieve?  This is where the vocabulary of the Dogma actions comes in.  Dogma actions will allow you to do many things.  The most prominent actions are Draw, Meld, Tuck, Splay and Score.  Draw and Meld you are already familiar with.  Tuck is similar to Melding, except you slide the card under the color stack instead of placing it on top.  Splaying is a little trickier.  You can Splay one color of cards left, right or up, by sliding the stack in that direction, with each card underneath the top card peeking out.  What this will do is expose additional symbols from the hidden cards, and it's very powerful for enabling you to piggy back other people's Dogmas.  Lastly, when you Score, you simply tuck cards under the Score section of your reference board.  Each card is worth as many points as it's age.  Your score is the total of all your Scored cards.

These cards are splayed left.

Finally, you have the Special Achievements.  These do not require an action to Achieve.  Whenever you satisfy the rather difficult demands of the Special Achievement, you immediately take it.  There is also a single card available for each Special Achievement which has a Dogma that gives you a shortcut to it.

So players will be Drawing and Melding cards, doing Dogma effects, and Scoring and Achieving.  This continues until one player has Achieved enough to win the game.  In a 2 player game, this is 6 Achievements.  For each player you add, you require one fewer Achievement.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

Innovation is an interesting game.  The rules are quite simple.  It has a relatively limited range of actions, and a vocabulary of effects that is rather narrow.  So on the face of it, there isn't much to learn, and you'd think it would be easy for new players to pick up.

Unfortunately, the game really tosses you in the deep end, and expects you to swim.  The number of options available routinely reduces new players to complete paralysis.  Not to mention the myriad of unforeseen consequences of those options.  It's also very difficult to foresee at all how the game is going to progress.  You know you need to Score and Splay to get ahead.  But you may not see a Dogma action which allows you to do these things for half the game!  So it's very difficult for new players to really grasp how all the parts of Innovation hang together.

Every time I've taught this game, I have the same conversation.

"How do I Score?
"You have to use a Dogma effect which lets you."
"How do I get one?"
"You have to find a card with it."
"How do I find a card with one?"
"You just have to draw cards and get lucky"
"Hmmmph.  That's stupid."

And you know what?  When you are first learning this game, with all it's varied possibilities and paths, that does seem stupid.  You know you need to do something, and you have no direct means of doing it!  You have a hard time even imagining a path towards doing it.  It feels forever away.  Why would a game do that to you?

What could have been done better?

Innovation is the only game I've ever had, where everyone hates their first game, and immediately wants to play again.  First games of Innovation are confusing, frustrating, and leave you feeling stupid.  However, by the end of it, you understand completely.  The puzzle pieces fit snugly.  You really just have to play a full game to understand how it all goes together.  Especially since each Age has a unique pacing.  Regardless of how much you enjoyed it, because you probably didn't, Innovation still impresses you.

The problem is that so much about understanding even the basics of how Innovation works is hidden in deck knowledge.  Even after a single play, you'll have wrapped your head around how cards get more powerful as you go.  How easy it really is to find cards that Splay and Score.  How you frequently need to Splay left before you can Splay right or up.  Or how the different colors are very strongly themed around different effects.  All this contributes to a very unique feel.

But it's hard to teach how a game feels.

I have no solution to this.  Race for the Galaxy suffers from similar problems, although much more severely.  Race for the Galaxy's solution is a reference sheet full of example cards.  99% of the people I know complete ignore this player aid.  You can lead a horse to water and all that.  But at least Race for the Galaxy tries, and it is smart including sample cards to at least establish a framework for how the game flows.  It's certainly an avenue Innovation could have tried.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

I would fully expect an experienced player to trounce a new player, for the first game.  After that, all bets are off.  Innovation can be wildly unpredictable and random, with so many avenues for advancement.  Deck knowledge and tactics will help a lot, and on average, the better player will probably win more.  But the variance within a single game can be enormous.

These special achievements frequently get snatched up by experienced players

That being said, experienced players routinely perform better in the Special Achievements.  That is a gap which takes a long time for new players to cover.  It's just easy to forget about them.  They have obscure and complicated goals that are easy to forget.  It can also be quite easy for new players to get bogged down in a few great Dogmas early on.  Dogmas which suddenly quit working as their opponents sprint ahead using Splays or leaping ahead in the Ages.

How effective are the catch up mechanics?

What helps new players in Innovation a lot are the catch up mechanics.  They are subtle, but powerful.  First, there is significant power creep through the ages.  So the longer a player spends scoring and achieving early, the easier it is for all the other players to leapfrog ahead of them.  Every action spent Scoring and Achieving is usually not an action spent advancing through the Ages, Melding or Splaying.

Even an experienced player cannot mitigate that catch up mechanic.  It's a very narrow tightrope, balancing consistently Scoring and Achieving, with continuing to Draw, Meld and Splay.  Try as you might, most players will screw this up, giving their opponents a golden opportunity.  Even if a player doesn't actively do anything to screw up, the card draws may just not play well.  You just have to accept that in Innovation, you will have your time in the sun, usually coupled by a brief twilight.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Innovation is many things.  Every card you draw feels like an amazing new discovery.  Every turn opens up so many new possibilities.  Then every opponents turn results in pure chaos as the playing field is constantly altered in ways you could never have anticipated.  New Dogma effects, and shifting balances in the symbols will redefine the tactical space every turn.  For a game with only 110 cards, it feels like so much happens in any given game.  It's a very densely packed narrative.

A typical play area in Innovation.
Innovation is a truly fantastic ride.  You have complete control of everything on your turn.  Then you have to relinquish that control to others.  It can be incredibly anxious to sit, and wait to see if another player is going to hammer you with another Demand Dogma.  And it's a total relief when it's finally your turn again, and you are out of danger for at least 2 more actions.

You have such a range of creativity in those two actions.  Getting two actions really is the key to enjoying the game.  It's incredibly satisfying trying to make the most out of them.  The Dogmas provide so many powerful and varied options.  It's not uncommon, especially towards the end of the game, to reflexively mutter "Oh wow" every time you look at a new card.  They really are the most enjoyable part of the game.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

An exampled of the power
creep between ages 1 and 9
In Innovation you can make enormous leaps.  You can fly from Age 1 to Age 9 in just a few turns.  You can rack up an incredible score and Achieve turn after turn like clockwork.  However, you can also have your opponent decimate you turn after turn with Demand Dogmas.  You can have all your best cards stripped from you.  You can have your score pile ransacked turn after turn.

These setbacks are not impossible to come back from.  In fact, they are usually only temporary, and can be easily pushed through.  However, I can't help but feel that the game would be more enjoyable if you were limited to using each Dogma only once per turn.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

I like to say that Innovation requires you to be goal oriented.  You cannot concretely plan a strategy.  You'll rarely be able to plan several turns ahead.  For the most part, you have the two actions you get on your turn, and the rest is left up to fate.  This makes Innovation almost entirely tactical.

Still, you can set long term goals, and do what you can to zig zag towards them.  And it really will feel like zig zagging.  You'll get one step closer to an Achievement, then have to take several steps sideways before you can really close in on it.  Successful play requires a lot of opportunism, and the ability to drastically shift gears when it suits you.  I would not advise getting so attached to a plan that you can't give it up when something easier presents itself.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

I love the tactical space of this game.  You will have between 1 to 5 top cards with unique Dogma actions at any particular time.  Plus you will have a hand of cards that you can Meld for even more Dogma actions.  Since each card has a unique Dogma action, this results in a rather confined list of options each turn, but an enormous set of paths over the course of the entire game.  Which is about my favorite quality in a game.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

So many posibilities!
Having 2 actions on your turn is key to Innovation.  It turn really opens up the tactical space.  You can chain together two powerful Dogmas.  You can Meld a card straight from your hand and immediately perform its Dogma to catch your opponent off guard.  You can perform a Dogma to Score, and then use your second action to Achieve.  This may sound like a rather short list of possibilities, but when you combine it with the 100+ unique Dogmas in this game, your range of options becomes quite exciting.

Plenty of other games revolve around card play.  You have your card battle games where players basically get as much turn as they can squeeze out of their resources.  You also have more simplistic card games where every player gets to plop down 1 card per turn and do whatever it says.  On the card battle end of the scale, one player can retain control of the game for too long.  This can cause the inactive player to get bored or feel hopeless.  On the 1 card per turn end of the scale, players don't retain control of the game long enough to accomplish anything meaningful.  I find the 2 actions provided in Innovation to be a perfect balance between these two ends.

Physical component design and limitations?

The major component in Innovation is the cards.  And they are pretty middle of the road quality.  I don't worry about how they will hold up over successive plays.  But I also don't really enjoy the feel of them in my hands.

The biggest complaint against Innovation is the artwork.  Artwork on the Asmadi edition looks like Microsoft clip art.  However it is highly functional.  Every element of the graphic design stands out, and is easy to tell apart from across the table.  Which is important because you continuously have to count up your opponents symbols.  Also, there are plenty of little touches.  Like how every Demand Dogma has "I Demand..." in bold, to help draw attention to it a glance, even upside down or sideways.  Lastly, the reference card is of a decent enough cardstock, and feels adequate to the job, but nothing more.

What could have been better?

So the Asmadi edition of Innovation is ugly to most people.  The good news is that there is a different edition with much better artwork out there from Iello.  I can't speak for how good its graphic design is though.  From pictures, it appears to slightly sacrifice clarity of graphic design for a much improved aesthetic.  Personally, I'm perfectly happy with my Asmadi edition, and I appreciate the high contrast between the symbols, as well as it's minimalist feel.

Long term prospects?

Innovation is one of my favorite card games.  It has just enough complexity to keep me interested, but it's accessible enough for most of the people I know.  Additionally, it always has a great, densely packed narrative.  Every game of it I've ever played has been filled with "Oh man, that turn where you..." moments that we talk about fondly long after the game is over.

What really helps Innovation stay in my collection is that I never feel like I've played it to death.  Every game has been almost completely unique.  I've never played two games that even felt similar.  The game pivoting cards are almost always different from game to game.  This varied experience, more than anything else, is what keeps me coming back to Innovation again and again.

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