Archive for the ‘Boardgame Review’ Category


Star Realms by White Wizard Games is a fast-playing deck building game using the “Center Row” mechanic also used by the popular game Ascension.  The game was launched via a very successful Kickstarter and is now seeing a steadily increasing popularity in Boardgamegeek due to it’s combination of affordable price, quick gameplay, interesting decision-making, and confrontational nature.  This game was tailor made for me; I’ve toyed many times in the past with developing a deck-building confrontational space-themed game, so even though I missed the Kickstarter finding that one already existed was quite exciting.  I really enjoy Rune Age which has a similar confrontational deck-building style, as well as Ascension which uses a very similar Center Row mechanic.  After a few plays I can tell this game is a solid gem and one that I’m happy to review and recommend.



Part of the elegant design of Star Realms was the decision to make cards the only component, which allows the game to sell in a tiny deck box and at the incredibly low MSRP of only $14.95.  The base game only supports 2 players, but 2 base games (raising the price to $30 MSRP or roughly $20 from online retailers) allows up to 4 players at once which is still a very low price point for the amount of gameplay you get.

The 118 cards in each copy of the game are broken down into 2 10 player starting deck cards (8 scouts and 2 vipers for each player), 10 neutral and always available Explorer cards, 18 cards that can be used to track Authority totals (basically life counters) and an 80 card Trade deck used to populate the center row.  The cards in the Trade deck all belong to 1 of 4 factions, with each faction having 20 cards total.  The physical card stock is acceptable but I did sleeve mine due to all the shuffling involved; fortunately they are standard trading card size so easy to find sleeves for.

The card art is vibrant and colorful, with a slightly stylized look that suits the feel of the game just right.  While this sort of art is very much up to taste, I enjoy it.  It is all from the same artist and so has a consistent style.  The card layout uses symbols to describe the most common abilities, with text used for the few cards that have more complex abilities.  It’s quite easy to tell at a glance what most cards do, which is nice since you are constantly evaluating new cards as they appear in the center row.  Overall the design of the cards is nearly perfect and does much to improve the experience of the game while also keeping it easy to teach.

Personally I don’t use the number cards provided to track authority, I prefer to use a counter of some kind such as the Threat Trackers from the Lord of the Rings LCG or just a pad and paper.  However the cards are a nice thing to have as they allow the game to be transported and played with just cards alone.  They are also kind of necessary to make the game complete in the box so I can understand and appreciate their inclusion even while I choose not to use them myself.



Players play starship cards to (more…)


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Though pretty much all my recent posts are related to computer gaming, I have in fact been playing and enjoying some boardgames recently also.  Today I want to post about a small, light game I picked up specifically to play with my kids that has turned into a pretty good investment.

Coloretto was first published by Rio Grande games in 2003 and the basic drafting mechanic in it has since spawned a whole series of games including Aquaretto and Zooloretto and their many expansions.  Zooloretto is a great game that I have owned for years and enjoy as a light game that is often acceptable to non-gamers due to the fun theme and simple mechanics.  Coloretto I somehow missed until seeing it on a list of recommended kids games recently, but it is an even simpler and more accessible game that has the benefit of being playable by even younger players (my older kids are 6 and 4).


The game comes in a very small, portable box and consists of 88 cards; 63 cards of chameleons in sets of colors, 3 “wild card” chameleons that match all colors, 10 “+2 points” cards, and 12 other utility cards (last round card, stack cards, scoring summary cards).  The chameleon card art is vibrant and the lizards on their various colored backgrounds are quite cute.  The utility cards are clear and easy to understand with nice colors.

The art on the +2 point cards are a bit abstract, showing some kind of sky background, and perhaps my only complaint as they don’t contribute to an already pretty thin theme; not that it detracts from gameplay, but a weak theme can make it a tad harder to draw new people in.  I’ve taken to calling them “lizard food” so that the kids understand you just always want them.


I want to make an effort in my boardgame reviews not to let my review devolve into a full-scale rules explanation, but in this case the rules are so simple I’m gonna pretty much cover them completely.

Each player starts the game with a lizard card of a different color.  The remaining lizard color cards and +2 bonus cards are shuffled into a common deck, and a number of stack cards are placed in the center equal to the number of players.  Each around, players rotate taking turns in which the player either (more…)

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I’m warning you up front, this is going to be a very long review, possibly the longest I have ever written.  Suffice it to say this is a game that I really enjoy and will hopefully see a lot of expansion; my excitement for the game should be obvious in my review.

Star Trek: Fleet Captains is the winner out of the four space combat themed science fiction boardgames that have come out recently and have been vying for my purchase.  I’m pretty sure I would enjoy all four of these titles, but as both my money and my gaming time are very limited right now I’ve had to narrow down the list to just one game.

Battleship: Galaxies was Hasbro’s and Wizards of the Coast’s throw into the hobbyist game market by combining their Battleship franchise with some design characteristics from Heroscape.  It has some pretty nice plastic miniatures and a somewhat nifty and quick-playing combat system.  It seems a little on the simplistic side, which isn’t a bad thing per se, though the rules depth disappointed a few folks who were hoping for somewhat more.  Unfortunately the promise of expansions for this game seems all but dead, and without any future development what started out as a promising game series doesn’t seem worth investing in currently.  I wonder somewhat if Hasbro is holding off on expansions due to the limited success of the game, and if players are holding off from making the game successful due to the lack of expansions; after all, the expansions are a large part of what made Heroscape so successful as a system rather than just a single game.

Eclipse is by a new Finnish game company and has already seen roaring success, which is a strong reminder that there is still huge demand for a space 4X strategy game with streamlined euro-friendly mechanics.  Unfortunately Eclipse is pricy and also seems to require slightly longer sessions and more players than I usually have available.  It’s a game that I would dearly love to play at some point but I don’t think it’s currently worth the cost of adding to my collection.

Space Empires 4X is GMT’s recent space strategy game which also seems to have seen a good deal of success.  The downside to this game is that it is a full hex and counter wargame and despite it having some neat features such as scenarios, highly polished rules, and some clever use of hidden information, I just don’t see this getting the attention it would deserve in my collection.  In another life where I had more free time and one or more stable opponents this might see the light of day but that just isn’t the case right now.

So that leaves Star Trek: Fleet Captains, which is well suited to short 2-player game sessions making it ideal for my collection.  After researching the game extensively I finally took the plunge and purchased it from CoolStuffinc for about $67, and I’m glad I did.

A Word About Theme

A few years ago the Star Trek theme wouldn’t have meant as much to me, but I have to admit Star Trek has really grown on me to the point where I am now fully comfortable calling myself a “Trekkie” (though a noobish one for sure).  I grew up fully in love with Star Wars but the terrible prequel films and the effect they have had on Star Wars culture since then has really put me off in a lot of ways, while Star Trek has been slowly creeping up on me.  Now that I’ve watched most of Next Generation and am in the middle of watching Deep Space 9 a second time through I’ve come to appreciate Star Trek as the more mature and deeper setting for smaller scale character-focused storytelling in an interesting setting.  For all it’s sci-fi excesses, in a lot of ways Star Trek still seems a heck of a lot more believable than Star Wars ever did and there is something a lot more relevant in the way problems have to be solved in Star Trek.  However, this makes it a difficult setting to design for in some ways.  Fortunately designers Mike Elliot, Bryan Kinsella, and Ethan Pasternack have proven they are up to the challenge.

The theme of Star Trek: Fleet Captains has a squadron of Federation ships facing off against a squadron of Klingon ships over a small sector of unexplored space; thematically, you are assigned your resources by your faction’s high command so you don’t get to choose the starships you control.  You attempt to explore the sector and accomplish a series of missions which often but not always put you on direct conflict with your opponent.  The first faction to a pre-determined set of victory points wins the game.  The timeline covers The Original Series, through Next Generation and Deep Space 9 and into Voyager. The game even includes two versions of the USS Enterprise, one from each show, along with the USS Voyager and USS Defiant.  While this timeline amalgamation is something of an oddity and might upset a few purists, I think fans of the shows will appreciate the extra richness and variety of characters that the merged timeline provides, and the newer Enterprise is correctly much more powerful than the old so the technical accuracy seems to be maintained.

Exploration plays a large role in the game and can be a major source of victory points as well as a serious threat to the safety of your ships, so in that respect a lot of the flavor of the shows is brought nicely into the game.  When you combine all the well-known ships and characters as well as card references to so many well-known technologies and events, it really starts to show how much work the designers put into the making sure the game would capture as much as possible of what makes Star Trek unique.  In this respect I think they did a fantastic job.

All that said, I’ve played the game with several non-Star Trek fans who otherwise enjoy science fiction and they have definitely not had any problems getting into the game, so I don’t think a familiarity with Star Trek is a necessity; more like a bonus.


The components in this game are (more…)

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I’m overdue to write a game review and Fortress America deserves a review, so here you go.

The original Fortress America was released in 1986 by Milton Bradley alongside the original Axis and Allies as part of the “Gamemaster Series” that basically founded the entire Ameritrash genre.  Fantasy Flight’s remake represents a revisiting of the game 26 years later with mostly just cosmetic changes and only some very minor actual game changes.  This means if you strongly disliked the original game, don’t look to Fantasy Flight’s edition to fix it for you; while if you played and enjoyed the original game you should be mostly happy with the new version.  While I knew of the existence of the original, I never had an opportunity to play it so the Fantasy Flight version represents my only experience with the game.

Fortress America is a uniquely asymmetrical wargame which casts one player as the United States military and paramilitary forces defending the continental US from 3 invading powers, which are controlled by 1-3 opposing players working as a team.  This makes the game essentially a cooperative struggle by the invader players against the single defending US player, though the game works fine 2-player also.  The backstory is pretty detached from reality and involves something along the lines of the USA developing a new high-tech laser weapons system in the near future, forcing the other great powers of the world (which are handled very abstractly) to invade the United States in a preemptive war and disarm it before these weapons come online.  While the original game had a decidedly Cold War feel, they had to stretch a bit farther to come up with an even remotely plausible 21st century scenario.  The story is certainly not meant to be taken very seriously, at the end of the day it’s just a fun game allowing players to fight massive battles over familiar US cities and areas that represents a nice departure from fighting over Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, or the Middle Eastfor the umpteenth time.


The game comes with 240 plastic miniatures representing the conventional forces of the USA and the three invaders, and another 50 or so plastic miniatures representing US laser systems, US cities, and US partisans.  The basic unit miniatures use the exact same molds across all factions, with only the color changing.  Each faction has exactly 6 bombers, 9 helicopters, 12 tanks, 9 mobile units, and 24 infantry; and these are strict numbers, no stacking chips here.  There are also 11 gray lasers, 18 gray cities, and about 24 gray US partisan units.  All of the unit molds are excellent and very high quality.  The colors are bright and easy to tell apart; my only complaint is that the infantry miniatures are a little oversized when compared to the vehicle units; a minor complaint but it complicates problems with the board that I’ll describe below.

The helicopters and US laser units somewhat surprisingly come disassembled and require minimal assembly (2 pieces for the helicopters, 3 for the lasers) which is a first for me.  The pieces fit together pretty well but can come apart if handled roughly so you might want to just glue them.  Overall the plastic pieces are are highly detailed and a real treat.

The board is another matter. Graphically the board is well laid out with a good use of muted colors. It has been given the feel of a paper map laid on a table, complete with various embellishments like fake creases, bullet shells, and a compass.  While some have complained about this departure from the original I think it’s a fun look and adds to the atmosphere of the game.  My primary problems with the map involve (more…)

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“Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-??”.

The question marks should make clear this isn’t your average historical wargame; Labyrinth is a fascinating design that is actually examining a conflict still in progress.  One player is playing as the United States, trying to use military and diplomatic means to improve governance across the Muslim world and deny radical Muslim terrorists any haven from which to launch terror attacks.  The Jihadist player (note: not Muslim, as there are Muslims and non-Muslims on both sides) is attempting to gain complete control of multiple Muslim nations or, failing that, to damage governance in Muslim countries sufficiently so that they cannot hinder the Jihadist agenda.  The Jihadist player can also win an instant victory by setting off a WMD in the United States.


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GMT is a game company mostly known for their hex and counter wargames, so when they decided to publish the eurogame Dominant Species a lot of people were surprised.  However, don’t be fooled; this is a heavier, meatier experience than your average eurogame that will provide plenty of challenge for your average wargamer, while being approachable enough to appeal to a wider audience.

This is a worker-placement game with a map made of up hexagonal tiles, where the object is to score, you guessed it, victory points (yes, it is a euro).  Each player plays as one of six “animals”; mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids, and insects.  It can be played 2-6 players, and depending on the number of players each player receives a certain number of cubes (called “species”) and action pawns, which are cylinders.  Each player also has a set of cones to mark dominance on the map.  These pieces are all painted wood and are good quality.

Game Board

The game comes with a mounted board with most of the board covered by a superimposed hex grid.  On the board, but off to the side of the map, is the action area, which is where action pawns are placed to claim actions.  The map starts with a pre-determined 7 terrain tiles on it, and during the game additional cardboard tiles are drawn and placed on the map.  The tiles are a thick cardstock and are solid quality as well.  The general artwork theme uses washed out earthtones that I think looks great, it provides a nice backdrop without distracting.  There are tiles for different types of habitats such as mountains, desert, wetlands, forest, etc.

There are smaller white tiles to place over the top of the regular tiles and represent tundra.  As the game goes on, the tundra will also grow, wiping out previously fertile tiles and converting them to tunda which is a much harsher environment.  The effect simulates an oncoming ice age which is part of the theme.  In my opinion the tundra tiles could have been a little larger so they covered up more of the original tile, but that’s a minor complaint.

The game also comes with a small deck of 25 “Dominance” cards, 6 player reference sheets (one for each animal type), and a felt bag (yes a felt bag) full of small cardboard discs that have 1 of 6 “elements” on them.  These are placed on the corners of the hexagon tiles to represent the presence of elements certain animals need to survive, such as sun, grubs, or grass.  The cardboard discs are probably my other complaint.  They are an important part of the game, and the artwork is fine, but it felt like they could have been a little larger and thicker considering how much they were being handled.

Gameplay revolves around the players alternating placing action pawns on the action box, and then after all action pawns have been placed the actions are run through in order, executing the action of each pawn in a certain sequence.  i won’t attempt to go into the available actions in too great of detail, but there are actions to manipulate the elements on the board (to try to make areas of the board more favorable to your animal type), add terrain tiles to the board (both regular tiles and tundra), add more of your cubes to the board, move your cubes around on the board, kill opposing cubes, etc.  There are a LOT of actions available and it takes time to learn exactly what each one does, so the game has a fairly steep learning curve.  Even after you understand what each action does, understand which actions are the most beneficial to you at any given time requires a lot of deep thought.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the gameplay is the concept of “dominance”.  Having cubes on a tile lets you vie for dominance, which is calculated by looking at the elements adjacent to that tile and comparing them to the elements on each players sheet.  Each animal type starts with certain elements on their sheet, and you can add more by “adapting” your animal to new elements.  The better your animal matches the elements adjacent to the tile, the higher you score for dominance; the player with the highest dominance score puts a cone on the tile of their color as a marker.  just to give you a really simple example:   Lets say there is a desert tile with 2 sun elements and 1 grass element adjacent to it.  An insect and a reptile are both present.  The reptiles start with 2 sun elements on their sheet, while the insects start with 2 grass elements.  The reptiles thus has a dominance score of “4”, since their 2 sun elements, multiplied by the number of sun elements adjacent, is 4.  The insects have a dominance score of “2”, since their 2 grass elements, multiplied by the number of grass elements adjacent (1), equals 2.  If the insects were to add 3 more grass elements to their sheet, that would up their dominance score to 5 and they would take over dominance in that tile.

Dominance matters because taking the domination action, and choosing to score a tile where you have dominance (even if you don’t have the most cubes) lets you take a domination card which have wacky and usually incredibly powerful effects such as giving you an additional action pawn, eliminating a bunch of cubes from the map, or other helpful effects.

Players earn VP from a variety of actions.  Placing tiles and tundra tiles gives VP, having the most animals surviving on the tundra gives you VP, and scoring tiles where you have cubes using the domination action gives you VP.  At the end of the game every tile is scored one last time, and each player also receives bonus points depending on the number of tiles they are dominant in on the final board setup.  It seems you score roughly 50-60% of your points with the final scoring, but its nice that all the jockeying for position ends up mattering at the end scoring.  It also makes it difficult to tell who is actually in the lead which keeps a multiplayer game more competitive.

The two biggest downsides to the gameplay are the dominance mechanic and the domination cards.  Both provide immense richness and strategy to the game so I’m not criticizing their inclusion so much as lamenting the amount of complexity that they add.  The domination mechanic basically amounts to book keeping, since the elements on the map and on each players sheet are changing fairly frequently.  It’s very easy for domination of a particular tile to change several times in a short time-frame and its up to the players to keep track and change the dominance cone as required.  This is annoying because domination actually doesn’t matter the vast majority of the time, but the two times it does matter (during a domination action and at the end of the game) it is incredibly important.  The domination cards allow for some very cool and thematic effects but require extra time for each player to understand what each card does as they are laid out, since each player has to decide if they want to take domination actions to get a chance to play cards or not.  This slows the game down especially for new players who have never seen any of the cards before and may have a harder time understanding what they do.

That said, the reward for mastering this complexity is rich, rich gameplay.  The clean, smooth worker placement mechanic, combined with the complexities of the board situation, the domination/scoring mechanic, and the domination cards results in a brilliant interaction of different game elements.  Most importantly, Dominant Species benefits from euro mechanics while avoiding two pitfalls of euro games (at least as far as wargamers are concerned):

1.  Overly mechanical player decisions.  Often euro mechanics are so clean and clearly defined that optimal play sometimes becomes too obvious.  Dominant Species avoids this with a healthy dose of pure chaos; drawing land tiles, drawing elements from the bag, and a huge amount of player competition are constantly shaking up the game situation and preventing too much planning ahead.

2.  Player conflict.  Most euro designs downplay or even exclude entirely player conflict, i.e. the ability of players to harm each others game states.  Dominant Species doesn’t only allow it, it encourages it through various mechanisms.  If you aren’t out there picking off your opponents cubes, or using the dominance cards to mess with them, you haven’t got a chance.  This is a bloodthirsty game of intense competition and players need to understand that going in.

Playtime is going to be around 3 hours.  It is playable on a long weeknight session, especially with players who are very familiar with the game mechanics, but this is a heavy game and plan for it accordingly.  Theoretically playtime should be similar regardless of the number of players due to the clever mechanism of reducing the number of action pawns per player in larger games.  In reality of course having more players can slow the game down anyways, but hopefully the action pawn limiting helps to even it out more compared to a lot of other games.

A last note on the theme, it is a little abstracted.  The cubes don’t actually represent a number of animals, instead they represent “species”, and your limited supply of cubes is termed your “gene pool”.  So having multiple cubes in a tile actually represents diversity of your animal present.  Many of the game elements may not make thematic sense, for example you can have a wetlands with no water element, or a desert with no sun element.  However, overall the theme is a complete success in my opinion.  Another common criticism of eurogames is that the theme feels “tacked on”, but that is not the case here.  The theme comes through in every single action of the game, you can feel the tension as the species vie with each other for dominance over tiles, while gradually spreading out over the growing map ahead of the coming ice age.

As usual, tons more information is available at the Boardgamegeek entry.  I haven’t tried too hard to explain all the game mechanics, if you are interested in a more detailed explanation there are some great reviews on Boardgamegeek.  GMT has also made the rulebook available online along with some other resources at their website for the game.  A really good resource for learning the game is episode 24 of the “How To Play” podcast, where Ryan Sturm does a great job explaining how the game works in depth.

Overall, after 1 play (which I lost horribly after the final scoring despite spending most of the game in the lead), I would rate it:

“8:  Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I’ll suggest it and I’ll never turn down a game.”

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Innovation is a relatively new game for 2-4 players designed by Carl Chudyk and published by Asmadi Games which saw some decent popularity on Boardgamegeek when it first came out. While technically it’s a card game, it takes up enough table space to qualify as a board game in my book.

The cards themselves are a little on the flimsy side.  The game is quite cheap, only $17 on Coolstuffinc.com last time I checked, but I would question the longevity of the cards if heavily played.  However, they should hold up for a while on their own and could be protected in sleeves if you really wanted.  There really isn’t anything else in the box except the rulebook, 5 special achievement cards and 4 small double-sided player aids.  The game is highly portable which is a plus, though it takes up a somewhat large space to play.

The game mechanics are very simple but quite unique.  The game is made up of 105 technology cards, divided into 10 different “ages”, each of which is a pile of cards at setup.  The first age has 15 cards and each other age has 10, with the back of the card depicting its age.  The ages start with “1: Pre-history” and advance through “10: Information Age”.  The front of the card has the name of the technology, its power, and 4 slots for icons on the left and bottom of the card, one of which is taken up by a black hexagon with an image which has no game effect and functions simply to fill one of the 4 slots.  The other 3 are some combination of 6 different icons the game makes use of.  Each card is one of 5 different color backgrounds (red, blue, purple, yellow, green), with each age having an even number of each color.

A sample card

Each player has a hand of cards and an “in-play” area, similar to how a CCG works.  The “in-play” area for each player consists of one or more cards from each background color in a stack, with one card on top and the rest either underneath or “splayed” which means they are slid out in a direction so as to reveal some of the icons on them.  Since there are only 5 colors, each player has at most 5 top cards, meaning only 5 cards with visible powers.

A player turn consists of 2 actions, with the following choices:

1.  Draw a card from the lowest pile with card remaining.  I.e. if the Age 1 pile is depleted, draw a card from the Age 2 pile.  This is pretty much the least efficient thing you can do but its always an option and sometimes you don’t have a choice.

2.  Put a card from your hand into play.  This means putting it on top of the pile of that color or, if you don’t have any cards in play from that color, starting a new pile.

3.  Resolve the power of one of your top cards.  They refer to this in the game as “dogma”, which is silly and confusing, but all you are doing is actually using the power one of your cards which is very straightforward.  This is where the meat of the game is, but I’ll talk about this in more detail in a moment.

4.  Claim an achievement.  This is the main way to win the game, so if you can claim an achievement you pretty much always should, since you want to prevent your opponent from claiming them.  There are 10 achievements available, 1 card from each age is pulled out of the game at start to function as an achievement (only the backs of these cards is used) and to qualify for an achievement you must have a score equal to 5 times that age number or greater.  So to claim the first achievement, you need a score of 5 or higher, for the second you need 10 or higher, and so on.  Scoring cards is done via resolving the powers of some cards.

The real fun of the game is resolving the powers on the cards, which have a wide variety of effects as each of the 105 cards are completely unique.  Generally they allow some combination of drawing cards, putting cards into play, scoring cards, etc.  Some cards harm your opponent by forcing them to hand over cards or allowing y0u to score cards from their hands or board.  Some have completely unique or weird effects, and a couple of the very late game cards even offer alternative ways to win the game.

The power on each card is tied to one of the 6 icons on the cards.  The coin, light bulb, and leaf icons are on cards from all 10 ages, while the castle icon is only on cards from ages 1-3, the factory icon is only on cards from ages 4-7, and the blue clockwork icon is only on cards from ages 8-10.  At any given moment each player has a certain number of each icon visible via either the top card of each stack or visible due to the cards underneath in a stack being splayed out in a certain direction.  If you use a power tied to a certain icon but another player has an equal or greater number of that icon also visible, they get to use the power as well before you do.  For example, I have 4 castle symbols showing and I use the power of the card “Wheel” which allows me to draw two cards.  My opponent also has 4 castle symbols showing, so he also gets to draw 2 cards, before I do.  Anytime at least one opponent piggy-backs off of your power, you get to draw an extra card at the end of the action… still, allowing an opponent to profit from your card powers is usually bad.

Therefore, the players are jockeying for position to have more of a particular icon that is tied to a power they want to use, so that they can enjoy its benefits without helping their opponent.  In some cases, an opponent can’t benefit from a power due to their situation so having superiority in an icon may not matter.  Since each player’s board is constantly changing and growing, the number of icons visible is also changing frequently so the situation is rarely stagnant for long.

Since you need achievements to win the game, players are both trying to find ways to score cards.  Scoring a card (generally done from your hand or your board, but can be done other ways depending on the power of the card that allows the scoring) puts it in a score pile where the card is worth points equal to its age.  An Age 1 card is worth 1 point, and Age 4 card is worth 4, etc.  The total sum of cards in a players score pile is what is used to claim achievements, but cards in the score pile are still very much in the game and can be the target of all sorts of effects that can bring them back into the game or move them to another player’s score pile.

It’s also very beneficial to “splay” your cards.  The way the icons are positioned on the cards, splaying left, right, or down can reveal 1, 2, or 3 additional icons for each card underneath the top one in a pile.  Splaying in a direction literally slides each card in a pile that direction, so the more cards in the pile the more extra icons are visible.  These extra icons can give a huge boost to your total icon counts, so splaying is highly sought after but not always easy to achieve.  Certain cards allow splaying, sometimes only of certain colors or in certain conditions, with the earlier game cards allowing splaying to the left and later cards allowing the more lucrative splaying right or down.

cards "splayed" down

There are also 5 “special” achievements which can be claimed by any player immediately by meeting certain difficult, late-game conditions or earlier by achieving the conditions of a specific technology card.  Typically the game ends when a player obtains the required number of achievements to win (which varies from 6 for a 2-player game to 4 for a 4-player game).  If for some reason this isn’t accomplished, the game ends when the last card is taken, at which point the player with the highest score wins… a different condition from most achievements since score is more transitory.  As mentioned, there are also several cards that offer unique win conditions.  In my experience the vast majority of games will end via achievements, but the possibility of other end conditions produces some fun tension, especially if the game is getting into the late-game cards.

My experience is 3 2-player games, with playtime for each game being about an hour.  I think multiplayer games wouldn’t take too much longer, maybe 90 minutes for a 3 player game and a couple hours for a 4 player game.  The downside to a multiplayer game would be that keeping track of the numbers of icons in play for each player would become a lot more difficult, leading to some downtime while players stopped to count.  With 2 players its a little easier to remember which icons you have superiority in.

All that said, what do I actually think about the game?  To be honest, Innovation is fairly brilliant.  It has some elements of both Dominion and a CCG, where you are pulling cards from common decks but putting them into play and using them against your opponent.  Even though a lot of the cards don’t directly cause player interaction, you need to constantly be aware of the number of icons you have vs. your opponent at any given time so you can ensure you aren’t allowing them to use useful powers.  Generally the strategy is to obtain superiority in a certain icon and then use powers associated with that icon to gain a competitive advantage against your opponent.  The value of the power on each individual card is constantly in flux, based on the icon situation and based on how much use you can make out of it.  It’s pretty much a combo game, where the winner is the guy who can make the most efficient use of a few cards at a key time to gain an advantage.  The gameplay is very deep, despite the simple mechanics.  Correctly identifying the potential of each card requires a lot of thought but executing a clever combination is highly rewarding.

The game does have some downsides, however.  The designers chose to use some special terminology to identify certain game actions; “meld” means to put a card into play, “dogma” means to execute the power of a top card, “splay” has already been explained.  Obviously its advantageous to use short one-word descriptions of these actions on the cards themselves, to save space, but they give the game a bit of an esoteric feel since a new player has to comprehend what each of these words actually means.  In addition, the card powers are incredibly diverse and while some are very simple, most require a lot of thought.  Since you are constantly drawing new cards and your opponents are constantly putting new cards into play, its very easy to be overwhelmed by all the different powers and what they do.  It’s helpful that each player can’t have more than 5 actual cards in play, and can’t use the powers of more than 2 cards per turn, but it nonetheless is a lot of information for a new player to process.  If they are prone to analysis paralysis, this can easily trigger that.  The good news is that with repeated plays many of the card powers become much more clear.  Nonetheless, the learning curve of Innovation is unfortunately steep.  In my opinion, Innovation is NOT a good gateway game.

Finally, a note on theme.  This is NOT a civilization-building game; the concepts on the cards are highly abstracted and the sequence in which the cards actually play out may or may not make any kind of historical sense.  Some of the “technologies” are a little odd.  However, I think the theme actually has a lot going for it.  The combination of the colors and the icons yield a certain feel to the cards.  Red is typically industrial/military, with lots of castles and, later, factory icons.  Yellow is typically agriculture or medicine, with lots of leaves.  Green is often financial related, with lots of coins.  Purple are generally related to philosophy, government, and learning while Blue are the hard sciences.  The powers associated with the different technologies are often highly evocative of that technology, with military cards allowing you to harm your opponent while a science card may allow you to draw cards from a later age.  Since the powers can be used by your opponents if they have the same number or more icons, it gives a great feel to the competitive nature of the game.  Having a military technology card that uses factory icons but but being inferior in factory icons to your opponent may not help you much since they can use it right back against you, which makes sense; you are losing the arms race.

All together, Innovation is a fantastically clever and unique game that plays fairly quickly and provides deep, thoughtful, competitive gameplay.  Re-playability seems fairly high, the removal of 10 random cards each game to function as achievements helps with this.  In my opinion the game would play best with 2 or 3, and a good 3 player game option is always nice.  Whether it plays well with 4 players would probably depend on the group but expect to have to think a lot harder!

Overall I rate Innovation an:

“8:  Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I’ll suggest it and I’ll never turn down a game.”

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