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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