Monday, 30 August 2010


The Game

Innovation is a new (2010) card game by Carl Chudyk, designer of Glory to Rome. I have been reading about it a lot and have been very keen to try it, because of the civilisation theme and also it being a card game with some depth. I have played Glory to Rome before, and thought it was not bad. Not as good as Race for the Galaxy, but it has some interesting ideas.

Innovation has ten stacks of cards, each ranging from Age 1 (prehistoric age) to 10 (information age). Every card is one unique technology, e.g. archery, gunpowder, paper, wheel. It is in one of five different colours (representing different types if technology I guess). It has three icons, sometimes all different, sometimes all the same, sometimes a mix. There are 6 different icon types in the game, and some icons only appear on cards of specific Ages. The card also has a unique power that you can invoke. This power is called a Dogma, and is always associated with one icon type. When you activate a Dogma, if another player's playing area is showing the same number or more of that particular icon, he can decide to make use of your Dogma too (we call it "tumpang", which means "taking a free ride" in Malay). As a consolation you get to draw one card if anyone "tumpang" your Dogma action. Some Dogmas are offensive, and to protect yourself from these you need to have the same number (or more) of the associated icon as the attacker.

So managing visible icons in your play area is a very big part of the game. You can have at most 5 stacks of cards, because cards of the same colour must be stacked, and only the topmost card's Dogma can be invoked. There is a concept of Splaying. Some Dogmas let you Splay your stacks of cards either left, right or up. This means spreading the cards a little, so that some of the icons of the cards below the top card become visible. This is an interesting idea. The direction of Splay is important. Cards have icons on the upper left, lower left, lower centre and lower right. That means Splaying left will reveal one more icon per card below the top card of a stack, Splaying right will reveal two, and Splaying upwards three.

Core game play is very straightforward. You have two actions on your turn, which you can choose in any combination from (1) drawing a card, (2) playing a card, (3) Dogma and (4) Achieve. To Achieve is how you win the game. Depending on the number of players (2 to 4), you need a certain number of Achievements to win the game. If noone can do that, the game ends when the Age 10 cards run out, and tiebreaker is the cards in your Score pile. During the game, some Dogmas let you Score - put some cards into your Score pile. The cards here serve a different purpose - they are your score, and the values they represent are their Age numbers, i.e. an Age 1 card here is worth 1pt, Age 2 card 2pts etc. Other than serving as tiebreaker, the more important purpose of your Score pile is to help you Achieve. There are 15 Achievement cards available in the game, 10 are Score Achievements, 5 are Special Achievements. Those 10 Score Achievements can be claimed (i.e. Achieved) when you reach 5, 10, 15, etc points. So it's a race among all the players to be quickest to reach these milestones in order to claim the Achievements. Once claimed, an Achievement can never be taken away from you. The 5 Special Achievements are much harder to Achieve. You need to fulfill conditions such as having 3 of all icon types, or Scoring 6 cards on the same turn.

The game is not a peaceful one. Some Dogmas allow others to take cards from your Score pile, or your hand, or your play area. Only Achievements are safe. So you need to keep watching out for your opponents' offensive cards. You can't always protect yourself from them, because they can simply play a new offensive card than Dogma it on the same turn. Sometimes you simply have no way to get yourself enough of the particular icon. You can try to reduce the damage. You can try to look for other ways to fight back or to develop your civilisation so quickly that you no longer need to fear primitive attacks.

The Play

I played a four player game, and all four of us were new. The first game was overwhelming, because every card had text, and we needed to read not only our own cards but those played by others too. We didn't have much clue what to do until mid way into the game. I didn't seem to get many good cards (or more likely I didn't know how to make good use of them), and simply tried to play as many cards as I could onto my play area, and tried to get them Splayed. I only applied the general strategy (if you can call it that) of more icons good, few icons bad. At one point, Heng who was observing the game asked me, "You have something specific in mind right?". I think I just mumbled something in reply.

Towards Age 7 or so, two players (not including me) had 3 Achievements, needing one more for the win. The other two (i.e. including me) were pretty hopeless, having none (or one?). Then suddenly I drew the Combustion card. It allowed me to demand 2 cards from everyone's Score piles. Combustion's associated icon was the crown icon, and I had more crowns than everyone else. Suddenly my Score pile grew and grew. I had enough score to claim the remaining Achievements on the board (which required 40pts, 45pts and 50 pts respectively), but 3 Achievements wouldn't win me the game. I needed at least one of the five Special Achievements. Claiming the Score Achievements only helped to delay the two leading players a little.

My other option was to try to end the game by exhausting the Age 10 deck. If no one could get 4 Achievements by then, I would likely win because of my huge Score pile. Unfortunately I couldn't do so in time. Ang managed to Score enough points to claim his 4th Score Achievement. Perhaps I should have just Achieved those 3 Score Achievements as a safety precaution. But then I think Michael was trying eyeing the Special Achievements.

The Thoughts

As many reviews say, Innovation indeed can have big swings of fate. However I suspect the effect is not as big as most reviews of the game make it sound. I imagine many new players are surprised by these big swings because they don't know the cards well. The likelihood of big swings is higher in the first place because the players are new. So this is definitely a game that takes quite a number of plays to truly appreciate. You need to gradually learn the cards. You'll probably start watching out and preparing for the killer cards, whether setting yourself up to use them if you draw them, or preparing to defend against them if you don't. Later you'll learn to make use of the less fanciful cards too, so that you are never really stuck with no options. Well, I have only played one game, so this is just my speculation.

Winning mostly revolves around Scoring and Achieving. The Special Achievements seem to be very hard, but I suspect as you get better at the game they will become less intimidating. You really do need to keep in mind your objectives. You should take a long-term view in this game. In our first game we all played with a too tactical approach, just trying to Score whenever possible and then Achieve whenever we reached a milestone. I suspect the game is more strategic than that. You may concede the earlier Achievements and plan for the better stuff in the later ages.

The game doesn't really feel civ-like to me. Yes, you have progression from Age to Age, and the card powers get stronger and stronger. But then you are mostly managing and competing in icons, and racing to Achieve. The civilisation theme is represented in quite an abstract way.

I think I'll need at least 4 or 5 more plays before I'll know whether I like the game. I'm quite keen to try it again.

And sorry, no photos, because I was too busy reading my cards. Please visit BGG to see photos.


Stephen said...

Thanks for writing this overview. I'd been meaning to review Innovation myself, but you did a much better job of it than I would have.

It's my understanding that if a player dogmas, and the event shown is not an "I demand" event, it is compulsory that players with equal or greater of that symbol "tumpang" -- UNLESS the event says, "You may..."

That can really shake the game up and provide another means to mess with others.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I wasn't aware of this and thought that the other players always have the choice of whether they want to make use of your Dogma. Indeed this will change things a lot. I'm not sure how much it would have impacted the particular game that I played, because I didn't keep track of how many of those Dogmas we had had the "I may" text.

One worry I have about this is it may make the game more chaotic than I like. But I'll need to play again correctly before making any such conclusion.

Hey, I checked your blog. I'm a Dvorak typist too! But I probably won't be buying any special keyboard, because my wife and children are non-Dvorak.

John Choong said...

Dear Chok Sien, I am a boardgamers myself and like some of the card games. Do you know where can I get a copy of Innovation?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi John, the copy of Innovation that I played belonged to another gamer who attended the Old Town Kopitiam sessions. I think he ordered it directly from USA. I'm not sure whether will be stocking it (or is already stocking it). You can drop them an email to ask. Sometimes they help me order games that they don't normally stock themselves. Or of course the other alternative is to order it directly from USA.