Innovation – recap, review and session report

I’ve been waiting to play Innovation since about September.  Last night Tim and I played a game for the first time.  The game is for 2-4 players, but reviews say it is best with 2 or 3.  Apparently he four player game can change state so much between turns it becomes too random.

Innovation is a card game with a civilization theme.  There are 110 unique cards split among 10 ages and 5 special achievements plus reference cards to use as the centre of each players play area.  The goal of the game is to be the first to earn 6 achievements.  That number changes for more players.

Your play area contains three portions.  On your right is where you keep your achievements.  The achievements don’t do anything other than serve as a counter to how close you are to winning the game.  There are 14 achievements total.  One for each of ages 1-9 and 5 special achievements.  Earning each achievement has a different requirement.

On your left is your score pile.  Score does not typically decide the winner, but is the currency for getting most achievements.  Both achievements and score are done by putting normal cards face down in the respective area.  Each card has a number on its back from 1 to 10 referring to the age of the card.  This number is also the value it contributes to your total score.  5xthe age is the amount of score you need to purchase the corresponding age based achievement.  The achievement cost is also on the back of the card just in case you can’t multiply by 5 yourself.

In front of you is your board.  Your board can contain up to five piles of face-up active cards.  Only the top card of each pile is in play at any time.  There are five different colours of cards.  Each card colour gets its own pile.  Your board starts off empty and grows as the game progresses.  Although there are never more than five active cards, there is a mechanic called ‘splaying’ that means that the cards in the pile below the top card also impact play.

Between the players, the cards are sorted into ten piles by their age.  Each pile is shuffled.  These are the draw piles.  The top card from each pile (except 10) is taken and put facedown to the side.  These nine cards are never used for their front abilities, but represent the 9 age based achievements you can purchase.  The five special achievements are also put there.  Unlike the age-based achievements instead of using your score pile to purchase them, you earn them automatically for satisfying certain conditions.  (I earned one by have all five colours in my board splayed up or right.)

Deal two age 1 cards to each player and start.

The card fronts have the following – the card name.  They show the card age on the front.  (Thematically the ages are pre-history, classical, medieval, renaissance, etc. They represent the advancement of the civilizations.)  They have four symbols placed along the bottom and left side of the card.  One symbol is unique to each care.  The other three are icons.  There are 6 different icon types.  Your ‘power’ is represented by the total number of each icon you have visible on your board.  The key strategy in the game is to gain and maintain icon supremacy in a couple icons. prevent your opponents from doing the same and try to keep a relative balance on the other icons.  For example you might have the most leaf icons showing (6 to 3), while your opponent might have the most factories (5 to 2).  Perhaps neither of you are showing any castles or clocks and are close on crowns and light bulbs.

Finally each card has a unique dogma or set of dogmas.  These are the card abilities you can activate when the card is on top of its pile in your board.  Each dogma ability has an icon.  For positive dogmas, if you have the icon lead the dogma only affects you when it is played.  If you are tied or behind, when you play it your opponent also gets the benefit of the ability.  For negative/attack dogmas (called I Demand dogmas), you can only use them on an opponent if you have ion superiority.

Game play is simple.  Each turn you get to do two of four possible things.  You can do the same thing twice or two different things:

  • Draw – take a card from the age draw pile that matches the age of your highest top card on your board.  If that draw pile is empty, draw from the next higher draw pile that still contains cards.  If you attempt to draw from the age 10 pile and it is empty, the game immediately ends.  (This is an alternate end condition for if no player wins by achievements.)
  • Meld – Lay a card from your hand on the matching colour pile on your board.  If you don’t have that colour pile yet on your board, start it.  If the pile is splayed continue the splay.
  • Dogma – Activate all the dogma effects on one of your top cards.  Count icons to see if the ability needs to be shared.  This is the core ability in the game.
  • Achieve – If you have a total score equal to the cost of the achievement (agex5), at least one top card of that age or higher and the achievement card must still be available.  Take the achievement.  If you have 6, you win!

The rest is some terminology used in the various dogmas:

  • Splay (right, left or up) – take one of your board piles and spread it out so that the icons or the cards beneath the top card are visible.  Splaying left reveals one icon per card beneath, splay right does two and splay up does three.
  • Tuck – Put a card at the bottom of one of your board piles (instead of on top like for a meld)
  • Return – put a card back at the bottom of a draw pile
  • Score – Put a card in your score pile.  For example Draw 1 and Score would mean draw a card from the age 1 pile and instead of looking at it just put it face down in your score pile.  As an age 1 card it would add one to your total score.

The game

There were three phases to the game Tim and I played.  The start was slow as we got used to the rules.  It was pretty fun as we tried to figure out what we were doing.  Tim got an early lead on score and looked to be able get achievements easily.

The second phase started as we were drawing cards from age 4.  I got an attack dogma that wiped out four of Tim’s top cards.  Suddenly, even though Tim still had a score lead, I had icon supremacy in every icon.  Tim could still meld to rebuild his board, but couldn’t really dogma because either I was immune to the attacks or I would be able to share any positive effects.  I had a big lead.  I started to play a little recklessly.  I stopped using attack dogmas and I used a dogma that wiped out my score pile completely (I was behind there anyway) to get a short term benefit.

The clock icon doesn’t show up until age 7.  Tim struggled until we started to pull from that pile.  I was up four achievements to two at this point and looked good for the win.  Suddenly Tim got clock superiority and got some great dogmas.  He then stole factory superiority from me.  I was always going for the win, but now I stopped trying to use neat dogmas and just quickly get my last two achievements.  But Tim got rocketry and rocketry attacks my score pile.  I built it up three times, but never had the action left to achieve before Tim bombed it back to nothing again.

We both got our fifth achievements – not from age achievements, but by getting special achievements.  We ended up with four of the five special achievements earned.  Either of us could win at any time.  Finally I got an age 10 dogma that I had to share with Tim, but it single-handedly rebuilt my score pile to the 40 points I needed to buy the achievement I needed.  Because Tim had shared the dogma, his score pile was also huge.  He would have been able to achieve and win on his turn.

It was a tense, vicious and fun end to the game.

Review

The biggest problem I have with the game is that the cards are ugly.  The icons are clear and functional, but they clash with the card colours.  In general it just looks garish.  It doesn’t affect game play, but if gives a complicated but elegant game an amateurish look.

Second, the game was all tactics and no strategy.  Or rather our session was.  Even to be able to play a basic strategy requires a knowledge of the various cards.  You need to know what is coming or at least the type of abilities that are associated with icons.  The game is meant to be mainly tactics, but the learning curve to use strategy is a little intimidating.

Finally the game is times to be 30-60 minutes.  Our game took just under two hours.  Tim played really slowly in the mid-game because his choices were all hard, but even if that hadn’t been the case it would have lasted well over an hour.  Until all players get more familiar with the cards and can evaluate a board at a glance, the overall time won’t go down.  But the game was fun for the whole time…

Three complaints, but the rest was all good.  Each choice of each turn was interesting.  The mechanics were smooth and elegant.  The abilities of the cards were intriguing.  Stacking up icons felt like gaining power as a civilization so the theme worked.  While I had a hard time with strategy, there was a ton of tactical decisions.  What order should you execute actions.  Should you delay a single turn for an action?  Should you build your score or attack your opponent?

I am eager to play again.

Plus I have a winning record to maintain.

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