Today I played (among many other games) one of the limited edition copies of Innovation, a game that should be in wide release fairly soon. It was designed by Carl Chudyk, who also did Glory to Rome. So, I had been looking forward to this title.
Despite having read the rules, I really had no idea how the game played, so I’m going to go old school and describe the mechanics. There are 10 decks of 10 cards each (I think). Each card is an invention, and unique. Cards come in five colors, and can either be in a draw stack, a player’s hand, scoring area, or played in a pile (called a meld). Also, each game has an ‘achievement’ stack randomly created with 1 card from each tech level (1-9). These cards are out of the game, but can be earned (as achievements).
Cards can move relatively fluidly between the areas, although once a card is an achievement it can never be played (that I’ve seen).
Each card also has four symbols (top left, bottom left, bottom center and bottom right). One of those will be an identifier (no game effect), but the other three will matter, and be use for advancement actions. When you play (meld) a card it will go onto the stack of that color, but some effects will let you ‘splay’ your meld, which means stack them at an offset, which reveals some (but not all) of the covered cards symbols. So if you “Splay Left” you place each card slightly to the left, revealing the prior cards bottom-right symbol. If you ‘splay right’ you’ll reveal the two left symbols, and splaying up reveals the 3 bottom symbols.
(When I read the rules, the reason you’d splay wasn’t clear at all; hopefully this helps).
A standard turn is two actions (mix and match as desired):
- Draw a card from the deck equal to your highest played technology.
- Meld a card onto your stack of the same color
- Perform the action on the top card of one of your stacks
- Claim an achievement
Drawing a card is self-explanatory, but if the stack is empty you draw from the next higher tech level. Melding a card is also fairly simple. You just play the card on the same stack. (Some actions will let you ‘tuck’ a card, which is basically melding it to the bottom of a stack). If the stack is splayed, you play the new card with the same offset. If not, you completely cover the prior card.
Claiming an achievement is also easy. If the total value in your scoring pile (determined by adding the tech level of all the cards) is greater than or equal to five times the next achievement card, you can claim it. One way to win is to get a certain number of achievements. (4 in a 4-player game, one more achievement for each player less).
The heart of the game are the actions. They do everything. Some let you draw cards, some let you splay cards. Some let you meld cards. Some let you score cards. Some take cards out of your scoring pile and back into your hand, or discard cards (back to the bottom of their deck) to draw cards. Steal opponents inventions. Show a card color and steal cards of the same color from your opponents hands (“Glory to Rome!”).
There are two actions. “Demands” target any opponent that doesn’t have as many of the key symbol showing. Non-demand actions always work for their owner, but any player with as many (or more) symbols must also take the action (assuming it doesn’t say “may”). Additionally, the other players do the action first. So if I use a “leaf” type action to draw a card from deck 2 and meld it, and all three opponents have more leafs than me, each player will draw a card from deck two and meld it. If they happen to meld it over an action they really wanted to use, too bad. And if the two deck is exhausted, I’ll go last and bump up to the ‘3’ deck. And, if any opponent used your action (and remember, they can’t normally refuse to do it), you get a free card draw afterwards.
The game ends when one player gets a certain number of achievements. In addition to the nine “points” achievements, there are five others available each game. Things like getting 3 of each symbol, playing a lot of cards in one turn (via actions) and the like. They are nigh-impossible to get out, but each one has an invention that gives a slightly easier way to bring out.
Or, if a player ever has to draw a card from the 10 deck and can’t, the game ends and you ignore achievements. Highest score wins.
And several of the inventions have their own way of winning. One green invention (in the 9 deck) says something like “make your opponents flip up two cards, you meld one, they meld one. If, at the end of this action, you have 10 green cards melded, you win.” That came up in our 3rd game.
Innovation plays fast. Two actions, next player. I think my 4 games probably took 3 hours, and that’s with the rules explained before two games.
I’m not sure I like it, though.
Each card is unique. Cards have 1-2 actions (you perform all of them when you activate a card) and range from one sentence to a paragraph or two of rules. This isn’t Race where a card can be summarized by an icon or two. There are only ten cards in Tech Level 1 (Pre-history), but after four games I couldn’t tell you what most of them did. I assume as I play more, I’ll learn them, but I certainly can’t look around the tableaus and read a position (which I could do after three hours of most games). I’d have to read the cards.
I’m not sure how much you can plan. With four players, this feels like a high chaos game. I suppose a lot of this depends on if you consider ‘hoping’ as a plan. (“I’ll play this and hope it’s still my top purple card next turn, then do that…”). Obviously fewer players make things more strategic.
You can come back from a down position, if you have the right cards. I didn’t do too poorly with Calendars and Canals (both level 2 technologies) versus a player with four level 5 melds (one splayed), but it took a bit of luck, and I still lost. On the other hand, if you never draw (or keep) a scoring card, then you are going to have to earn a special victory. If you don’t remember what those are, you are back to “not being able to plan.”
Those two points combine to make me wonder about two player games. More players means more chaos, which helps balance strong versus weak. When the (single) two player game got inbalanced, it ended pretty quickly after that. The weak player couldn’t catch up. However, there was some consolation in that the stronger player had more symbols (No surprise) which meant they had to take the actions the weaker player triggered. That’s often a mixed blessing, as it stops your planning.
Great idea — in theory. Gaining resources forces you to have a greater number of actions that your opponents control. I’m not sure if it works, but I appreciate the concept. In practice, I have no idea.
In short, I may buy a copy. I’d certainly play again. But after four games of Glory to Rome (hell, after four games of pretty much anything), I expect to “get it” even if I can’t play well. After four games of Innovation, I can barely plan a turn ahead and I’m not at all sure that I could ever plan two turns ahead in a 3 or 4 player game. That seriously impacts my interest.
So I cautiously recommend Innovation. There are many good ideas, but the overall package isn’t easily grasped.