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Subject: Fastlane Fails at Games: Board Game Review #4: Innovation rss

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Bryan Lane
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Victoria
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A friend introduced me to Innovation.



It was the first game I played from designer Carl Chudyk, probably best known for his popular game Glory to Rome. The games have some things in common - notably the cards can represent multiple things based on where they are located on a player mat, and that both games have a tableau-building element. Though they have some similar elements at a high level, they play VERY differently.

I think the best place to introduce you to Innovation is by giving you a tour of the features of a card. Each card has a title, an age (1-10), a color (red, blue, yellow, green or purple), a unique card effect called a "dogma", and a collection of 3 symbols and a unique icon in an L shape along the left and bottom sides of the card. The black and white icon is unique to the card and has no meaning, it just serves to take the place of one symbol on the card (the location becomes important later).


An example card's layout.

You begin the game with two age 1 cards and you get a free meld, which everyone does at the same time (first card in alphabetical order goes first). On a normal turn, you get two actions. For each action, you can draw a card with an age equal to the highest age in your tableau (if the pile is empty, you draw from the next highest non-empty pile), Meld a card from your hand (if you don't have that color in your tableau, it starts a new pile, otherwise it covers the top card on that pile), perform a dogma (activate the card-specific special power of one of your top cards) or achieve and achievement (if you have enough points and a high enough technology level to do so).

The object of the game is to accumulate a certain number of achievements before your opposition. Alternatively, if someone attempts to draw a card from age 11 (which doesn't exist), the game immediately ends and the person with the highest score wins. To make the end game even crazier, there are several cards in the last age or two that have the ability to end the game and provide additional win conditions (have such and such cards on the table, meet certain criteria and have the fewest points, etc.).


Initial setup. We never bother with the circle nonsense; we just set up two rows of 5 to save space.

At this point, I generally try to clarify the concept of score to uninitiated players. Score in Innovation is a resource of sorts. You will see your score pile go up and down, you will put cards in and take cards out, steal from others and have cards stolen by others. Score, unless the game ends by someone "tech'ing" up to 11, is just a measure of the ability to achieve achievements. If you have 30 points and your opponent has none, but you have no achievements and your opponent is one away from winning, you are still losing the game. I've seen a lot of new players accumulate a lot of score but focus too much on the score when they have more than enough but not the required tech level to use it to buy the achievements they need to win. Achievements cannot be stolen, and getting enough of them ends the game. As such, achievements can be seen as the barometer of how you are doing over the course of the game, as opposed to score.

Let's talk about dogmas now, since that's the meat of the game. Each card has a unique dogma, and 3 symbols (leaves, crowns, towers, factories, light bulbs, clocks) - and a black and white icon - arranged along the left and bottom of the card. Dogmas are powered by the count of the different symbols you have on your tableau. There are two types of dogmas: demand and non-demand dogmas, and they get stronger as you increase in age.

Demand-type dogmas have generally bad effects on all opposing players, provided those players have fewer of the symbol noted in the dogma than you do. An example dogma might say "[crown]: I demand you take the highest card from your score pile and exchange it with the lowest card in my score pile!". In clockwise order, players compare the count of crowns visible in their tableau with the count of crowns visible in the demanding player's tableau. If the demanding player has more, the player must comply with the demand. If the player has the same number or more, that player is unaffected by the demand. Then the next player in order checks, etc.

Non-demand type dogmas have generally good effects for all players, provided those players have an equal number or more of the symbol noted in the dogma. Generally speaking, you usually want to be careful how you use these dogmas so as not to help someone else more than yourself. Either try to trigger them when you have the most of the symbol, or when you think you will benefit more than the other player. As an extra benefit, if someone else DOES join in (which they get a chance to do before you do, something that often ends up helping you as they do things like deplete a pile so you get to draw from the next-higher pile) you get to draw a card as a bonus for sharing the effect.

You might have noticed I was a little wishy-washy with my use of the term "generally good" or "generally bad" in the above. I use the qualifier "generally" because I have benefited from being the target of a demand dogma (often because it's hurting someone else more than it's helping me, but it helps me none the less) and I have been absolutely crushed by a non-optional non-demand dogma. Most non-demand dogmas are prefaced with "you may", but not all of them. In such a case, you don't have a choice but to do it if you have enough symbols to join in. In a lot of cases these things are beneficial in 90% of possible game states, but my buddy absolutely hammered me with one in a recent game. I had tech'd up to age 10 and pumped up my score by abusing a certain card that let me draw and meld a 10 and score everything under it. My friend responded with a card that said "[factory]: discard any top card on your board that does not have a factory...". Well NONE of my shiny new age 10 cards had factories, so all of a sudden I was reduced to two cards on my board, having wiped out the only cards left in my red, yellow and purple piles, and knocked be back to age 7. What a nightmare.

I have to admit, though, that that game was one of the absolute coolest games we've played to date, and that move - devastating though it was - I had to stand back and appreciate the creativity of the attack that demolished my (in my deluded eyes) superior board position. There was a ton of back and forth, and it ended a couple of turns later when I managed to tech back to 10 with a card already in hand and dogma'd to force a win due to the particular board state (nobody had more leaves than factories and I still managed more points than he did). He managed 5 of the first 6 achievements very, very quickly and was one achievement from victory almost the entire game, but I was ultimately able to hold him off, push back, and eventually win on dogma.

Back on topic, I mentioned that the location of the "dead spot" occupied by the unique icon on the card played a part. It does this because of the splaying mechanic. Some dogma effects allow you to splay your cards left, right or up. This reveals additional symbols to add to your count, so splaying is awesome. Splaying left reveals the rightmost symbol on that bottom row on all cards under the top card. Splaying right is better, as you reveal the two symbols along the left side of the lower cards, and splaying up is the best since you get the whole bottom row of 3 symbols on covered cards. As you add cards to a splayed pile, the card will follow the splay, so the top card only covers some of the symbols.

The icon comes in because it takes up a spot where a symbol would go. If the icon is in the far right, splaying left is no different than being un-splayed (for the purposes of that card, of course). If the icon is along the left edge of the card, splaying right is no different than splaying left. If the icon is in middle or right spot in the bottom row, splaying up is no different than splaying right.


Sample player's board. All types of splaying can be seen here. Clockwise from upper left: splayed left, splayed up, splayed right, no splay.

Another thing to be aware of is that symbols aren't evenly distributed throughout all the ages. Towers only appear in ages 1-3, factories start showing up around age 4 and clocks don't show up until age 7 or 8. Since getting the monopoly on all symbols is no easy task, you will generally go for symbols to target certain dogmas - either to disable the use of a nasty demand dogma or enable one of your own, to share in a juicy non-demand dogma or restrict the use of one of your own.

While much of the play will be tactical - you work with what you got - you can still build your symbols to work towards an overall strategy, because certain symbols tend to do certain things - much like different mana colors in Magic: the Gathering tend to have different prevalent features. In Innovation, towers are good at the beginning but quickly become useless, and you'll want to cover them quickly (in fact, there's a card in age 4 that absolutely wrecks people with exposed towers. You have been warned). Light bulbs generally let you tech up faster, and contain a lot of ways to splay your piles. Leaves and Crowns are full of attacks - to your hand, your score, your board. Factories attack towers, do some great mid-game scoring and have a lot of powers that "tuck" cards (add cards to the bottom of your piles). Clocks are late-game and have some pretty wild and powerful effects.

I really like playing Innovation. I think Chudyk is a very talented designer. This game supports 2-4 players, but I find I like it more with 2-3 players, as it gets a bit long and (more) chaotic with 4. If I have 4-5 players, I'll probably push to play Glory to Rome instead (which is better at the higher player numbers than the lower player numbers). If you insist on playing with 4 (it's really not THAT bad) I strongly recommend the team variant which speeds up the game somewhat for the larger player count.


Number of players: 2-4
Play time: listed at 60 minutes, which is about right for 3 players on average. A bit faster with 2, bit longer with 4 usually.
Table space required: medium for 2 players, larger sized table for 4. The center sets up about the same size as a game of Dominion, but each player needs room for their player mat and enough room to splay 5 piles of cards.
BGG link: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/63888/innovation
Fastlane's rating: 8/10. Excellent 2-player, great 3-player, good 4-player. Be prepared for some randomness/chaos while you learn, particularly at higher player counts. 2-player between experienced players can be a very tight and rewarding experience.


Cross-posted from my gaming blog!
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Steve McIlhatton
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Palmerston North
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4 players is a bit too chaotic for me so we always play as teams if we have 4 players.. then the game is just awesome...
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