First Things First
After hitting 100 plays of Innovation, I had been planning for some time to write a review detailing why it had been such a hit with my wife and I, and why I think other people should try it. Then along came the Voice of Experience contest, providing me with the incentive to make me try this review-writing thing on for size. However, I want to first reference two other recent reviews. First, Eric Martin's typically excellent review, the latest salvo in his pro-Innovation campaign. Second, Sharon Khan's succinct review of 2-player Innovation. Since I didn't manage to get in front of them , I'm going to try to cover different ground.
What Ground Will be Covered?
I came to this game entirely by accident. My wife and I had received Lost Cities for Christmas and played it a lot, and I was seeking something new. I searched online for a portable game, since we travel a bit and I thought that would be a big plus. I stumbled upon BGG, and then upon Innovation, and it sounded really interesting. Good for two players? Civilization themed? Simple to learn with some depth for later? Great! Cheap? Even better!
I called around to find it at a local store and ended up getting the game as an anniversary present. After a somewhat confused first play, we loved it. To date, we've logged 113 plays, 109 with just the two of us. Even after purchasing a few other well-reviewed 2 player games, Innovation is still our favorite. I'm going to try to explain why we have enjoyed it so much, why I think other people should or should not try it, and what the first expansion adds to the experience.
What is the Game Like?
Rules summaries are available elsewhere, and the rule book is also well-written and efficient. In short, Innovation is a game simulating the development of a civilization, albeit in an abstract way. There is no currency in the game; icons on the card represent your domination of different spheres such as science, military, or industry. It is possible to string together a narrative for a particular game, but only with some difficulty. However, I enjoy the theme and feel that it's helpful for new players (once gunpowder[card] arrives on the scene, your castles[icons] are useless) and for adding entertainment value for experienced players (curse you, education[card]!).
Every card in the game is unique. Some are useful in many situations, for instance those that let you directly draw and score cards, or those that let you splay your stacks, thus showing more icons. Others are only useful in very specific situations, such as those that force you to eliminate cards from your board to gain points or damage an opponent. Much of the fun to be had in the long haul is in identifying the situations required to make some previously maligned card suddenly powerful. An example: Suburbia is a late game card that allows you to score n low value cards in return for tucking (adding cards to the bottom of an existing stack) n cards from your hand. In many cases this is useless. However, when draw piles (ordered 1 to 10) are taken, you default to the next higher draw pile. So, if you find yourself in the late game with a big hand of unappealing cards and the low draw piles are empty, you can score an enormous number of points very quickly at a crucial moment. I've only pulled it off once, but that victory was particularly satisfying. There are many other such examples, but that one comes to mind for the relative rarity - most other cards prove useful more than 1% of the time!
Why Should You Play This Game?
In my few tries, it seems that Innovation has real promise as a 3+ player game. However, my voice of experience can tell you that it is a truly great 2 player game. For us, this is driven by the level of randomness in the game, which has proven to be just about perfect. By way of example, we bought Hive at the same time as Innovation. We've logged a lot of Hive plays too, but as our play styles have largely become set, most games feel a bit repetitive, as we use the same old strategies in slightly different ways against each other. This is our fault, not the fault of an excellent game, but it illustrates the strength of Innovation, namely that the often-criticized randomness (Fluxxiness?) of the design forces you to play each game differently than the last.
A game like Dominion requires you to adapt to your opponent's strategy, but within reason you can also pick a specific approach before the game starts and stick to it. In Innovation, saying "OK, today I'm going to focus on scoring points early" would be a poor approach, as well as being difficult to achieve. You are playing against your opponent, yes, but also against the game. I'm not sure of the best metaphor, here... competitive surfing, maybe? Playing well lies not in building the perfect engine and watching it run flawlessly, but rather in working with the current situation - making your cards work for you and turning your opponents cards against them.
A final benefit of this built-in randomizer? It makes losing easier to bear. If you play most of your games with one partner, it's easy to get frustrated when you hit a string of defeats. Sure, it may be nothing but simple probability, but it can feel like you've lost your way. What does your opponent know that you don't? What are you doing wrong? A string like that can happen with any game, but I find that in Innovation the ever changing game conditions make you feel better about your losses. Sure, you might lose five games in a row, but you're likely to lose them in different ways. I'll admit that the thrill of finding a way to beat that perfect, unstoppable strategy that your opponent uses every time can be very satisfying, but in the interest of sanity and marital harmony, I find that losing (or, hypothetically, winning) a string of Innovation games is much preferable to a similar string of Battle Line or 2 de Mayo games.
Why Shouldn't You Play This Game?
For many people, of course, the point of a game is to find the perfect strategy, to build the flawless engine, to extend that winning streak as long as you can. Many people chafe at randomness and lack of control in this game, or any other. This is understandable. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not a game you can devote your life to. It is not a game that is likely to reward study and mastery. It's a card game - bad draws can derail good strategic choices. The late game is designed to accelerate, and many cards available at this stage chain together and can end the game before anyone expects it. If this sounds terrible and frustrating to you, Innovation is likely not your cup of tea. If the possibility of a unlikely last-minute victory sounds exciting, give the game a shot. Actually, if you can borrow a copy, give it a few shots. Like many other fans of the game, I think that many of the negative reactions to Innovation are the result of one or two confusing first plays of the game. Your first game will be confusing, but for us that cleared up very quickly.
What About the Expansion, and the New Rules?
A new expansion is on the horizon, but so far what's available is Innovation: Echoes of the Past. We bought this soon after it became available and have used it for just about every game since. It adds some interesting new mechanisms to the game, such as echo effects, which are written in place of icons and are activated even on splayed cards (below the top card of a stack). This requires you to balance the benefits of these echo effects with the loss of an icon. Initially, the expansion was designed to be mixed into the base game by leaving some of each set of cards out (i.e. each draw pile would have 6 base cards and 3 expansion). This made the game even more random, because you no longer knew what cards would be showing up in a given game. It could also throw off the balance of card colors or icons in a game. This wasn't a game-breaking problem, by any means, and the added variety gave the game new life on our table. Overall, I'd say the expansion made the game more varied and exciting, but less elegant.
However, new rules have been introduced (see this posting for more details) that ameliorate what I perceived to be the negative effects of the expansion. All base and expansion cards are now included in every game, in separate draw piles. This means that the balance of colors and icons is restored. Depending on what cards are held in their hand, a player can largely control whether they draw base or expansion cards, thereby emphasizing echo effects, simple icons, or other specific features. In general, I like the new rules and feel they have improved the expanded game. The downside is slightly increased game length, and an extra step in determining what card to draw. We've mostly got it down now, but we still pause and say "wait, I draw a brown[base] card for this, right?" a few times every game. This is a price worth paying, in my mind. Most importantly, for those Innovation players who have spurned the expansion because it makes things just a little too random, you have another option now! I for one appreciate the fact that the game's designers are still actively working to balance the game, although of course it is driven by their desire to work in more expansions. For a game that retails at $20 to $30, though, I can live with that.
This has grown past it's intended length, and I hope a few diligent readers are still with me at this point. I think Innovation is a unique, entertaining game that works great with 2 players and stays fresh after many plays thanks to its randomness-by-design. I'm glad my wife and I purchased it. After many plays, it's still at the top of our stack. I hope that I have explained the reasons for our fondness, and perhaps persuaded a few people to give a try, maybe even a second try. I welcome any and all comments on this, my first review, and I encourage everyone to check out the other Voice of Experience reviews.