Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Innovation, by Carl Chudyk

Imagine, if you will, the halls of the Hyatt Regency at DFW Airport in November 2014. A few thousand of my friends and I are huddled together, sitting, waiting for the great pearly doors to swing open and let us ascend into BGG.Con. It's warm inside. There are lawn chairs, and men lounging in them. It's morning, so the smell of fresh-caught taquitos is in the air. A fellow con-goer - lonely, bearded, and proud - looks to me and says, "Innovation is the only game you'll ever need to own." I pall, unsure if I should trust his wild eyes and be led into the darkness... 

Fast forward three months, into the bitter depths of a Texas winter fraught with frigid evenings and frantic gaming with my mates. We've played Innovation a half-dozen times, each round more topsy-turvy than the last. We've nearly lost our wits keeping up with the swirling madness pouring from that golden box. To contain the unpredictable malice that's enveloped us, a member of my crew utters these words of invocation, "Innovation is just Fluxx for smart people."

The enchantment momentarily broken, we force the cards back into the paper vault from which they came. Our breath returns in quick bursts as sanity settles into our minds once more. I wonder, which of these friends was correct? The one who insists Innovation is a vital organ, like a heart or dice tower, or the one who reduces it so aptly into an exercise in randomness? I am lost, I can't find my way. 

Come, join me as I search for my answer...

In Innovation, players compete to develop technologies from ten ages of history. In doing so, each player seeks to score cards, and ultimately to claim achievements. The first to claim five achievements, or to win based on a card's effect late in the game, is the winner!

Players begin with two cards from age 1, and choose one of them to be "melded" face up on the table. Each card in each of the 10 ages is unique, and represents a technology or concept that only that player's civilization possesses. These cards provide players with actions they can use to accelerate their own technological growth, acquire new cards, foil the plans of their opponents, or bully those foes into submission. 
Image credited to BGG user bkunes

Each turn, the active player takes two actions, from these choices: 
  • Draw a card from any age up to age of the player's highest discovered technology.
  • "Meld" a card from hand, and learn its secrets immediately by putting it face-up on the table. 
  • Activate a face-up card's "Dogma" (it's actions), and allow other players to follow, or demand they comply. 
  • Claim an achievement, if scoring conditions are met. 
Cards have a few characteristics that shape their utility. Their color (red, blue, green, yellow, purple) defines their general purpose, and the degree to which they can help players. Each player may only have one face-up card showing in each color - the cards are stacked on top of each other by color as they're played. Each card has a number of symbols (from among six possible symbols) that represent power, wealth, knowledge, and other aspects of civilization. The number and placement of these symbols is incredibly important, and a great deal of strategy revolves around maintaining the proper balance and quantity of these symbols with in comparison to other players. 

Every card has an available action. Some actions are voluntary, and are available for all players who are as developed in the particular aspect of civilization as the active player (as represented by the number of associated symbols in each player's tableau). Other actions are mandatory, and allow players to make demands of lesser, weaker players. In both cases, advantages are afforded to the player who makes shrewd choices and deals with uncertainty and an ever-changing game. 

Each card's age defines its value in a player's scoring pile, which aggregate to allow that player to claim achievements, but only if the player has scoring cards at least as advanced as the achievements that would be scored. Additionally, players may only draw cards up to the era of technology they have developed for themselves (barring special circumstances). A card's age is an important thing, something Innovation assures that players are keenly aware of from the beginning of the game. 

Besides 110 cards and four player boards, there are no components in Innovation. There is nothing to represent glory, a grandiose empire, or a developed civilization - nothing other than the cards face-up on the table, and face down in the scoring and achievement piles. Innovation is a minimalist experience, as great depth flows from a small stack of cards. It's enchanting, and delightful, and at times unreasonably frustrating. 

There is a breathtaking amount of design in Innovation. When I was taught the game, I couldn't help but get lost in thinking about just playtesting the damn thing, about deciding which symbols go on which cards, which cards go in which ages, and how to even begin to balance their effects when each card could interact with 104 others. It's staggering to think of the amount of development that must have gone into this game. Literally, I sit here, staggered - my head is tilted nearly to my shoulder as I contemplate the process. 

Almost every single turn in Innovation feels like a puzzle, and moreso, one where you can't see all the pieces and you have very little feel for what the final picture will be. There's a keen sense of exploration and discovery, which is shocking because there's nothing to explore. It's just cards on a table, no maps, no mystery, no story, and no narrative. Why? How could I be so invested in this series of decisions, when the version of the game I have doesn't even have fancy art! Why is it that when I played the version with fancy art, I liked it less? 

I don't have a good answer to these questions. Even when I lose, I enjoy Innovation. The pressure of desperately trying not to "waste" actions while you navigate the possible combinations of actions you can take with your cards is like getting a deep-tissue massage for your brain. It hurts a little at times, but when you make the right decision and the cards fall your way, it's a feeling like few others in gaming. It's painful in only the best of ways. 

Innovation takes my previously-held assumptions about card games and bends them to its will. Is it better to have more cards? Sometimes! Sometimes it's absolutely the worst thing in the world. Should I care about why my opponents are doing? Maybe not, at least not until they're using Gunpowder to destroy my board or The Pirate Code to drain my score pile. Is it even worth knowing what all the cards do? I've played games with experts who know each and every great combo, and I've never seen them win a game. What is this madness?

Innovation is fun, in the way that Fluxx is fun or making up the rules to a game is fun. That sounds so utterly unconvincing that it's hard to reconcile my excitement at playing again with the words that I'm typing. Much of the fun of the game is in the discovery and surprise of the cards I get to use and the effects that my cards and my opponents cards have on my plans. It's not that different from watching a good movie or reading a book - each game of innovation unfolds differently, in my experience, and players are led through twists and turns until a player ultimately prevails through a fair amount of skill and a substantial amount of luck.

That said, I don't want the reader to think I don't enjoy Innovation. I like it. A lot. I've yet to turn down a request to play it at game night, even at Nerd Night, where I almost always host instead of joining in games. I think Innovation is a "resume" game, a game that you need to play so that you can better appreciate and understand the hobby. Playing it will make you more aware of the things you like in other games, and it will provide you some new perspective on what amazing designers like Carl Chudyk can do when they're inspired. It's an experience unlike any other I've had in my (admittedly modest) life in tabletop gaming.

So, is it the only game you'll ever need, or is playing simply a lesson in the futility of careful planning? I sit here undecided, and the only solution that presents itself is to call my brethren forward and re-open this insidious case of card-based surprise.

As for you, dear reader... grab a copy at your friendly local game store, and decide for yourself! What fate awaits you? 

Innovation reviewed at Shut Up & Sit Down

Ready Player Two reviews Innovation

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, Community Manager at Level 99 Games, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Some of his reviews are also published in Ravage Magazine or at Tabletop Gaming News

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