It’s worth noting that this review is of the 2011 Iello version. As well as introducing some great artwork, the Iello edition changes a large amount of terminology from the Asmadi edition. Here, I use exclusively the Iello terminology.
At half an hour in, we’re roughly midway through a two-player game of Innovation, a tableaux-building civilization game by Carl Chudyk, and I’m well behind my opponent. I have less influence, have achieved fewer dominations, and have fewer resources.
It comes to my turn. I could try drawing a card and putting it into play; it might be something I could use in the next turn. But there’s a fair chance the card will be useless to me, given that I lack resources to fuel card effects.
Also, next turn is an age away when my opponent has a potent and versatile tableau in front of her. Her civilization is developing fast.
So I look at the cards I have in play, and their effects. There has to be something there to exploit.
In Innovation, there are two types actions offered by cards, referred to as dogmas. The first type, supremacy dogmas, affect any opponent with less of a particular resource than the player issuing the dogma. However, trees are the only resource of which I have more than my opponent, and none of my active cards utilizes trees.
The second type of dogma is the cooperative dogma. All players can take advantage of these if they have at least as many of the required resource as the active player. If a player in addition to the active player uses one of these dogmas, then the active player is able to draw an extra card by way of a bonus. Naturally, in a two-player game, it is often best to use cooperative dogmas when holding the majority of a resource, because then you alone can employ the action.
However, this is not always true.
I have Experimentation among my cards. It has a cooperative dogma, which insists that the affected players draw and put into play a card from the fifth era (cards become progressively stronger in each era, reflecting human progress). There is, though, only one card left in the fifth pile. My opponent, who must carry out the dogma first, will take this, meaning that when I use the dogma, I draw and put into play a card from the sixth era instead.
It’s something of a risk, of course: since my opponent has more resources, she will most probably be able to utilize any dogma provided by the card she receives. It’s the kind of speculative experiment that befits a card named ‘Experimentation’ (Other cards also suit their titles in neat, sometimes subtle ways: for instance, Gunpowder effectively knocks down cards with the castle resource, while Globalization later does the same to trees).
My opponent draws, and receives Coal. It’s by no means a bad card, but it replaces Pirate Code among her active cards. And she’s been attacking me with Pirate Code relentlessly since she drew it. I’m glad to see it replaced.
I get Vaccination. It has a supremacy dogma requiring trees. It’s a great result – I can start to attack back, at last. And, because my opponent had to use this dogma, I get another draw. I pull Emancipation. It won’t be immediately useful (I don’t have the resources to exploit it at the moment), but nonetheless I’ll smile and try to kid my opponent that it was exactly the card for which I’d been hoping.
I guess the point is Innovation clicks with me, and with its own title, because it allows for innovation. Opportunities for gaining extra value from a card arise and recede quickly (a recycling action can return cards to the general supply), and spotting these chances is key in playing Innovation well.
While the effect of something like Experimentation might initially appear invariable, it isn’t. Because the supply of cards from any given era can be depleted, its strength can sometimes grow. Similarly, it’s not infrequent that its first era analogue, Sailing (‘Draw and put into play a 1’) can be used, sometimes, to pull cards from the third or fourth eras.
Moreover, in that a player has two actions per turn, combinations can sometimes be exploited. Imagine using one action to recycle a first era card, thereby restarting its supply pile, then using Sailing to force an opponent to take, and activate, the particular outdated card in question (thereby replacing a better card from a later era).
However, while this kind of potential for exploiting flashes of inspiration during brief windows of opportunity may be a hallmark of a fine card game – which this is, it is a somewhat strange partner to the game’s epoch-spanning civilization-building theme. In that your tableau is unstable, you can lose the benefit of a technology as quickly as you gain it. It’s thematically strange that when you cover Sailing with another green card, you lose that power. It’s not how civilizations advance and weakens immersion in the game.
Moreover, the volatility of each tableau means that calculating the level of resources you and your opponents possess is a chore which must be repeated many, many times in a single game. And though certain resources are only available on cards of certain periods – for instance, castles only appear on cards from the first three eras – this does not mean they become entirely irrelevant later in the game. One reason is that a player may dominate the military domain when he or she has three of each resource visible in his or her zone – meaning castles may stay a concern long after their real power fades. It’s the kind of game where better players must be not only quick-thinking, but also more attentive accountants. Because of these bureaucratic elements, Innovation is best played with two, or perhaps three players. With every player added, book-keeping escalates and control diminishes.
Nevertheless, Innovation is in general a tremendously likeable, multi-dimensional and nuanced game. In particular, the potential for cards to surpass the overt limits of their power allows for splendidly nifty moments, and gives a pleasing reward for quick-wittedness. Though the moment-by-moment gameplay of Innovation fits uncomfortably with the game’s theme in certain respects, control does ebb and flow between players in a way that reproduces in miniature the swoops of history. In moments of inspiration, it is possible to claw back from bleak situations, as above. What is more (as W. Eric Martin’s review after nearly two hundred plays argues) this potential for innovative play stays, even after a great number of plays.