Innovation (2010) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

Changelog

12/11/2017 – Changed the colour blindness section since I hadn’t noticed the age of each card was in a different shaped container for each card.  Thanks to Chris Cieslik for pointing that out.

Version Reviewed

English third edition

Introduction

Innovation instantly burrowed its way into my heart like a little aortic tick and I’m afraid if anything ever happens to it I might die.  It got four and a half stars in our review which puts it in the most rarefied of company here on Meeple Like Us.  We’re perpetual malcontents and have little time for this Earth tradition you call ‘fun’.  Innovation though – it’s a marvelous little game and we think everyone should play it.  That’s not enough though, not for this site.  What we need to see is whether the state of accessibility in games has reached sufficient maturity that we can insist you all play as a dogma action.   Count up your wagging finger icons, we’re going to meld the hell out of this.

Colour Blindness

Colour is used to indicate the branch of advancement for each card, and it’s by far the most significant indicator of card classification.  It’s not the only one though because each of the lines on the card adopts a different style that can be used to tell one from the other.

Colour blind cards

Being in the know (of colours)

The problem is this isn’t very obvious when the cards are viewed at a distance, and the colours do exhibit clashes for almost every category of colour blindness.   Close up examination will reveal to which category a card belongs, and as Chris Cieslik pointed out on Twitter there is a different shape used for each category of card to indicate the age (diamonds, squares, and so on).

Colour blind cards again

Research priorities

In any case, even if there’s a difficulty in identifying category of the card it’s really only an issue with the cards in your hand before they’re melded to the table – when they’re in place, they stay in position with other cards of the same kind.   As such, colour will be needed to show where cards should be placed but then it can be largely ignored.    The pattern of the lines too will become more familiar over time, and in any case the age icon can be used to identify the cards at a distance.  Some card effects need players to be aware of which developments have been played (usually based on the number of top cards present) but the layout of the board in front of a player will be sufficient for this in all cases that exist within this card set.

We’ll strongly recommend Innovation here.

Visual Accessibility

Card names are in a large font and usually well contrasted.  Age information too is presented in a reasonably large font.  Both of these are located in a consistent way on the cards so they’re easy to find and examine if necessary.

Card text

Settle in with a cup of cocoa and read your cards

From this point in though we have a lot of issues that prevent easy playing of the game.  First of all, each card has a dogma effect that can on occasion be bafflingly intricate, multi-part, and dependent on state information across all your cards and the cards of your opponents.   For example, the services card has the following dogma effect:

“I DEMAND you transfer all the highest cards from your score pile to my hand!  If you transferred any cards, then transfer a top card from my board with a <leaf> to your hand!”

Road building has this:

“Meld one or two cards from your hand.  If you melded two, you may transfer your top red card to another player’s board.  If you do, transfer that player’s top green card to your board”

These aren’t so much instructions as they are novellas, and they’re not always going to make sense to perform.   For the Services card, you need to know who it’s going to target and that’s going to depend on the number of leaf symbols you have and the number everyone else has.  The exact location the symbol is going to appear depends on the card and also on the direction it’s been splayed – and that’s true of everyone.  You can ask people to simply give you a count, and that’s not likely to have too much of an impact on play but sometimes you want to just mull something over without indicating potential intention.   You get to take two actions uninterrupted during your turn, but you still don’t necessarily want to direct attention to your long term goals.

Then, you need to know what score cards you’re likely to get in this exchange, and whether they’re worth the loss of the top card you’ll be sacrificing.  And then you need to do that same calculation for each of your opponents, again cross-referencing their deck against yours.  You need to know what their options and preferences are likely to be there, and they don’t have to disclose them on inquiry.

For the road building card, you need to consider which card you’re going to lose (although in this case it’ll be the road building card itself) and then what card you’re going to get in return.   Remember too that everyone with the necessary symbols on their board will get to perform the action so you must consider who you’re enabling and what it likely means for you.

Splayed cards

A spreadsheet of icons

Simply surveying your own game state is likely to be cumbersome given how the cards sprawl.  Icons are reasonably distinctive and if colour blindness isn’t to be considered then they’re also quite vibrantly differentiated for the most part.  However, close examination with an assistive aid is likely to be necessary and that will become more time consuming every round as your empire grows.  The ‘inactive’ icon in each card is in a different place each time, which isn’t a major problem but adds a little to the administrative burden of assessment.

Part of the problem here is how quickly the state of the game will change and how unilateral that change it might be.  Your dogma effects can change without your input, and the actions available to each player will likewise shift rapidly.  Knowing who can do what and when is a core part of play and made difficult by the nature of the card layouts.

We don’t recommend Innovation in this category for those with visual impairments of moderate severity with our advice becoming more strenuously expressed the more severe an impairment might be.  As you might imagine, those with total blindness will likely find this game all but impossible to meaningfully play.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s a considerable degree of numeracy involved in play, and an even more considerable degree of literacy given both the sophistication of dogma effects and their often tortuous syntax.  ‘Do this if that and transfer X of value Y to my Z and then…’.    It’s often the case that Mrs Meeple and I need to read them over a couple of times to really parse the text.   The vocabulary needed isn’t necessarily complex although the concepts of melding, splaying and tucking add a little bit of a wrinkle to interpreting instructions.  The expectation of command of the written language is significant.  This creates a memory problem because only the active player has the card in front of them and even if they read out the full text of the dogma parts are easy to forget.  This is both because of both the language complexity and the precision of the instructions.

That said, this isn’t an especially complicated game.  It is though highly variable and nuanced and there is no escaping the cognitive complexity of play.    Dogma effects are often compound, often conditional, and incorporate both elements of forced play and optional choice.   You can force players to perform an action that has an optional component, for example, and they don’t actually have to make use of an option you forced them to consider.   The nature of play means that game flow is intensely malleable – you take two turns, but when you perform a dogma action other players will get to take it too if they meet the icon requirements.   The way that dogma actions work too might involve them targeting a different player, or doing something different because of the layout of the board they have.

Consider the railroad dogma as an example:

“Return all cards from your hand, then draw three sixes.”  Then “You may splay up any one colour of your cards currently splayed right”

If this is late game, you might have no sixes or sevens left to draw and you’ll need to move on to the next available age with cards.  Maybe you’re going to draw three eights, which is a really powerful draw.  But in triggering this action, you might finds the first few players return threes and fours and draw eights, whereas the player before you returns a pile of sixes and sevens.  They get their own cards back and you’re left with what they didn’t want.  You get less out of the card you played than your opponents just because of how the dogma system worked.  In taking an action you need to be careful to arrange that you’re the one that gets the best out of it, and that’s going to depend on how you enable everyone else at the table.  That in turn depends on knowing their game state as well as envisioning what they can do when the action you have considered for yourself is thrown over to them.   That’s costly from all cognitive perspectives.

The game flow issue is particularly pronounced because actions are often compound and it’s easy to forget which you’ve just triggered and whether it’s your first or second.  The game comes with a couple of reminder cards for that, but it’s just as easy to forget to use them.   What we normally do is have one player responsible for playing cards as another person takes actions, but again – it’s easy to forget.  If you do then you need to think back to ‘what did you do before you triggered this dogma that took us a couple of minutes to resolve’.

Action cards

I need reminders for my reminder cards

Added to this is the fact that you need to be cognizant of game state across the whole game and that game state is relatively sophisticated.  You need to know the actions someone can dogma, their power in the six categories of knowledge, the score cards they have and the achievements that they have collected, and what their overall empire plan might be.  That doesn’t just come in when assessing what people are doing for their strategy – this isn’t a planning thing alone.  It comes in directly when you actually take your own actions.   Often making a decision in Innovation is aiming for the least worst thing and enabling the players you are least concerned about.   If you activate a dogma action it always has to take into account the full game state of everyone around the table.

We can’t at all recommend Innovation in either category of cognitive accessibility.

Emotional Accessibility

Oh man.  There have been games where Mrs Meeple has performed an action and said ‘Sorry, I didn’t realise that was so bad for you’.  This is a game of pointed aggression and very serious competition.   There’s no direct warfare or the like – it’s all conducted through abstracted mechanisms.  That doesn’t make it any less punitive.  There are dogma effects for example that let you steal cards from score, remove top cards from the board, or force your opponents to return cards from their hand to the draw.   Often they come with conciliatory actions but rarely are these any serious compensation.  “I demand you transfer your two highest non-red cards without a factory from your board to my score pile!  If you transferred any cards, draw an 8!”

Well, thanks for the eight I suppose but playing it down is going to cost me an action and I might not even want it.  In the meantime, you might have taken the two cards that were critical to my strategy and left me without meaningful tools to defend myself.   Innovation can be an arms race and losing a card, especially when splaying comes into regular use, can be very significant.  It can shift the balance of power from one player to another without passing any intermediate ground.   You can go from ‘winning comfortably’ to ‘losing badly’ with a single action.

Even the non demand dogmas can be painful.   “Return a card in any opponent’s score pile for every two clocks on your board”.  In the end game, that can be four or five cards just plucked out of your score pile and dumped back into the draw.  That might be four points.  It might be forty points.  The only way to win the game is by accumulating achievements, and the only way to reliably gain those is through score.  That single dogma action can be the difference between you being in the running and you being out of the game entirely.  If you have no easy mechanisms for scoring (and bear in mind, those might be taken away from you by any other player if they have the means) then the loss of those can be devastating for your prospects.

The Skyscrapers dogma is “I DEMAND you transfer a top non-yellow card with a clock from your board to my board!  If you do, score the card beneath it, and return all other card from that pile”.  I mean – wow.  You steal the best card, force someone to score the one underneath it, and then get rid of every other card they have in that pile.  That can be a dozen cards in the end game, and at that point you’re not technically eliminated but you’ve lost most of your icons and the dogma you laid down for your own use.   That is a hard-core dick move and Innovation is full of those kind of effects.

The game mechanics also tend to snowball so that if you’re behind you’ll progressively fall farther behind as you become unable to utilise shared dogma effects and prevent demand activities.  Your role in the game might be to just watch your civilization picked clean as everyone else decides to cannabalise your broken empire.   You can be knocked out instantly and from nowhere in the course of a single turn.

Scoring too is something that can be intensely frustrating – there are chains of actions that can result in you scoring a card only to instantly lose it, or for someone to gradually prune your score down to zero.  Strictly speaking it’s the number of achievements that defines winners, but there is a large and obvious gap between someone that didn’t get any achievements (often me) and someone that gets them all with room to spare.

The end result here is that not everyone is going to have the same amount of fun when playing, and failure compounds heavily and often quickly unless you rapidly compensate for problems.   To be fair, there is almost always a way to learn from what happened and improve performance for the next time.  That doesn’t change the intense emotional difficulties introduced by the highly aggressive play model.

Innovation is not at all recommended in this category.

Physical Accessibility

There is a lot of very fiddly card play here – tucking and melding cards is fine until splaying is introduced, but at that point you need to tuck cards underneath splayed cards whilst still maintaining fidelity of icons.   It’s not as simple as just slipping it under the end either – you have five sets of cards that might be splayed left and right alternately and as such the game state tends to sprawl and need constant redistribution.  Splaying up for example might need everything in the game to move a bit unless you’ve been very generous with play area allocation from the start.   Cards get moved, shuffled around, added and returned and redistributed on a regular basis.

Splaying right

Tucked up tight

Verbalisation is easy in its strictest sense but you’re working from a hidden hand and the cards are held landscape rather than portrait.  Card holders can help here, but you’ll need more of them than usual because the whole of the card is going to be relevant for play.  However, everything else is relatively easily expressed in terms of game jargon.  ‘Meld my second card’, or ‘execute the Optics dogma’.  The instructions on the cards usually determine what happens from that point there, and individual cards are uniquely named so they can be referenced in a straightforward way.

However, actually reading dogma actions is going to depend on the extent to which the game sprawls and it’s sometimes difficult to do that in a convenient way that works for someone else acting on behalf of another player.  Not impossible, but a little trickier than we’d tend to like.

We’ll recommend, just, Innovation in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There isn’t a lot of gendered art in Innovation, at least this edition – I’m aware there is an Iello version with a very different aesthetic.   People are present only on the back of cards for the age, and there’s an equal blend of men and women.  None of them are objectified- all are represented instead in period appropriate attire.   Gender neutral pronouns are used in the manual, and the second person perspective is used for explanatory text.  It’s all good.

Back of cards

Ladies and Gentlemen

I’m not sure what the RRP of Innovation may be, but I got my copy for under £20 and it is an absolute steal considering the sheer quality of the game and the variety of the experiences it enables.  It only supports a maximum of four players, but it supports all player counts well and I am sure that you will find reasons to return to it over the long term.   This is potentially a ‘forever game’ and given the price there’s little reason for many people not to give it a try.   However, it’s also not a game for novices and not a game that can be profitably enjoyed by people with meaningfully different levels of skill.   If you can find a space for it in your gaming group, we’d strongly recommend you pick it up.

Communication

The literacy level required is high, and pragmatics dictate that someone at the table narrate the dogma action everyone is to undertake.   The logic can be difficult to follow due to its often highly conditional nature.  Parts of it may be optional, parts of it mandatory, and other parts enacted only by players impacted by demand sections.   There’s no need for discussion or debate, but it really helps if everyone can communicate their dogma instructions (or have someone read them out on their behalf) and also hear and interpret often quite sophisticated instructions.

I don’t think we can recommend Innovation in this category, but depending on the precise manifestation of communication issues within the group it might be okay.

Intersectional Accessibility

Well… this is going to be short since there are only three categories in which we recommend the game.   Really the largest issue here is likely to be in terms of physical accessibility since this has implications for people with colour blindness.  The cards are differentiated by the pattern on lines, and these are most visible when the cards are close to the player’s face.  They’re not impossible to make out at a distance, but they’ll also be laid out at an angle (presumably) and this makes it harder still if physical impairments must be taken into account.  We’d be considerably more tentative in our recommendations in that circumstance.

Playtime is around 45 minutes with a group that knows what they’re doing, but play is relatively intense because of the way dogma effects interleave.  You can’t action your turn and then tune out because you will likely be involved in the turns of other people.  This will be either as a result of following their action or being the target of an aggressive demand.   Everyone is involved for almost all of the time, and that has the potential to exacerbate issues of discomfort.

Innovation offers no formal mechanism to drop out of play, and while it can be done it can’t be done cleanly.  Someone might have built an empire around protecting themselves against a player, or taking advantage of their weaknesses.  Their absence would dramatically shift the balance of power without an easy way for anyone to compensate.   While at forty five or so minutes it’s not a deal-breaker to simply stop and restart with a new count, it’s not ideal.

Conclusion

Innovation is a great game, but it’s also greatly inaccessible.  That’s not an uncommon pattern here on Meeple Like Us.  To a certain extent, it’s not surprising.  The richer and more complex a game is the more likely it will get a good review but simultaneously the more likely it is to be cognitively inaccessible.  For everything else though – well, every day is a learning opportunity.

Colour Blindness A
Visual Impairment D
Fluid Intelligence E
Memory E
Physical B-
Emotiveness E
Socioeconomic A-
Communication D+

Really, we can only be enthusiastic about the game’s accessibility in two areas and even the physical accessibility section is at best grudging.  The nature of card play and the way splaying causes the game state to rapidly and often unexpectedly sprawl creates an accessibility issue for everyone.   It’s playable though, which is more than can be said for a number of the other categories.

We love Innovation.  Properly love it.  Hide in its flower-beds and serenade it in the night love it.  We gave it four and a half stars in our review and to be honest having written all of this all I want to do is break it out and play it again.  It’s deep, rich, and has some truly sublime game mechanics that are genuinely, ah ha, innovative.   Sadly, it’s likely to be a game that is too problematic for many people to play and that’s a shame for everyone involved.

 


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