I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog my deep, abiding and borderline lustful appreciation of the Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games. I can invest meaningful hours – days, even – carefully sculpting my empire from psychopathic stone-age marauders to psychopathic information age nuclear vandals. Much of that comes from the sedate satisfaction of digital paperwork – shuffling bits and bobs around my empire to gradually optimise its throughput and productivity. A good chunk of it though is bound up in the sense of accomplishment that comes from navigating, ascending and eventually dominating the tech tree built into these games. With advanced research comes egalitarian thinking, agrarian efficiencies that are all but Utopian, and a spectacular array of mechanisms to make weapons go faster, farther, and with more kinetic energy. Tech tree hacking is not a game in itself, but you know – it could be. Now I think about it, I think I would passingly enjoy a game that was basically the Civ tech tree in a box. If only such a game existed!
And good golly gosh it does, because that’s what Innovation is – and like One Deck Dungeon from the same publisher, this was an unexpected treat. This seems to be something of a trend with Asmadi – small box card decks that play like much bigger, much more complicated games. Whereas Tiny Epic Galaxies makes a good fist of stuffing a 4X game into a tiny package, it never feels truly grand in its scope. Innovation on the other hand gives me all the joys, tensions, excitements and stories that I’ve gotten out of my best sessions sitting with a digital IV sunk deeply into my front lobe. Roll Through The Ages, the last game where I worried I might be dragged off into a Civ Sinkhole, was characterised both by the timidity of its aims and the limitations of its scope. Not so here.
Innovation manages to encompass everything from war to economic domination to agricultural best practise to scientific progress within its elegant card play. I’m not doing the usual thing here where I say ‘Oh it accomplishes all of this but here’s why it doesn’t work’. I’m being completely upfront here – I absolutely love this game and I think it unquestionably succeeds according to every metric I might use to measure it. No game I have played has made quite such a strong positive first impression on me. Chatting to the Thoughtful Gamer over on Twitter though it’s clear that this isn’t a universal experience. His first brush with the game seems to have been the polar opposite of mine, so you know – your mileage may vary.
The game is played almost entirely from a single deck of cards, each with a particular technological age indicated on the back. You arrange these into a wheel, and deal a single card from each age into the centre. Those represent what are essentially technological dead-ends for this branch of reality. They ensure that you can’t rely on your favourite technological developments being available from game to game, but importantly they also act as the achievement markers that define the win condition. If you have enough influence, you can claim one of these and dominate that age. Whoever gets six achievements first wins the game, although… well, we’ll get to that.
Each player draws two cards from the prehistoric age, representing technological advances that are reflective of their state of development. These might be philosophical, or military. They might scientific, or economic, or agricultural. You can have one of these active for each branch of thought at any one time, with other cards from the current or previous ages often being tucked underneath into a neat pile. During your turn you get access to four actions. You can draw a card from the highest age indicated on your civilization board. You can meld a card from your hand to the board, either starting a new pile or replacing the current top-most tech. Some cards permit you to ‘score’ a card and slip it under your reference sheet. If you have achieved enough of this influence via score, and have at least one card on your board of the appropriate era or higher, you can claim one of the central achievements. So far, so unbearably dull.
The cards we lay down have several properties, and this is where things start to get interesting. Each is peppered with as many icons as an early 2000s smart-phone and they’re approximately as interactive. They represent a sort of ‘inflection’ of your empire – leverage points of authority that are attached to your civilization across the entirety of your board. Crowns represent economic dominance. Lightbulbs represent philosophical thought, and so on. Cards then show what you feel is important about your empire. You’re deciding where you want its limited emphasis to be within the constraints of technological advancement you’ve drawn from the deck. No empire has the resources to do everything all the time and so you have to prioritise for what it is your noble imperium is to be known.
It’s important you do this well too because the way you emphasis the facets of your empire has a staggering impact on how well it’s going to function as a coherent entity. Every card you play down comes with a dogma action, and the fourth kind of action you have available to you in a turn is to trigger its effect. And it’s this one, single system that elevates Innovation into something genuinely sublime. Here’s where all the warfare and economic domination and espionage of history takes life in the game and becomes truly electric in its frenetic energy. Every dogma action you can trigger has a dominant icon associated with it, and when you trigger it everyone with the same or larger number of icons as you has to do it too. You get a card draw for everyone that does, but that might be little comfort when your masterstroke ends up undoing all your hard work as someone else has a gangbusters turn thanks to your civilization’s efforts.
Some cards have a more direct “I DEMAND” dogma, and you force everyone else to do them provided they don’t wield the same amount of iconic might as you. You can steal cards from someone’s board, or from their score track. You can force them to discard cards, or swap them around. ‘I DEMAND you transfer a top card with a castle from your board to my score pile!’, or ‘I demand you transfer the three highest cards from your hand to my hand!’. Often there are secondary effects too with these that then let you leverage whatever resources you just obtained. Some come with a consolation prize for the poor chump forced to yield to your aggression. The icons you have available are what defines the flow of game advantage.
Essentially the cards you lay down are the tools you have available to help expand your empire and prune that of your enemies. You’ll only have five of these available at a time and so you need to consider what toolbox you actually need to succeed. And, importantly, you need to consider the equivalent toolbox your opponent has available to dismantle the machine you’ve painstakingly created. They might compel you to draw a card and meld a card, which sounds great until you realise the new card is going over the one card that was pivotal to your strategy and placing it down isn’t optional. The only defence you have is through the composition of your empire, and that changes slowly – glacially – and often not in directions you might have engineered. The role of the Supreme Leader in Innovation is sometimes picking between a handful of poor options and choosing the one that is least likely to damage you in the long run. You need to choose which levers of power you want to express, and getting the dogma effect you want might well come at the cost of the economic influence you desperately need to use it safely. Every play in Innovation is a compromise – making your own fate in circumstances very much not of your own choosing.
Ah, but wait – just wait! I’m not even at the best part yet!
Those five cards that define your empire will only have four symbols on them, and only three are going to be ‘active’. The other is just a vestigial icon that represents the tech itself – it does nothing of value. At most with that setup, everyone has fifteen symbols to play with and eventually six different icons they need to express. Those are tight restrictions. Were that all you got it would be inevitable that things would reach a relatively happily equilibrium where everyone dominates one or two things but none of the others. Sheer necessity would drive that in most cases. So much of play is about getting yourself in a position to take unilateral advantage of dogma effects that you’d almost certainly aim for a kind of entante cordial out of sheer, naked self interest. I think Innovation would still be a good game in that circumstance, but not as wonderful as it is. It’s the splaying mechanism that pushes this from ‘good’ into ‘great’ and then ‘great’ into ‘excellent’.
Empires don’t stay static after all – they grow bigger and more powerful. They become more aggressive, or less so. They ebb and flow with the times. They develop more effective bureaucracies and ever more specialised administrative systems. Innovation models this to some extent by the increasing power and sophistication of dogma effects as time marches on. Where it really squeezes the juice out of the concept is when a dogma effect permits you to splay cards left, right, or upwards.
Splaying lets you take that pile of cards you’ve been building up and leverage a portion of its icons regardless of where they are in the stack. Splaying left permits you to use the right most visible icon on all cards underneath the topmost. This is genius in all kinds of ways – not only does it make the order in which your empire develops important, it also narratively reinforces the legacy elements of your own imperial history. A brush with agriculture in prehistory will perpetually give a boost to agrarian practises as the icons persist through the game. The way the icons are distributed around the card too has a powerful and thematic effect because splaying comes in three forms. Splaying left is great, but splaying right is better since it gives access to two icons per card rather than one.
But better still is the ‘renaissance’ moment where you get to take your cards and splay them upwards. It’s like your civilization has an epiphany. You can go from being the poor soul taking the brunt of all the antagonism around the table to the biggest bully in the borough. You only ever have the topmost card dogma effect available regardless of splaying, but those icons can become overwhelmingly powerful when you’re leveraging a meaningful proportion of a dozen of them. After all, there’s no point having the greatest dogma if everyone else gets to use it on your turn. The splaying setup of your civilization is what permits you to ensure you have prima nocta on your own dogmatic opportunities.
As soon as you splay your first branch of knowledge, the game systems in Innovation suddenly cohere in a way that isn’t obvious from the first few turns. This is a game you need to invest time into fully understanding. Suddenly this system reveals why you might want to ‘tuck’ cards under the bottom of the pile. You appreciate the dogma effects that let you rearrange a pile and why sometimes you might want to play cards based on how their icons are distributed rather than what their obvious effect ends up being. You start to understand the risks associated with ‘draw and meld’ – something unspeakably valuable in the early phases but a game of Russian roulette later on. You get a feel for how to enable combo effects that accomplish far more than anyone would believe possible from the scant few options you have available. You start to think of your empire not as a moving machine with pieces you need to properly align, but as a historical entity with accumulated cruft and baggage from your earlier decisions. Certain icons only appear in bulk in particular ages, and so too you need to think of the future shape of your empire as much as its current form. It makes you consider where your empire has been as much as where it’s going.
Please understand what I’m trying to say here. Innovation has none of the complicated accouterments of deeper, heavier civilization games. It has nothing but a deck of cards and yet truly permits you to feel like the spiritual animus of history. It permits you to engage in active warfare which is coupled to economic ideology. It lets you invest in the future at the expense of the present, and head an empire that develops a personality as time goes by. It lets you play diplomatically. It lets you be deeply, intensely aggressive. You don’t have a map, or units, or the complex mechanisms of city management. You have a lens of civilization which views everything through the impact of technology and it works marvelously well.
That’s not to say it’s absolutely flawless. It’s a game that permits very few missteps, for one thing. I won the first game we played of this, but I have yet to win it again. That stems in part from something of a misalignment for me in that the fun of the game is in the ever increasing development of an empire, but the scoring of the game is in ruthlessly banking your advancements and using them to buy influence. There are some special achievements that can be obtained if you hit a trigger condition but they are difficult to pull off and need you to prioritise the development of your empire in particular, finicky ways. There’s always a quick, ‘easy’ way to gain them too but that’s dependent on card availability and the often unforgiving considerations associated with the tempo of progress.
That means that the core mechanism of civilization building (where the fun is) isn’t necessarily inherently useful when it comes to scoring – that’s a far more abstract mechanism that really isn’t a lot of fun by itself. You accumulate a number of points equal to five times the age you want to dominate, and then you spend an action to dominate the age. In a real sense all that fascinating depth and complexity and richness of expression is completely irrelevant. All you need to do to win is find cards that permit you to score, and then ensure that the level of advancement of your top-most card keeps pace with the achievements available. The special achievement cards are an exception to this, and I would have been much happier to have seen more of those and for them to be the bedrock of scoring. The easiest, most reliable scoring mechanism though is ‘spend cards to claim cards’. The fun, in other words, isn’t where the progress is to be found. It’s a little unsatisfying but not enough to take much of a shine off the experience. If you can at least stave off someone buying all the cards the later ages offer many more excitingly abrupt endings to the game based on civilization progress.
But this leads into a more significant problem, and one that I can imagine that will put off a lot of people – the aggression in this game is pathological. Even the more benign dogma effects can be played aggressively. ‘Draw a card then meld a card’ for example will guarantee everyone has to cover up one of their existing card effects, presumably one they chose, with something random that may, or may not, be to their advantage. People don’t get to choose whether to follow your dogma – if they qualify, they have to do it. This means that you can, if you lay things out cleverly, set intensely punitive traps. You might return a classical age card from your hand, and then dogma an action that makes someone else draw and meld from that age. All dogma effects are executed by players before you. You can, if you play smartly and have access to the right technologies, force someone to cover up an age ten card with an age one card. It’s not easy, but examples with less extreme age disparities are much easier to set up.
The demands though – yeesh. If you have an edge in the game, demand cards can be used to aggressively lock down opponents to the point that they can’t do anything. They can garnish your score cards and claim them as their own, or gradually prune back your top cards so that you have access to fewer and fewer of the tools you need to prevent attacks in the future. The only defence you have available here is in the icons you have spayed, and not only can someone reduce the count they can even force whole branches of knowledge to revert back to an un-splayed state. Innovation is a game of precisely matched attack and riposte. If someone isn’t quite up to the task they’ll soon find not only are they falling behind in the match they have no meaningful ways to catch back up regardless of how hard they work.
That though has to be understood in the context of the game – this kind of thing, more often than not, is a forced error. The key is not letting yourself fall into that situation. You’ve got limited opportunities to do that with card draws, but your empire is meaningfully an engine of your own design. You can build it for attack, for defence, for scientific progress – but you have to build it with a wary eye on your opponents. If they have tools for scoring that you don’t, then they’ll be picking up all the cheap achievements and you’ll have to watch them. If they have aggressive castle powers, you better invest as best you can in having enough icons to repel their attacks. While the game is very pointed in its aggression, it also gives you opportunities to mitigate it. When you can’t get back up again during the game, it’s usually because you fell over and were subsequently trampled. That doesn’t necessarily make it any more enjoyable but it’s something you can absolutely get better at avoiding with practise. There is no game I have lost so far, and as I say that’s virtually all of them, where I felt I had no control over that outcome. There was, each time, something I could have done better to change the result. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but each game taught me something new. I’ll know for next time.
Seriously, Innovation – just go out and get it. Even if you regret it, I all but guarantee someone at the table is going to fall in love with the contents of this marvelous tiny little box.
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