Friday, December 31, 2010

Innovation – My 2010 Game of the Year

So while I'm on "vacation" for the first time in four years, I thought I'd take advantage of the (more) bloggy format of this blogging blog and blog somewhat randomly. P.S.: Blog.

With the year's odometer now turned over for those of us who don't run our lives on the Chinese or Hebrew calendar, "Best of the Year" lists are starting to appear and while I've never rarely participated in such folly in the past, I'll break tradition and state that Carl Chudyk's Innovation (Asmadi Games) is far and away my favorite game of 2010. I've already puked out thousands of words of appreciation for this fantastic design, but of course you (and I) can't read them since Boardgame News doesn't work right now, so here's an overview: Innovation is the Civilization card game for those who don't want to read a lot of rules prior to playing.

What do I know of Civilization? Almost nothing. I've never played the Tresham design; I've never played the computer game (or almost any computer games); I've seen only a few segments of the Civilization series from Kenneth Clark; I haven't played (gasp) Through the Ages; and so on. I'm essentially one of those troglodytes who hasn't seen Star Wars, yet has absorbed enough about what goes on to give an amusingly misguided summary of Hans Solo, Darth Vader, the white-faced guy, and all the rest.

But for some reason I decided to pick up Kevin Wilson's Civilization: The Board Game (Fantasy Flight Games), which a knowing friend immediately mocked because the board game uses graphics from Civ IV while Civ V had debuted mere days earlier. How outré, said my friend, how shoddily half-assed of FFG to pitch gamers a new design in old clothes.

Me, in my ignorance, thought nothing of this as I was too busy being bowled over by the 32-page rulebook. I've never been one to shiver with delight at the site of a beefy rulebook, thinking ahead to the long, luxurious hours I'll spend soaking in the bathtub while relishing every little detail on its pages. No, I'm more of a shower guy, content with a quick hosedown of rules that span no more than a few pages – enough to get my hair wet without leaving my digits crinkly. I don't care to learn in detail how the car works; instead give me key, ignition, gas pedal, gear shift, mirrors – okay, I'm set to take it out for a spin to see what happens.

In practice the Civilization rulebook proved less imposing than it did at first glance. Four pages are devoted to a component list and detailed description of every last chit; a few more to the game set-up. Hey, this is more like a LEGO instruction book than a rulebook! I can handle this. Oh, wait, now we're into the rules, nevermind.

My brain has a tough time keeping lots of details in it for a single game. I can remember the rules for dozens, if not hundreds, of games – a party trick that never fails to impress the ladies when I bust out a few rule descriptions while in mid-limbo – yet I cannot recall hundreds, or even dozens, of details for a single, particular game. Essentially my brain has endless rows of lockers, "Library of Babel"-style, each of which can hold the contents of a single game and while the lockers themselves are infinite, no game can spill over into multiple lockers, which means that I've found myself at a loss when confronted by any big box FFG game and the attempt to embed an entire family history and details on how to make bread by first constructing a Wonder factory in its rulebook.

Having said that, I read the rules for Civilization: The Board Game and had a Civ-loving friend (who had also read the rules) over to play. The game lasted 2.5 hours, and I consulted the rulebook many, many times during play to make sure I was doing things right and not forgetting various details and I was completely smoked as my friend had an Actual Plan for how to win the game and I was busy treading water in the rules. I did spot his impending victory a couple of turns prior to him achieving it, but that knowledge was merely enough to earn me a solid second place.

Okay, having been through that, what did I learn:
  1. How to play better: I can see how I would play the game better on a second go-round, partly due to not having to look things up in the rulebook so much and partly due to having some idea of how I could tie actions together to build synergy into my advancement efforts.
  2. Why computer games sell so well: Not because of whatever was done with the Civ V graphics, but because the software handles many of the game details for you, often allowing you to learn a game directly from installation and random button-pushing – something not possible with analog games unless the players are toddlers.
  3. How much I love Innovation: Which is the point of this post.
While Civ: The Board Game is apparently faithful to the computer game, according to my friend, all I noticed was the busyness of the design, with lots of little parts meshed into a design that I couldn't keep straight during play. I spent so much time watching the wheels turn and checking the framistan that I was barely cognizant of where I was going within the game. Did I end up creating an effective civilization that would eventually develop roll-on deodorant and wireless technology if the game had lasted long enough? Perhaps, but I was too busy with the details to notice such things.

With Innovation, on the other hand, I can set up and teach the game within ten minutes. All of history has been reduced to 105 cards, with each player starting with two cards from the prehistoric age. At the start of the game, you have one choice of two items to put into play. On your first real turn, you typically take two actions, with those actions being:
  1. Draw a card.
  2. Meld a card.
  3. Use a card in play.
  4. Claim an achievement card (which isn't possible until you score points, which takes at least a couple of turns and sometimes far longer).
So simple and straightforward. Each card says what it can do, which means the choices available to you are evident. What will the consequences of these actions be? Will action A lead to better results than action B? Give one of them a try and find out what happens.

Effectively you have been reduced to the position of gaming neanderthal. You're not trying to chart a path through the dozens of tech cards available to you in Civ: The Board Game: Which two of the ten level 1 cards should I build first? And which of the ten level 2 cards should follow that? And which of the nine level 3 cards? How would I know what to choose given that I know nothing about the course of the game? And all those choices come on top of multiple others about where to build cities and buildings, and which of the multiple wonders to build, and how to spend your points, and so on. In Civ, the number of choices is too much for me. I'm doing tons of things, but I can't see how they fit together. I feel like I'm managing a second life, and that's hardly a playing experience I need.

Again, with Innovation I have one choice to start the game. Then I have three choices – meld, draw or use the card in play – then I have three or four more, then perhaps five, and so on. I'm pulling LEGO bricks out of a black box and slowly assembling something that might turn into a dynamic machine. Each turn I have exactly two actions available to me, so even when I have 5-10 choices – from the cards in play in front of me, the pile from which I can draw, and the cards in hand – the number of possible combinations is still limited.

As I've become more familiar with the game – 90 plays and counting! – I can now consider whether to do the best thing possible this turn or to focus on I might do this turn that will allow me to do something even better next turn. I can react to an opponent's play, or try to build a structure that will eventually topple over on him and render him lifeless. I can anticipate future plays from opponents and dig for cards in particular decks that fit with my plans. I can work on splaying my cards to display more of the six types of icons in order to mooch from the actions of others and protect me from (some) attacks, or I can try to jump the ages and get a "technological" edge on my opponents.

And there's still much more to learn – or at least that's how I feel each time I play. I've never gone through all 105 cards and tried to memorize what each of them does and which icons they have where, and this lack of out-of-game exploration has delivered a far richer sense of exploration during play. After my first couple of games, for example, I knew the 15 cards in age 1 cold, while knowing the specifics of most cards in age 2 and several in age 3. I had reached the higher ages, but they still felt nebulous. I had experienced their power, both in my hands and in others', but I couldn't recall precisely which cards were in which decks. Instead of trying to grab knowledge of the game all at once, I let it sink in through repeated exposure, akin to a computer game (I suppose) in which you know enough to start the game, then just see what happens. (See point #2 above.)

As I and my friends have achieved more experience with the game, we've adjusted our play styles. In the early days, two-player games would rarely dig deep into decks from age 7 and above as we played somewhat conservatively, feeling our way around the early stages of history and hitting the special achievements with little interference from opponents. Now, we blast through the ages, having a better idea of what's possible in two turns and how to counter what opponents might do. We pocket specific cards for certain situations; we encounter high-level cards that seem insanely powerful, then figure out how to play against those threats in the early game to keep ourselves from being vulnerable later. We shoot for instant win cards in the later decks, ceding advantages to others on the assumption – the hope! – that they'll never bring those advantages to bear.

Three-player seems like the sweet spot for the game as you avoid the freewheeling, almost out-of-control feeling of the four-player game and the somewhat tight, zero-sum feeling of the two-player game. If I had a choice for number of players, I'd choose three, then two, then four. (If I had five, I'd choose two simultaneous games of Innovation.)

Do the cards feel like a simulacrum of reality and history? No, but that's not what I play games for. I play for the intellectual challenge, the ability to best my opponent in some tiny sandbox with rules particular to that location. I want to feel like I can make clever plays, affect my destiny in positive ways, prepare contingency plans for the disasters that will surely come, and be surprised by what both I and my opponents can do. Innovation hits all of these markers. Even after 90 games – which includes a dozen games in a week over the Christmas holiday when my brother, friends and I neglected a half-dozen Spiel 2010 releases he had brought me from Europe – I continually find myself saying, "I've never seen that before," or "I thought that card was worthless, but it really proved to be the right tool to save my bacon that game," or "I can't believe you figured out how to escape that trap," or (most often of all) "Want to play again?"

My opponents say yes. I say yes. Yesyesyes. Set up the cards once again, and let's go!


  1. Bravo! I'm only a handful of plays in and this is exactly what I wanted to read.

  2. Wonderful reading! I just ordered this game less then a week ago and it's still about a week to go until I can finally unbox it! I'm almost 30 years old but feel more like 9, remembering waiting for that toy my parents got me through mailorder :)

    If I wasn't already won over on this, that last line surely would have! :D Can't wait to try it!