Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Innovation, the best 2-player board game I've played in a long while.

My wife and I have a history of playing 2-player board games after the kids are in bed, instead of watching TV or reading. Over the years, a number of games have hit the table for an extended stay... In the past, the top hits were Lost Cities, Carcassonne: the Castle, Balloon Cup, Medici vs Strozzi.

For a while we had an abstract phase, with Ingenious (Travel Edition) or DaVinci's Challenge as the go-to games.

Recently, we moved into Ra: the Dice Game and Qwirkle, and then Race for the Galaxy.

Since Origins, I had managed to play a few games of Innovation, but my wife had not, having been playing other games at game night. At GenCon, I made a point to pick my own copy up from Asmadi games (Along with Win, Lose, Banana and the WLB expansion, Cake).

We played the game in the Hotel that evening, and it was a hit, even though I didn't do a great job of explaining the game. (I claim tiredness). We ended up playing it 3 times together at GenCon, and I played 3 more times with other people. Initially, there were some balance issues with the game, and it seemed to end far too quickly. however, at the end of the Con, I managed to read (and correctly parse) all of the rules, and came up with two major issues that took the game from 'neat, but seems broken' to 'very, very good game'.

Since GenCon, we've played it 2-player, 3-player, and 4-player with my mother-in-law and our son. The game plays quite differently with different numbers of people. 4-player is more chaotic, as there are more powers on the board and more opportunities to screw with people.

So, enough talking around the game, let's get to the meat of it. I'm going to focus on the two-player aspect, as that's where I have the most familiarity.

The game is played with a cards, and there are 10 'ages' of cards, that work somewhat like tech levels. Age 1 is Prehistory, Age 2 is Classiscal, and then you work up to Age 8, Modern, and Age 10, Information. Each age of cards have their own icons and powers. Your goal is to work your way up through the ages, improving your civilization and technology level and become the first one to complete 6 'achievements'. (In 3- and 4-player games, you work for 5 or 4 achievements).

At the start of the game, the board is set by putting the 10 ages of cards in 10 separate piles. The top card from each of the ages 1-9 is set up in a stack of 'achievements' for those ages. these nine achievements can be earned by getting enough points from other cards. In addition you have the 5 'special' achievements that can be earned through either a difficult task, or a slightly simpler task that requires you to have the power of a specific card.

Both players are then dealt 2 'Age 1' cards each, and the game begins with each player picking one card from their hand, and melding it to the board in front of them. The person who plays the card closest to the start of the alphabet begins play and can take one action. the actions are:

Draw a Card: you may draw a card of equal value to the highest card you have melded on the board.

Meld a Card: you may meld a card from your hand to the board.

Achieve: You may take the top achievement from the achievment stack and place it face down in your achievement zone. You may only do this if you have 5x the age of the achievement in points, and a melded card of at least that age in play... so to take the Age 1 achievement, you need 5 points and an Age 1 card melded, and to take the Age 5 acheivement, you need 25 points and an Age 5 card melded.

Dogma: this is the meat of the game. Every card has one or more 'effects' that can be done if the card is in play in front of you. For one of your actions, you can perform all of these effects. Dogma effects let you draw cards, meld cards, score points, score special achievements, 'splay' your melds of cards, return cards, steal cards and more. Some high level dogma effects will end the game, as well.

The goal of the game is, of course, to score your 6 achievements, but you can only do this through dogma effects, as that is the only way to score points. Dogma effects are tied to symbols on the cards, and the number of symbols you have determines how the powers work.

The symbols are: Tower (representing military power, disappears in Age 4), Leaves (agricultural/natural power), Crowns (political/religious power), Light Bulbs (ideas and innovation), Factories (economic power, appears in Age 4), and Clocks (future tech, appears in age 7). Every card may have as many as 4 of these symbols on it, and the number of each symbol determines your power level.

In addition, the cards themselves come in 5 colors... Purple, Green, Red, Yellow, and Blue. I feel like these colors are broad concepts... Red cards seem aggressive, Blue cards seem to be 'high tech', yellow deals with  manipulation of your resources. However, it's a loose enough fit that this may simply be a case of me trying to impose patterns where there may be none.

When playing, you meld cards on top of like colors... so if you have a red card, and wish to play another one, then you will cover up the existing red card. This means that as the game progresses, you will lose access to powers from earlier ages, as well as those symbols. This makes it so that it is possible to gain/lose ground in the symbol arms race for dogma powers. At any time you can have at most 5 cards 'active' in front of you, although those cards may be on a stack of like-colored cards.

Now, why do you bother having all these cards, and all these symbols? Because of dogma effects. A simple Age 1 card is 'The Wheel'. This card has a dogma effect of: Towers: Draw 2 Age 1 cards.

When you perform this dogma, you will draw two cards... a great deal, since normally you can only draw one! howevver, we have to look at the power that runs the card... towers. When you activate this dogma, every player counts their tower symbols, and anyone with as many or more as you will also execute this dogma... and they'll do it first. So if you aren't in the lead on towers, they'll also get to draw cards.

There's a few caveats to this though, that are where the strategy of the game starts to come through... first, if an opponent shares your dogma, you will draw a bonus card after everyone is done. Secondly, when you draw cards, if you need to draw from a stack that is empty, you draw from the next higher stack.

So, you may choose to allow me to draw cards from 'The Wheel', especially if you see that there are two Age 1 cards left... which means I draw them both, leaving the Age 1 stack empty, and then you get to draw 2 Age 2 cards and a bonus card on top of that!

As the game continues, the dogma powers become more complex, but one of the powers of note is the 'Splay'. Several cards will allow you to splay cards to the left, right, or up. When you do this, you spread the stack out so that the one or more of the symbols on the lower cards are revealed (a splay left will reveal one symbol, a splay right 2 symbols, and a splay up three symbols). These splayed card symbols count for the purposes of dogma, so splaying cards is the best way to increase your power.

Eventually, dogma powers will say things like 'meld a card from your hand and score a card', or 'return a card from your hand, and score a card of one higher than the card you returned', or 'I demand that my opponents put their top cards with towers on their board into my score pile'. In this way, dogma effects change the game, and score points. cards are worth a number of points equal to their age, so an Age 1 card is 1 point, while an Age 8 card is 8 points.

As you build your tableau you will be looking for opportunities to score points so you can claim achievements. Early, this is relatively easy. But later in the game, you have to balance scoring points, protecting your score pile with symbols, and trying to get into a high enough tech level on your board to claim the higher level achievements.

Initially, games are a little stilted, as you aren't sure about the powers, but as you learn the cards, you become better able to respond to your opponent.

I highly recommend this as a 2-player game, especially now that we're playing by all of the correct rules*. It's also good as a 3-player or 4-player game, but the increased chaos/randomness may turn some players off. (Conversely, some players thrive on increased randomness, and for them the game is likely better with 4).

For the record, since we've started playing this game in the evenings since we got back from GenCon, my wife has kicked my ass every  time we played until last night, when I finally got a good engine going, and she was stunted. We played again, and I burst out of the gates to a 3-0 lead, and then, despite having a million cards splayed and tons of symbols, couldn't score another point and ended up losing 3-6.

However, last night we also got into Age 10 and actually used Age 10 powers for the first time...

*Initial plays missed two very critical rules. First, you can only achieve a card if you have that level on your tableau. There are Age 1 and 2 cards that are very efficient at putting points into your score pile, especially as the stacks are depleted. We had a game end with a person getting the 2-7 achievements off points, but the highest card on their tableau was a 3. clearly, this can't happen if you follow the rules.

Secondly, we initially played that if I performed a dogma (such as 'draw two Age 1 cards') and you beat me on symbols, you could refuse to do it, thereby preventing me from getting three Age 2 cards while you only got two age 1 cards. However, the rules are clear that unless the card says 'You May ...' then the dogma is not optional. You can use this to your advantage, not only by forcing people to draw, but by making them meld, score, or otherwise use cards that otherwise might be hurting you.

No comments:

Post a Comment