Innovation – initial comments

I played this new card game with Charlie the other day.  I’d played it once before with Tony at UK Games Expo, and that experience had been enough for me to pay out an exhorbitant sum to get it from the US, rather than wait till Essen.  Was this a good idea?

I’m not going to write a straight review of Innovation; there’s plenty of those on the Geek at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/63888/innovation.  My comments are about game design and development.

Innovation comes from a specific stable of games, namely Carl Chudyk’s, designer of Glory to Rome.  The particular gaming niche here is an adult (14+) CCG-playing audience.  This is a different audience from Euro board games or board war games and reflects the increasing market segmentation in the hobby games market, brought about by an all pervasive internet and lowering of production costs.  CCG players are generally more tolerant of complexity and complication in games than Euro board gamers.

Innovation, like Glory to Rome before it and to a lesser extent Race for the Galaxy, is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ games.  Unlike Dominion (a different audience) Innovation is not particularly accessible to new players.  With a core pack of 105 unique cards, all of which contain many icons and often extensive text with technical language, there is a lot of information for new players to absorb before they can become competent.  The effort required to learn the game is considerable, because knowledge of the cards that might come up is an important part of the game.  Some potential players will not wish to put in the effort and will fall by the wayside before playing it, or after a single play.  Others will be caught by the game’s very complexity and challenge, and player groups have grown up around this.

Like many CCG-style games Innovation does not adhere to Euro game design principles.  It includes, as I’ve mentioned, extensive text on the cards, rather than the more intensive iconisation that is used on Race for the Galaxy.  RftG uses iconisation to make the game more accessible to a wider audience, such that even some text on the cards clarifies icons rather than replaces them, while Innovation (possibly because it is very difficult to iconise the dogma effects) is more reliant on appeal to the audience through other means, primarily game mechanics and its civilisation theme – always a crowd pleaser.

The game is nevertheless heavily iconised, because its central mechanic – dogma effects – relies on players being able to count the number of icons of each type in each player’s array.  The icons are coloured and contained in a square of the relevant colour, and have a symbol that should make the game playable by colour blind people.  The cards use a strong template, akin to Magic: The Gathering for the dogma effects – this is an excellent idea for making the game accessible to its target audience, who will be familiar with this ‘standard’.

The game will appeal to the existing Glory to Rome audience, as it uses similar mechanics.  This is an interesting phenomenon – with niche selling of games, the target audience will often buy the next big thing from a known designer, and companies can publish on this basis.  This concept has often been a factor in the hobby games industry, but I think it has been more prevalent in the Euro board game arena then elsewhere.

Innovation uses extensive technical language, by which I mean language that is relevant directly to this particular game.  Examples include the terms ‘meld’, ‘tuck’, ‘return’, ‘achieve’.  Even ‘draw’ has a specific technical meaning which is critical to game play.  Such technical language can be viewed in two ways, and we came up against this problem with our own first published game, Coppertwaddle.  Initially and importantly it is a barrier to accessibility, because players have to learn, for example that ‘meld’ means play a card from your hand to your play area (the play area itself being called your ‘board’, though no actual board exists).  However, secondly it makes the game more exclusive, and therefore players can gain the psychological advantage of being in an ‘elite group’ (in a sense, reversing the organisational problem of an elite group into a positive force).  So, once players are hooked, playing group dynamics can help to extend its reach: “I want to be part of the elite group”.  As a game design component, extensive use of explanatory text, especially technical language is often frowned upon (in fact, Coppertwaddle was criticised by some reviewers for this very problem), but for the adult CCG audience it may be a positive benefit.

The Learning stage (see other post) for Innovation may be quite lengthy.  This is alleviated by the fact that each game is relatively short.  It is interesting however, that the box claims 30-60 minutes duration, a significant understatement for games played in the Learning stage.

The game design does not seem to attempt to balance the power of the cards, like many other games of this type.  In fact it may celebrate the ‘take that’ effect, and the perception of ‘power cards’ may form a significant challenge to players achieving competence.  In some senses this may be another barrier, as another group of players may give up after being on the receiving end of Combustion (for example).  There is even the Fission card that can effectively re-set the game (except for Achievements) if the dogma is used.  This type of game effect is often frowned upon in Euro game designs, as it obliterates the previous hard work of the players.  However, it is likely that the target audience is tolerant of this type of effect.  There are other examples in CCGs (some Magic: The Gathering cards spring to mind), but these tend to be components of designed deck styles, whereas in Innovation such a card can be randomly drawn.

The production standard of Innovation is high.  Asmadi Games have produced it in quite a large box for the original components, but that makes it big enough to be sleeved easily – a definite boon for a card game.  And there’s space for expansions – you’ve been warned!

A mechanic that I’ve not seen elsewhere is the ‘splay’.  To splay a pile, you take the top card and slide it in the indicated direction (left, right or up).  Splaying reveals additional icons depending on the direction, and the game has left revealing 1, right 2 and up 3, giving variable power to each type of splay.  The power of cards is therefore not just the intrisic card itself, but also extra icons that they can give when their primary use is over.

There are some hard challenges in design terms, which may be ameliorated by aiming at its specific, largely tolerant market:

  1. Extensive text on the cards and the Reference/Actions card
  2. Rather small icons next to the text to which they apply
  3. Width: competent play requires knowledge of a large number of cards, rather than mastery of the mechanics and the strategy
  4. Play length during the Learning stage.

Innovation is probably assured of success because of the following elements of its design:

  1. Complexity, aimed at a CCG audience, focusing on appeal to an ‘elite group’
  2. Theme – civilisation being a constant favourite, with Through The Ages and Roll Through The Ages being recent successful additions to remind the audience of the power of the theme
  3. Building on the existing Glory to Rome design by the same designer; GtR seen as a highly successful one with a market as yet not sated with this type of game
  4. The new mechanic, splay, while otherwise containing relatively straightforward mechanics
  5. Good attention to iconisation where that is possible
  6. Celebration of ‘take that’ cards, making the game a tough challenge to master
  7. For experienced players, relatively short playing time.
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