When you've been in the hobby for a while, ennui can set it. It's easy to become jaded and cynical about designer games. It seems like everything is a slight variation on something else. Heaven forbid you should ever be actually surprised by anything. So imagine how shocked I was to discover that there was a game that came largely out of left field to become what is perhaps my very favorite card game. Innovation is many things, but above all, it is blessedly surprising. That's a quality that almost no game can claim, aside from the estimable Cosmic Encounter.
Actually, Innovation seems to share a lot of DNA with that Eon classic, especially since it makes extensive use of variable powers and chaotic tactics. Each player is in charge of a civilization. The cards are divided into 10 different piles, each one representing an age of history. These range from Prehistory (level 1) to Information (level 10). Each card has the name of a famous invention or powerful idea, including an effect that that innovation has on the other players. Each card also has a set of three icons on it, which dictate which players get to take the effects of the card. As players accumulate different cards, they will be able to "splay" their stacks and reveal more icons, making their civilization more and more powerful, and making it easier to benefit from the effects of various innovations. Many effects allow players to score a card, setting it aside and using it to build achievements. Most games end when one player gains a set number of achievements, but as the game goes on, other victory conditions reveal themselves and everything becomes much more unstable.
The first time through Innovation, most player will notice that the game can really go off the rails. There are 105 different cards, and each one does something unique. They often interact in wildly unpredictable ways, depending who where you are in the game, who has what icons exposed, and how many players are involved. The game can be completely different each turn, and the only way to navigate the chaos is familiarity with some key tactics and with the cards in the game. That takes a lot of plays, and it's something that will just not appeal to all gamers. I've heard some people complain that the game almost plays itself, since its impossible to predict what benefit you will get from what cards. You may go the entire game without the ability to score something, for example.
While I'll grant that the unpredictability can sometimes leave players high and dry, it does improve with more plays. Whether you ever want to get that far I don't know. Innovation is rather uncompromising as a design. It is what it is, and that to the fullest degree. There is some strange terminology to learn, like "dogma action," "tuck," and the afore-mentioned "splay." You just need to walk in on the game's terms, and go from there. If you really don't like your first couple games, it probably isn't for you. It demands some commitment, and many just won't feel like doing that.
But that uncompromising feel is what I like about the game. The card effects are all very strong, almost to the point of being defiant. The game installs very few balancing mechanics to keep someone from running away with the win. Players will be capable of devastating moves against opponents. The theme is there in a broad sense, but many of the individual cards are very abstracted. Even the graphic design is homely and utilitarian. One has to wonder who the game was actually created for, aside from the designer. But the proof is in the pudding. All of those qualities are endearing to me. I like that the game is so completely...there. It pulls no punches, and makes no concessions. You just need to play it to understand.
The best news is that Innovation is surprisingly inexpensive. For $25 retail, you get a very full game, one that will still yield secrets and surprises after 50 plays. Very few games reach that rarified air. It's true that it looks more like a prototype than a published title, but don't let the graphics fool you. If I were to make a list of the best games of 2010, Innovation would be right at the top. Not only that, but it has now found a place on my top 10 games of all time. It won't be for everybody, but the people that it's for will love it.