Any game can have one good expansion. It’s the second good expansion that’s tricky. To my recollection, the only game that really released two amazing expansions was The Settlers of Catan. Even long-runners like Talisman and Arkham Horror just release more and more stuff, which is fine. The point is, it’s easy for the second time through to suddenly feel like overkill, as if the game has taken it one step too far.
Innovation is my favorite card game. Over the past few years it’s stayed fresh and dynamic when lesser games have gotten into a rut. And the Echoes of the Past expansion was quite possibly my favorite expansion to any game ever. Instead of “more cards,” it filled out what was already there, adding new thrills and strategies without overwhelming the game. It made the game feel complete. So with a track record like that, how could I not be excited for the next Innovation expansion, Figures in the Sand? And I’m pleased to report that it’s a good addition to the game. It doesn’t detract from what makes Innovation amazing, and it adds some cool new wrinkles. It’s just not as good as its predecessor.
First of all, each Figures card represents a historical personality who contributes to your culture. Instead of dogma effects, figures have “karma” effects. These affect your entire board, and trigger when a certain condition is met. It may make it easier to score cards, or increase your number of icons, or something else. To keep things manageable, you can only have one Figure face-up on your board at the end of an action. If you find yourself with extra, you “fade” the surplus, scoring those cards. There is a new action called “Inspire.” These are little actions that sit in your splay like Echo effects, except Inspire actions are not shared. You can activate all of the Inspire effects in one color, which can make this a powerful strategy. Finally, there are now “decrees.” By having three different Figures in your hand, you can burn your entire hand to issue a decree. These are basically super-mega effects that can shift the game strongly, like allowing you to splay or to leap ahead in the age order. Decrees also count as achievements, though other players can steal them.
I am a big fan of the karma effects. It’s cool that the new cards don’t add still more dogmas to the mix, and the karma are suitably game-changing for Innovation. I’m especially fond of the fading mechanic, since it can be used to score cards at will if utilized correctly. That fixes a big problem some people had with the game up to this point. I’m a little more torn on the Inspire action, at least in practice. When playing with the base game and both expansions, they are not on a high percentage of the cards, so it seems like they are underutilized in comparison to other effects. Of course, things like that can change quickly in Innovation. It’s possible I just haven’t seen them be a big factor yet.
But the decrees? I love those. The effects of the decrees are strong enough to jumpstart a slow game, since it allows someone to take a massive step forward. It’s a big trade-off for a big payoff, and I really love the effect it has on the game. A lot of karma even make it easier to issue a Decree. Extreme effects get into the game sooner, and the “temporary achievement” factor adds a level of tension to your achievement stack that I don’t even think we’ve utilized fully yet.
If only we saw all of these effects just a little more often. Figures cards are only drawn in certain circumstances, when you share an effect and when an opponent achieves. We haven’t seen quite as many of them in the game as from the first two sets. This is likely a function of inexperience with new cards and strategies, but my fear is that this might be a “corner case” expansion, where different rules are introduced that aren’t used very often. That would be a huge waste of these cool effects, though it might not end up being a problem.
A lot of thought has gone into how Figures will integrate into a game that has already been expanded once. It codifies what was previously an alternate drawing method for Echoes, where players aren’t forced to create 10 new stacks for every game. It’s a little less intuitive, but it works well when Figures is in the mix, and it’s way easier to set up and tear down. They also made the smart move to incorporate all of the new rules from Echoes on the new cards. There are more bonuses and echo effects, so the wonderful parts of the first expansion aren’t watered down at all. This does severely limit the game’s audience, however. I wouldn’t recommend throwing this expansion at someone who’s never played Innovation, even more than I would for Echoes. It’s true that anyone who is buying two expansions for Innovation is most likely a lifer and therefore comfortable with the added complexity, but there’s no reason to get this expansion unless you play a LOT of Innovation. It’s beginning to feel a little like Race for the Galaxy, where so many expansions have created something largely inaccessible to outsiders.
Remember how I said Echoes of the Past made Innovation feel complete? Nothing in Figures undoes that. But it does take the whole system right to the limit in terms of complexity. When I explain the game now, there’s a touch of weariness beginning to creep into the attitudes of even the most ardent supporters. There’s a third expansion planned sometime in the near future, and I wonder if it might be best to consider a “reset” so that players can scale back everything they’ll have to remember. And of course, added complexity means the game takes longer still. I don’t mind this, because it’s a more exciting and variable game than ever before, but it edges out of session-closing territory. The production also has a couple of weird spots. A new printer means that the box is a different size, and the cards are a slightly different cut. Since the different sets aren’t shuffled together at any point, it’s a non-issue. But it’s just the kind of thing that will drive some people crazy.
It was perhaps inevitable that Figures in the Sand would fall short of the standard set by Echoes of the Past. It doesn’t complete the Innovation experience, it just adds more stuff. The good news is, that stuff doesn’t spoil what’s already there, and indeed offers up new and fresh ideas. It may not be essential, but the game is still so wonderful. However, the system is just about at it’s breaking point, and the seams are beginning to show. I never play without Echoes of the Past if I can help it, and the same goes for Figures in the Sand. But the “if I can help it” is just a little harder to attain now.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.