Innovation

The digitization of board games is something Brandon and I have talked about as a topic for a post since we started this blog over the summer. I finally took on posting about some of my feelings on it a while back, but when Brandon and I were talking about what should go into the post, we kept talking about the games that suffered immensely. You’re always going to lose part of the game when you’re playing online, the question is how big a part you’re losing and what you’re gaining. Dominion plays better online than most games because it saves you all the time of shuffling, as opposed to Stone Age, which doesn’t really save you time but still makes you miss out on the social interaction that is a large part of why I play games in the first place. The game that we kept coming back to for what a good online experience could be was Innovation, which wasn’t featured in the previous post because it wasn’t online.

“Wasn’t” is past tense though, and it turns out that in the months since I first went in depth on playing board games online, the game that Brandon and I both thought would translate really well to the internet has been brought to the same place you can play Dominion (the other game that gains a lot by going digital): isotropic.org

Innovation is my current favorite game though, so I may be a bit biased. And in honor of its new e-availability, I’m giving you a full-fledged review.

The Basics

Every man's gotta have a codeEvery turn in Innovation you get two actions of the 4 possible. You can Draw a card (from the stack equal to the highest card you have currently played), Meld (play) a card from your hand (it goes on top of cards of the same color if you already have a card of that color), Achieve (if you fulfill the requirements. Achievements is how you win) or use Dogma (use a card you’ve played). First to 6 achievements (in a 2 player game) wins. The rules are slightly more detailed but that’s the gist.

We are men of action, lies do not become us

Each card in innovation has three important things: Its color (Red, Green, Purple, Blue, Yellow. And yes, there are small symbols that let you play if you’re colorblind), its icons (3 icons on each card, of six total icons: Castles, Leaves, Coins, Lightbulbs, Factories, Clocks) and its Dogma effects (what it does). Here’s some cards, see how they have these things?

Knowledge of Anatomy keeps others from wanting to score

Ok can we get to why the game is great now?

Michael Bay's favorite cardFirst off, the theme is one I always enjoy. Yes Sid Meier’s Civilization is an amazing video game, but I think even if it lacked some of its depth I still would’ve really enjoyed it. Thankfully it did have depth, as does Innovation. In the beginning your options are limited, you’re trying to get all five colors on your board, you’re trying to see if you can jump up to the higher leveled cards before your opponent, but usually there’s a “right” play. As the game gets a little further along, it becomes a lot more nebulous. Do I want to use this dogma that lets my opponent jump an age, even if it lets me jump two? Do I want to tuck these cards in my hand? Do I want to cover my strong card with a card that doesn’t do as much but will give me more icons than an opponent? The answer to each of these questions depends on everything else that is in the game. The ability to draw a bunch of cards is good, but if you also have the ability to score cards from your hand? Well, then it gets a lot stronger.

The variability of the game is excellent, and the variability is unlike, say, the cards I love in Dominion because what can be considered a strong card varies not only game to game but turn to turn. The mechanics of scoring and achieving and tucking are all such that many cards don’t get used as you climb up through Prehistory and the Renaissance towards the Postmodern Age. Some games are won with a crazy string of cards played using Mathematics, some games you don’t see Mathematics at all. This variability is a core mechanic of the game and as such it is something that can be a legitimate turn off for some people. I take Innovation less seriously than I do other games because while strong tactical decisions will help lead you to victory for often than not, there are some games where things just don’t go right. You’re stuck with cards that don’t help and your opponent jumps ahead and never looks back. If you can’t let go of losses I’m not going to make a moral judgment, I’m just going to say that sadly, you might want to skip Innovation. But for those that embrace the randomness in the game, there is some really solid and interesting gameplay.

Strategy versus Tactics

Everything in its rightful placeThe first time I teach someone Innovation, I give them one piece of advice: If you’re losing, you want to either collect more icons or get to higher levels of cards. And it really is that simple. Sometimes having a lot of cards in your hand is great, sometimes it’s a liability. The same goes for your score pile. But getting to a higher level of card or having more icons is always good. That’s all the long term planning that Innovation allows. This may seem like a flaw, but it is actually a strength for the game.

A game like Puerto Rico has good tactical decisions but all of them are based on the overall strategy of the game.  No choice stands alone, and the better your overall understanding of the paths to victory and when to take one (shipping) versus the other (buildings) the better you’ll play. The individual decisions are important, but the path can be studied in excruciating detail. Innovation has no study guide. The game changes too much move to move for much long term planning. The joy of the game can be found in finding clever moves you can do with what you have in front of you, or maybe what you think you’ll have next turn. Any planning beyond that will usually be for naught as your opponent demands you trade hands or suddenly has more icons than you of the type you wanted or takes the achievement you were going for.

The Online Experience

Innovation.isotropic.org, I play as either JoshProv or jorsh. See you there!And to bring this full circle: This is why I thought this game would work so well online. Every turn you could examine the board and take your move accordingly. You would have time to read what each of your opponent’s cards are without asking them to “reread it, out loud, just one more time?” You would have a real-time count of icons to make sure you realized that your opponent had more coins than you now or that you were one leaf away from tying it up. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have to say, “Wait, what was I doing again?” because it wouldn’t matter, whatever you can do this turn is what you’re doing.

And it delivers. Innovation isn’t as popular as Dominion on isotropic, but a game can generally be had at any hour, and all the things I could’ve hoped for in a client are there. Yes, the chat features are still rarely used and it isn’t the same experience as playing in person, but there’s no set up or clean up, and once you get the hang of it you don’t even accidentally click a card that gives you no benefit this turn. It allows for more careful counting of symbols and better splay planning. It totals your score. It gives you the automatic achievements when you might otherwise forget them. Playing Innovation online is a really enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes.

And yes, of course, the game is also really fun in person, and once you get the hang of it, plays pretty quickly. I recommend it with two or three players, and the first expansion (Echoes of the Past) makes it even more ridiculous (and I take that as a good thing). I highly recommend Innovation, and will totally teach you if you haven’t played it yet.

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Legacies: the First Volley

My initial impressions of Risk: Legacy are positive overall. The first couple games feel, well, a lot like Risk. I think Ted said it best when he suggested from comments he has heard on-line that, “as the game progresses, it becomes less like Risk and more like a boardgame.”

As of now I have played 3 games in each campaign. The two campaigns already feel very different, and while I’m leaning towards one over the other, I think they’ll both be worthwhile.

Merry Band Of Brothers: Who’s in the Game

A game can only be good as its players. Let’s meet the groups.

The Vessennes Players

This group consists of me, Ted, and three of Ted’s friends who I don’t know very well. Their names are Aaron, Sam, and a man who calls himself DoubleMark, I think because there are so many other Marks in the group at large. It’s apparent to me that these are capital G Gamers; they’re in it to win it. Before the game even begins there’s this lengthy discussion about tactics and potential rules changes in the future, balance issues and statistical models people made on optimal plays. If you know a gaming group that has massive post-mortem discussions of a game when it’s finished, imagine that, only before the game has even started.

The Reimann Players

I know this group a little better than the Vessennes campaign, but not much. It’s me, Greg, Erik (a.k.a. Spooky), Winston and Jessica. Erik I know, and Greg I feel like I’ve known for longer than I have; he’s a kindred spirit of gaming. When I suggest that factions should have theme music he’s initially reluctant, then spends the night before sending me beautifully appropriate music for each faction. I get the impression he’s crazy excited about the game, but doesn’t want to show it, for fear of being that guy. F*** that, I’ll be that guy. Winston and Jessica are gamers, but of a more casual nature. Erik loves games, enough that even though he hates Risk he’s willing to play to make it happen.

War. War never changes.

A blow-by-blow of each game may not be the most riveting thing for readers, though rest assured each of the 6 games so far had their moments. In 3 games the maps have taken some interesting turns, and some compelling stories have developed.

The Spoils of War

The game has you track what faction you played, where you started, and whether you Won, Held On, or were Eliminated. Those who survive get to name and place minor cities or adjust the game’s resources by adding coins to territory cards, which increases the number of troops you get when exchanging. The victor gets to sign their name to the board, and can choose one of a number of tasty options:

  • Place a Major City. Major Cities have 2 population, which counts as territories for troops gained at the start of the turn (minor cities have one population). They are also legal starting locations only for the one who placed it.
  • Name a continent. This gives that player +1 bonus troop when they control it.
  • Give +1 or -1 to a continent bonus for all players.
  • Fortify a city. Fortifications add +1 to each defender’s dice when rolled, for up to 10 battles.
  • Destroy a card. Rip it up. Remove it from the game.
  • Cancel a scar. Cover one of the permanent marks on the game.

Vessennes Opener: Hard-Learned Lessons

Ted said he was very much of a mind to do anything that would trigger a packet or inlay being opened, as “opening things is the fun part.” He would be focused less on winning and more on making the game thematic and fun. Knowing ted as I do, I believe strongly that he can only take this so far. He will certainly seek to wipe out an opponent, or fire missiles in a battle he’s in without truly needing to, or fight to place 30 troops at once (all packet conditions), but he won’t ruin his chances of victory by doing so.

The first game proceeds very much like a standard game of Risk. The two main differences are this; most of the territories start empty (every one but the 5 we choose to start), and everyone has “Scar Cards,” decals we can apply to the board to cause permanent bonuses or penalties to one spot. It’s a neat little mechanic, but what’s truly interesting is watching people place them for small gains without realizing the long-term impact they’ll have on the campaign. The effects were felt as soon as game 2, and continue to be a big game changer.

I play terribly. I manage to spread thin and hold North America for a turn, but squander my bonus troops and lose the continent soon after. I never really recover. Aaron wins with a swift charge to a base. With that one, his own HQ, and two red stars (one to start, one for the exchange of cards) he takes four points and the victory. This is a great end condition, as it means you don’t have to conquer the whole board. He places a major city, and the rest of us place minor cities, many in Australia to increase the difficulty of keeping and holding it (this turns out to be a rules faux-pax; hangers-on can only place minor cities or coin upgrades to territory cards in countries they controlled at the end of the game). By then it was too late to start another game. I’m a bit soured on the experience, having gotten trounced, but I’m willing to give it another go.

Vessennes Session 2

Aaron isn’t able to make this one, which is kind of a bummer, but it means the ones who haven’t won yet have a chance to get on the board. After learning a bit more about the game, and remembering how Risk is played, I feel good about this session.

Games 2&3: A Game of Numbers & a Game of Stories

There’s not much to say about game 2. I win, primarily because Sam and DMark are focused heavily on Ted, and nobody notices me slowly building up cards and troops in Australia. An exchange of cards for my 3rd point and a quick dash to a nearby base for my 4th gets the win. It was a game heavy with calculations, politicking, and very standard Risk stuff.

Game 3 I do not win, let me say that now. Let me also say that I had more fun this game than I have ever had in a Risk game ever. And it’s all because of a beautiful narrative the table helped me weave. That great AnyGameGood feeling you get when a game makes you want to tell people about “this one time when I was at war…” This was one of my favorites.

I was playing Kahn Industries. Their flavor text paints them as a faction of cheap labor and mass-manufactured machines of war. Their special ability has you placing a new unit in your HQ each turn. The way we envisioned it, the new soldier is in fact a factory-stamped clone; pale skin, steam rising from the freshly stamped tissues. Bald, sunken eyes and a cheap uniform and blaster. During one of those pushes you sometimes have to do to keep a continent bonus from a breakaway leader, I fight from central Asia across the map to West Africa and Brazil. Then I free move one of the soldiers from my base across the map.

The line is quickly cut off. One three-soldier mech in Argentina, one lone man in Brazil who’s quickly gunned down. South America is very difficult to hold in this map, as it has an ammo shortage in Brazil (-1 to the highest defense die each roll), forcing the player to try to defend from Africa or risk taking a beating in the numbers. So nobody’s keen to be the one to clear it out when it can’t be held. The troops in Argentina stay, without reinforcements, without orders, nowhere to go. I begin to wonder out loud, and everyone at the table is quick to provide their take.

Brandon: What are they doing now? I wonder if they’re writing in their journals about the hells of war. Oof, maybe they don’t have journals.

Ted: They probably don’t have literacy, man.

DMark: Yeah, why would you bother to teach them how to read and write? They’d never live long enough to use it.

Brandon: You guys are depressing me.

Ted: Hey, maybe they at least know how to not starve to death. ‘Day 30. Saw cow. Shot cow with blaster. Cow cooked, cow tasty.’

This went on for a while. Those guys probably have their own language by now, cave paintings and crude tools fashioned from the mech which has been out of gas for (based on what we thought a turn meant in game time) years.

Then the attack came. Sam had been slowly building his rail guns in Central America, pointing them at me menacingly. He has a force of around a dozen. I roll a 6-5. Two of his troops gone. 6-6. Two others drop. 6-4, he doesn’t have enough to beat the 4, two more deaths. With each roll the table gets louder and more shocked at this battle. 2 more drop. At this point Sam knows he can’t take the continent and hold it for a turn. He backs off. Soldier 47 comes through. This band of brothers with all odds stacked against them holds out without a single casualty (presumably by learning the land and using guerilla tactics developed from years of surviving the harsh environment). I don’t win, but Argentina never falls. Hell, they’re probably their own indigenous people at this point.

My father was a sleeve gunner. Not the right arm, the left. He was a man’s sleever.

Everyone seems appreciative of the narrative we’ve woven. Sam yields his right to place the last minor city to me, which is placed in Argentina and named “Ooxstahm,” the people’s word for ‘brother.’ I even use my off-hand to write it to give it that primitive scrawling look; it’s nigh illegible to those who weren’t there. Oh, Ted won.

PACKET OPENING: 9TH MINOR CITY

Ted already knows what’s in this packet, but he’s good about not spoiling the surprise. I immediately recognize some Eurogame elements in it, and agree with Ted’s declaration that “this is where Risk becomes an actual board game.” I just hope it doesn’t become a new way for me to screw myself over early on.

Reimann Session:

Next up is a trio of games at my house. The people playing the game, coupled with the fact that it’s my house and I can relax in it before, during and after the game, gives this group a more laid-back feel for me. Nonetheless, I’m still playing to win.

Side Note: the Differences

I find it very amusing, the way Ted and Greg wish their games to be handled. One stark example is the naming of cities and continents on the board. There’s something epic about stamping a name on the board, and even though naming a continent is not as strong a strategic move as other things a winner can do, it’s a rush to say that an entire continent is named for you.

Ted gave us explicit instructions in this regard: Please do not name anything stupid or jokey, like “Ted is a Bastardville” or “Bonerland” (direct quotes). He wants to frame and hang the final board, and he doesn’t want vulgarity or inappropriate stuff mounted on his wall. I can respect that.

Greg gave us explicit instructions as well: You can name any continent, any city, anything you want, including “Greg sucks balls” or “Brandon is a jerk” or “Bonerland” (again, direct quotes), as long as you write legibly and don’t smudge the ink.

Ted saves the components that are destroyed. They get tucked under the box inlay. Greg’s group shreds them, and Winston takes great delight in reducing a card to fine confetti.

Minute 1. This game has destruction at its core

Game 1: “The Deep March”

Erik’s running late, so we play the first game with 4. The initial placement for this game is nonetheless crowded, with everything placing their base on the eastern half of the board (except for me, where I choose to place in Australia and hole up). The very first turn Jessica uses her starting units to try to eliminate Greg and take his base. It doesn’t work, and the two are effectively crippled for the rest of the game. Wow. That never would’ve happened in the Vessennes campaign. Winston is close enough that swooping in and taking the fallen factions looks plausible, but he’s far enough that it’ll take him some time. Meanwhile, I’m able to sit back, gain extra troops, and get a few cards by using the special ability that allows me to take them when I grab 4 territories, even if they were empty beforehand (a power not available in Ted’s version). It’s a huge boon early game.

In a short few turns, I’m able to march across the board and claim Winston’s undefended base. A turn later I’m able to claim another for the victory. I name Australia “The Imperial Hall of Ra,” in line with the ideas of my faction (Imperial Balkania) and a play on my last name.

In Greg’s campaign the winner gets to sign the board AND give that game a name. I choose “The Deep March” for the global push I make from pole to pole and across the map. The color we infused, of the clip-clop of hundreds of Imperial soldiers marching across the globe, their rhythmic steps heard from miles away in the eerie silence of a still undeveloped world,

Game 2: “Victory…At What Cost?”

The next game I’m kept from Australia, as it’s viewed as too powerful. Erik’s finally able to make it, so the board is much more crowded. Greg mentions, in an almost casual manner, “I kind of don’t want to see Brandon win twice in a row.” It’s just enough politicking to get everyone on board with keeping me out of it. Winston takes the victory by being basically unassailable for the whole game, then exploding with a burst of units. He names a city, the rest of us take a mix of cities and card upgrades.

Game 3: An Unpredictable Table

Midway through this game it becomes very apparent to me that a couple players at the table are prone to unpredictable, often dangerous and ill-advised moves. It’s important to remember, as the areas they inhabit could be hazardous to be near, but also potentially valuable targets if the battles in that region go poorly. That’s what happens this game, as a number of crazy moves from Jessica make for a destabilized and impotent North America, with no real opposition against Winston to build his power base again and, despite starting a point down from the other players, take the second win. Don’t remember what we called it.

PACKET OPENING: SECOND SIGNING

When a player wins and signs the board for the second time a packet opens. While not as massive a change to the game, it still added interesting components that I look forward to experiencing.

WHERE WE STAND

Ted’s Campaign:

Aaron: 1 win

Brandon: 1 Win

Ted: 1 Win

Packets Open: 9 minor cities

Australia is being constantly modified with the tools we have on hand to make it more difficult to take and hold. It’s full of cities nobody can start in, all of them some form of Detroit. DMark hates Detroit, I think. I want to say it’s extreme, but my victories in both games have come from springing forth from Australia.

Greg’s Campaign:

Brandon: 1 win

Winston: 2 wins

Packets Open: Second Win

A second win so quickly is surprising. Not having that starting point is a big deal, but somehow, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Winston was the one on top. I expect the table to retaliate in future games.

The Question remains…

After three games I can say I’m enjoying myself in both campaigns, but the two feel very different. Ted’s group is fun, but very imposing. There are efforts to get into the mythos of the game, but in the end we’re all gamers, and the games are filled with swift numbers crunching and a huge amount of lobbying to get opponents to hold off attacks on us, or hit people in the lead so we can be left to amass our own army and take over the poor sap we convinced to do the dirty work.

Greg’s game is filled with uncertainty. It’s a spread of experience and tactics, from cold and calculated to random kamikaze. It also seems better suited to thematic involvement, though the best story to arise so far has come from Ted’s campaign.

Will one campaign ruin the other? Ted’s campaign is going to go quicker I think; it’s scheduled next, and seems to have more steam than Greg’s. One packet has been opened on each side; different ones, though the one at Ted’s has more content. Ideally, though Greg’s game will meet less often, more games will be played per session, keeping us level with Ted. The packets are designed to open in swift order, so that should even out quickly, and the foreknowledge of what is in them won’t affect my decisions in-game, towards keeping them closed or forcing them open. I am cautiously optimistic that I can keep one campaign separate from the other, and not spoil them for myself or for the other players.