What is Innovation?

pls1This past week, the BoardGameGeek awards were announced, with Pandemic Legacy making a four-category sweep, including the category Innovative. In that category, it beat out both 504 and Time Stories. This has led to comments from the peanut gallery along the lines of “this is what happens when you let the plebs pick the awards.” On the other hand, I thought Pandemic Legacy was both a reasonable pick and one that proposes an important question: what is the difference between “Best Innovative Game” and “Most Innovative Game”, if any? Well, I have an opinion on this, but let’s take it one step at a time…


1. Nothing is truly innovative, anyway.

As much as we humans take great pride in our accomplishments, our ideas are always inspired by others, even if we can’t identify the source. This is evident, I think, to most mathematicians, who understand this from the very way that they write. They don’t create or invent, but prove, clarify, and discover what is already there. We see this time and again in the board game industry as well. Most designers happily admit when their inspiration comes from another person’s design (see this recent post by Bruno Faidutti) and even those who allege to hide themselves from outside influence end up independently discovering the same thing (take, for example, the well-known story of Reiner Knizia unwittingly recreating Qwirkle, or even Leibniz and Newton independently discovering calculus). For myself and other believers of any Judeo-Christian tradition, there is also a Biblical truth to this (Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”) Whether you see it from faith, from science, or simply from game design, I think we all know that “pure” innovation is impossible. That doesn’t mean that we don’t see or play things that feel fresh and new – but we should remember that they always come from somewhere.


Dominion2. Effective re-implementation is a form of innovation.

This headline seems quite contradictory to my previous point. Despite the fact that nothing is “truly” innovative, we still have this concept of innovation and one that we at least subjectively perceive and understand. Touch screens, for example, I think we would consider an innovation, though they were obviously a slow evolution (of previous concepts – see point one). In the board game world, Dominion was considered quite innovative even as it borrowed so obviously and heavily from DXV’s roots in Magic: the Gathering.  Yet we still feel like this concept exists and should be rewarded. I think we should actually be generous with what we consider innovation, and here’s why.

If we establish that nothing is truly original or innovative, then why do we feel that sixth sense when we think we “see” innovation? I don’t think it’s just that we see something that we thought we never had before. That might happen, but if it is not tied to a powerful, enjoyable experience, it is useless. Innovation is bringing a new experience to the table (literally in the sense of board games). Taking a previous mechanism and making its experience better (or even making it good if it wasn’t) is an example of doing just that. I would never argue that Lords of Waterdeep is the most innovative or the best innovative game of 2012, but I would argue that it is innovative. It took a well-known concept, worker placement, and finally placed it in a proper gateway game with mass appeal. That in itself is innovation. Even though no individual component was new, the game brought a new, fresh experience to the table for myself and many others. To me, that is the heart of what we mean by innovation.

This obviously varies by degrees. You might say that, based on my argument, every single game is innovative. Well, sure. But for, say, an award, we are probably going to narrow down to the five “most” innovative games, the five that feel the most fresh and original. By my argument, I would say that both, for example, Pandemic Legacy and Codenames are original – they bring something new to the table despite having no new individual parts. And you could say the same about one of the games people are holding up as most innovative of 2015, 504. It has no original parts, it just mixes them (or, well, provides the cookbook and makes you mix them) in new ways. And probably all of those games are more innovative, than, say, Star Realms: Colony Wars, as an extreme example.

I should also stress a point here – we often make the very false assumption that innovation requires the addition of something in order to be new. Back to my Lords of Waterdeep example, in my mind, that game was innovative in that it simplified and cleaned up the classic worker-placement games, making one that is simple and accessible. To me, that’s a huge innovation. It’s the same innovation that Transamerica and Ticket to Ride brought to train games, all to great success. I’m not alone in this idea of “innovation through deletion” – Love Letter, a mere 16 cards, won the Innovative category of the Golden Geeks in 2012.


splendorbox3. “Best Innovative” and “Most Innovative” should be synonymous.

So, let’s say you narrow down a list to the five most innovative games of 2015. (A note here: some have said that Pandemic Legacy shouldn’t even make such a shortlist, which I find patently ridiculous. Many thought the Legacy concept was a one-off and certainly that it could not work well with a cooperative game.) Should the best game on the list win? Or the most innovative? I posit that they are one and the same. If we accept that improving upon established mechanisms is innovative, then the best game among the nominees is the in my mind the most innovative game – it felt fresh enough to make the cut, but its innovations combine with the rest of the package to make the best game. And I’ll say that I do not like my previous sentence. “The rest of the package” is in itself an innovation, because this is an entirely new game, is it not? In my mind, these things coalesce, and there is no distinction between Most Innovative and Best Innovative.

You could make the argument that I’m in essence saying Game of the Year should be the same as Best/Most Innovative Game of the Year, if I’m going to have this broad a definition. In a sense, I am. Last year, Splendor won the 2014 BGG Golden Geek Game of the Year, a game virtually nobody considers innovative – except me. Much like Lords of Waterdeep, Splendor‘s innovation is one of “deletion”, of trimming familiar concepts down to a bare-bones but beautiful game that is so addictive precisely because it is so simple. While I doubt many others are as extreme as I am in this regard, the more important point is that in an already narrowed-down category of “innovative” games (whatever that means), I think there is no difference between voting for the “best” innovative game and the “most innovative” game.

Why do we even have the category, then? I don’t know. I’d be okay with getting rid of it. That wasn’t where I was headed when I began writing, but I’m there now.


P.S. A Note on Plebs.

There seems to be a general disdain for “people’s choice” awards like the Golden Geek. Let’s be very careful not to turn awards in our hobby into the Oscars, where we find ourselves so disconnected from the general audience that our awards become meaningless. What is the point of board game awards again, anyway? Isn’t it to point new players in the right direction? After all, hobbyists already have already bought all the games we are discussing. To think that the opinion of an “educated” few is superior to the general populace in this regard is just hubris. Games become popular precisely because players who are introduced to them find them enjoyable. Let’s not forget that our hobby is a social one, first and foremost.

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