Review: Incubation

There are a lot of categories we can place people in, a lot of boxes that we can use to divide ourselves into groups and tribes, to try and put a name to experiences or behaviours that are common among people who may not have much else in common. We divide ourselves on the basis of race, of culture; of gender and sexuality; of class and privilege; of personality. Some–in fact, for many, most–of these categories form the very core of our identities, give us a foundation for how we describe who we are as people. Some of those identities change throughout our lifetimes; others are utterly immutable. Sometimes there are labels we grow into, ways of thinking about ourselves that we don’t really consider as naive youngsters, like Myers-Briggs personality type, or zodiac sign; others, we use to codify ourselves solely as kids, like the cliques we fit into at school, the drama geeks versus the jocks versus the nerds…or whether you were a horse girl, a wolf girl, a unicorn girl, or a dragon girl.

Sorry, I may have buried the lead a bit there.

Growing up in the 90s was…wild. (Photo credit: The Lisa Frank Official Facebook page)

In our experience, that last question is as universal to the childhoods of cis women in North America as whether you were into Backstreet Boys or N’Sync. It’s just another form of shorthand used to describe what kind of kid you were; what you valued, how you played, how you interacted with others, how much time you spent in what section of the sparse Non-Fiction area of your elementary school library. It’s almost universally used in a way that elicits both fondness and a certain sense of cringe for our younger selves. Both Bri and I spent a decent amount of time when we were really young as unicorn girls, but that quickly fell away around the same time we realized that girls were allowed to be into dragons, too. And as much as we have left that behind (…I mean, somewhat, we still play in three separate D&D groups), it still remains a dormant part of our formative identities; enough so that when Asmodee Canada offered to send us a copy of Incubation, the first title under their new imprint, Synapses Games, we really couldn’t resist. A board game that allows you to take on the role of a dragon breeder, competing to hatch the best broods, to raise your own flight of dragons from infancy to majesty, to ride upon their backs and conquer the–

Oh. No. This one is just the breeding part. But still! A game all about breeding and hatching adorable baby dragons?! Count us in.

Note: We were provided a copy of Incubation in exchange for an honest, comprehensive review of the game. 

The adorable dragons that adorn the front of Incubation’s game box.

Overview

Incubation is a game primarily focused on dice-rolling and set-collection, a tidy little combination of luck and strategy that boasts bright, whimsical art, lovely components, and a short play time. Playable from 2 to 5 players and aimed at ages 8 and up, it tries to occupy that sometimes elusive place where a game can be accessible to younger players while still being engaging for the older ones around the table. Over the course of the game, players must roll dice to generate resources, dividing the Fire and Water necessary for dragon eggs to hatch between their two incubators. Almost every decision, every action in the game is reliant on what comes up on those dice; your rolls will allow you to gain resources, add treasure to or claim treasure from the central board, accumulate victory points, and gain new dragon eggs to fill your empty incubators. A series of objective cards give players goals to work towards in order to generate additional victory points, meaning that the sets you’re collecting differ from game to game; and players have the option of re-rolling one or both dice, once per turn, to try to score what they most need.

Each dragon egg has its specific needs to hatch, a combination of Fire and Water that is directly tied to the number of end-game points the card is worth. They are also very clearly distinguishable from one another; there is no guesswork needing to be put in to know what type of dragons will hatch from the eggs you have in your incubators. Along with the four basic colour types, there are hybrid eggs, which are a cross of two different colours, and Mystery eggs, which act as wild cards. Hatching eggs has additional perks beyond scoring points and collecting sets, however; each time an egg is hatched, that player gets to claim one of the associated treasures from the central board.

The central board is really well constructed; we’re in love with games that use a dial of some sort with that handy finger hole for turning!

That central board is divided into eight slices, with two slices depicting each of the four basic dragons, each of which is guarding a treasure chest. Treasure accumulates throughout gameplay–sometimes the dice dictate that additional resource tokens should be placed on the board, while other times, resources that a player claims but cannot utilize will have to be relinquished to one of the 8 chests. When a player hatches a dragon, they can also claim all of the treasure from one of the chests matching their new hatchling’s colour.

Game play continues, with players rolling dice, generating resources, and hatching eggs, until 2 of the 3 piles of dragon eggs have been exhausted or all of the objectives have been claimed, at which point, scoring is purely based on the points attributed to each of your hatched dragons, your claimed objectives, and your victory point tokens. The player with the most points wins.

First Impressions

There isn’t a lot going on with Incubation to address, unlike some of our other reviewed games. This is a game where as players, we are asked, or invited, to inhabit roles in a world not that far outside our own. The backstory of Incubation is that 12 months ago, a nest of dragon eggs was discovered atop one of Earth’s highest mountains, and it was those eggs that reintroduced dragons into our world. This isn’t a distant time or land; this is happening here, in our world, and as such we aren’t asked to take on the roles of characters but instead to imagine ourselves in this brave, new world. The only characters in the game, itself, are the dragons, which while certainly adorable are not presented as much more than a new type of livestock.

Very, very, VERY adorable livestock, though. Look at the smile on the green one! Don’t you wanna snuggle ’em?

As such, though, we found ourselves a little disappointed in how unthematic the game felt, especially for one so rich in opportunities. Everything within the game feels sort of generic. The only reason we really have to think that we are playing a game set in our own world is because the rulebook tells us so; we are presented with a central board covered in high fantasy-esque treasure chests, with painted backgrounds on the cards that are just kind of caves, with no indication of where in our world this might be taking place. I would have loved to see the game lean in to its setting a little more. Give us hints of a setting in the backdrop of the artwork, like a landscape that suggests an actual location on our planet, or a distant, hazy skyline of some major city. Give us artwork that depicts actual individuals, or the screen of a laptop showing a spreadsheet, tracking environmental factors and how they affect hatch times. Have an old cell phone in amongst the scattered baubles spilling out of those treasure chests.

The game presents a really interesting premise, one that could have been executed to give us a really fascinating, unique little setting. It invites us to be no more or less than ourselves, inhabiting a world just a tad more fantastical than our own; but it expects us to do all the heavy thematic lifting ourselves, giving little visual cues other than some dragons and generic crystal caves. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but this is a hobby that is rich with thematic variety. Incubation has the window dressing to be something new and intriguing, but without any kind of in-game follow through, it feels a little more like a relic, a little left behind.

COMPONENTS

Incubation has middle of the road components; no wooden tokens here, all of the pieces are cardboard, except the oversized dice, which are made of a light plastic. The player boards–the incubators–are a light cardstock, preprinted with spaces for the resource tokens to find a home, only slightly heavier than the cards themselves. That’s not to say that the components are of low quality; the cardboard for the tokens is definitely on the chunky side, and feels like it’ll hold up to a lot of play, and while the cards might be light, I wouldn’t call them flimsy. The artwork is beautiful, and those dragons fulfill all our wildest dragon-breeder dreams by being cute as heck, whimsical and fantastical, just this side of cartoony. The central board is also well-made, reflecting the same iconography as the rest of the game. Everything folds up well, and fits neatly in the box, though the insert doesn’t work quite as nicely as one might hope; the victory point tokens, especially, don’t seem to like to stay put, and are always scattered about whenever we open the game.

The insert is very thoughtfully designed, but sadly, there’s just not enough in the box to keep everything snug. I’m a sucker for the embossed printing that shows what goes where, though.

If I have one complaint about the assets, it is a minor one, in that the same illustration for each dragon is used and re-used with no variation. While it does ensure that there’s no ambiguity in matching up the dragons with their treasure chests or their objective cards, it does deflate the sense of character and water down the theme. Much like the lack of follow-through on establishing this idea of “modern day, but with dragons!”, the reuse of graphical assets just makes the game feel lacking , a little more soulless. However, the artwork does give each type of dragon it’s own unique design and sense of personality, which makes this a very accessible title for those with vision impairments.

Gameplay

The rules to Incubation are not highly complex, and the strategy is similarly not difficult to grasp. There is some capacity for depth–balancing the race to complete objectives against the relative point values of each egg–but there’s nothing here that the target age of 8 and up would find especially difficult.

The dice-rolling aspect feels highly reminiscent of Catan, where your success or failure is largely reliant on random elements. It is mitigated somewhat by the re-roll option, but in a time where fewer and fewer new games are coming out that rely this heavily on randomness, this core mechanic also makes Incubation feel like a game that should have come out ten years ago, not a product of 2019.

Some of the objective cards. The objectives are an interesting touch, but since every single one is worth 5 victory points, even this portion of the game screams for variety.

That’s not to say it’s terrible, by any means! Much like the artwork and theme, there is nothing inherently wrong with the design of the gameplay. It flows well, it makes sense, and is mechanically sound. It’s also a “logical” game, which both of us really appreciate, where your actions make sense both within the framework of the game mechanics and within the larger picture of the world and theme. It’s a not a game of pushing cubes around, and Incubation does take steps to ensure it doesn’t feel that way. Picking out your eggs, gathering your resources, and distributing your attention between your two incubators all fits together; it’s just that it isn’t terribly diverting. Turns happen quickly, and there isn’t a lot of chance for analysis paralysis; there aren’t a lot of times you’ll run up against a choice that could potentially cost you the whole game. That said, the game also isn’t on rails, and there is room to make some interesting decisions, which become more apparent with each subsequent playthrough.

However, at the end of the day, you are at the mercy of the dice. Any strategy you are able to bring to bear feels reactionary, tactical, rather than long-term, because if you can’t roll what you need within two throws, there’s nothing more you can do to mitigate that. If you need two more Water to hatch a dragon, you are stuck with that egg until you get those two Water; and if you score a windfall of resources but have no active incubators to place them on, you have to give them up. This also makes Incubation feel as though it overstays its welcome; dice rolling and random chance can be fun in a game that stays under 20 minutes, but for something that can play as long as half an hour (or 45 minutes, in some of our experiences), it ends up feeling repetitive and tiresome.

These eggs are getting close to hatching!

Pros

  • Cute artwork and decent components
  • Simple rules that can be learned or taught quickly
  • Visually accessible and language-independent

Cons

  • Too long for a game reliant on dice rolling and chance
  • Interesting premise that doesn’t follow through
  • Very little ability to mitigate bad luck with strategy
Now that I think about it, this is probably the game I was really hoping for… (Image copyright Harcourt Books)

Final Thoughts

Incubation would definitely make a great game for families, especially those with kids who are enthralled by fantasy creatures. It’s a snap to set up and learn; the theme and artwork, though lacking for us in some respects, are still solid, and there’s nothing wrong with them aside from just wishing they could have been more. However, despite the bright colours, vibrant artwork, and neat components, it doesn’t do much to stand out. For us, it felt like a little bit of a relic, reliant on mechanics that seem stale and worn out when compared to the finesse of many of its contemporaries. If I were playing it blind, I wouldn’t necessarily guess that it had been released in 2019.

There is nothing wrong with Incubation, per se, and it is by no means a bad game; but so much of the competition outstrips it both mechanically and thematically that it will have a hard time finding a place on the shelf.

Find Incubation at your FLGS this Friday, August 23rd!

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