(An edited version of this review originally went up here. Posted below is my full-on rambling mode initial review, preserved here for posterity.)
In 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino (if that is even his real name) gave birth to the new genre of deck building games when Dominion was published. Seriously: Donald X.? Take a humdrum first name (Donald) and add an X to it and BOOM: instant badassery. I bet the X doesn’t even stand for anything. Maybe something cool. Like xylophone. Did you know that X-rays are also known as Roentgen rays? Probably because Roentgen is hard to pronounce correctly (rent-gen apparently). Come to think of it, Roentgen sounds pretty cool too. Wow that aside took way too long.
Hey everyone! Still here for a board game review? Let’s start again: deck building games. The basic gist of a deck building game is that each player starts with a personal deck of cards and utilises those cards to add additional cards from a common pool to their personal deck until some predetermined endgame condition is met, after which a winner is determined based on the prescribed victory conditions. After Dominion kickstarted the genre, various games have been published which use the same basic mechanic. Based on that definition, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is certainly a deck building game.
As with other early iterations of the genre, it shares many elements with Dominion. For people already familiar with the deck building genre via Dominion (a.k.a. yours truly), Ascension is pretty much Dominion with the following changes: Two distinct resources (Runes and Power) instead of just money. Runes let you “buy” more actions (Hero and Construct Cards) while Power lets you “defeat” monster cards. There are no preset piles of actions to buy; all action cards are present in a randomised deck and only 6 are available at any one time in the “Centre Row”. Action cards that are bought or trashed are immediately replaced. You can play as many actions on your turn and buy as many cards as your resources allow. When you play a Construct card, it stays in play indefinitely and can be reused every turn unless some other effect causes you to discard it. When you “buy” or “defeat” a Monster card, it is trashed and you gain a reward, usually in the form of victory point tokens and an additional one-time effect. You can also trash cards from the centre row, although trashing a Monster card will not yield any rewards.
The game ends when the victory point tokens run out and every player has taken the same number of turns, and the player with the most victory points wins. Victory points come from the aforementioned tokens, but each card also has a printed victory point value. Pretty easy, no?
The Description Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Alright, now for all those of you who have never played Dominion and just went “Wha.. Trash? Actions? Car batteries? Watchoo talkin ‘bout, foo?”, let me try to explain it in non-crazyspeak. At the start of each game, every player has the exact same 10 cards which form their personal deck (8 Apprentices, 2 Militia) and draws a starting hand of 5 cards. There is also a central randomised deck of cards, 6 of which are revealed as part of the “Centre Row” and 3 piles of cards that are present in each game (Mystics, Heavy Infantry and the eternal Cultist).
On each players turn, they can play any number of Hero or Construct cards, activate effects of Constructs they control and then acquire Hero and Construct Cards or defeat Monster Cards from the Centre Row. Cards that are acquired are immediately put in their personal discard pile, while defeated Monster Cards are immediately put in a communal discard pile called the Void. At the end of the turn, all Hero cards played in the turn are also discarded to the personal discard pile and the player then refills his hand to 5 cards, and passes the turn. Constructs are not discarded and stay in play indefinitely. If ever there are not enough cards left in the personal deck, the personal discard pile is shuffled to form the new personal deck.
Pretty easy so far. So how do you acquire new cards? You got the part about two resources? Okay. Hero and Construct cards usually provide either one of two resources when played: Runes or Power. These two resources are basically two different currencies. Runes are used to “buy” Hero and Construct cards while Power is used to “defeat” Monster Cards. To buy a Hero or Construct, just pay the Rune cost printed on the top left of the card and it is added to your discard pile. The Rune cost is only paid once, when initially acquiring the card, after which it can be played for free. The effects of the Hero and Construct cards are pretty varied and some are definitely more powerful than others. Each card also has an Honor Point value printed on the bottom. Remember this. There is a quiz later. You can buy as many cards as you want as long as you have the Runes to pay the Man. Similarly, you defeat Monster Cards by paying an amount of Power equal to the Power Cost printed on the top left of the Monster. Defeated monsters are put into the Void, which is a central communal discard pile, and you can then claim your reward! Once defeated, Monsters turn into succulent Honor Tokens and also usually provide an additional effect. There is also another action called “banishing” which is to discard cards into the central Void for no effect. You do not get the effect of Hero Cards or the reward from Monster Cards if they are banished.
Remember the Honor Tokens you get for crushing those hideous monsters? Well, once those Honor Tokens runs out the game ends. Every player who has yet to complete their turn for the round gets a final go, so that everyone has the same number of turns. Then everyone tallies up their Honor Points from a combination of Honor Tokens and the Honor Point values on the cards in their decks and the person with the highest total wins! Eternal glory and honor are his/hers! Well, not really eternal. Only about as long as it takes to set up the next game, probably.
Now you know the basics of how to play Ascension. The designers have taken an interesting route in dividing non-monster cards into 4 factions with separate identities. The 4 factions and their identities/strategies are:
- Enlightened – Focused on drawing additional cards, defeating monsters without using Power and banishing cards from the centre row.
- Lifebound – Focused on gaining Runes, acquiring Heroes to the top of the deck without paying Runes and gaining Honor Tokens without defeating monsters
- Void – Focused on gaining Power and banishing cards from the personal deck or hand
- Mechana – Focused on gaining constructs, with constructs benefitting each other and Heroes benefitting from having constructs in play.
The factions are generally used to add flavour and help new players to latch onto basic strategies. The only mechanical impact of the factions is that certain cards refer to faction cards for some effect and each faction usually plays well with cards of the same faction.
After that whole long ramble describing the game, it is time to get to my impressions of the game. To me, the influence of Dominion is still very strong in Ascension. It feels like someone took Dominion and tried to make it less “Eurogame-y” if that is even a term. A major change to the Dominion model was to have the actions and buys available to each player unlimited. Dominion could sometimes feel very restricted, allowing only one action and buy per turn unless you had the right kingdom cards. This is not a bad thing as it made players really consider their decisions on how best to spend their action or buy. Ascension on the other hand, allows more freedom in playing actions and buying, and also provides “safety valves” in the form of the static piles of Mystics and Heavy Infantry and the eternal cultist such that there is always something to do on your turn.
Next, let’s talk about the change to how victory points are obtained. Dominion had a very elegant tension built into the game where the object of the game was to buy victory cards which usually did not further contribute the function of your deck. It presents a challenge for players to build a deck that can balance buying sufficient victory cards while still not letting those additional “dud” victory cards impede their ability to continue doing so. Ascension bypasses this by assigning point values to each card and using victory point tokens external to the deck. Dominion eventually introduced kingdom cards in the expansion that have those functions, but the limited nature of the available kingdom cards meant that this was not always the case and rewarded players for recognizing and capitalizing on those opportunities whereas Ascension makes this an intrinsic part of the game. However, what Ascension does is introduce the tension of having two separate currencies. Monster cards can only be “bought” with Power while non-Monster cards can only be bought with Runes. This challenges the player to balance Rune and Power production. Coupled with the freedom of having multiple actions and buys, this leads to a feeling that every turn is productive as you will get some victory points every turn.
Very simplistically, while the challenge of Dominion seems to be to maximise the number of productive turns, the challenge of Ascension is to maximise the points gained per turn. So far it seems that the design is shaping up to be some sort of feel-good sped-up version of Dominion. However, the spanner in the works is the change to how the buyable cards are made available. Dominion has a limited set of 10 kingdom cards available for purchase, which can be randomised between games but are equally available to all players. Ascension has a randomised set of 6 cards available at any time in the game, with replacements being drawn from a randomised deck when a card is bought. The number of each card in that deck also varies, with some cards even being unique. This added layer of randomness is what can lead to frustration sometimes, especially when there are more players in the game. It reduces the ability of the player to plan ahead as the available cards are constantly in flux and leads to a more tactical focus of the game.
Another thing worth mentioning in the game is the art and design of the cards. The style chosen for the art is fairly unique, and I like it on an individual card level. However, due to the muted colour palette used it can be difficult to distinguish between different cards sometimes. The Mechana constructs are especially egregious and I find myself looking to the cost of the construct to identify the card as each Mechana construct in the base set has a different cost. The card design should serve to clarify this and generally works due to the different coloured frames used for different factions, but the choice of light blue and grey for two of the factions could lead to some confusion. Fortunately, as mentioned before, faction does not play that big a part in the game (at least in the base game). Overall, the art and design is very evocative but I feel it could have been improved to allow for better readability and identification. A minor quibble maybe, but I thought it may be relevant to point out.
(Aside: I find that American based game publishers tend to go for more evocative and “busy” designs that sometime end up detracting from the actual gameplay experience (Chaos in the Old World, I’m looking at you), while European games tend to have cleaner graphic design. This also seems to be reflected in the actual game mechanic designs, with Euros being more abstract and “clean” while American games are more flavourful but mechanically “busy” or clunky. This is probably a topic for another time but let me know your opinions on this observation and whether you think it is valid.)
Overall, I feel that the game is a decent entry in the deck building game genre. Its heritage is very evident, but there are enough differences that the game feels quite different. What I like about Ascension is that feeling of playing an insane 20 card chain where I draw my entire deck and can now buy whatever I want, which definitely seems to occur more often than in Dominion. What I did not like was the increased randomness in the game due to the centre row and some minor annoyances with the art and graphic design.
In summation, I would give Ascension a solid 3 out of 5 Honor Points. It’s a great introduction to the deck building genre of games, and a solid addition to any game shelf. Personally, I have both Dominion and Ascension and they both scratch different itches to warrant an equal place on my shelf, but I can understand if some people decide to skip on one or the other as there are still many similarities. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is available at all reputable gaming shops.
BONUS APP REVIEW SECTION:
Already thousands of words long and there’s still a bonus? Well, Ascension is also available for iOS devices as an app. The presentation in the game is pretty good, with full representations of the cards. It suffers a little on the handheld devices due to the small screen space available. The issue I have with it in that regard is the tiny icons for the opponent logs and the input for displaying your played constructs, but that may just be my fat fingers. Another minor quibble is that it is difficult to keep track of your opponent’s constructs as you need to access a submenu to view them, but I feel they have done pretty well considering the limited screen space. The iPad version should be much better in that respect though.
It is a slightly pricier app at $4.99, but I feel I have really gotten my value out of it based on the number of games I’ve played on it. I love the inclusion of the “Play All” button to quickly play all cards in your hand and the ability to check the list of all cards you have in your deck at any time. However, be warned that there is no “Undo” button which can be really frustrating especially when you are still getting used to the game. This isn’t a very major complaint, as it probably leads to less bugs and enforces the rules of the game. I have encountered one annoying bug so far, which is the tendency for the All-Seeing Eye construct to become hidden an unable to be activated under certain circumstances. The application also sometimes slows down to a crawl when the AI opponent is making decisions.
The AI is decent, but if you crave human victi- I mean opponents, then there is also the option to Pass-and-Play on one device or asynchronous online play. The main thing I love about the app is the speed at which you can complete a game. I can usually finish an offline game in about 5 minutes, and I have probably logged almost a thousand games by now. I actually finished about 10 games in the course of finishing this long review. Overall, the Ascension app earns 4 out of 5 Honor Points. The base game of Ascension is already pretty solid, and I awarded extra points for the portability and speed of the games on the app. There are a few minor issues with the app, but not enough to really detract from the gameplay experience. In fact, I would actually recommend checking out the app first before coughing up the moolah for the full game. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is available at your friendly local appstore for $4.99.