Another year, another set of expansions for Ascension. It might be just about enough to make you a little crazy. But that’s nothing, apparently it’s driving Adayu to the brink of insanity. You know who Adayu is, right? Oh, come on guys! Lore is at the heart of this game, try to keep up. To quote Master Dhartha, “We are dreams, and he the dreamer.” Nevermind, forget it. This really powerful guy is going crazy and you have to stop him from tearing everything apart with all his craziness.
How It Plays
The Setting – Vigil’s factions ally together to help Adayu snap out of it!
Sorry about that guys, let’s try again with this story. Remember back to the very first expansion for Ascension, Return of the Fallen. Samael was raising up an unstopable army and one man possessed the power to stand up to him. Adayu, protector of Vigil and the five realms.
This isn’t the first time that he’s had to stop some crazed god and it seems to have finally taken it’s toll. As his power is unleashed without sanity to keep it in check the realms begin to merge and twist. The only way to save Vigil and the five realms is to battle through the nightmarish creatures and calm Adayu before he tears everything apart. In a last desperate act, alliances begin to form between Vigil’s factions for the first time ever. Monks and Druids seek the power of the void to gain untapped power and the secrets of utilizing constructs to their true potential are shared by Mechana disciples. Can you restore Adayu’s mind and bring peace back to Vigil?
The Gameplay – Transform and Unite: Factions finally matter
Realms Unraveled is the latest stand alone base game for Ascension which begins the fourth block. If you’re not already familiar with Ascension you can catch up with our review of the original base game, Chronicle of the Godslayer, or my Shelf Wear article. Since this an expansion I’ll skip over the explanation of the game and get right to what’s new in this block.
Since this is a base set you’re going to get all of the standard stuff: a board, honor tokens, Apprentices, Militia, Mystics, Heavy Infantry, the Cultist (with new artwork, booo) and, most importantly, a new portal deck. Now, there have been some slight tweaks to the layout between sets but Realms Unraveled marks the biggest change in the card design. The overall look of the cards is cleaner with a slimmer border, solid backgrounds, and other tweaks. In addition the starting cards have a white border and the Mystic, Heavy Infantry, and transformed cards all have a grey border to make them easier to sort out at the end of the game.
Realms unraveled doesn’t have any totally new concepts like the Events from Storm of Souls or Energy from Rise of Vigil but it does have a new focus that is unique to this block: factions. It’s true that there have always been four distinct factions in Ascension but they are placed front and center in this set through a couple of clever twists on familiar concepts.
First up is Multi-Unite, a more powerful version of the Unite effect that was unique to the Lifebound faction in Storm of Souls. Multi-Unite provides an ability that will activate every time another hero of the same faction is played. And this time it’s not limited to just Lifebound, all factions are provided with their own Multi-Unite powers.
Another concept that was revisited is in Realms Unravled is the transform ability introduced in Darkness Unleashed. There’s no energy this time around so instead most transform effects are triggered by playing several heroes of the same faction. Some of the more powerful transform effects have their own unique triggers such as gaining honor or having enough monsters show up in the Void.
One thing that is new in Realms Unraveled are Heroes that belong to multiple factions. Sure, it’s not an entirely new concept as dual-type cards have existed in other games but it simply wouldn’t have fit in very well in other blocks. However, dual-faction heroes are right at home in this block due to the emphasis on factions. They work very well for a couple different reasons, first they can trigger Multi-Unite and Transform effects for both factions which is extremely versatile. Secondly, it opens up new design space to allow heroes to utilize abilities from multiple different factions.
There are a couple other changes that are unique to Realms Unraveled. Most notably there are no monsters that cause opponents to discard constructs so once a construct comes into play it will remain in play for the rest of the game. Banishing has been limited to the discard pile so it will trigger less often, especially near the beginning of the game when you’re less likely to have a discard pile. We also see two cards return from a previous block for the first time (with great new artwork): Spike Vixen and Wolf Shaman.
My family has played a lot of Ascension since it first came out four years ago. It has become a staple of our gatherings and it’s always exciting to try out a new expansion. I recently took a trip up to visit and was pumped to pull out Realms Unraveled. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I’m talking rave reviews and requests to play it pretty much the entire weekend. I played my first game with my brother-in-law and before the game was over he declared that it was “the best set yet”. Dozens of games later and he was sticking by his claim. As a spoiler, I’d put it right up there with Storm of Souls (which I previously considered the best base set). But hopefully I’ve started to make this point clear, I believe that Realms Unraveled is simply more fun to play and it showed. But don’t just take my family’s word for it, let’s look at what makes Realms Unraveled so good.
A New Look, Same Great Art – Simple and clean
We’ll start off with a simple tweak, the new layout. I can understand how it might irk people who like to mix all the expansions or create custom cubes because it looks different enough to be an annoyance. If you’ve read my previous reviews you know that I prefer to stick to the blocks so it’s no bother to me. Even if I did mix in the old cards I think this was a change worth making because the layout is now much cleaner and really draws attention to the artwork, abilities, and card type. The frame is smaller to provide a wider area for the artwork and text, the backgrounds are solid and less distracting. Constructs have an inverted background to make them easier to tell apart from heroes, heroes with multiple factions have a wider faction bar to make it obvious, and cards that belong to only one faction have a watermark behind their ability to nice effect. Even the rarity has been changed from the easy-to-forget color system to a simple number of dots to clearly show how many copies of each card there are. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the new design when it first debuted in the Apprentice Edition but after playing with it I must say that it is a big improvement. I’ve also praised Eric Sabee’s artwork in the past and I will continue to do so for Realms Unraveled (though I can’t tell if there may have been another artist involved as well). The artwork continues to have a very unique feel to it and has perhaps some of my favorite pieces.
Realized Potential – The importance of factions
My favorite strategies in previous Ascension blocks have always revolved around card synergy, and what better synergy than faction synergy? This was touched on a bit in the first block with Lifebound who generated a lot of points when played together and have one of my all time favorite combos (Great-Omen Rave + top decking). Storm of Souls introduced much more interesting faction dynamics: Uniting Lifebound, self-destructive Mechana, and power-hungry Void. Even Enlightened, which serve as a supporting faction, was provided with a focus on sifting and upgrading. The events further played into the faction’s identities but you would often find yourself ignoring a card’s faction unless it was Lifebound or a Mechana construct. Still, I loved the concept of factions mattering and really enjoyed playing cards that had a power based around working within their own faction.
It’s safe to say that Realms Unraveled plays the way that I always imaged Ascension should, with factions playing a pivotal role and not just constraining what a card is able to do. It’s great to have factions around to help classify abilities (Banish for Void, Honor Gain for Lifebound, Board control for Enlightened, etc) but I love that the faction itself now means something significant. Instead of just balancing currencies (Runes and Power) you now have to attempt to balance the composition of each faction in your deck. If that sounds familiar at all, it might be that I get a vibe of Star Realms here (I’ll come back to that comparison). There are a couple reasons why emphasizing factions works so well. First, each player gets a sense of identity based on the faction that they’ve chosen to focus on (or combination of factions). The factions each have their own strategic focus so games will play out drastically different depending on which faction you picked. This isn’t to say that you need to stick to just one faction but you are often encouraged to primarily focus on one or two if you want to take full advantage of Unite and Transform abilities. Luckily there are cards that provide flexibility in which faction you go after as well as the extremely useful dual-faction heroes.
Second, players will get a rewarding sense of accomplishment for triggering faction-related abilities (Unite and Transform). Transforming a card in Darkness Unleashed was perhaps one of the most exciting and satisfying moments in Ascension and it’s perhaps even moreso in Realms Unraveled because you a rewarded for good deck composition not just having a lot of Energy. Unite works the same way, making you actually excited to draw a hand full of the same faction. Giving the player a sense of accomplishment goes a long way towards helping them feel engaged in the game and there’s more positive reinforcement here than in any of the previous blocks.
Third, players will evaluate cards differently based on their faction not just their ability. I’ve read debates about whether always buying the most expensive card available can win you a game of Ascension and while I don’t agree with that for previous sets I would certainly challenge it here. There are cases where the faction of a card matters just as much or more than the ability on the card and that provides a completely new thing to consider when buying cards from the center. I’d say this makes for less obvious buying choices as you’re less likely to simply buy the most expensive card with the most powerful ability. Sure you could say that you’ll now be forced to auto-buy based on faction if you’re really trying to emphasize one faction but I would argue that faction balance is just as important here as currency balance was in previous sets.
I particularly like how dual-faction heroes, who would have been a gimmick in previous blocks, are incredibly useful in Realms Unraveled because they can support multiple factions at the same time. It also opens up new design space that leads to incredibly fun combinations. A card that banishes and gains honor (Void/Lifebound)? Yes, please. And another that lets you defeat a monster based on what constructs you have in play (Enlightened/Mechana). Awesome! I love that these cards can exist and thematically make sense. They didn’t have to jump through any hoops to create these cards, they work naturally within the limitations and identities of the factions as they’ve been developed for the last three blocks. This is quite exciting for someone that has been playing Ascension since the very first release.
Power Creep – A welcome boost or too much power?
Alright, the term power creep doesn’t really apply when you play Realms Unraveled by itself but it’s important to note that a lot of the cards in this game have been given a decent boost over old sets. This is more noticeable in the cheaper cards (1-3) and arguable some of the really expensive cards too. Now, the most expensive cards have always been notoriously (and controversially) powerful so I’ll come back to those later and focus on the improvement to cheaper ones. The main result of making cheaper cards more powerful is that it gives players a quicker start. Both Unite and Transform ability are essential to this tempo change as they power-up as you fill your deck with matching factions. Transforming heroes cost 1 Rune while Transforming Constructs cost 4, Multi-Unite abilities are available for 2-3, and Dual-faction heroes cost 4. These are all accessible in the very first round and can start triggering after your first shuffle. I particularly like that the 1 cost cards are worth investing in for something besides their honor value. It’s exciting when your deck is useful without having to wait several shuffles before you can do something. It also prevents a lucky 3-5 split (or presence of a key card) from running away with the game after purchasing an overly powerful card early by simply giving all players a boost right out of the gate. Having constructs remain in play also provides players with a significant consistent boost once they are able to transform them. As a result I found that games will play faster overall as your deck hits it’s stride sooner. This could be a positive or a negative depending on how you look at it but I welcomed a change of pace as it further distinguishes this block. It’s yet another thing that reminds me of Star Realms but you won’t find quite the same break neck speed that ends the game just as you’re about to get going. You still have plenty of time to build your deck and effectively execute a strategy before the game ends.
It seems that the focus has been shifted away from power heavy decks and towards constructive Rune and ability focused decks, taking on more of a supportive role and allowing for an emphasis on deck building. The monsters have a similar power creep with one of the best 3-defense monsters among all the sets along with very effective card draw and banishing at a low defense. The rest of the monsters focus almost exclusively on honor gain making power even more closely related to honor producing and less about disrupting the other players. This helps reinforce the idea that the players are working together to stop Adayu’s nightmares and leads to more constructive play.
The cheap Enlightened cards are particularly powerful and even moreso if you can manage to heavily focus on their faction. They still work well in a supportive roll for the other factions because of their card draw, upgrading, and flexibility powers. When used in combination to trigger Unite and Transform effects it can get you off to an incredibly fast start. And late in the game they can pull off the most powerful combos due to Multi-Unite abilities from two of the most powerful cards (Dhartha and Adayu). For this reason I think it’s important for all players to watch out for one player hogging too many Enlightened cards. The presence of Multi-Unite and abilities also make the big bomb cards quite extreme in this set. Taking a powerful ability and being able to repeat it 5 or more times with the use of card draw can lead to some incredible turns. Your love or disdain for expensive powerful cards will likely be pushed to an extreme in Realms Unraveled.
The More the Merrier: Not just a two player affair anymore
With the three previous blocks I’ve always felt that Ascension worked best as a two-player game mostly due to the way the center row works. I’m happy to say that Realms Unraveled has challenged this and lead to the most enjoyable 3 and 4 player games of Ascension I’ve ever played. Allowing players to focus on a specific faction lets each player pursue their own strategy and evaluate the cards in the center row differently. My favorite games so far had each player picking a different faction to primarily stick with and pick up supporting cards from the other factions. There are still blow-outs on occasion when one of the players can pull off a particularly effective combo but there seems to be more room for several powerful decks executing in the same game. This lets matches be very close with players pursuing completely strategies based on the strength of the factions they were using. I played one game where three players executed extremely powerful single faction focused decks (one for Lifebound, Mechana, and Void) and everyone ended up over 90 honor but with less than 10 honor between first and last. It’s rewarding to play in a game where everyone has access to many different fun and powerful combos without some of the players getting blown away because they missed out on the key cards. Realms Unraveled will easily be my choice for Ascension games with more than 2 players.
That being said I did find that the bookkeeping in Realms Unraveled is the worst in all the sets. This is primarily due to the fact that cards don’t simply execute and are done with anymore. Multi-Unite and Transform effects care about the faction of cards in play and can trigger multiple times which makes it trickier to remember all the effects that trigger when you play a card. I like the feeling of having cards trigger off of each other and care about the order that you play them but I can see how it could be a little overwhelming to new players. I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad set to learn Ascension from (in fact I would say it’s the best stand alone set) but it’s important to know the other players’ tolerance for bookkeeping before starting with this set.
Summary – The bottom line on Ascension: Realms Unraveled
To me Realms Unraveled feels like the Ascension set that I’ve always wanted to play by placing the emphasis squarely on factions. They’ve drawn on concepts from previous blocks (Unite, Transform) but executed them in a unique way that gives this block a distinct feel. Players have access to useful abilities sooner and decks ramp up more quickly leading to exciting games where all players involved can execute distinct and powerful engines. Having to balance which factions are in your deck allows players to evaluate the cards in the center row differently and leads to more interesting decision and less obvious purchases. At the moment I would recommend Realms Unraveled as the best stand alone set and look forward to the expansion to see how it compares to my favorite block (Storm of Souls + Immortal Heroes).
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stone Blade Entertainment for providing a review copy of Ascension: Realms Unraveled.