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Review: Ascension X: War of Shadows

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In the continuing saga that began with Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, our heroes have risen to the point where…

Well, actually, I’ve sort of lost track of the story. The point is there are gods, and fighting, and all sorts of supernatural creatures rising from the ground and dropping in from the sky. But this time, creatures and enemies are powered by light or darkness, which can change throughout the day.

Ascension X: War of Shadows is the 10th expansion in the Ascension series.

How It Plays

You’re probably familiar with deckbuilding. If not from Dominion, you’ve perhaps tried Star Realms, or any of the DC deckbuilding games. The basic premise gives each player a deck of cards which starts out pretty lame, but over the course of the game you add new better cards (and sometimes destroy worser cards) until you have something savage and powerful that leads you to victory.

And in Ascension you do it on this fancy, beautifully illustrated board

In Ascension X, like previous games, you can play your entire hand without limitation, buying cards and fighting monsters in any order. Runes are used to buy cards, Strength to fight monsters, and you accrue Honor tokens to score points. A pool of 6 cards in the center of the table contains the monsters you’ll be fighting along with the heroes and constructs you’ll be adding to your deck.

The twist in War of Shadows is that each card has an alignment, either Day or Night. Your Day cards are more powerful when it is Daytime, and your Night cards reign surpreme in the Darkness. The time of day is determined by the center pool of cards – more day cards means its day time, more night cards means night, and an equal number is twilight which benefits neither side.

Another new addition is that of dual-cost cards. These cards require both Strength and Runes to acquire, but they can be quite powerful.

Other than that, the game plays like normal Ascension. You play until you’ve run out of Honor tokens, and then the highest score wins.

Of course there are honor crystals! It wouldn’t be Ascension without them

Higher and Higher

There are perhaps better people to review an Ascension expansion than I. It’s one of those games that some people love and everyone else just kind of looks past, I think. But since Andrew retired from writing reviews to focus on his photography, I’m giving it my best shot.

My overall impression of this expansion hasn’t changed much since the original Ascension. So if you’ve come here thinking, “I’ve never particularly thought of Ascension as a go-to game, but maybe War of Shadows changes all of that,” I might be able to save you some time: it’s not going to drastically shift your opinion. In fact, I think WoS exacerbates some of the problems of the original.

If you’re still with me, I suppose you’re wanting to know how the day/night mechanism changes things up. Without disrupting the overall flow of the game, it does require a new way of thinking about how you buy your cards.

It’s night time in Ascension land

There’s a mental shift required as you think about your strategy. You can’t just buy a bunch of daytime cards and expect your deck to work like a well oiled machine, at least not in the way you might buy Lifebound faction cards and have them work together. See, the more Day cards you buy, the less likely it is to actually be daytime on the board. If you overbuy on one side, you’ll find yourself with a weaker deck since your cards are less likely to reach their full potential.

Then again, if you have too muddled a mix of day and night, your deck won’t be as powerful as it would be if you had one alignment. It creates a dichotomy that does add some interesting tension to your choices. You might avoid buying a card you would otherwise snatch up to ensure it stays day, or you might buy an extra night card or two to try and shift the elements in your favor.

Unfortunately the actual outcomes of your choices can be greatly affected by luck, even more than usual. In the original game, I frequently felt frustrated at how a powerful card could become available on the other player’s turn, or on the turn AFTER you had your best hand and could’ve afforded it. In War of Shadows, this can still happen. It can also happen that your opponent buys a bunch of Day cards and you buy Night cards, and by sheer happenstance there are a lot more day cards near the top of the deck giving your opponent an advantage. In many of the games I played, despite the balance of Night and Day cards in the overall scheme of things, the randomness factor always seemed to favor one time period over the other. You can only guess at what might come.

This is not my best, heh, day

Now, it is possible to adjust your strategy. If your night cards aren’t working for you, you can buy more day cards. While that mixes your deck, it might also shift the balance toward Night, giving you more power, and you’ll at least have some cards getting the bonuses.

The problem I’ve experienced is that once a player gets their deck rolling, they can really roll away. I’ve been on both the receiving and and the playing end where your deck just flies. These cards are powerful when they match their alignment, and you can end up playing twenty cards every hand, buying up even more powerful cards, slaughtering the most dangerous monsters, and accruing tons of honor. Even if the other player adjusts their strategy, it’s too late for them.

I guess the game at least tends to end quickly when it reaches that point. But, having been on the wrong end of a player playing their whole deck three turns in a row, I couldn’t exactly say I was having a blast.

However, I did at least have a chance to play the game with Andrew, our Ascension-loving geek. As a hardcore Ascension fan, he didn’t seem to mind any of the skewed possibilities of the game. To him, the concept of working with Day and Night was interesting enough and the game plays quick enough that he could still have fun, even being on the wrong end of the runaway player issue.

Light is cool!

As far as I could tell, there is no “theming” to the day or night cards, mechanically speaking. I guess that’s a good thing – being forced into a particular strategy because you want day cards would limit replay value.

On the dual-cost cards: I actually think those are a great addition. They give you something powerful for those days when you have a mixed hand of strength and runes, and can neither fight the most powerful monster or buy the most powerful card. Now your resources are working together to get something cool.

I will say this about Ascension in general: the designers have created this strange and unique fantasy world. Though I haven’t followed the unfolding saga of the Ascension series, the evocative art brings you into the world. It’s so different than everything else out there, just playing the game makes you feel like you’re part of this bigger story, and that’s pretty neat. The art in this game is beautiful and just as unique as the other sets in the series.

Ascension is still at its best as a 2-player game. Waiting for three players to take their turns can feel like an eternity, especially if one (or more) of them get a lot of chaining going on. At least playing 2-player you have a lot of dynamic back-and-forth, and can more quickly adjust your strategy based on what the other player is buying.

Fire is scary, but fire monsters are more rewarding to kill in the dark of night

If you’re a hardcore fan, there’s no reason to not buy this expansion. If you’re someone who enjoys Ascension in general, you might find something for you here, but I don’t think what War of Shadows brings is so revolutionary to the system that you just have to try it. And if you’re not a fan… I wouldn’t bother. There’s nothing here to turn you back.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stoneblade Entertainment for providing a review copy of Ascension X: War of Shadows.

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros

Action-packed Ascension gameplay
Day/night mechanism forces new tactical approaches
Cool, unique art and universe

Cons

Day/night also ups the randomness to a degree
Runaway player powers allow long, chain-filled turns that aren't as fun when you're the other player

7.0 Good

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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