Welcome back for our second article in the new Shelf Wear series. For those that missed FarmerLenny’s first installment of Shelf Wear, this series is intended to focus on games that we’ve played a lot, quantified to 50+ plays. Chances are these will be games we’ve already reviewed or at least talked about, but our opinions may have changed with (or are at least better informed by) experience.
This time around I’ll be looking at Ascension, a game that is no stranger to my most played games of the year.
It’s hard to talk about Ascension without looking at its place in deck-building history (short as it may be). If you’d like to get caught up to speed, you can start by checking out our Guide to Deckbuilding. Actually, forget that: stay right here, and I’ll give you the short and sweet (and slightly embellished) version instead.
In the beginning there were cards, and they were lonely, so they formed together into tribes called decks. They lived peacefully until strange foreign settlers came to their land and forced them to participate in their ritualistic “game nights,” where they were shuffled, dealt, handled, and tossed around carelessly. As more settlers joined them, these game nights became so popular that the cards started to wear out. Whole decks became tattered and unreadable. Having served their purpose, they were thrown into the trash with all the useless game inserts and foreign instruction manuals. But one gamer took pity on the cards and, seeking to save them from extinction, invented the protective card sleeve. Now a card could participate in hundreds of games without showing any signs of wear! Another such gamer, Donald X Cardhater, was displeased with the new longevity that these sleeves provided and sought to push the cards to their limit. He designed a new game that let each player construct their own deck and made them shuffle it not once but dozens of times per game. Thus Dominion, the first deck-builder, was born, and there was much rejoicing among the gamers.
After seeing Dominion’s success many sought to follow in Donald’s footsteps. Along came the second generation of deck-builders, each attempting to distinguish themselves from the copycats. There were chips and dice, monsters and maids, as well as all sorts of wonderful and dreadful twists on the beloved formula designed to shuffle cards into submission. Ascension was one such game that boasted a streamlined experience from setup to gameplay to its expansion model. But did it succeed in standing out from the crowd, or was it doomed to be just another Dominion clone?
It’s been nearly four years since the initial release in the Ascension series, Chronicle of the Godslayer. Since then there have been five additional releases that are paired into three distinct blocks. I’ll be looking at all the Ascension releases as a whole, generally considering it as a game system rather than focusing on just one of the releases or blocks. My only stipulation is that I play Ascension exclusively in blocks (base game + expansion) and do not mix cards between blocks. I will look briefly at the concept of mixing sets, but I like the balance and unique experience that was designed into each block, so I will be writing from that perspective.
Ascension did indeed succeeded in creating a more streamlined deck-building experience–in fact, it was so successful that is has been used as a model for more recent deck-builders. However, streamlining is often a double-edged sword, and Ascension was never intended to be a strict improvement of Dominion but rather a different take on deck-building. Let’s look specifically at what Ascension introduced that was unique at the time and whether it has held up.
First, and perhaps most important, Ascension created a system that was a direct answer to the fiddly (and occasionally long) setup and teardown time that deck-builders had become known for. It’s as simple as setting out the always available cards and starting hands, counting out the honor pool, shuffling the portal deck, and revealing six cards for the central display. If you have things organized nicely, then you really only need to pull a couple of stacks and tokens out of the box and you’re ready to go. Putting it away is even easier than the traditional model as you simply pull out the starting cards and everything else is shuffled back into the portal deck for your next game. There have been some additions to setup depending on which expansions you are using (specifically Events and Soul Gems from the second block) but nothing that adds a significant amount of time. Ascension remains perhaps the fastest deck-builder to get from the box to the table, and this alone is a major reason why it has seen so many plays for me. It’s important to note that I’m looking specifically at the physical game (which I prefer). Once you start to consider electronic versions, this advantage does break down. Nonetheless, I’ll stay focused on the physical experience.
Secondly, Ascension removed a lot of the restrictions that were imposed on earlier deck-builders. You can play as many cards from your hand as you’d like and buy/defeat as many cards as you can afford. Buying isn’t restricted to the end of the turn, you can play cards and buy/defeat available ones in any order. Also there are no dead weight cards that clog up your deck. You still have weaker initial cards to deal with, but your deck is generally improving as the game goes on. In fact, all the cards that you can buy are worth points, and cards that you defeat are banished instead of going into your deck, rewarding you with honor crystals to represent the points they were worth. Because of these simple changes, you never feel like you are having to fight against the game in order to do well. In some regards this makes the strategy more straightforward, reducing the tension and need for meticulous deck construction. You don’t have to worry about overloading your deck with terminal cards or when to start acquiring victory point cards–just buy what you want when you want. This makes the game feel a little more intuitive and the general strategy a little more transparent. There’s still an emphasis on building a deck that has good synergy, but you aren’t having to worry as much about the negative impact that buying cards could have on your deck. This will appeal to people who don’t want to pay so much attention to how many copies of each card they have in their deck or what’s left in their draw pile. Others may feel like their decisions aren’t as important since the system lets you construct your deck and play out your hands more freely. But where Ascension doesn’t have as many restrictions on how to play and build your deck, it does have more limitations on what cards are available to buy and defeat.
This leads into the third major difference, having a constantly changing availability of cards imposed by the portal deck. This pushes deck-building even further in the tactical direction. Not only are you reacting to what cards you draw but also those that are available. There are a number of interesting dynamics that come out of this system that aren’t present with a static supply. You have a feeling that is a lot closer to drafting, which I believe was the original intent. If I buy something from the center row then you won’t be able to get it (unless, of course, another copy shows up). Much like a draft, you are trying to take things for yourself while denying your opponent the things they want. To help with this Ascension introduces the concept of banishing cards not only from your deck but also from the center row to deny your opponent without the need to afford the card or add something you don’t want to your deck. This adds a layer of interaction that is core to drafting–by paying close attention to what your opponent is doing, you can try to set yourself up to benefit more (or have your opponent benefit less) from what’s available. But you only have so much control over the center row, and this is where Ascension adds in a layer of uncertainty. Every time you buy or defeat a card from the center row, you’ll reveal another card that you won’t get to see until after you’ve committed to removing the first card. This can be advantageous if you’re hoping to reveal something great in the middle of your turn that you can still afford. But it also represents the opportunity cost of buying or defeating a card: you could end up flipping the perfect card for your opponent and giving them the first chance to grab it. To an extent this creates unequal availability of cards throughout the game, but that’s inherent to the risk/reward system. You’re constantly making decisions about the order that you want to play out your hand, interact with the center row, and build your deck so that you can take advantage of opportunities when they show up. This is where knowing how to build a deck under the constantly changing conditions of the portal deck requires drastically different decisions then the strategic precision of Dominion.
At the core of building a good deck is another difference, having to balance multiple currencies. This isn’t totally unique to Ascension. Dominion attempted it with Alchemy’s potions, and Thunderstone had players split their time between spending money in the village and attacking in the dungeon. However, Ascension’s currencies present somewhat equal opportunities to generate points and provide benefits. Runes are used to buy cards to improve your deck and earn points, whereas Power is used to defeat monsters which provide instant benefits or impede your opponent and also grant points. You can focus on one of the currencies or try to balance the two, but you’ll have to remain flexible and may even choose to switch directions as the game progresses. This goes back to the tactical nature of the game: you should be reacting to what’s in the center row and how your opponent is building their deck to determine what you’ll focus on. Fortunately there are always available cards for each currency, so no matter what shows up, you’ll still be able to maintain reasonable control over the balance of your deck. By the time Storm of Souls came out, there was a much larger emphasis on balancing currencies or taking advantage of focusing heavily on one. This has remained a focus into the third block, starting with Rise of Vigil, which takes this even further and introduces a third currency that is not as equally available, Energy.
The last thing that differentiates Ascension is its expansion model. Unlike deck-builders that simply add more cards to the pool of those available to pick from, Ascension introduces a new self-contained block of cards each year. This isn’t a scheme to get you to upgrade to the latest and greatest version by making your old blocks obsolete; there are several advantages to this model. First off, the setup remains quick as you don’t have an ever increasing number of cards to sort through in order to find the ones you’re going to use in any given game. You just need to pick a block to play with and grab the corresponding portal deck (along with any extra bits that may go along with that block). There’s still plenty of variability from game to game since the cards that show up are random and you can switch between blocks for different experiences. Also, there is far less need to ensure that new cards are properly balanced with all previous cards since new blocks will not interact with old ones. Some players may choose to mix all their Ascension sets together, but I avoid doing so for this very reason among others. You can’t complain about “power creep” with this model, and this gives freedom to tweak the mix of each block to suit the thematic and mechanical focus. Since the blocks are self contained, it allows for an evolving game that can reinvent itself with each block. There is a distinct feeling to each block that’s present not only in the unique mix of powers from the cards but also the mechanics that get added and removed from previous blocks. I’ve found that with every new release Ascension has attempted to immerse the players more in the story by creating more exciting experiences. In the first block, Return of the Fallen introduced the Fate mechanic, which used card flips to inject events in the middle of a player’s turn. Each Fate that is revealed presents an exciting moment. The second block used Trophy Monsters to give a more gratifying and lasting effect of your defeated foes, and Events describe the rise of factions (and monsters) to power throughout the game. The Events present a sort of narrative to the game as you watch the factions struggle for supremacy. Later on in Immortal Heroes, you were revisited by heroes from the first block through Soul Gems. New players may not have made the connection back to the first block, but it was a fun nod to the past and fit nicely within the overarching story. The third block sought to create memorable games by allowing the players to experience powerful Energize and Transformation effects, leading to very gratifying turns. Each block offers a focused and unique experience that expands the Ascension universe without making the players work to integrate everything.
I’ve mentioned that I like to stick to playing Ascension “by the block”, enjoying it in the well balanced and thematic sets as they were originally designed. However, there is a fun and rewarding ability to customize your experience by tweaking the mix of cards in the portal deck. This could mean combining all the sets that you have together and seeing vastly different sets of cards come out each game. Or perhaps you want to emphasize the aspects of each block that you like, picking cards from each one to create an experience that you won’t get in any of the current blocks. You could completely drop a faction, change the percentage of monsters that make up the deck, add in more board control or banishing, create really fine tuned synergy within the factions, and many more possibilities. If there’s a card that you don’t like, remove it. If you’d really like to see how cards from the different blocks would interact, throw them all into the mix and see what happens. Simply put, you can create the experience that you want.
So why haven’t I delved into creating my own unique portal deck? Frankly I’m a bit intimidated at the prospect of constructing a deck that will create a better experience than the current blocks and still maintain proper balance. You could just cherry pick your favorite cards, shuffle them together, and see what happens. But I prefer a very intentionally constructed and well thought out experience. I trust the designers more than myself to do this. I’ve played hundreds of games and I’m still not tired of the current blocks to the point where I feel the need to experiment. On top of that a new block is being introduced every year, giving me even more ways to play. I’m not saying that it’s not worth building your own deck, simply that I don’t feel the need to do so. I can see getting the urge to try it out at some point, especially once there are plenty of cards to pick from, but that’s not where I am at the moment. Still, it’s nice to have the option and I know that plenty of players have taken advantage of the ability to do so.
One very minor amount of customization that I have done is through promos. Each block has numerous promotional cards that are released at various events throughout the year and can easily be integrated into the current (or previous) blocks by adding one or several copies to the deck. They usually contain more nuanced or wacky abilities that can really shake up the game. Sometimes they seem overpowered or even lead to pretty ridiculous combos but they are more in the spirit of good fun than being really well balanced. After all, they would have been released with a set if they were intended to be used in standards games. I think that promos are great for allowing you to add a bit of customization to the blocks without having to go through all the work of creating a totally reconstructed deck. If you really don’t want to think very hard the promos each have a block that they were released for so you can stick with those recommendations to know which ones to include. They flirt a bit with pushing the game balance to it’s limits but you can decide which ones to add so it’s easy to stay well within your own comfort level. They are neither mandatory nor exclusive, there is a brief period of time after their release that promos aren’t widely available but they all show up in the store eventually which is a good thing. I’ve found promos to be hit or miss across various games but the implementation in Ascension does a fantastic job of creating a small scale of customization in a very clever way and is an aspect that I enjoy.
Wrapping Things Up
Up until this point I’ve failed to mention that I play Ascension almost exclusively as a 2-player game and this is an important point to make for concluding. I greatly enjoy the aspect of board control that ties Ascension to a sort of continuous simulated draft and this is at it’s strongest in the 2-player form. Not only do you have better control over what cards are available but you can monitor how your opponent’s deck is taking shape and try to make sure that what’s available benefits you more. This is incredibly hard to keep track of and implement with higher player counts. Once you introduce a third player (or even more) the game becomes incredibly chaotic and you must give up some aspects of control in order to enjoy the experience. I’ll play this way on occasion for fun but wouldn’t consider it to emphasize skill nearly to the degree that the 2-player game does.
I’ll finish up by highlighting my favorite way to play Ascension, without a doubt I’d pick the full second block containing Storm of Souls and Immortal Heroes. In my opinion this block not only creates the strongest identities within each faction but also uses innovative mechanics (Trophy Monsters, Events, Soul Gems) to create a high skill experience. The turns can tend towards the long side near the end of the game but there is incredible room for creative play with extended card play and the turn length is well within my tolerance in a 2-player game. For anyone that was disappointed by the base set and wanted a deeper experience I’d recommend giving Storm of Souls a try.
Considering all the things that Ascension implemented to create a streamlined deck-builder, I’d say that it did more than just use gimmicks to set itself apart from Dominion. It sought to refine the experience. Ultimately this created something quicker, lighter, more tactical, and with plenty of room to continue to grow and evolve. I’m excited for the future of Ascension and look forward to what new twists and exciting experiences await in the fourth block.