A portal opens; out leaps an enormous, terrifying monster that is clearly not of this world. It’s fangs glisten and its many legs skitter. You brace yourself, lifting your mighty sword high as you send your army of fantastic creatures and intriguing technology to destroy it before it’s too late.
If you have a little imagination, this may describe a single turn in the game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Ascension is a thematic deckbuilding game set in the fantasy world of Vigil, in which you must build an army to fend off the minions of the evil god Samael and prevent his return by the destruction of the “great seal.” But does this game truly chronicle your rise from a measly soldier to army commander, and even godslayer?
How it Plays:
If you’ve played Dominion, the formula will be very familiar to you; you start with a 10-card deck that is very weak. Each turn you have a chance to play action cards and reveal currency from a 5-card hand, in order to add new cards to your deck that give you more currency, better actions, and points.
In Ascension, however, there are a few differences. You do not have a limited number of actions or buys each turn; if you have 5 “action” cards in your hand, you can play all 5. If you have 14 runes, you can buy 14 runes worth of cards even if that means buying 3 or 4 cards on a single turn.
Ascension also has multiple currencies – Runes can be used to purchase new heroes and technology, Power is used to attach and defeat monsters, and points come in the form of “Honor” – represented by icons on the cards you purchase, as well as by little gems you collect when slaying certain monsters.
There is also a special card type called “Construct,” which you play from your hand but it stays in play until it is forcibly removed, usually by an enemy attack.
The supply setup for Ascension is unique as well. Instead of 10 unique stacks of cards with multiple copies of each cards, Ascension has single deck (the Portal deck), with 6 spaces to reveal cards from the deck. Monsters, Heroes, Constructs, they’re all in that deck. When you buy an item or banish a monster from the center 6, a new card immediately replaces it, meaning it’s not available for the next player. However, in addition to the center 6, there are 3 options always available – Mystics which offer +2 Runes, Heavy Infantry which offers +2 Strength, and the Cultist monster which can always be killed for 1 point.
The game ends after a certain number of gemstones are captured.
So how is it?
Ascension is enjoyable game for sure, but it’s hard not to compare it to Dominion – the mechanics are so very similar. Although they are indeed different games, the similarities are undeniable.
And unfortunately, in this regard, Ascension falls short. The biggest limitation here is the supply pile. While Dominion has a randomized setup, once the game is set you know what’s available. You can craft a longterm strategy and hone your deck over the course of the game exactly the way you want it to. In Ascension, you’re limited to what’s available; if that 7-cost card you’ve been waiting for all game happens to pop up on another player’s turn and they grab it, there’s nothing you can do.
The lack of limitations in Ascension makes it a lesser game as well. Without having to worry about limited actions or number of buys, the choices you make can be less cautious. If luck swings your way and you have great Heroes and Constructs available in the supply, you never have to consider not buying them because you’re too full of actions; you’ll always be able to play everything. It makes the game easier; perhaps more accessible; but it’s not as tightly wound together. Even victory points come tagged on to each card you buy, so you never have to make the hard choice of “do I improve my deck, or do I finally go for points?” that to me makes Dominion so intriguing. You also rarely have to make the “do I spend less than my hand is worth” to get a card you need, since chances are you can probably by both the good card and the lower-cost card you want.
The dichotomy of currencies in Ascension is really the only thing that makes you stop and think about your purchases. You may have to decide if you want to pursue a better military or better buying power, though you’ll need a mixture of both – and again, the lack of limitations means it’s always better to buy the best card you can get, or 2 good cards.
This dichotomy also plays into the swings of luck; when you have multiple currencies and a wildly variable market, you can get burned in so many ways. Even if you have a balanced deck, you might draw all your military in one hand while there are no monsters to fight; then in the next hand you may have all runes but the supply has been filled up with monsters. And sure, you can always fight the cultists with your military – but honestly, that’s pretty boring in my opinion, to always be fighting cultists.
Okay, enough about Dominion. Obviously as a deckbuilder I don’t think it stacks up as the best. But is it a decent game on its own? Is it fun?
Yes. I think Ascension can still be very fun. It’s easier, certainly; and more prone to swings of luck. But it is fast paced, thematic, and enjoyable.
It’s really the thematic-ness of the game that makes it good. Sure it’s not a super tight mechanical game, but its got flavor and its got soul. The art is extremely unique and very excellent (an area in which is greatly surpasses Dominion), and different categories of heroes and constructions function predictably within their group, and groups often combine to make each other more powerful. Your deck is really your army, and although it doesn’t really fully make sense why you can’t just call out any part of your army when you need it, it’s still enjoyable to pack it in with mighty heroes, superb weapons, and terrifying constructs. The way points or “honor” works in this regard makes perfect sense – you earn glory when you accomplish great deeds on the battlefield, whether securing powerful units or defeating deadly enemies, and the simple act of doing these things rewards you in the long run, without suddenly having to take a different tack.
There’s not a whole lot of interaction with other players; sure, you share the supply but other than that you can’t do much to affect anyone. The occasional monster will force players to discard Constructs on defeat; one even allows you to steal a card from other players hands. Some will let you banish cards from the center row, preventing other players from grabbing it. But that’s pretty much it.
In a small twist of irony, though the game itself may be easier and more accessible than Dominion, the thematic elements are fairly weird; the art itself is strange-looking, and this makes it less accessible to non-gamers. When I show people Dominion they’re okay with normal, medieval elements but when Ascension comes out people ask “what is this weird geeky game you are playing?”
There’s really only one thematic problem here, and it mostly has to do with the subtitle of the game: “Chronicle of the Godslayer.” First of all, there’s at least 2 players, so maybe it should be “Godslayers.” But more importantly… you never actually slay a god. If it was up to me, you’d have several choices of top-level baddies that required something epic to kill them, and their death would signify the end of the game. Instead you just have to earn a certain amount of honor and then the game ends. No climactic moment; no heroic slaying of any gods. Maybe the title is cool, but it implies something that just doesn’t happen.
To be fair, the first expansion set does add Samael (the big baddie I mentioned up top, the “god” in question that we’re all trying to slay) as a monster card; but he’s mixed into the standard deck, doesn’t seem particularly hard to kill for a god, and doesn’t even add an alternate endgame condition. Yes, that’s right; even when you kill Samael, the war continues for some reason. Okay I’m done talking about that, this isn’t a review of the expansion.
So yeah. Ascension. Chronicle of the never-slaying-a-god. It’s a fun game; fast paced, easy to set up for sure (another advantage over Dominion), thematic.The presentation is stellar, with unique and excellent art, quality “shinies” and quality cardstock (although the Portal deck is pretty thick and hard to shuffle). It may not be the tightest gaming experience, but it isn’t broken, and it certainly allows you to have a great time with your friends. And isn’t that what board gaming is all about?