Journey once again to the land of Vigil, where you and your opponents recruit heroes to fight off the monsters who have returned to threaten its inhabitants. Wielding powerful constructs and using new powers from the ancient elementals, will you be known as the Chosen One? Or will your opponents gain the most honor and be deemed the savior of New Vigil? Ascension: Gift of the Elements is a standalone expansion in the Ascension series; no knowledge of the base game is required.
How It Plays
Ascension (our review of the base game is here) and its numerous expansions are based on the deck-building mechanism made popular by Dominion. The object of the game is to have the most victory points, which you’ll collect via honor tokens and any points listed on the cards in your deck. All players begin with their own deck of 10 starting cards: Apprentices for purchasing power (via Runes, the game’s currency) and Militia for combat strength. Players take turns drawing five cards from their decks and either purchasing cards for their deck to improve combat strength or increase future purchasing power. They may also defeat monsters for honor tokens.
You may buy as many Heroes and Constructs from the center row as you can afford and you may defeat as many Monsters as you have combat strength for. If you defeat a Monster you’ll usually banish them into the Void (out of the game) after you’ve received the reward listed on its card. Heroes are played then discarded, but if you play a Construct, it stays in your playing area and offers ongoing abilities. It remains there until another player’s card forces you to discard it. When played together, the four factions of Hero cards (Enlightened, Lifebound, Mechana, and Void) offer powerful combinations to increase your purchasing and combat power. When the final honor token is taken from the pool, players finish the round, then total up their honor tokens and the points listen on the cards in their deck. The most points wins.
A Gift or a Curse?
Ascension: Gift of the Elements is a solid entry in the ever-growing Ascension franchise. While I’m not a full-on fanboy of Ascension, I enjoy its more interactive style of deck-building as well as the universe it’s played in. Designed by Justin Gary, a former Magic: The Gathering champion, Ascension features plenty of big damage-yielding and honor-producing turns, with lots of cards beyond the standard five-card draw being played at times.
For those new to the franchise, Ascension: Gift of the Elements is a good place to begin; game play doesn’t differ much from the base game. Those familiar with Ascension can jump right into the game, doling out the starting decks to everyone, shuffling up the main deck, and laying out the first center row of heroes and monsters. Even with over 100 new cards, they’re all self-explanatory. This is actually one of the weaknesses of this expansion: the rule book is written with the veteran player in mind. After the introduction, the first page of rules covers the new features in Gift of the Elements. While this is great if you’ve played before, I can imagine a new player becoming frustrated with Empower, Infest, Transforming events being thrown at them with no context whatsoever.
For Ascension veterans, there are two new mechanisms featured on some of the cards: Empower and Infest. On certain Hero cards, Empower allows you to banish cards that you’ve played that turn. It’s a fast and effective way to unclog your deck of the weaker starting cards, thus clearing your deck for those potentially big-scoring turns. On certain Monster cards, Infest allows you to add the defeated monster’s card to an opponent’s discard pile, thus clogging up their deck on future turns. For example, you can defeat the Nom Tribe Gremlin and put it into your opponent’s discard, then when they play it they can put it into another player’s discard (or return it to your discard). It’s a fun bit of take-that “hot potato.”
Events are also included in Gift of the Elements, returning from previous expansions Storm of Souls and Immortal Heroes. These Events change the rules of the game for all players and are laid face up on the board. There are only five of these cards randomly shuffled into the main deck so you never know when they’ll appear. One interesting change to Events for Gift of Elements: they can be transformed into heroes. It’s expensive to do so, but they’re a pretty powerful addition to your deck if you can manage it.
A big criticism of all the Ascension games is how much the luck of the draw influences the game. Nothing’s changed in Gift of the Elements. Unlike Dominion, where everyone buys from the same piles of cards, the market in Ascension constantly changes. Once a player buys a Hero or Construct or defeats a Monster, it’s immediately replaced by the next one from the shuffled deck. It can be frustrating when you’ve drawn a combat-heavy hand, ready to defeat those big monsters, only to find Heroes in the center row. Sure, you can beat up on the standard Cultist multiple times for honor tokens, but you’ve squandered an opportunity to take out a powerful points-yielding monster. Likewise, if you’ve drawn an abundance of rune-producing Heroes only to face a row of monsters or a few cheap Hero cards, you’ll be stuck with buying Mystics or Heavy Infantry, or bypassing your buy phase altogether.
I generally prefer deck builders as a two-player game and this still holds true here. It’s a much faster and smoother experience when you don’t have to wait for three other players to finish their turns, but I do have to admit that my three and four-player games of Gift of Elements went by quickly, thanks to playing with other deckbuilding veterans. This might not have been the case if I’d played with all new players, though.
Stone Blade and Ultra-Pro have done a fine job producing components that provide a coherent vision of the game’s theme. I’ve always appreciated the fantasy world they’ve created; at times it feels familiar while being unique. The card artwork is terrific and the honor tokens are satisfyingly chunky and easy to handle.
While Ascension: Gift of the Elements doesn’t change the base game in any radical new ways, it’s a solid expansion that offers a few twists to keep long-time fans happy and it’s still easy enough for new players to enter the Ascension universe.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stone Blade Entertainment for providing a review copy of Ascension: Gift of the Elements.
Standalone expansion, but can be combined with base game or other expansions
Empower and Infest mechanisms add new wrinkles to game play
Like all Ascension games, luck of the draw can significantly affect a match
Rule book could use additional clarifications and specific examples