A Deckbuilding Look at Ascension

I’ve written a series of articles outlining the evolution of the deckbuilding genre through games like ThunderstoneResident Evil, and Nightfall. However, some folks have commented on the notable absence of an early first-and-a-half-generation deckbuilding game, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (which certainly wins an award for one of the longest deckbuilding titles, though I don’t know what slaying gods has to do with anything).

I omitted Ascension quite simply because it’s never won a lot of converts at my local gaming store and I didn’t own a copy of it myself. However, that changed (sort of) a few weeks ago when a beautiful and well-produced version of Ascension appeared for the iPhone. I’ve since played the game dozens of times, and so now have a bit more to say about it.

The Game

As an early first-and-a-half-generation deckbuilding game, Ascension shares a lot of the feel of Dominion. Thus, you won’t find really far-afield rules like the “chaining” of Nightfall. Instead, each turn you’re just purchasing new cards using the existing cards in your hand. However, Ascension wasn’t afraid to change things up within Dominion‘s familiar constraints; you’ll find most of those changes in the purchasing system.

First, there are only six cards available for purchase at any time and they’re randomly drawn from a deck of all the cards. That’s right, the whole deck of Ascension cards is available in each game, but only a very small random set of them is available on each turn.

Second, there are essentially two types of currency: runes (which are used to buy people and things) and power (which are used to defeat monsters).

Beyond that, a lot of Ascension feels like a game of Dominion freed up of its rules complexities. There’s no limit to buys, nor is there a limit to how many powers you can use on a turn. When you kill monsters, they don’t go into your deck (as they do in Thunderstone), but instead generate victory points which are represented as crystals. The end game feels a lot more intuitive too: when the bank runs out of crystals, the game’s over.

The Good

Easy to Explain. Of all the deckbuilding games, I think that Ascension is the most accessible to new players. That’s partially because Ascension‘s rules are simpler than a lot of other deckbuilding games. However, it’s also a natural result of the fact that all the cards are shuffled into one big deck. You thus don’t have to explain all the cards which could be purchased in each game. Instead you tell players about cards as they come up.

Easy to Play. The game is likewise easy to play. Typically you’ll lay out your cards for a round, and there will only be 1 or 2 options that exactly match the money you have. Granted, they may not be the best things to buy in all cases, but it’s really easy for a new player to simply walk this path of least resistance. But also see “The Game Plays You” on the bad.

Plays Quickly. The triad of advantages that come from the game’s simple gameplay ends with the fact that it plays really quickly. Almost every game since Dominion has gone longer, so it’s nice to see a game that instead refines and speeds up deckbuilding gameplay.

Good Control of Randomness. Ascension could have failed totally by making its core purchase mechanism totally random. I think the similar random queue of Thunderstone monsters causes some problems, as it jams up from time to time. However, thanks to solid game design, Ascension players almost always have options, and the queue almost always keeps moving. This is in part because there’s a good supply of standard things to buy (with these standard items coming in at costs of 2 runes for heavy infantry, 3 runes for mystics, and 2 power for cultists). But it’s also because the game was careful to include lots of powers which can be used to remove undesirable cards from the purchasable set of cards. I think that future deckbuilding games considering random purchase queues would do well to look at what Ascension did here.

Nice Differentiation of Suits. The designers of Ascension have really done a great job of differentiating their “suits”, which shows their origins in the world of Magic: The Gathering. Thus the “enlightened” cards tend to focus on card draws and discards; the lifebound cards are mostly about runes and victory points; and the void cards are about power and removing cards from the deck. The mechana — with their focus on constructs which stay in play — are even more unique when compared to the original Dominion gameplay.

This differentiation of suits adds a lot to the color and theming of Ascension, but it also makes the game easier to play, as you can see at a glance what general tendencies a card will have. This sort of correlation between theme and mechanic is something I’d like to see more broadly in deckbuilding games.

The Bad

Overall, I find Ascension to be a very enjoyable game for the category. However, its very specific design has weaknesses too, some of them a result of the game’s own strengths.

Awkward Start. At the start of a game of Ascension, you get a deck with 8 rune cards and 2 power cards. You then draw five cards. I find this to be a particularly awkward starting situation because 50% of the time you’ll get two hands of 4 runes and 1 power — and that power is totally useless (because nothing can be done with just 1 power). Not only is this less fun, but if other players don’t have that same, semi-useless hand, they’re going to start off with a fairly arbitrary advantage.

Limited Replayability. Because the cards are all mixed together, the replayabiilty of Ascension is more limited than that of other deckbuilding games. You can potentially see every card in one play of the game and almost definitely will within a couple. This is a big contrast to most deckbuilding games where you only use 30-50% of the card types in any game.

Limited Strategy. The simplicity of the game hurts it a bit in that there are fewer strategies in the game, compared to the rest of the deckbuilding genre. There also aren’t too many really neat card combos, because many of the cards are pretty standardized. Still, there is some variability. You can concentrate upon one suit of cards: using void to clean out your deck; mechana to build a powerful arsenal of constructd; or lifebound to take advantage of other lifebound cards. More broadly, you can focus on runes or on power.

Can’t Fully Develop Strategy. Because the game is short, I often feel like it ends just before I can get a really cool strategy going. (I feel this is particularly true for mechana strategies; some others can get humming more quickly if you manage to void out enough of your early deck.)

The Game Plays You. To a large extent, the players are at the mercy of what cards come up for purchase. You may be forced to buy the standard cards because nothing else is available, and you may be forced to purchase items that don’t fit with your strategy because they’re what show up. Inexperienced players in particular might feel that their exact purchases are preordained, based on what comes up, as they don’t want to waste any of their money. I think that more experienced players might throw away 1 or 2 runes from time to time, to improve their deck, but this only comes after many plays.

Conclusion

On the whole, Ascension is the lightest and most accessible of all the deckbuilding games I’ve tried. This carries with it all the advantages and disadvantages that you’d expect. As someone who enjoys short and filler games, I think this makes Ascension a real winner. Though I frequently turn down games of Thunderstone and Nightfall due to length, I rarely turn aside Ascension (when it’s actually brought to the table!).


Author’s Note: Since I wrote this original article, I’ve purchased the first and second expansion for Ascension, and the games gotten a lot more real-world plays. I continue to find it a very elegant play, and though it’s only my second-most played deckbuilder of all time, in recent years it’s gotten more plays than Dominion. —SA, 6/17/12

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