In the last year-or-so, it seems like the surge of deckbuilding games has finally slowed down. I’m certainly still looking forward to some upcoming releases like Don’t Turn Your Back, Cthulhu Realms, and Apocrypha — and I think some bag-building games deserve some crossover attention. However, in 2013 or 2014, I could expect to play 5-10 new deckbuilders a year, and that’s no longer the case.
Fortunately for us fans of deckbuilding, there’s still a lot of interesting innovation of the traditional deckbuilding form to be found — it’s just in expansions rather than new games.
Ascension (2010) kicked off its expansions with something very important: a plan. Rather than releasing expansions willy-nilly, the folks at Stoneblade Entertainment (or whatever the company’s name is this week) decided to arrange their supplements into “blocks”, following in the footsteps of Magic: The Gathering (1993).
Each of these blocks was to consist of just two sets: one big set and one small set. They’d have coherent mechanics, and thus they’d work well together. In fact, that’s the suggested way to play Ascension: only mix boxes from the same block.
This release format has several crucial benefits:
1. It controls the complexity of Ascension. Rather than piling mechanic upon mechanic as more expansions are released (ala Carcassonne), Ascension keeps things simple: each block only has a couple of new rules beyond the core game.
2. It supports variability. There can be pretty big new rules in each block that really change up the game. Meanwhile, there’s no concern about upsetting the overall balance of the game, because those mechanics will be gone by the time the next block arrives.
3. It maintains coherence. When you only have sets #5 + #6 in play, you can be sure that you’ll be able to energize your energizable cards, because there will be a decent number of Shards in the game. Similarly, if you’re playing with sets #7 + #8 you can be sure your Champions will be able to take full advantage of the multifaction cards. If you instead had all eight sets mixed together, you’d be massively increasing the randomness of the game, and making it possible that many of the new powers would be largely useless, because they were so spread out.
There are certainly other ways to maintain complexity and coherence without impacting variability … but the block-based method used by Ascension is an excellent one.
Though I like the release format of blocks, having eight standalone games has proven a bit of a nuisance. Many folks don’t love the fact that every single game wastes space on the basic cards — but that does make it easy to separate out the individual blocks. In addition, retailers seem confused by having so many different products to sell — a problem that Ascension-inspiration Magic: The Gathering doesn’t face, because its cards go out of print as one block follows another.
With all that said, I want to explore what each block of cards has down for Ascension (and for the deckbuilding field generally). This first article looks at the first four sets of Ascension cards, comprising blocks one and two.
Block One: Chronicle & Return (2010-2011)
The first block started with Chronicle of the Godslayer (2010), which was finally renamed Ascension Deckbuilding Game with its third edition (2014), to much retailer rejoicing, I suspect. I’ve already talked about the mechanics of that set in my original article on Ascension. Ascension’s premiere set was soon followed by Return of the Fallen (2011), which completed the first block. As in all of the first three blocks, the second set for Block One was a smaller release, intended for just two players, It only has 65 new cards — plus the 55 repeats of the standards, which mathematically demonstrates why a lot of folks don’t like the sales methodology.
Since it was just the second Ascension set, it was no surprise that Return stayed pretty close to the norm set by Chronicle. Players were still learning the game, so there wasn’t need for much more complexity (or variability). As a result, there was just one minor rules variation in the new set.
How It Works — Fate: The biggest problem with the Fate mechanic is that it’s so easy to forget. I think there are a lot of places where the Ascension computer game works better than the Ascension tabletop game, and this is one of them.
Still, Ascension makes good use of the Fate special effects, which are essentially “mini-events” that have an instantaneous effect on all the players. That’s because the Fate powers selected make things happen that a designer wants to happen in the game: some Fates let players filter their decks (getting rid of a bad card) while others help to clear out the center row of Ascension, which can get clogged with overly expensive games. Even if Fate is tricky to administer, any mechanic that makes a game run more smoothly gets my vote of approval.
The Fate mechanic also supports designer Justin Gary’s overall vision of the game. After playing Dominion (2008), Gary wanted to create a game that didn’t have the “sameness” of Dominion — where random effects kept players away from expected, programmed moves. This design goal is already supported by Dominion’s random center row, but Gary has repeatedly introduced other random mechanics into the game that expand the goal — and the Fate rules may be among the best, because they have a sudden and chaotic effect on all players … without necessarily benefit any one of them.
Block One is a very basic block, with cards focusing on the generic Ascension concepts like Runes, Power, Honor, card draws, hero acquisitions, card banishments, and monster defeats. There’s enough complexity built into Ascension, that this still remains an enjoyable block — and a great one for introducing beginners to the game. But it doesn’t have the tactical complexity of some later blocks. (The other deficit of this block is that its Mechana Constructs are overpowered for their cost, something that was toned down in later expansions.)
Block Two: Storm & Heroes (2011-2012)
The second block showed off how later blocks of Ascension could change up the game with new rules. It contained the full-sized Storm of Souls (2011) and the small-sized Immortal Heroes (2012). Except small wasn’t quite as small any more: it included 69 new cards intended for acquisition … plus another 60 special cards (events and soul gems).
These new sets also contained a lot of new mechanics: more than any other block!
New Mechanic — Event. The biggest new mechanic in Block Two is the Event. These are cards that are randomly mixed into the main deck, and that come into play when they’re drawn, creating global rules changes.
How It Works — Event. I love the idea of global rules changes. I’m surprised that more deckbuilders haven’t taken advantage of the idea. They offer fun variance (and fun annoyances for your plans) that clearly go back to Gary’s idea of keeping players on their toes. And Ascension is a game that works really well with this sort of mechanic, because you have a central draw deck of randomized cards that can easily spit out cards of this type. I think the general idea of mixing other sorts of cards into deckbuilders like Ascension (or Thunderstone) that include random draws is a good one.
Unfortunately, I suspect that Block Two was the one that showed the Stoneblade crew that people weren’t playing the game like they were “supposed to”, one block at a time. There are just five events in each of the two parts of the Block. With 170 purchasable cards in the whole block, that means that about 6% of the cards are events. One should come up every 3 or 4 rounds of play. But if players instead mixed all of their Ascension cards together, then those cards would become more and more diffuse, to the point where events might never come out, or where they might stick around for the rest of the game. So Immortal Heroes introduced a bandaid: a set of 20 “New Event” cards that could be mixed into the deck at a rate of 5/box used. These New Event cards then activate the (much smaller) deck of actual event cards. Of course as soon as Block Three appeared, there were no longer enough New Event cards for all the sets.
Ironically, it was also Events that demonstrated how well the Block system worked, because they were a major new mechanic that was heavily influential during Ascension’s second year but that hasn’t been seen since.
New Mechanic — Trophy Monsters (and Fanatics): Monsters in Ascension grant Honor and some of them give an immediate one-time power too. Block Two’s Trophy Monsters are different: they provide a one-time power that a player can use later in the game. Immortal Heroes then built on the idea by introducing “ongoing trophies”, which grant a permanent power to someone after they kill a (powerful) monster.
Block Two also includes an immediate complement to the Trophy Monster: the Fanatic. He’s an always-available monster (like the Cultist), but he costs more to kill (3 Power), and he grants a trophy effect — one that’s based on the current Event, as it happens, nicely tying together Block Two’s expansions.
How It Works — Trophy Monsters (and Fanatics): Trophy Monsters introduce new strategy that you can’t get from an immediate power, and the Fanatic builds on that even more: you effectively can choose to spend 3 Power at any time to gain a future power. (I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more cards like the Fanatic — as replacements for the Cultists or additions. It seems like an obvious area for expansion.)
The Ongoing Trophies have also been used pretty minimally, but they’re a nice thing to have in a very dynamic game like a deckbuilder — where real progress is only shown through the somewhat opaque construction of a deck. Granting a player a super-power makes it that much more obvious that they’re doing well.
The Trophy Monsters mechanic is apparently considered to be a pretty minor bit of complexity, because it’s shown up in other Blocks (though with less frequency).
New Mechanic — Unite. Some Lifebound heroes now have the “Unite” keyword, which gives them an extra power if you play any other Lifebound Heroes on the same turn.
How It Works — Unite. The Unite mechanic serves a few good purposes.
First, it further distinguishes Lifebound cards from the other factions. Previously, they’d been known as Honor generators and hero acquirers, but they also did a bit of everything — which meant they were among the fuzziest of the Ascension factions. Now, they also were the faction that came out in groups — and that made them feel quite different from the other types of cards.
Second, it emphasizes a strategy of really focusing on a single faction of cards (Lifebound). This helps to drive long-term strategy, which can often be a little unfocused in Ascension because of its various random elements.
The Ascension crew felt like Unite was such a minor mechanic that you won’t actually find it in the rules for the sets in this block. Instead, it’s just described on the cards. This casualness with keyword powers comes straight from the Magic: The Gathering school of design, where similar powers come and go at the drop of a Block. It’s somewhat surprising that Ascension hasn’t gone further in this direction, preferring larger changes rather than new keywords. Nonetheless Multi-Unite is an example of another keyword, several sets down the line.
New Mechanic — Soul Gems. Some cards tell a player to draw a Soul Gem, which allows them to draw a random card from a second deck — each of which represents a hero from the previous Block. That card’s power can then be used on the same turn.
How it Works — Soul Gems. The Soul Gems certainly create variability, because the mechanic isn’t like anything else in the game; it’s the only example of a secondary deck in the game (if you ignore the bandaid of New Events, which did create an Event deck). Take that as good (because of the variability) or bad (because of the lack of parallel mechanics) as you prefer. It also really showed off what a great job Ascension has done with its theming, which has been a strength of the game since day one.
It seems likely that Soul Gems were (once again) intended to introduce a bit of chaos to prevent programmed play. Here, the player gets some type of random upgrade which he can’t predict at the beginning of the round — be it a Power increase, a Rune increase, or one or more new cards.
The other downside of Soul Gems is that it’s a bit fiddly having another deck of cards to fool wit. ]In fact, I think I’ve hardly ever played games with Soul Gems, because I long found them “intimidating”. But, that’s one of the reasons I bought the great Broken Token Ascension card trays — because the Ascension boxes at the time were terrible for storing unique decks of cards like these.
This new mechanic only appeared in Immortal Heroes, the second box in Block Two, showing that Stoneblade was willing to introduce new mechanics even in the latter half of a block, when they’d only be used once.
Though Block Two has tons of new mechanics, it doesn’t feel that complex. That might be because things like Trophy Monsters and Unite seem like very natural and simple expansions of the games — new (keyword) card powers, not new rules. Looking at it from that point of view, Events and Soul Gems are the only actual expansions to the game system. The result of these various additions is a game that allows for a lot more complexity than the original game, but which still feels as balanced and is almost as easy to play.
In some ways, I feel like the first two Blocks of Ascension showed off the game at its best. If you wanted simplicity you had Block One and if you wanted more tactical depth you had Block Two. And, even though I advocate and agree with sticking to the Ascension blocks, these were really two that you could freely mix together; once you got those “New Event” cards from Immortal Heroes, you could play everything in one game if you really wanted to, in large part because Block One gave you a simple basis to start from.
Starting with Block Three, I feel like Ascension got a little more uneven, resulting in some mechanics that threw off the balance of the game due to increased swinginess — and more importantly uncontrollable randomness. But those blocks also introduced more variability in the form of far-flung mechanics that made the game more replayable.
I’ll talk about all of those topics in two weeks when I finish up the current sequence of Ascension boxes. I’ll also provide an overview of what the various sets do, so that you can make your own set of Ascension cards if you aren’t happy with the ways the “official” blocks are laid out.