Ascension is one of the prolific deckbuilders out there. In the past I’ve written about the first eight releases in Deckbuilding Expansions, Part One: From Chronicles to Heroes and Deckbuilding Expansions, Part Two: From Vigil to Champions. As I said at the time, I wanted to discuss how these expansions “influenced the Ascension game and deckbuilding in general”
Since my last article, in August of 2015, several new Ascension expansions have appeared, but these new releases represent a change in how they’re produced: they’re no longer arranged into paired blocks that work well together. In fact, they’re on longer even lightly linked as was the case with the seventh and eighth sets; instead each expansion now feature totally disparate mechanics As a player I’m not fond of these change, because some of the games no longer feel like they have enough cards. As a designer, however, I’m thrilled that it allows me to explore that many more mechanics.
Because of these changes, new articles in this series will be talking about individual sets, rather than coherent blocks. This article discusses sets nine and ten, both of which were pretty feature rich.
Set Nine: Dreamscape (2015)
Dreamscape offered a coherent set of mechanics focused on Insight and what it can buy.
New Mechanics — Insight & Dreamborn. Dreamscape introduces a new currency: Insight. Unlike Runes or Power (and unlike the energy shards of block three), Insight is a physical currency, marked by little plastic gems that are too easy to roll.
Where does Insight come from? One major source is Dreamborn cards. Whenever they enter the center row, everyone gets Insight, and the player who buys the card get even more Insight.
How It Works — Insight. I love deckbuilding games that introduce non-card-based resources. That’s because deckbuilding games usually focus on tactical play, as you figure out how to best use your hand of cards every term (albeit, with the deckbuilding itself being strategic). However, out-of-band resources of this sort introduce the option for strategic play as well. You can now save up your resources for something you really want.
How It Works — Dreamborn. The Dreamborn cards ensure that there’s a constant stream of Insight, but they do randomly — which is something Justin Gary likes, to reduce the dangers of programmed play. You can’t necessarily depend on getting Insight when you want it. But unlike some of the large-scale randomness of Ascension, like the aforementioned energy shards, this one is much better constrained. Yes, one player can get a slight advantage by having the first opportunity to purchase a Dreamborn card, but that’s only after everyone benefited from it.
The Dreamborn cards are the second type of card that has an effect when it hits the center row, following the Fate mechanic of Return of the Fallen. It’s a bit frustrating that Ascension keeps returning to this well without being consistent in how they graphically denote it. As I wrote when I talked about Return of the Fallen, it’s easy to forget to apply Fate effects. That’s also true with Dreamborn, though perhaps a bit less likely because usually someone is avidly waiting to get more Insight. But a clear and obvious mark for “takes effect in the center row” would have been appreciated.
New Mechanics — Dreams & Visions. What do you do with Insight? You buy cards from your personal deck of Dream cards. Heroes and constructs go into your deck, while visions have an immediate effect.
How It Works — Dreams. Each player has a small set of Dream cards that only he can buy. This is an infrequently seen deckbuilding mechanic that goes back to at least Nightfall (2011). It creates some nice variability among the players, as each player figures out how his own personal stash can be used to his unique advantage. This introduces even more strategy into the game by taking the normally strategic element of deckbuilding and giving players more foreknowledge and control.
The Dream deck also shows again how to cleverly allow the use of an additional currency in a deckbuilding game. The Insight already don’t clog up your hand, because they’re physical resources; now, the things you can buy with Insight don’t clog up the center row, because they’re in their own deck. Without their new protections, a third currency in Ascension could have dragged the game to a halt (as already happens on occasion with just two currencies).
How It Works — Visions. Conversely, the vision cards show how not to introduce a dramatically different mechanic. Though these cards are one use, they look mostly like the rest of the cards and they don’t say anywhere on the card that they should be banished after use. So players use them incorrectly. Frequently.
Overall, Dreamscape may be the most coherent of the later Ascension sets and is overall one of the best.
Set Ten: War of Shadows (2016)
Similarly the tenth set, called “Ascension X” featured a coherent idea for mechanics: light and darkness.
New Mechanics — Light & Dark, Day & Night. The cards of War of Shadows are marked with Light and Dark icons. If there are more Light then Dark cards out in the center row it’s Day, if there are more Dark than Light, it’s Night, and if they’re the same, it’s neither. Certain cards have additional powers that only work at Day or Night.
How It Works — Light & Dark. The biggest challenge of the Light and Dark icons is that you need to constantly add up how many cards there are of each. War of Shadows resolves this with a rather clever change to its game board. You slide cards up in the center row if they’re Light and down if they’re Dark. It’s thus pretty easy to see where the balance lies.
How It Works — Day & Night. The idea of a global attribute that affects all gameplay is a neat one. The events of Block Two were the same sort of thing, but the Day/Night dichotomy is much simpler. It’s essentially an environmental keyword, which is a good complement to all the card-based key words of Ascension.
The idea of the cards in the center row having an effect is also a neat one. This is a fine example of how to do good expansion design: you look at all the elements of your game, and you see how each one could do something that you don’t expect. I’d argue that the Fate and Dreamborn effects were relatively expected: the cards came out into the center row, and something happened. But instead having cards in the center row change the state of the game? That’s different.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel like these two neat ideas melded well together. The problem is that old canard: randomness. Justin Gary likes it, but I think it’s gone too far at times, and this is one of those times. I like the idea of introducing subgames to Ascension play. The acquisition and use of Insight in Dreamscape falls into that style of play; here, you instead try to force it to be Day and Night. The issue is that you can’t do so consistently. You can easily spend all of your effort buying specific cards to change the Day/Night state … but it’s still very easy to get unlucky and to end up without the state that you wanted. Not only is this frustrating, but it decreases the strategy of the game, where I think the best expansions (like Dreamscape) increase it.
New Mechanic: Dual-Cost Cards. Some cards require both Runes and Power to buy. They tend to have higher power than a card with a similar total cost of just Runes or Power.
How It Works: Dual-Cost Cards. It’s kind of neat being able to build a deck that allows you to buy better cards, giving you an alternative path to victory. However, to make this mechanic really work, you would need to integrate it much more completely: giving lots of ways to earn both currencies and lots of other ways to jointly spending both currencies to your advantage. There are a scant few cards that grant both currencies or that convert from one to another, but not enough to make it a major element in the game.
I also have serious qualms about a game design element that encourages bad play — because mixing large numbers of Runes and Power in a deck is inefficient deckbuilding that will bite you in any other Ascension game (and maybe even in this one). Even if if works in this set, you’re learning bad habits. To a certain extent, training different gameplay strategies in different supplements is good supplement design, but I think this is a bridge too far.
Overall, War of Shadows is problematic. Its main mechanic is annoying to monitor and almost impossible to control; its subsidiary mechanic introduces bad gameplay. Though Dawn of Champions (set eight) might be more broken, with its rallies that could make turns go on forever, set ten is the one I’m least likely to play.
As it left the concept of blocks behind, Ascension felt more able to really innovate the game with major new mechanics. However, where Dreamscape worked great and showed the power of this sort of innovation, War of Shadows wasn’t as joyful.
Still, I’d rather see the innovation, even if it sometimes doesn’t work out.