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Ascending Empires

Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

(Z-Man Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 47-120 minutes; $54.95)

 

ascendingboxSci-fi is one of the great gold veins where designers and publishers dig out endless games. In the last years I was impressed by many good titles. Eclipse, Race for the Galaxy, Battlestar Galactica, Earth Reborn, Claustrophobia, Galaxy Trucker, Alien Frontiers are all in the BGG top 100 joined by a new edition of Dune (renamed REX), Nexus Ops, Cosmic Encounters, the long awaited Merchant of Venus and the never ending Twilght Imperium. Finally, there are other titles of great success but with a narrower audience like High Frontier, Eminent Domain (also reviewed this issue), Space Empire 4X, Sector 41 and Ascending Empires, the game I’m going to review today.

Ascending Empires, as designed by Ian Cooper, is a particular game that combines strategic/tactical rules with dexterity – finger flicking to clarify. Of course, the master of the genre is Crockinole (ranked 34 in BGG’s top list). Pitch Car and Catacombs are racing and fantasy interpretations; Ascending Empires brings the genre into space!

Up to 4 players race in a new galaxy to colonize new worlds: building colonies, cities, and research facilities. Everything looks like a normal science fiction title except for the fact that starships travel in space by flicking. No dice, no rolls, no cards. The randomness is all in the “not so easy to predict” results of the flicking movements.

The map is filled with holes where planets are placed: each planet is characterized by a color (orange, grey, purple and brown) corresponding to a different technology. The planets are randomly distributed on the map according to special set-up rules that vary with the number of players. The idea is to get a random but homogeneous distribution of the different colors. In the beginning, the planets are placed face down.

Every player starts with two starships and six soldiers. Starships are used to move soldiers from home base to the planets and to fight other starships and/or planets. Soldiers are used to conquer planets and are needed to build colonies, cities and research facilities. Soldiers moving into the space are “transformed” into starships and starships landing on planets are “transformed” into soldiers. The amount of starships and soldiers you can have in play during the game is limited by your supply so you have to plan carefully.

During your turn you can take an action from the five possible: recruit, mine, move, build and develop.

Recruiting is easy. You can move two soldiers from your supply to a planet you already own (where you have already a soldier and/or a facility). Mine is also simple. Move two/three soldiers from a planet back to supply to score one/two victory points.

With a move action, you can use two movement points (MP). You need an MP to flick (move) a starship, an MP to launch (remove a soldier for a planet and put a starship from the supply in the orbit of that planet), an MP to land (remove a starship from the orbit of a planet and put a soldier from the supply on the planet). Landing is the only way to get a unit onto a new planet and then be able to recruit/build on that planet.

The build action allows you to replace a soldier with a colony, a soldier and a colony for a city or two soldiers with a research facility. The soldiers are moved back to the supply. There are two rules that have a big impact in the building strategies and, overall, in the game flow: first of all you can NEVER have more than three objects (soldiers, colony, city, research facilities) on a single planet and you can have only a single planet with two research facilities.

What are research facilities used for? They are used to develop, of course. There are 4 areas of developing: military (orange), movement (grey), defense (purple) and soldiers (brown). Technology in each area starts at level 0 and can be developed up to level 4. To develop a technology, you need to have at least as many research facilities on planets of the color you are developing. For example, to get military (orange) level 2, you need 2 research facilities on orange planets. Since planets are well spread on the galaxy and you can have just a single planet with 2 research facilities, it is not easy to reach the highest levels. Actually it is common to end a game without level 4 technologies. Being the first to develop a technology gives as many VP as the technology level. Getting level 1 (and level 2) in all the 4 areas gives an extra starship and soldier into the supply.

ascending2Every game is played with a fixed number of VP. The amount varies depending on the number of players. You can also modify the amount for a longer or shorter game.

During the game, you score VP for mining, developing and destroying opponents’ starships. When the last VP is claimed, all players get another turn and the game ends. At that point, you also score for planets, colonies, cities and possibly a bonus if you are well spread in the galaxy.

The game flows easily and quickly: you launch soldiers from home base, move your starship in the orbit of unexplored planets, land on planets and than build colonies and research facilities. After a while you are ready to score some points developing technologies. At some point, planets are occupied and built and it is time to start fighting opponents, getting VP for that.

The combat system is really simple: if you flick a ship against another ship, both ships are moved back to the supply. If you end your movement close to opponents’ starships/planets, you can fight: each starship can fight a close opponent once (you have a ruler that may be used if necessary to determine the closest target). To kill a starship, you need two starships to score a hit on a turn; to kill a planet you need to beat the planet defense that is 1 for each soldier/colony, 2 for each city on the planet. No rolls, no randomness. Of course, to fight you need to flick your starships in range of opponents and that is not always an easy task.

Over these simple and sturdy core rules are built the technologies: which techs and when to develop them make the real difference. You can run the military way, getting long ranges, multiple targets, the battleship and extra points for winning battles. If you decide to follow this path you need to rush for orange planets and be ready to battle. The grey path offer you helps to quickly move and explore the galaxy. The defense (purple) path makes your planets with research facilities difficult to conquer and, at level 2, gets points if you are rammed. The brown path allow you to recruit more soldiers and colonize quicker.

As far as I know there are no foolproof winning strategies. Being able to bring into play the battleship looks like a real boost since you become a nightmare for your opponents but the other three paths are also interesting. It is also useful to develop all 4 paths to have extra soldiers and starships in the supply.

Ascending Empires is much less trivial than you might expect from a “finger flicking” game. You need to plan your strategy to win and the core rules are much closer to “German style” games than you might expect from the theme. Ascending Empires is a game I’m sure I’ll be still playing for many years.

 


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