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Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

[Jeff Feuer is an active member of the Long Island Gamers, one of the longest continually running gaming groups in the United States, and, in real life, a mathematics professor. As he says, “I’ve been computer gaming since the Atari days (including having played many of the incarnations of Civilization as well as some Railroad Tycoon and the Age of Empire series) but, except for some Monopoly, Risk and a few of the Avalon Hill sports simulation games, I did not get into boardgaming until late 2003 or early 2004. At that time, I was introduced by a fellow math professor in South Carolina where I was teaching at the time. Once I moved back to LI, I convinced a few colleagues to join me for a weekly gamenight. Eventually, I found LIBO in summer of 2006 and they directed me to LI Gamers.” Jeff first appeared in GA Report in the Summer 2007 issue with his review of Age of Empires III. In this review, his 5th for GA Report, Jeff turns his analytical eye to the latest deck-building card game.]

(Gary Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $39.95)

 

Reviewed by Jeff Feuer

ascensionAscension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is a deck-building card game for 2-4 players by first time designer Justin Gary. It is self-published by Gary Games. Although listed with a play time of an hour to an hour and a half, a game between experienced players (who know the rules and the cards) will last around 30 minutes. Justin Gary and several of his major playtesters are Magic: the Gathering pro tournament players. The result is a game which has a large variety of cards and a fantasy theme like Magic (featured in the Winter 1994 GA Report). Being a deck-building card game, it is only natural for gamers to wonder how Ascension compares to other deck-building card games like Dominion (Winter 2009 GA Report) and Thunderstone (Spring 2010 GA Report). This review will draw such comparisons for those that are familiar with both of those games. It has some similar features to both games, but is also quite different from both.

Like Dominion, Ascension is a deck-building game where players start with their own deck of 10 cards from which they shuffle and deal themselves a hand of five cards. By comparison, Thunderstone, also a fantasy based deck-building card game, gives players a starting deck of twelve cards and a hand of six cards. The starting cards in each player’s deck in Ascension consists of 8 cards that are worth 1 money unit (called a rune) represented by a triangle for purchasing new cards and 2 cards that are worth 1 power, represented by a red circle, for conquering monsters.

During a player’s turn, they can play as many cards as they wish to play from their hand, they can buy as many cards as they can afford and conquer as many monsters as they have power to defeat, with no other restrictions. When monsters are conquered, they grant immediate victory points represented by gems (which come in 1 and 5 unit gems). Some also grant an effect to the player who conquered it, such as money to spend during that turn, drawing another card, banishing a card (taking a card from the center row or from a player’s hand or discard pile to a common discard pile, called the void, like trashing in Dominion). Once the player takes their victory points and performs any effect on the monster’s card, the monster is discarded to the void (does not clog up their deck). Cards that are played from a player’s hand, granting an effect, are either heroes, which are discarded to the player’s discard pile at the end of their turn, or constructs, which stay out in front of the player (until and unless another player does something that causes them to have to discard some or all of them). All cards purchased during the game are worth some amount of victory points (printed on the card) at the end of the game (no gem victory points are given for purchasing or owning any card only for defeating monsters). Interestingly, having victory points printed on the card and having a way to earn victory points (in gem form) during the game is more reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy (Winter 2008 GA Report) than either Dominion or Thunderstone. As Race for the Galaxy is not a deck building game, there are not many other similarities between Ascension and Race for the Galaxy.

By contrast, Dominion allows players to play only one card for its effect, called an action (unless that card grants more actions), buy only one card (unless their action card(s) allow for extra purchases) which usually is either money, victory points, or has an effect, and then discard all cards played (except for duration cards, introduced in the Seaside expansion, which stay out for just one more turn). Furthermore, many cards in the game are not worth victory points at all and you never earn victory points (like the gems) during the game that stay with you the entire game (can never be trashed). Thunderstone allows players to either buy a card or conquer a monster, but not both and not more than one from either category. Defeated monsters go to the player’s deck, thus clogging up their deck with cards that are useful only at the end of the game for victory points. Also in Thunderstone, all cards are discarded at the end of the turn.

ascension2When deciding what cards to buy or monsters to conquer, Ascension players choose from a center row of 6 cards that are drawn from a single deck of cards called the portal deck. The portal deck consists of 72 heroes and constructs (divided up into 4 factions of 18 cards each) and 28 monsters that may be conquered, all shuffled together. It is possible to have a center row consisting entirely of monsters or of cards to be purchased. They may also choose to purchase a mystic card (3 cost and grants 2 runes when played) or a heavy infantry card (2 cost and grants 2 units of power). They may also choose to conquer cultist monster(s) that can be defeated at a rate of 2 power per cultist. Each defeated cultist grants an immediate victory point (in gem form).

By contrast, Dominion only has set supply piles (like the mystic and heavy infantry piles in Ascension). Thunderstone has set supply piles for the purpose of purchasing cards. It also has something like the center row, consisting of 3 monsters, representing a 3 level dungeon, so that players can always attempt to conquer monsters. However, conquering monsters is much different. In Ascension, you simply need to have enough power in your hand of cards to conquer a monster. In Thunderstone, the dungeon requires players to have card(s) granting light in their hand or extra power to make up for insufficient light, and the further into the dungeon (the closer to the central deck) that the monster is, the more light or extra power is required. Furthermore, players can acquire weapons to provide more attack power, but they are useless without a hero to wield it.

As previously stated, the portal deck consists of 4 factions of 18 heroes and constructs. Each faction tends to have cards that have similar effects, but players are not required to stay with just one faction. The 4 factions are: Void, Enlightened, Mechana and Lifebound. Void cards tend to grant the player extra power on their turn. Enlightened cards tend to let players manipulate their deck, either drawing cards or banishing cards (to the void instead of their personal discard pile). Mechana cards tend to give players discounts and abilities related to purchasing and/or playing constructs (especially Mechana constructs). They are the most synergistic faction, if you can get multiple Mechana constructs, you can have a very powerful deck and tableau of constructs. Lifebound cards tend to give extra runes to spend and sometimes a bonus if you play other Lifebound cards. Neither Dominion nor Thunderstone have factions. Fairy Tale (Spring 2005 GA Report) is a card game which does have factions which have separate abilities but, as it is also not a deck-building game, there have been only a few comparisons made between Ascension and Fairy Tale.

The game ends at the end of the round when the supply of gems is exhausted. The game ends with the player who had the last turn of each round. There are 60 points worth of gems available in a 2 player game and the supply increases by 15 points per player to a maximum of 90 points in a 4 player game. The players then add up the points that were preprinted on the cards they purchased during the game and added to the points they have in gems. The winner is the player with the most points. This is one of the few other similarities that Ascension has with Race for the Galaxy and not with Dominion or Thunderstone.

The box for Ascension is designed for a quick set-up (and clean up) of the game with set places for starting hands, the portal deck and a divider to separate the heavy infantry and mystic piles. It is clear that thought was put into how gamers will play a deck building game when designing the compartments for the box’s interior. Furthermore, the compartments are big enough to allow the cards to be sleeved and still fit.

It seems that some of the main difficulty in teaching Dominion and Thunderstone to new players is explaining the restrictions of “one action” and “one buy”. Without these restrictions, Ascension is an easier game to teach to new players. Those who have played Dominion and/or Thunderstone before do not seem to have much trouble since they have a frame of reference, with many common terms (banishing instead of trashing) and are used to having their own separate deck of cards to play with.

Overall, Ascension is a fun game. With only 2 set piles for purchase and only 1 set for conquering, it is a much more tactical game that Dominion or Thunderstone. You can build a money heavy or a power heavy deck, but if the center row consists of cards which must be acquired via the other method, there is not much you can do. You also cannot be sure of what types of cards, i.e. factions and cost, will be available on your turns. In Dominion, it is easier to develop a strategy of which cards you will purchase and use since the set piles will be available for many turns. Gamers should take these factors into account when deciding whether they think they will like Ascension. While I myself do tend to like games that are more strategic than tactical, I do like Ascension. It is fun and I like the theme, which helps.

 


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