tabletop

If You Like Fantasy Games, You’ll Love Ascension

by Matt Miller on Nov 25, 2011 at 08:00 AM

Our continuing series on tabletop games that are fun and accessible to the video game crowd continues with our look at Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Previous installments featured games like Tannhäuser, Castle Ravenloft, and Yomi that share mechanics familiar to video gamers. While the deckbuilding style of Ascension might be less familiar, the simple rules, fast-paced gameplay, and fantasy styling make the game easy to pick up and share with new players.

It’s no coincidence that our recommendation comes at the time it does. With the holidays upon us, a lot of video gamers are likely to be headed for some big family gatherings. Ascension makes for a great pick to bring along; it’s simple enough that you can get your family and/or friends playing quickly, but you’ll dig the deeper strategy and fiction that the game provides.

Gameplay

Ascension is built around a popular mechanic in the tabletop world commonly called deck-building. Popularized by another excellent game called Dominion, deck-building games generally challenge players to start with a standard desk of relatively weak cards, and then purchase new cards over the course of the game.

Ascension follows Dominion's mechanic pretty closely, but changes things up through the presence of monsters that must be fought, heroes that can join your cause, and special artifacts (constructs) that can permanently boost your abilities on all future turns.

Two to four players (up to six with the expansion) can compete against each other, and the game adjusts the victory conditions for different sized groups. Unlike many games with multiple potential player group sizes, Ascension plays well with any size group we tried.

As you play, you’ll be juggling three basic resources. Runes allow you to purchase new cards. Power gives the ability to defeat monsters. Honor is earned for defeating monsters and for having good cards in your deck, and this final resource determines the winner at the end of the game.

Each turn, you’ll draw cards from your growing deck, kill as many monsters as possible, acquire as many new cards as you can afford with your runes, and then draw new cards to plan ahead for your next turn. Over time, many of your acquired cards will have interactions with one another, so a big part of the game’s strategy comes through stacking your deck so that strongly related cards are more likely to show up in a given hand.


Gary Games CEO Justin Gary demos the deck building game to fans

Story

While Ascension is definitely not a narrative game by any stretch, the game makers at Gary Games have done a great job of providing a cool fictional backdrop to the game, and some gorgeous art to help sell that fiction.

The short version is that you play a powerful warrior out to defend the world of Vigil as the barriers between dimensions begin to break down. The fallen god Samael is sending hordes of monsters through the breach, and you’ll summon your own army of heroes from across the dimensions to combat the threat.

Each card has flavor text that helps flesh out the world in cool ways, and you rapidly begin to get a sense for all the different factions and dimensions that exist out there in the multiverse. From strange mechanical constructs, to dragon-like elemental tyrants, and on through powerful primal heroes in animal form, the world of Ascension feels rich and well conceived.

Unique Features

Ascension’s high production values really set it apart. Beyond the attractive art on every card, the card stock itself is thick and the coating glossy. Though it is not strictly necessary if you’re hurting for play space, the base game comes with a board that has designated slots for every card you’ll lay out during a game. You’ll also get some fun little plastic gems to act as counters for your honor points.

The game’s other most intriguing element is the interaction between different cards. Hundreds of cards can show up in a single game, but buying cards that will benefit each other in future turns is often the key to victory. Along with the strong fantasy battle vibe, the unique interactions between individual cards help Ascension stand apart from other deckbuilding games on the market.

[NEXT UP: The price of simplicity, and the video game version]


The iOS version of the game is a great way to learn the basics

Complexity

As mentioned before, Ascension is extremely easy to pick up, but the simplicity comes at a cost. The strategic depth of the game is limited at times, and the luck of the draw and the cards that become available on your turn go a long way towards making or breaking your chance at a win. Balance also isn’t necessarily the game’s strong suit. During the games we played, constructs seemed incredibly powerful when compared against similar cost heroes. At other times, long turns would pass in which nothing interesting was available to purchase or fight.

The trade-off you get for these occasionally misbalanced features is the joy of a game that moves fast and keeps the action hopping from one player to another. The rules are extremely straightforward, and you don’t have to learn a million exceptions to the core gameplay. New players get invested quickly and can compete with more experienced players within just a few games.

For Video Gamers?

Video gamers love their fantasy settings, and Ascension is a fun new world to get to know. On top of an enjoyable fictional backdrop, every game focuses on building up a fun combination of powers, which should please fans of leveling and skill upgrades.

The other thing video gamers will appreciate about this tabletop game is that it can be played as a video game. Specifically, an excellent version of Ascension is available on the iTunes store for $4.99. The app version of the game can be played alone against AI opponents, or with friends, either online or by passing your device. The iOS version of the game has a slick and friendly interface, though you will have to spend time learning the cards by zooming in on them, especially if you decide to play on an iPhone. We recommend the iOS version as an excellent way to learn the game if you’re the first one among your friends or family to try it out.

What else do I need to know?

The core starter set of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer can be purchased directly from the developers at Gary Games or from your favorite online or brick-and-mortar games store for $39.99. The initial set includes a board, 50 shiny little honor tokens, a storage tray, rulebook, and 200 cards. With that many cards, expect that every game will be play out in a unique way.

The first expansion pack, Ascension: Return of the Fallen, includes 120 new cards and 30 more honor tokens. Interestingly, Return of the Fallen can play as a standalone game for two players, or expand the core game to allow for up to six players. At $29.99, Return of the Fallen offers a lower point of entry if you’re interested in trying out the game with just one other friend.

A second expansion called Ascension: Storm of Souls is due out on December 16th of this year. 

Thanks for reading, and make sure to let us know in the comments below if there are other tabletop games you’d like to see us cover in future features.