Dive Into the Deck-Building Genre With Ascension

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ascension boardAscension board

Ascension: cards and board. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Overview: A new deck-building card game from a new publisher, Gary Games, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer pits four players against each other in a race to kill the corrupt god Samael the Fallen One. Ascension features Heroes and Constructs from four Factions which can work together to defeat Monsters. Each player starts with the same ten basic cards, and then attempts to acquire more cards to help them earn Honor points.

Ascension boxAscension box
Players: 2 to 4 players

Ages: 13 and up

Playing Time: 30 minutes

Retail: $39.99, plus $16.00 for the optional sleeves and small box.

Rating: Excellent new entry in the deck-building category, but may suffer in replay.

Who Will Like It? Ascension is probably best for those who enjoy the mechanics of deck-building games (like Dominion or Thunderstone) but would prefer a quicker start-up and play, with a little more luck-based mechanics.

Ascension game in progressAscension game in progress

4-player game of Ascension, sans board. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Theme:

The world of Vigil was separated from all divine influences by the Great Seal—but now Samael is breaking through, along with a bunch of monsters. However, the followers of four other gods have also been able to come through the Seal, and they assist you in your quest against Samael. Although you are not restricted to any of the four Factions, you’ll find that having many cards of the same faction tends to amplify their effectiveness, and they each have differing strengths.

The way that the Factions work is a neat part of the theme, because although you and your opponents don’t choose sides, you may find yourself gravitating toward one of the Factions and going after different cards. The theme itself is a little abstracted from the gameplay—when you defeat monsters you gain Honor points, and the player with the most honor is declared the Godslayer (even though you never actually fight Samael in the game).

Components:

200 cards, game board, 50 plastic honor tokens

The cards are decent quality but with the amount of shuffling you’ll do it may be worth getting the sleeves; I noticed a few dings here and there after the first non-sleeved game. The sleeves themselves are very sturdy, with the Ascension logo on the back. I haven’t used sleeves in my other games before, so it took me a while to figure out the trick to getting the cards in without bending them. Once sleeved, though, the cards will certainly last a lot longer—though they now take up more space and are so slick that they’re harder to stack. I did appreciate the smaller box that came with the sleeves, though—it’s just right for all the cards and the honor tokens, but no space for the board.

Speaking of the board: while it’s attractive and sturdy, it is unessential to the game: You need a draw and discard pile, six slots for the center row, and and three spaces for the “always available” cards. The board simply shows the spaces and has a turn summary printed on it.

The “honor tokens” are plastic jewels, in red and colorless, which are used to keep score in addition to the values printed on some of the cards. They’re a fun touch, and because of the way the scoring is designed you do need them (or some other way) to keep score.

The artwork on the cards is hand-drawn and has a sketchier look. You can see examples of the style throughout the Ascension website. The cards themselves are very easy to read, though, with a clearly stated cost for purchasing cards or defeating the monsters.

Gameplay:

Each player starts with eight Apprentices (worth one Rune each) and two Militia (worth one Power each). Runes are used to purchase Hero and Construct cards, and Power is used to battle Monsters. Each player shuffles their own set of cards and draws five to form a hand.

On the side of the deck are three types of cards that are always available: Mystics, which provide two Runes each; Heavy Infantry, worth two Power each; and the Cultist—an easy to defeat bad guy which rewards you one Honor. The rest of the cards are shuffled together to form a draw pile, and the top six are dealt out to form the center row.

On each turn, you play cards from your hand to gain Runes, Power and Honor. You can buy Heroes and Constructs with the Runes, and battle Monsters with Power. (Honor is just worth points.) Cards that you buy are placed in your discard pile, as well as any Hero cards you’ve played this turn. Then you draw five more, and when you run out you reshuffle your discard pile and start again.

The simplest Hero cards simply provide some number of Runes or Power. But others will give you more abilities: drawing additional cards, banishing cards from the center row (to replace them with new cards), or even awarding you Honor points each time they’re played. Constructs are like tools or machines—when you play one of these, it actually stays on the table in front of you and does not get discarded. So collecting a lot of Constructs can be quite beneficial, since they provide different types of bonuses each turn—but there are ways that your opponents can make you discard Constructs as well. Each time you defeat a Monster, you gain Honor points, but you may also get other rewards in addition, depending on the difficulty of the monster.

When a preset number of Honor tokens (based on number of players) is exhausted, the game continues through that current round, and then the game ends. You add up the Honor tokens with honor points listed on the cards in your deck, and whoever has the highest total wins.

Conclusion:

The trick to Ascension is building the best combination of cards so that any 5-card draw will give you either Runes to buy more cards or Power to defeat Monsters. Since most cards are worth some points, you can gain Honor either way. Since the six center row cards are drawn at random from a deck of 100 cards, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an even distribution of Monsters, Heroes, and Constructs. Sometimes you’ll have a hand full of Power but no Monsters to fight (in which case you can defeat a few Cultists for some points); sometimes you’ll have a lot of Runes but the center row is full of Monsters.

Ascension is a pretty quick game to play, but especially because there is minimal setup—you don’t have to sort out a bunch of cards and lay them all out, other than the three “always available” cards. You just shuffle the whole stack and deal out six, and they’re replaced as they are removed from the center row. However, that simplicity can also be a weakness: one of the great things about Thunderstone and Dominion are the variety of combinations you can start with, making it a different game each time (but you can also end up with a bad combination). Ascension‘s variety comes simply from the randomized order that the cards appear, but otherwise it’s the same 100 cards each time.

The difficulties in shuffling that many cards thoroughly was apparent in my first game: we finished the game without ever encountering Constructs from two of the four Factions, which meant for much of the game we were mostly playing with only two Factions. The six-card center row also means that each player is facing a different set of cards: a single player could purchase several cards, defeat a few monsters and banish a card or two—which means that theoretically all six cards could be different by the next player’s turn. (In practice, there are usually at least a few that have carried over.) It means that luck plays a bigger role, not just in the shuffling of your own deck but in the appearance of the cards from the center deck.

Another feature that makes Ascension quicker to play is that there aren’t any restrictions on how many cards you can buy or monsters you can defeat per turn. You can spend as many Runes and Power as you have, and since cards are replaced immediately, you won’t run out of options even if you buy all six. The stats on the cards are also much simpler and easier to parse at a glance. The ability to retain Constructs also makes it easier to guarantee that you’ll be able to use some abilities even if your five cards aren’t great.

And although there isn’t a lot of direct player interaction, the fact that there are only six center row cards means that the actions you take prevent other players from getting the same cards—so you have to pay attention to what the other players are doing and take that into account in your own strategy.

Overall, I think Ascension is a solid new entry in the deck-building genre. I know at PAX there were some folks who strongly preferred it to Thunderstone and Dominion—in fact, that’s part of the reason I was so eager to play it. Having played it now, I’m still on the fence—but mostly about replayability. Will the game continue to be interesting with the same set of cards after dozens of plays? I won’t know that until later. For now, though, it’ll be a good deck-building option when I want to jump right into a game rather than taking a bunch of time to count out cards.

Wired: Quick start-up, cool jewel tokens, and a nice amount of card interaction with the Factions. Simpler rules leads to quicker turns and less analysis paralysis.

Tired: Can’t customize the game; more luck-based than other deck-building games. I didn’t like the hand-drawn illustrations as much.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

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