The Deck-Building Ascension on the iPad

Gary Games' Ascension on the iPad

Earlier this summer I mentioned that the deck-building game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer was coming to the iPad and iPhone. I finally got to give it a shot recently. I think they’ve done a good job translating the game from cards to an app, but some of my original reservations about the game still held true in either format. I won’t get into the mechanics of the game here; you can read a more in-depth look in my full review of the card game.

The app translates all of the original rules and puts them into a digital format that reproduces all of the cards as they appear in the actual game. You can play offline against computer or human opponents (up to four players per game), using a pass-and-play format. You can also play online, either against Game Center friends or against random opponents found in the game lobby, and you can have several games going at once. There is a tutorial which walks you through the first few rounds of the game, showing you what to tap and how various cards work; I ran through it and it seems clear enough, though it’s hard for me to judge what it would be like for an entirely new player since I’d already learned the card game.

Ascension 4-player game

A 4-player game: your cards at bottom, other three players listed at top.

Screen Layout

You can enter your own name and the names of the AI players, and pick avatars (from a grid of characters from the game), as well as selecting a difficulty level of each computer player. Once you start a game, the game screen looks like the picture above. Your own hand of five cards is shown at the bottom of the screen, with your deck (green) on the left showing the number of cards left, and the discard (red) on the right. The star next to the deck shows your Honor (victory points) and the gear shows the number of Constructs you have in play.

Above this area is a dark band that represents the play area, showing which cards you (or your opponents) have played out of their hands. This area also includes a “Play All” button which plays all of the cards from your hand (handy if it doesn’t matter what order they’re played in) and an “End Turn” button. One nice thing about the “End Turn” button is that it glows red if you still have some potential moves to make, and green when there’s basically nothing else you can do, so you can be sure not to miss something (like a bonus from a Construct, or something you can still purchase from the center row).

Next comes the center row: the six cards dealt from the deck which are currently available. As you play cards from your hand, the number of Runes and Power you have are reflected in the triangle and circle above the center row, and cards that you can now acquire (or monsters you can defeat) will be highlighted. Just above the center row are the three “always available cards,” a large star showing the amount of Honor left before the game ends, and the draw deck and Void (the discard pile).

Finally, at the top of the screen are your opponents, showing their score, number of constructs, number of cards in hand, in draw pile, and in the discard. You can tap these sections to open a drop-down tab that shows more details.

Ascension card detail

Ascension card detail.

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Interface

In any of the sections of the game, you can double-tap on a card to bring up a blown-up view of the card so you can see all its details. What’s also interesting is the ability to tap on the decks to see what’s in them: you can check your draw deck, your discard pile, the Void, and even your opponents’ discard piles. For your opponents’ moves, you also have the option of looking at the Log to see what players have done in previous rounds. This is particularly useful if you’re playing a multi-player game and haven’t been able to see the actual cards that others are picking up while you play, but it does feel a little bit like cheating, since the app basically counts cards for you and you don’t have to rely on your memory to see what your opponents have taken. I should note, however, that when it shows you the contents of your deck it doesn’t show the order they’re in, just which cards you have in there.

Ascension history

Checking the log to see what your opponent purchased last round.

The app plays pretty smoothly: one of the things that’s really nice about playing a game like Ascension on the iPad is that you don’t have to deal with the shuffling and dealing, or counting out Honor tokens. It’s also great when you have a bunch of Constructs in play and complicated Heroes to have the computer keeping track of the number of Runes and Power you have to spend. Once you get used to dragging cards to your discard pile to claim them or dragging monsters to the void to defeat them, it becomes a pretty intuitive interface.

Ascension game in progress

Stringing together moves for a big play.

Multiplayer

I’ve mostly been experimenting with the offline mode, either against a computer player or in pass-and-play mode. That seems to work pretty well, though you spend a lot of time reviewing the log to see what everyone else did (unless you don’t care). The online multiplayer makes it fairly easy to connect, allowing you to create a game for 2 to 4 players, either open to anyone to join or inviting your friends who have the app. There’s a button for Game List, showing all the games you have in progress, including the number of Honor points left in the game, the current round, and the current player so you know if it’s your turn. You can easily return to the Game List from any game to check progress on your other games.

One odd thing about the multiplayer is that the notifications seem a bit weak. You get a tiny rotating triangle in the top left corner when it’s your turn in another game — at least, that’s what I assume that meant. Sometimes outside of the app I didn’t get any notification that the other player had already gone; another time I got a push notification saying it was my turn, but the Game List didn’t show it was my turn in any of my active games for a minute or so. You can tell when your opponent is online or offline by the small green or red dot next to their avatar, but that’s about it. There’s also no chat function, which means that you can’t talk to the other person directly through the game. I’ve gotten so used to iOS Carcassonne that not having chat seems a bit weird.

Ascension game end screen

Game end screen, showing final scores.

Other than those quirks, the app seems to be a pretty faithful translation of the original game. Speaking of that, though, my original complaints about the game still carry over: I’m still not a huge fan of the artwork in the game, which is just a little sketchier and less polished than I prefer. I’m also not really fond of the way the center row works: I’ve had games where round after round everyone had plenty of Power but not enough Runes to buy the pricey stuff in the center row, so all we could do is slay a few of the low-points Cultists. One game against the AI we never built up enough Mystics to break out of the cycle before the game ended, and we had very few non-basic cards in our decks even at the end.

Still, if you’re a fan of Ascension and you’ve got an iOS device, this is certainly a more hassle-free way to play it. If you haven’t played it yet, it’s a low-cost way to try it out, at $4.99 for the universal app.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a free download of the game for review purposes.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.