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Stone Blade’s Ascension is in its eighth year of epic releases, and now it’s bringing us its eleventh standalone version with Ascension: Gift of the Elements. In this edition, new mechanics join with old to bring a whole new series of strategies to the table. After several play sessions, and introducing the game to kids who have never played Ascension before, I’m here to tell you the good, bad, and questionable details of the game.
The basic mechanics of Ascension are the same. You have a starting deck of 10 cards, and you buy cards to bulk up your deck. The cards in your deck give you buying power and fighting power, and the cards in the Center (the middle row) are there for fighting or buying. A number of conditions, such as defeating a Monster, reward honor tokens, which are the gems on the right. Whoever has the most honor (through tokens, or the honor value of their cards) at the end of the game wins. The end of the game is triggered when there are no more tokens left on the board.
There are several mechanics that dominate the game, though, and each of them drives its own strategy. Let’s take a look at what the different strategies look like in Gift of the Elements. Beware, Ascension fans, nothing is too sacred to be improved upon, and many players will find their own strategies as time goes on. These are just the strategies that rose from the minds of players from several age groups.
In Gift of the Elements, players get to revisit the Events mechanic from Storm of Souls. Events come up in the Center deck, but are played to the side, changing the rules slightly until they are replaced or removed. The new twist, though, is that each of the five events can be purchased and transformed into powerful heroes. When a card is transformed, it is replaced with a new card, which is placed in the player’s deck.
Players who want to acquire them, though, need to be able to generate cash. That is, they need runes, and lots of them. This drives a strategy of high rune generation, and milling. Milling isn’t an official term in Ascension, but it refers to the process of discarding a lot of cards in a deck. In this case, the player wants to force the Center deck to turn over, in order to make events pop up. This strategy is usually combined with others, because there are only 5 events to be had in the entire deck.
Back to basics
In the normal Ascension game, overusing “Mystic” and “Heavy Infantry” cards can be detrimental to your overall strategy. This is because those well-known cards are very basic, and aren’t symbiotic with other cards. With several of the new cards, though, players are rewarded for using these more basic cards. This strategy allows players to keep their decks simple and a little less intense, without sacrificing power. This strategy works well for players who don’t like tracking a lot of details, or just enjoy a simpler experience. “Brother Laias” and “Whirlwind Ascetic,” for example, allow you to increase your hand further if you are using both “Mystic” and “Heavy Infantry” cards. “Flourishing Druidess,” on the other hand, is basically a pumped-up version of “Mystic,” but worth more honor, and rewards you for having the most honor tokens. At worst, it costs the same as a “Mystic,” and gives the same effect. At best, it helps you take advantage of an early lead.
The Infest tag allows a player to move a Monster into an opponent’s deck after defeating it. This mechanic is an underhanded attack mechanic which can be painful to deal with. There are a lot of ways to handle it, and a couple of ways to take advantage of it. Cards like “Unspeakable Doom” reward you for filling your opponent’s decks. “Yuk Tribe Outcast,” on the other hand, allows you to use his bretheren in its own powerful mechanic. Most Infest cards have no use on their own. They water down your deck by forcing you to draw them instead of your better cards.
A great strategy for players new to Gift of the Elements is to generate a lot of attack power and defeat Monsters with Infest. Not only will it generate honor tokens directly, it weakens your opponents, and forces them to spend time and resources getting rid of them again.
The Empower mechanic is a neat one. It may be my favorite mechanic in Ascension to date, in fact. Empower allows you to banish cards (move to the Center discard pile, instead of your own) which you have already played. This allows you to get rid of Infest cards, but also works on any other card in your deck.
The primary strategy I use revolves around Empower and other banishing effects. Using Empower, I remove weaker cards, such as “Militia” from my deck, as well as Infest cards. Keeping my deck thin means having constant access to the best cards in my deck. When I don’t have other cards to banish, I turn to cards such as “Iron Elemental.” These cards allow you to get a powerful benefit for banishing them, no matter where they are. This includes banishing them from the Center! As an added benefit, cards like “Thicket Familiar” reward you for having plenty of Empower cards, and one can use Empower to banish “Iron Elemental” after playing it to yield a total of 4 runes for that card alone.
Finally, folks familiar with Ascension will know that Mechana cards are often their own strategy. Buying lots of Constructs, particularly Mechana Constructs, provides an internal circuit that powers itself. Gift of the Elements has its own unique version of this system. As usual, Mechana Constructs are worth a lot of Honor points in their own right. In this iteration, though, you must have multiple Mechana Constructs in play to get any benefit. If a player plays “P.R.I.M.E Directive” and controls 8 Mechana Constructs, they win the game. The problem is, there are only 10 Mechana Constructs in the deck.
The strategy for Mechana players is full of exploits and weaknesses, however. Cards like “Conduit Monk” allow you to buff your tally, and one Construct even allows you to use defeated Monsters as Mechana Constructs! To counter this, players must take advantage of Monsters such as “Tectonic Thrasher” to remove the constructs from the field, and Infect Monsters to keep the Mechana player from playing all of their Constructs at once.
Thanks to the tried-and-true model of Ascension games, Gift of the Elements has a sturdy balance of playability, strategy, and fun. The suggested age is 13+, but younger kids did fine with each other. Don’t pit adults against kids under 14, though. It can get painful quick, even for sharp kids. There are just a lot of things to keep track of, including what’s in your opponents’ decks.
Stone Blade says the game takes about 30 minutes, but most games have taken us between 40 and 55 minutes. The younger the players, the longer the game, but even with older players familiar with the mechanics, and focused on play, none of our games fell below the 30-minute mark.
As I’ve come to expect, Stone Blade takes care to use quality pieces. The box, board, cards, and tokens are all equal to or higher than industry standard. The cards don’t need sleeves, though the instructions (as in other Ascension games) seem to assume you will use sleeves. There are even extra copies of the Event cards, so you can play with or without sleeves. Of course, Stone Blade partners with Ultra Pro, which makes card sleeves, so there may be a bias there. I don’t use sleeves—the cards are fine on their own.
Unfortunately, boxing the game up has a couple of snags. The only negatives in our play have come from putting the game away. In the above picture, you can see that we store the instruction book bent around the corner of the tray. This is because the instruction book, though gorgeously printed, is too large to lay flat.
The tray itself is just odd. It functions great as a stand-alone, but it is quite large. Mostly, the tray’s size is due to the board. It’s large, and we want it stored safely, so I’m good with it. The oddness comes in the shapes and sizes of the cubbies. There is a center section, with separators built in, to keep your cards orderly. I love it! But then there are three tubs with no obvious uses. Obviously, the honor tokens need a home, so I make use of two of them. Half of the tokens are in each, so a 2-player game is really easy to set up. The third tub gets nothing. Extra cards from other Ascension games don’t fit, so it’s no good to combine sets in this tray. It’s not broken, of course. I just feel like there’s a lost opportunity for utility.
Ascension: Gift of the Elements is a great standalone expansion for the Ascension lineup. Interesting mechanics, new strategies, and beautiful art make for a great value. It can be played with 2–4 players, with the maximum number increasing when combined with other versions (or another copy) of the game. Players of any level will enjoy the various mechanics, and the wide array of strategies, making Gift of the Elements a great gift for your gamer geek, or a new star in your collection.
The MSRP for Ascension: Gift of the Elements is 39.99, but is available for $32.56 on Amazon.
Disclaimer: Stone Blade Entertainment provided a copy of Ascension: Gift of the Elements for review purposes.