One of the newest trends in board gaming in recent years has been the rise of “deck-building” games such as Dominion (and its various expansions) and Thunderstone (and its own expansion). The latest addition to this nascent family is Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, the first publication from Gary Games, which boasts at least three Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour winners on its design team.
In these games, players start with a very basic deck, usually consisting of ten cards, and use them to purchase and/or conquer additional cards with stronger powers. Ascension is unique among its deck-building peers in that there is not a set matrix of cards available for purchase. Instead, six cards are laid out from the 100-card “portal deck” to form a center row between the deck and three stacks of “always available” cards of two slight upgrades over your starting cards and an easy-to-defeat enemy of essentially infinite numbers. The cards in the center row are immediately replaced as they are purchased or banished (sent to a stack called “the void”, to distinguish it from each player’s personal discard pile), providing a constantly-shifting environment to which players must adapt as the game progresses. From two to four players are given a starter deck consisting of ten specific cards, drawing five of them to begin the game and at the end of each round (after discarding any remaining).
Cards come in one of three types. The most common are Heroes, which are one-shot effects that are played to generate runes (money), power (combat strength), honor (victory points), additional draws, and/or the ability to banish weaker (read: “starter”) cards from your deck in order to improve your overall draws. These Heroes come in four types, representing their general flavor and abilities. Like Heroes, Constructs also come in the same four types and generate useful effects, but unlike their counterparts Constructs remain active once played, providing their benefits every round. Both Heroes and Constructs are purchased by spending runes. The third type of card are Monsters, which can be defeated with power. Once defeated, Monsters are banished from the center row (rather than added to the player’s deck); in addition to providing honor, many Monsters also have an additional ability when defeated, which can include forcing opponents to discard one or more Constructs that they have in play among other effects.
Each game begins with a set number of Honor points (represented by plastic stones in values of one and five) available and ends at the end of a complete player cycle after that starting pool has been exhausted. Every non-starter card is worth an indicated number of Honor in addition to the stones gained via defeating enemies and/or the abilities of cards. Whoever has the highest Honor score wins, with ties being broken in reverse turn order — in other words, the first player always loses ties and so on down until the last player, who always wins ties.
I greatly favor Ascension over other deck-building games. I like the flexible structure of the player turn and multiple potential paths to victory. In my experience, too many games of (non-expanded) Dominion degenerate into “acquire tons of gold, purchase largest VP cards, repeat until game ends”, and I didn’t like the “dungeon or village” action segregation of Thunderstone, which frequently resulted in “wasted” turns during my only play of it thus far. Ascension occupies something of a sweet spot in between the other two, always allowing the players options without dead draws (aside from a single rune or single power without any way to draw more cards). This keeps the action moving; a game of Ascension can usually be completed in an hour or less. Also greatly in Ascension‘s favor is the quick set-up time, as there is no need to randomly select which cards are available for a given session; you just keep the “always available” and starter cards separated (easy to do when scoring at the end of the game), shuffle the other half, count out honor stones, and you’re good to go for another session.
Available for around $40 from most game retailers or around $36 on Amazon, the 200-card Ascension is a little lighter than Dominion (500 cards) or Thunderstone (over 500), but makes up for it somewhat by including the plastic Honor stone counters and a game board that provides the layout and turn reminders — plus unlike the other games, you use all of the cards every time instead of just a subset. The board isn’t really necessary, however, and makes the game ship in a box about three or four times larger than would otherwise be required. Ascension-specific sleeves and a card box are forthcoming, but you should be able to pick up generic equivalents for a nominal fee (the cards fit into Magic-sized sleeves) at any gaming store. I would recommend doing so, as the one complaint I really have about Ascension is the feel of the cards while shuffling. I’ve shuffled a lot of cards, both sleeved and unsleeved, and Ascension‘s kept giving me a nagging sensation of almost tearing the lamination off while doing so. Unfortunately sleeved cards don’t quite fit into the provided box insert, which is fairly generic (unlike Dominion’s custom-tailored card-sorting tray). It’s an odd flaw considering the game’s pedigree, but ultimately a minor one for an otherwise top-quality game.