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I started playing Ascension after seeing a recommendation somewhere on the internet. If I recall, the recommendation called it the best game available for Android devices. It’s a digital adaptation of the card game of the same name, which I had never played before. As a deckbuilding game it owes much to Dominion, the game that popularized (and possibly invented?) the concept: a game in which players begin on equal footing but must build their decks of cards over the course of the game to gain advantage over their opponents. Compared to earlier collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, which require that players build their decks ahead of time from a pool of cards they’ve purchased, Dominion is a one-time purchase and no players are given an advantage due to a bigger collection of cards. This made it quite popular. I’ve played Dominion and enjoyed it, but quickly tired of it. I’ve enjoyed my time with Ascension more, but I’m still not sure whether I’ll stick with it.
I should begin by saying that the Android version of Ascension is very generous. The base card set is available for free, with no restrictions. Players may then pay a small fee (typically a few dollars each) for numerous expansions, which add more cards and rules to the game. These can be mixed and matched, and even played independently of the base set. Compared to the physical game, which costs around $30 (and I assume a similar amount for expansions), this is a great value. And the adaptation is very nice, faithfully recreating the rules in full and automatically taking care of all that tedious shuffling for you. On my small phone screen, some things are hidden, like which constructs my opponent(s) have in play, but these are easily accessible via drop-down menus when I need to check. Each and every card can be double-tapped at any time to zoom in and read the text and admire the art in full detail. There are also helpful notifications to prevent mistakes, like ending a turn before exhausting all my actions. The only thing I miss is the ability to take back a move. While I’ve never played the physical game, I assume if played some cards and then immediately realized it would be better to play them in a different order, my opponents would likely allow it. With the digital version, there’s no way back from a mis-play.
The rules are simple and lead to a fast-paced game. There are three types of cards: heroes, constructs, and monsters. Each player starts the game with a small deck of weak heroes (the same deck for each player) and must use them to either acquire heroes and constructs for their deck, or defeat monsters. The two resources in the game, runes and power, are used for acquiring cards and defeating monsters, respectively. At any given time, there are six cards available in the “center row”, either heroes or constructs that can be purchased with runes, or monsters that can be defeated with power. Each turn, a player plays cards from her hand, which typically provide power or runes, and then use those to acquire or defeat cards, before the next player takes their turn. Heroes are played once and then discarded, only to return after a player’s deck is exhausted and re-shuffled, but constructs remain in play and typically provide constant bonuses (e.g. +1 power every turn). Players try to earn the most honor points by the end of the game; heroes and constructs are worth a small amount of honor just by having them in your deck, but defeating monsters awards honor points directly from the shared honor pool (which, when depleted, signifies the end of the match) as well as other effects, like drawing more cards or banishing cards from the center row to prevent opponents from acquiring or defeating them.
Aside from monsters, cards come from four distinct factions. The Enlightened faction tends to provide the ability to draw more cards, allowing big chains of cards each turn. The Void provide lots of power for defeating monsters as well as the ability to banish cards from one’s own deck, which is critical to success; getting rid of the weak starting cards so more powerful cards show up more often. Mechana cards are all about constructs, providing ways to acquire them more easily, and their constructs are worth the most points when owned. The Lifebound faction is more of a mixed bag, rewarding having more Lifebound cards in one’s hand, providing honor directly, and even letting one plan ahead by placing acquired cards on top of one’s draw pile instead of in one’s discard pile.
At first, I thought success would come from adhering to a single faction as much as possible, but this is not necessarily true. Some factions do reward a focus, especially Mechana and Lifebound, but mixing factions is important when building an effective deck. The deck-thinning powers from the Void faction are particularly important for any deck, and the card draws provided by Enlightened Cards are always useful, no matter what other cards one may have. After numerous games against the AI, my strategy has greatly improved as I’ve learned the cards and how important each can be.
Having said all that, players must also be adaptable, as you never know what will show up in the center row. If your deck is stacked with power, but no monsters are showing up, you may be out of luck. Fortunately, there are always weak cultists to defeat — and upgraded versions of the starting heroes to purchase — if there’s nothing useful in the center row. Still, it helps to make quick judgments based on the available cards, which can often dictate the direction one’s deck will take.
The cards are mechanically interesting, then, but the flavor and lore is not really expressed during the game. The framing story is that players must gather an army from the four worlds to defeat the mad god Samael and his horrible monsters that are spawning from the Void. But in practice, players are not actually playing against Samael and his monsters, they are playing against other would-be godslayers, which doesn’t make much sense. The actual procedural play does not mesh with the story behind it. But that’s not necessarily a problem, and certainly doesn’t bother the many fans of the game. I did enjoy the snippets of flavor text on certain cards, and especially liked the distinctive art style, which are a nice departure from more traditional fantasy art seen in many other games (although it seems the physical version has now updated the art, which I’m not sure I like as much, although it is still distinctive).
Online play is available and has lots of options, including timers that require players to submit their turns promptly or forfeit the game. Those timers hint at an inherent problem with the system, which is that players are not necessarily paying attention to their game at the same time. Having to wait for turns really breaks the flow of the game, since remembering what plays your opponents have been making, and what is in both your deck and your opponents’ decks, is crucial. There’s an option to view the cards in players’ decks, but that’s awkward and just slow down the game more. Also, coming to the game late, I found that most players had purchased extra card sets, so I couldn’t play with them. So I was limited to a small pool of players, mostly new like me, who were trying to figure out how it all worked.
It would probably work better if I had a set of friends to play with online, but I don’t. So, I spent more time playing against the AI. Fortunately, it’s quite competent at the game. The default setting is good for new players learning the game, but the harder setting poses a stiff challenge for more experienced players. I’ve only recently reached the point that I can win more than I lose, and start to see the AI’s limitations (it does not always play cards in the optimal order, for example). By that point I’d learned all the cards in the game, able to anticipate combinations and use foresight in my deck design. Logically, this is where new cards sets would be welcome, and as discussed above they are hardly expensive. But I find myself strangely reluctant. A match of Ascension takes only five or ten minutes, but each one I play leaves me with a nagging feeling that I should be spending time on something more fulfilling. A quick match is a great means of procrastination, and I’ve been guilty of whiling away time on a few matches when really I should have gotten some other things done. Buying new card packs would feel like an endorsement of such behavior. That’s a very personal reaction, of course, and may not apply to others. And there are times that I truly do just have a few minutes of kill, and Ascension is perfect.
I think I might actively enjoy Ascension more if I were playing directly against friends, which makes me wonder if the physical version may actually be the one for me. Regardless, the digital adaptation is an excellent introduction to the game and is worth checking out if you have any interest in deckbuilding games. Eventually I will decide to either splash out for the extra card sets, or uninstall the game; you can make your own judgment.