Ascension the Deck Building Game – Review

Of all the deck-builders within the genre, Ascension bares the closest resemblance to Dominion, despite being released much later (2014, while Thunderstone came out in 2009).  I would have assumed the other way around, but I still want to get Ascension out of the way.

Dominion did a lot of the groundwork when it comes to the basic mechanics for all deck builders.  I have never played a deck builder where the core in game currency wasn’t simply shown but “spent” the way it is spent in games that use paper monopoly style money.  The core of a turn for a deck builder is play cards, get stuff/do stuff, discard everything, get new cards and repeat on next turn.   This is the reason I say Ascension bares the closest resemblance to Dominion.

But, we aren’t comparing apples to apples, we’re comparing oranges to apples because comparing identical apples would be pointless!  Dominion, however, has some intentionally limiting rules: you can only play one card and you can only buy one card unless you have a card that says otherwise.  Ascension throws this out the window: if you have the goods, go for it.  I think this is a benefit and would think this would make the game easier to teach.

In Ascension, victory points are on each card instead of being useless cards in your hand.  That’s not to say there aren’t cards that you would rather not be in your deck after the beginning of the game, but no card in the game is completely useless.  Ascension takes it a step further and has some shiny plastic gems to represent victory points.  A player with a large pile of plastic shineys might be intimidating, but the points on the cards in a player’s deck could deliver the win.  I like this because it makes it harder for players to keep tabs on who’s winning.

In fact, let’s take a deeper look at those shiny plastic gems.  Unlike Dominion, in Ascension there are basically two forms of currency: power and runes.  A rune is your classic deck-builder currency and you use it to buy cards from the market to make your deck stronger.  Power allows you to defeat monsters.  Monsters don’t go in your deck when defeated, and you’ll gain those plastic gems for defeating them, plus some text based reward.  It’s an interesting twist on the classic deck builder, so if you wanted your deck building game to do more with its core mechanics it definitely belongs in the “pros” category.

The biggest tip of the hat I give to Ascension is its clear ability to go beyond the 4-player limits of Dominion.  I’ve only ever been able to find vague references in the Dominion manuals on how to go beyond 4 players in Dominion.  That’s not to say I haven’t seen it spelled out in a forum, but since it’s a forum, I take it with a grain of salt.

I think I share the Eurogamer’s irrational hatred of dice.  Dice are purely random (arguably), where I would say a deck of cards are pseudo random.  Let’s say I have a six sided die (d6) and 6 cards numbered 1 through 6, shuffled and face down.  If I roll a die, the odds of me rolling a 6 are 1 in 6 or 17%.  What if I really need that 6, and I get it?  Hooray, right?  But now I need another 6.  What are my odds?  Still 17%.  Not so with the deck of cards.  If I need a card from a deck, every time I don’t draw it from that deck, I’m more likely to see it next time because there are less cards between me and the card I want.  That’s part of the fun of deck-builders, especially when you draw pile is down to 5 cards because now you can count on it.

In Dominion, there are a lot of cards that essentially enable you to churn through your deck.  Not so, with Ascension.  That’s not to say there aren’t any, but my biggest gripe with Ascension is the non-static market.  In Dominion, unless someone buys the last card in a pile, you are never cut off from a card you want or need for your strategy.  In Ascension, there are only 6 cards available to purchase at the start of your turn, and every time someone gets one of those cards that slot is filled with another, random card from the towering main deck (I forget what it’s called, the void is its discard pile).  Especially in a game with a lot of players, if there is a nice card that appears say at the end of your turn after you spent all your runes, you probably aren’t going to get it.  And cards that give you card draw, or let you get cards out of your deck are hard to come by.

So, until your turn comes around, you are at best window shopping because at the start of your turn that 6 card market can and probably will be significantly different – which can lead to some analysis paralysis when it happens to more competitive players.

Worst still, that market can bring the game to a screeching halt.  Because you don’t have as much control over your deck such as through cards that let you draw, discard or banish (remove from game), you can’t really fix the hand you were dealt, so it may come up that the market is full of nothing but monsters and all you have is money, or vice versa and all you have is power.

Even with all its short comings, I’d say Ascension is my second favorite game of all time (seconded only by Dominion), but with its ability to support large groups it gets played more often than Dominion.

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