Friday, February 8, 2013

Game Night Recap: Ascension

With a handful of former Magic players among our ranks, and my general enthusiasm for what I've dubbed "reactive-strategy card games," it's no surprise that Ascension is at the very top of my gaming group's rotation and a game we keep coming back to. I won't give a full review or analysis of the game here, but briefly, Ascension is a deck-building game that sits right at the intersection of Magic: the Gathering and Dominion in card game design space. Toss in a little San Juan/Race for the Galaxy, and you have a reliably fun card game that features plenty of ways to win and never feels like you're playing the same game.

We played a ton of Ascension last weekend; I won some and lost some, but I was left with some interesting rules and strategy questions that I'll pose here.

Why is Nemesis not unbanishable?

The "big bad" monsters from both the base set, Avatar of the Fallen, and the Return of the Fallen expansion, Sammael, were unbanishable, both thematically enhancing their status as the set's "boss" monster and mechanically giving Power/monster-killing strategies a more compelling goal to aim for. Nemesis, who fills the same role in the Storm of Souls expansion, is not unbanishable. Is that a deliberate result of the balancing and playtesting process, or is it simply an oversight? Not everything is lost; a player pursing the Power strategy can mitigate Nemesis's banishing with Sadranis, Dark Emissary (if the two decks are shuffled together; see below). But it does seem a deterrent when the ultimate thing your strategy can do can be derailed by a host of relatively inexpensive cards.

What's the proper interpretation of Emri, Soulslayer's effect?

Plenty of cards allow you to banish from your hand or discard pile, like Arbiter of Fate. There, the text is unambiguous: you can banish exactly one card, and it can come from either your hand or discard pile. If Arbiter of Fate had intended you to banish from both your hand and discard pile, it might have said "You may banish a card from your hand and/or your discard pile." That's unambiguous too.

Emri, Soulslayer, is a lot harder to read. "You may banish up to two cards from your hand and/or discard pile." can legitimately mean two different things. It could be "You may banish up to two cards from your hand and up to two cards from your discard pile," a total of four cards. Or, it could be "You may banish up to two cards, which may come from your hand and/or your discard pile," a total of two cards. We used the first interpretation, and it felt way too good, though at 8-cost, there's not a lot of direct comparisons for how good the card "should be".

How well do the two "blocks" interact?

In principle, the base block and the Storm of Souls block should be able to be shuffled together and played as a single game. The rules don't explicitly condone this mixture, but we tried it for the first time last weekend, and it seems to work well for the most part.

I'm a little skeptical of the Mechana Construct versus Construct-destroying monster balance. In the base block, Mechana Constructs worked better when you already had a lot in play; in Storm of Souls, they worked better when you put them in play. Stacking both bonuses seemed a little overpowered, especially combined with a relative dearth of Construct-destroying monsters. One player had both Weapon 303V and Hedron Cannon (plus a handful of other Mechana Constrcuts) in play, and with four Sea Tyrants lonely among a deck of 220+ cards, he became an unstoppable monster-killing machine.

Events were also diluted; the five Event cards came up much less frequently, making cards that interact with events such as Elemental Adept incrementally worse. But that didn't present that much of a problem; cards like this tended to just stick around the center row until they were banished (or Gorphed).

One interaction that never came up but I'm nevertheless curious about is what happens when a player controls Sammael and defeats a Trophy Monster. Since Sammael's effect is clearly a "may," I would interpret that the player can choose whether to claim the trophy or to add the defeated monster to his deck. Such a choice would introduce some interesting decision-making: Unchained Fates is the most powerful trophy effect in the game, but what's better: drawing two cards at a time of your choosing, or having 7 Power every time you draw this card?

What's the optimum number of players for Ascension?

I'm pretty sure the answer is not five or six, and that has nothing to do with the mechanics. Ascension scales surprisingly well from two through six players. Instead, the five- or six-player game simply becomes very long--and each player spends most of that length doing nothing but watching everyone else take their turn. Furthermore, because the board state changes so rapidly in Ascension, it's nearly impossible to plan a turn during that down time.

Ascension works much better with four players. The game is length is pared down and its downtime reduced, but there's still enough space at the table for two players to pursue similar strategies, especially if they're seated across from each other. Three seems to work less well; a three-player game doesn't feel much faster than a four-player game, but the option to pursue similar strategies is effectively removed.

Two-player Ascension is great but in a fundamentally different way. Assuming the two players are both reasonably skilled and not especially lucky or unlucky, the two-player game is as much about the competing players as about the competing strategies. (How does pure Mechana match up against Lifebound/Enlightened? Here's how to find out!) And I haven't played the single-player variant, but I assume it's sufficiently different from the multiplayer game that it's tough to compare.

For all all the Ascension fans out there: have you encountered any of these issues in your game? Have you combined the base set with Storm of Souls, and how did it work? Do your five- and six-player games drag as much as mine?