Saturday, May 4, 2013

May Game of the Month: Ascension: Rise of Vigil

I've posted about Ascension before; it remains one of our game night standbys, and with a new expansion debuting in the last month, it was inevitable that we'd pick it up. Rise of Vigil, like Storm of Souls before it, adds a new mechanic to the game. But this one is far more disruptive than Storm of Souls' Events, and it's not clear how much better it makes the game.

Style and Gameplay

Briefly, Ascension is a deck-building card game that might invoke comparisons to Dominion or Magic: the Gathering, depending on if you come from a Euro game or a competitive trading card game background. Cards in the deck are used to either get points (called Honor) or to get new cards, which are more efficient at getting points. The premise is simple, but the variation among the different cards is sufficiently big that it would be tough to cover here.

Rise of Vigil may or may not count as a proper "expansion"--it can either add to the base game or stand alone and be played by itself. Its new mechanics are Treasure and Energize, which work in the following way: when a Treasure card would be added to the center row, keep flipping cards until a non-Treasure appears, then put all the accumulated Treasure under it. When the non-Treasure is acquired or defeated, all the accumulated Treasure comes with it.

Treasure becomes part of a deck, but each Treasure card (in Rise of Vigil, there is only one card of type Treasure, the Energy Shard) replaces itself when drawn, so decks appear much larger than they really are. Energy Shards grant 1 Energy--that's a new resource type, in addition to Runes and Power, and a handful of Heroes and Constructs also grant Energy. If a certain Energy threshold is passed, some cards' Energize feature trigger. Energize triggers can be anything from reducing card acquisition costs to manipulating the size of the Honor pool.

Rise of Vigil therefore becomes heavily focused on the Energize mechanic, so much so that individual strategies (Lifebound Heroes, Mechana Constructs, etc.) are almost obsoleted. Having so many Energy Shards in your deck, while not decreasing deck velocity, does increase shuffling frequency to a surprisingly frustrating degree. Even so, a game of Rise of Vigil tends to be about as long as one of base Ascension: the "30 minutes" on the box is a clear lie, but 45-60 seems more reasonable.

Analysis and Anecdotes

We're not sure if we like Treasure and Energize yet, but we're leaning toward "no". Its biggest effect is to ramp up the game's variance. Absent any Treasure, a certain Hero in the center row may a moderately attractive proposition, but with a nice stack of five or six Shards under it, it can become game-breakingly good. The same goes for Energize triggers: sometimes you have twenty Shards in your deck and need three of them to make your deck function like it's supposed to, and you draw two.

Similarly, the high-end mechanics, many of which also depend on Treasure, seem way too good compared to those in previous sets. One acquires or defeats the entire center row; another destroys all opponents' Constructs. These "marquee" effects are few and far between, such that the average effect of a card is comparable to ones we're used to, but the deviation is broader. For a game that was already a little swingy in a design community where high-variance is a four-letter word, it's not a mechanical change that's appreciated.

In one game we played, I killed Herald of Doom after a particularly lucky Treasure draw (I had maybe 9 or 10 Energy in my deck and happened to draw 7 of them). I got all the cards in the center row. Then, as a replacement for one of the cards, our buddy Oziah here flipped, which I also acquired for free, since I was still at 7 Energy. There wasn't much question that I would end up winning that game, but it wasn't a particularly satisfying or exciting victory in that I didn't feel rewarded for either pursuing a dedicated strategy or adapting well to the changing game state.




Another time, someone (not me) picked up Lifebound Muse with seven Energy Shards under it on turn 1. Guess who won?











Rise of Vigil is supposed to integrate with the other Ascension "blocks," but it's unclear how well that would work. On one hand, it might make "get Energy" its own strategy, on parallel with "kill Monsters" or "make a lot of Constructs". On the other hand--and this is the scenario that seems far more likely--it might dilute the Energy Shards and the cards that require them so much to make them useless.

Overall Impressions

I like where Ascension is going with Rise of Vigil, but I fear the inspiration was much better than the execution. It's a way to change up the Ascension experience, which is always nice. but so far it seems like a change-up that simply introduces more randomness. A bit of tweaking might get Rise of Vigil to a more playable state, but for now, it's probably going to end up taking a back seat to Storm of Souls and the base game.

Rating

Aesthetics: 1.5. Ascension's absurdly high-fantasy theme won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's clear throughout, and the game finally appears to have found its artistic tone.
Adaptability: 1.5. There's enough variety in the cards that you don't feel like you're playing the same game twice. Scales well mechanically from 2-6 players, but 5-6 takes a miserably long time.
Fun per time: 1.5. Usually fast enough that another game doesn't sound like a dreadful proposition. Downtime while waiting for other turns can get boring.
Strategic depth: 1. In principle, there's some strategy to be mined here, but more than any Ascension in the past, Rise of Vigil relies heavily on lucky draws.
Mechanics: 0.5. The new mechanics here have promise but are fraught with balance issues and may not play very nicely with the rest of the game.

Total: 6 / 10. According to BoardGameGeek's recommended rating, this means "Fair. Some fun or challenge at least, will play occasionally if in the right mood." That sounds about right--I'd nearly always prefer other incarnations of Ascension, but I can't rule out playing Rise of Vigil occasionally. Base Ascension gets a 7 / 10 for me.

(I'm experimenting with a new game rating system. If I like it, I'll post in the future about how it works and what some benchmarks are.)

1-4 players (1-6 with other sets), 45-60 minutes, $40 at a game shop or $30 on Amazon.