Ascension: Fast Paced Fantasy Deck Building

I am not easily amused by casual games, and though I love the idea of a game I just pick up and play on my iPhone anytime, I lose interest in most games almost immediately. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, however, has turned me into the fiending iPhone gamer I was longing to be.

Ascension is an iOS universal game by Playdeck, of the popular printed card game of the same name. It’s what you would call a deck building game, where each player starts with some basic cards (the same for each player) and, through the mechanics of game play, builds a deck that grants them more power over play, and more points in the end. Find out more after the break.

The Basics: Saving the World

Each player is a hero of the world of Vigil, called forth during a terrible crisis when an ancient seal is failing, allowing the fallen God, Samael, to return and get his revenge on. Each player interacts with the ever-changing six center row cards, drawn and replenished from the portal deck, comprised of Monsters to slay with strength, and heroes and constructs to buy with runes.

Cards flying about, playing out their rules.

Cards flying about, playing out their rules.

Drawing five cards from your own deck, you gain strength and runes to spend for the turn. Generally, monsters give you honor, and heroes/constructs do as well, but the latter two will also be added to your deck to be drawn in later turns. As you build your deck you get new abilities, like drawing extra cards and banishing cards from your own deck to improve its cycling. The goal is to gain the most honor by the end of the game, so you have to consider how much you are getting with each move you make.

Learning the Game

Certainly there is a level of complexity in the way the cards interact, and though Playdeck has done a decent job of helping a new player learn the ropes, with both a rule book (though it has at least one major typo) and a playable tutorial, the real boost to learnability comes in the form of the subtle glow hints around playable cards, which inform the eye of what moves you can make, and often what moves you might have missed otherwise.

Green glows mean I can buy them, red glows mean I can slay them. These hints help bring the learning curve way down.

Green glows mean I can buy them, red glows mean I can slay them. These hints help bring the learning curve way down.

Part of what I love about Ascension is that each game’s course is determined by the cards that come into play, and in this way it’s about discovery, and the ability to adjust your approach as you go. Player interaction is pretty limited, as you never actually attack or encounter the other players directly. But if you are smart, you can put the pressure on your opponents by limiting their card choices.

Options and Performance

Ascension offers both off and online play, with from two to four players per game. The offline play has adjustable AI’s (two difficulty levels, set individually) which allows for some variety. Additionally, each slot can be a living player, enabling the pass and play mode. Online play is integrated with Game Center, so playing against your friends and others is just a few taps away, and features asynchronous play, push notices, game clocks and real time animation.

Setting up the AI for a serious rumble.

Setting up the AI for a serious rumble.

Performance is great and I have rarely seen anything more than a hiccup of lag as the cards are flung about in satisfying ways. Occasionally, an AI will take up to a minute to start its turn, which I can’t help but laugh at and think that it simply got caught in a logic loop for a moment, not unlike a living player. I have only ever had it crash or had network problems during the pre-announced update and maintenance windows.

Interface and Art

The interface is well thought out and Playdeck has managed to fit in a large number of interactive objects, especially considering the small size of the iPhone screen. While some cards will be visually tucked in, to save space, all cards are zoomable at any time in the game, even from the portal or discard decks.

Zoom view of the dreaded Hedron Cannon!

Zoom view of the dreaded Hedron Cannon!

I have grown quite fond of the game art, by Eric Sabee. It has an interesting blend of dark fantasy, organic whimsy and character. The game includes an easy to use card browser, so you can appreciate the art and ponder their rules.

What’s Missing

There are a number of features I would like to see added to this game. Top of my list is the ability to define the total number of honor for a given game (which determines game length). Though the default totals are a good balance to put the pressure on, I would find it interesting to experiment with alternatives to see how the decks play out.

The final score page. I only won by a couple points. Notice, I only had 11 in-game honor, but my deck was worth just enough to put me at the top with a 62 total.

The final score page. I only won by a couple points. Notice, I only had 11 in-game honor, but my deck was worth just enough to put me at the top with a 62 total.

Additionally, it would be great to be able to turn the hint glows off, so I could start to take my game to the next level, and in-game chat is a major component of the online experience that is noticeably missing. Oh yeah, and when setting AI difficulty it looks like there are three levels, but only two seem to be working. Certainly a new level of difficulty would be welcome after so many games played.

In-App Purchase: Return of the Fallen

Ascension has one in-app purchase, the Return of the Fallen expansion, which adds a number of new cards, some new abilities and can be played with or without the main deck included. It also introduces a new rule called Fate, which causes some cards to have effects the moment they emerge from the portal.

The Card Gallery showing one of the more powerful cards added in the Return of the Fallen expansion.

The Card Gallery showing one of the more powerful cards added in the Return of the Fallen expansion.

As far as I am concerned, they could skip all the items on my wish list above and just get working on the next expansion, based on the latest print expansion, Storm of Souls. Having enjoyed RotF immensely, and having played and enjoyed the printed version of SoS, I am eagerly awaiting this next addition.

Conclusion

I have gotten more value out of this game for $4.99 (+2.99 for RotF) than any desktop game I have ever paid fifty bucks for. There are a small handful of other deck building games on the iPhone, but I have found them all either too simple to be interesting, or geared more for the hardcore card gamer and collector. Ascension finds a sweet middle ground and is much more accessible to the rest of us.

All in all, the easy game play of Ascension belies a rich strategic process that exists between the subtle interaction of the cards. Ascension is my go-to game when I need a quick fix, and many hours of casualness have been burned with it, as I am sure, many more will follow. If they would address my wish list and put out the next expansion, I am sure that would take my rating to a 10.


Summary

A faced-paced fantasy deck building game in which you gather your allies to help defeat the big-bad.

8