I may not remember my first kiss (oh, there have been so many), but I can still remember the first deck-builder that really rang my bell. Sure, I’d demoed Dominion and had a go on Mystic Vale (I really need to revisit that one), but nothing really clicked. Then a fellow demoer recommended Ascension. I saw a second-hand copy of it on a board game selling site and thought ‘what the hey’.
It was an epiphany of mechanics! The art was a bit wobbly, but the way things escalated and flowed… I’d never played anything like it before. I needed more. And more. And more.
20 plus deck builders later and I still think it is one of the most versatile and enjoyable gaming mechanics ever made, so when I heard that there was going to be a skirmish game based on Ascension, I was a bit excited.
And a bit trepidatious.
Ascension was my introduction to the wider world of modern gaming – what if it was terrible? There’s a new Ascension module released every year, pretty much – what if this one kills the goose that lays the tired idioms?
I needn’t have worried. It’s terrific.
Oh. You want more? Well, if you insist…
Though the title of first deck-builder belongs to Dominion (2008, still a stone-cold classic) and Thunderstone was the first fantasy deck-builder (2009), there is still a lot of love for 2010s Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, designed by Magic pros Justin Gary, Brian Kibler, Robert Dougherty and John Fiorillo. Allegedly they wanted a game that had all the magic and mythos of… Magic but would be more accessible to mere mortals. And what a good job they did, because Ascension is still getting expansions made to this very day.
Definitely not co-operative but not quite confrontational, it introduced the idea of factions in deckbuilders, (Lifebound, Mechana, Void and Enlightened), Constructs that would sit in front of you and not get shuffled into your deck, and ‘damage’ resources that could be used to defeat monsters for victory points and other goodies. It also had the first ‘central row’ of cards randomly drawn from very substantial deck rather than from set types of cards that contained all the types of cards available – monsters, heroes and constructs.
When it comes to games with ‘flow’, Ascension is hard to beat.
Unless you want to add ‘flow’ to ‘move’.
Now the time has long passed to combine moving and deck-building – Clank! and its iterations have been doing it since 2016 and Undaunted since 2019, but if it’s one thing that JG et al can bring to the party, it’s finesse. Beaucoup de finesse.
Standee By Your Man
Ascension: Tactics can be played by one to four players and the way to win is by gaining a certain amount of Honor points first (pleasingingly, these are still the lovely translucent clear and red crystals – mmmm, tactile tactics). These can be gained in different ways depending on what scenario you are playing, but the most common method is to control ‘beacons’ on the battlefield (stand on next to them) – yes, battlefield. This is not just about the cards any more. Things just got standee.
Each player begins with the familiar 10-card deck comprising of Apprentices and Militia, but they also begin with three or four (depending on how many players there are) standees (or minis if you have the fancy-fancy version) representing familiar Ascension Champions such as the Arha Templar (I dare you to think of this without thinking of Alan Partridge… see, can’t be done), the Mechana Initiate and the Bringer of Despair. These will be your warriors in the arena and all have their own attack and defence strength and special abilities. Your Champions can either be set according to the scenario or you can draft them.
At the beginning of the game, your Champions are positioned off the board, waiting eagerly to prove their valour in the arena of combat – or get on the board, if you prefer. Now this is where what is familiar in Ascension gets a bit of a twist to make it a whole lot more interesting and essential. Your deck begins with the usual Rune and Combat cards (Apprentice and Militia) and the Rune cards still allow you to buy cards from the centre row, which was, to be honest, the main focus of the original game(s). The Combat cards could only be used on Monsters in the centre row or to whack the hapless Cultist for Honor points and as a result didn’t get as much as love. All this has now changed, because those Combat cards are now key to the game – they’re the things that activate your Champions.
Red Resource Rising
Each Champion has a cost to activate, so Combat resources are essential – so much so that you start each turn with two of them without playing a card. As you can imagine, the more powerful the Champion, the more they take to activate – the Mechana Initiate takes a meagre two to play, whereas the mighty Tyranyx needs a weighty four. Sure, you may have plenty of cards in your deck, but if none of them can power up your battle beasts, it’s all style and no content.
Once a Champion is activated, it can move and attack, in either order. The standard move is three hexes, but this can be modified by treasure, Hero cards from your hand, Construct cards and/or just built in abilities (more on all the other bits… in a bit). If the Champion ends up on a treasure token, you get that token which can be used for one-time modifiers (move, defence, attack, riposte).
When your champion attacks, it will do its damage including modifiers to the target(s) if it is in range (most attacks are base to base, but these can change through certain circumstances like playing the right faction card, having a Constuct attached or treasure token… there are definitely options). If the attack is equal to or greater than the opposing figure’s defence, then it is sent off the board. If you can’t knock it out in one, damage is cumulative during the turn, so maybe you can sneak up with another Champion to finish it off. Another Champion like a… Cultist, maybe?
Yes, the Cultists aren’t just there for beating up anymore – you can actually recruit them to fight for you! I mean, they’re pretty weak sauce but don’t overlook the chip-chip-chip effect of the little guys…
There are also Champions and Monsters to claim in the deck as well (Champions are claimed using Runes, monsters are claimed using fighting resource), which can be added to your roster of bad-asses. Ever wanted to fight as Master Dhartha flying on a massive blue dragon? Well, if you’ve got the Runes…
It’s Not A Bike, It’s A Chopper, Babe…
Now, I keep on mentioning Constructs, so I’d better deal with them. In the original game, constructs would sit at the side and have a constant effect. They’d also give you Honor at the end of the game (handy tip for new Ascension players: buy the Mechana Constructs when you can. They may not be useful to you at all, but they are always worth their cost in Honor, whereas pretty much every other card in the game isn’t. You’re welcome). Now, like the fighting resource, they have a bit more of an active role to play, because you can ‘attach’ your Constructs to your Champions to give them modifiers – they will remain attached to your Champion until a card effect deems otherwise or they are knocked off the board. Then they head off to the discard pile to come around again.
This means that cards like the Rocket Courier X-99 finally get to live up to their full potential. I mean, who doesn’t want to ride into battle on a rocket powered chopper?
Campaign In The Great Outdoors
So that’s the basic play set up for two, three or four player Skirmish, but there is so much more. The rule book is fairly chonky, but this is because you haven’t just got Skirmish play. There is a solo mode, where you can play a scenario against a deck-based AI, and there is also a Campaign mode.
Wait a minute, you said Ascension: Tactics scenario? And Campaign?
I did indeed, because as well as a rule book, you get a scenario book, the board doesn’t just come with one map set up, it has a blank side too. With plenty of terrain tiles to create one of the many maps and scenarios in the scenario book. Or you can make up your own. Or if you have a regular set of players, you can go for a co-operative campaign.
In short, sure, sure it may be a big box, but the reason for such a big box is that this is such a big game; such a generous game. And this is just the base game. Imagine what could come next (spoiler: the next stand-alone expansion is already on Kickstarter. Yep)
Why Are You Still Reading This? Go; Now; Buy!
If you hadn’t guessed already, I really, really like this game. But, for a balanced view, a few minor critiques:
First, it does take a while to set up, especially when it comes to setting up which Champions you are using and which might be drawn from the deck later. Setting up different maps also takes time as there are a lot of terrain tiles in there.
Secondly, there are a lot of rules and sometimes they feel a bit… uncertain, especially when it comes to treasure token modifiers and what you can or can’t do with your Cultists. Personally, I hate having to disrupt the flow of the game to query a player’s use of the Cultists, so I have probably inadvertently created house rules every time I play it.
But these are minor quibbles in the face of what is a really, really satisfying game. It feels like a better analog-based version of Overwatch (I’m horrible at Overwatch) – it has flow, it has action, it has strategy and, thanks to the now equal importance of the fighting resource, it has balance.
You could quite happily play the Skirmish mode of Ascension: Tactics forever, but having so many other options and a really crunchy solo mode, this really does benefit from multiple and variable play. I have barely scratched the surface and am already thinking about breaking it out for one more turn around the battlefield. If this game was a film, it would be Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. With extra hotdog fingers.