My Ascent to Ascension
This past year, I discovered the deck-building game Ascension. The fantasy setting, art style, and intuitive rule set make it feel like it’s a game that was designed just for me – it’s a game that relies as much on skill and strategy as it does on luck and patience.
Though to be crystal clear, the version of Ascension that I know and love is the iOS adaptation – I’ve never seen the physical game. But before I’m labeled a blasphemer and purists try to thwart my love, I’d like to tell you how being geographically isolated has single-handedly saved my passion for board games.
I grew up in a small rural area in Ohio. My “neighborhood” consisted of three farmers, the fields they owned, and one other family with a predilection for collecting junk cars in their yard. There was a general store only a few minutes down the street where you could buy the essentials (milk, bread, Garbage Pail Kid cards, etc.), but the real grocery-getting had to take place in the next town over.
The worst part about this kind of isolation is that your choices are painfully limited when it comes to making friends. Maybe everyone struggles with this, but for my part I’m too much of an introverted homebody to get too broken up about it. I love my quiet little spot in my small town, and I suspect I always will. I never would have guessed that John Cougar Mellencamp would be a purveyor of truth in my life, but here we are.
And it’s not like I’m helplessly stuck where I am. Like I said, I love living here. I love the small-town aesthetic and charm of the countryside, plus there’s an inimitable, relaxed pace to life here. It’s just that it makes some things difficult, like anything involving, um… people.
Games, for instance.
There’s a honeymoon period each time you meet someone you’d like to get to know better, and it’s always a thrill to learn a lot about that person in a short amount of time. In gaming communities, part of that conversation involves your pedigree as a gamer – what was your first system, what was your first game, etc. When I find myself in these conversations, it’s easy to think of my beloved IBM or my Atari 2600, but my love of games goes back even farther than that.
While obsessing over board games at age four, I’m sure they were little more than fun distractions for me. But looking back now they did the same things all of my favorite games today do: they created alternate realities. Candy Land was a place made entirely of gumdrops and peppermint, complete with its own characters and laws that governed the land, while a game like Mouse Trap made you feel like you were an engineer extraordinaire.
In college I lived in a rented house that practically had a revolving door, and nearly every semester we had five people with at least one new person in the mix. That’s nothing special, I realize, but we were poor college kids and there was only one television. So if three people were home and two of them wanted to watch Pay-Per-View wrestling, well… I wasn’t going to get to play Chrono Trigger.
But when I couldn’t get anyone else interested in video games, board games always came to the rescue (when wrestling wasn’t on, of course). Though intoxication fueled a few of those nights, countless hours were spent in that house playing Pictionary, Balderdash, and Mind Trap. Sometimes they were the only thing that kept the peace.
I have loved board games my entire life, and certainly owe much of my love of gaming in general to them. They’ve always been – and always will be – fun respites from the tedium of everyday life.
So why did I almost forsake them!?
If you’re in the mood for banana cream pie but you don’t have any, you could either drive to the store to get one or give up and eat something else. Now, I’ll be completely honest with you and say I will always just eat something else. I will never choose to put on appropriate clothing, find keys, find money, and drive to a store. Hell, they might not even have a banana cream pie.
To me, the prospect of playing a board game with someone else is exactly the same. Sure, I want to play, but I don’t live in a crowded college house anymore. I’d have to buy the game and drive at least an hour to someone’s house, only to get tired “just when the game was getting good.” Then I’d be stuck with a $50 board game that in all likelihood I may never play again. Instead of dealing with any of that, I have always just played something else. I’m not bemoaning the fact that I have, in the course, discovered other ways to enjoy other great games, I’m just admitting that my love of board games was collateral damage as I blossomed into an indolent malcontent.
So when I get the urge to play a board game or a card game, what are the options? I have stooped so low in my life as to try and play board games alone, playing as each participant in the game, but historically that works about as well as training a cat to walk with a leash. Another option is obviously to go the electronic route, but I’m tired of computerized versions of Monopoly. The experience is always fine, but brokering the perfect trade for Boardwalk isn’t as satisfying if it’s against a smug little program.
Thankfully a select few developers have not been afraid to tackle adaptations of modern board games, and now appearing in the app store alongside well-known games like Sorry and Life are modern triumphs like the spectacular deck-building game Ascension. I can’t even say this particular game was “on my radar,” but it would’ve been difficult for it not to stand out – the number of these kinds of games available can really only be defined as a paucity. Make no mistake, there are some out there, but compared to the vast sea of arcade-style platformers in the app store the offering is paltry at best.
Lost Cities by Reiner Knizia and Carcassonne by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede (both translated to the app store by TheCodingMonkeys) are available, and they’re excellent in their own right, but it’s Ascension’s iOS version that really delivers on every level I want it to. It gives me the essential components of the game and someone to play against, and as I’ve already intimated, I would not be able to have an experience like this without a mobile version of this game.
At first blush Ascension, designed by Justin Gary, Rob Dougherty, and Brian Kibler, with artwork by Eric Sabee, would seem like just another card game with fantasy elements, but the difference is in the depth of the strategy. Each player has a deck of cards, but you don’t just lay down cards and match up numbers. For example, some cards called Constructs represent weapons or magical items that you can use, but once you play them they are in play for the entirety of the game – you can use their effects on every turn.
Ascension is a game that pits you against Samael the Fallen, whose legion of followers are breaking through the failing Great Seal that protects the land of Vigil. But it’s not just as simple as “defeat his minions.” You need to collect and balance the two resources in the game, called Runes and Power, in order to defeat Monsters and earn Honor, which is the player’s metric of success – whoever has the most Honor at the end of the game is the victor. Your strategy to balance the Runes and Power will determine how successful you are.
Monopoly’s gameplay, in contrast, only requires buying property, and it’s pretty cut-and-dry at that: you want to own those high-dollar ones like Park Place. The only strategy involved is if you want to forego the expensive properties in favor of purchasing large stretches of property.
To me, Ascension for iOS is an exceptionally well-designed game that elegantly solves the problem of a hermitous lifestyle by delivering a core, single-player experience against a relatively competent computer opponent. This pleases me as both an isolate and an introvert, but more importantly it allows me to be part of a dialogue that heretofore I was unable to be part of. I’m happily (and busily) discovering a whole new world of “next-gen” board games and card games that are – rather, were – a complete blind spot for me.