“Digital for storage and quickness. Analog for fatness and warmth.” -Adrian Belew
Turn-based board games have found a nearly ideal home on mobile devices, a platform that struggles to deliver synchronized multiplayer experiences (one can only imagine the rage that would emanate from the forums of a mobile adaptation of League of Legends). This, of course, has little to do with the hardware and everything to do with the short but frequent intervals of time users have their devices in hand. With turn-based board games, the players need not be on at the same time, only take their turns within a reasonable amount of time. The applications typically show what transpired during the other players’ turns before passing play.
The digital devil must be paid its due, however. In exchange for the convenience and lower price point, you are giving up one of the core experiences of tabletop strategy games: the endless politicking. If you never enjoyed the real-time bargaining, threats and backstabbing inherent in the medium, this may be more of a feature than a bug. If you’re like me, though, you know that abusing the trust and patience of your friends is the secret spice in the gaming table sauce. The lack of this element hardly breaks the games, but can leave the experience feeling somewhat incomplete if you’re familiar with its original incarnation.
Ascension seems to be one of those games that people feel strongly about one way or another, often comparing it favorably or unfavorably to its deck-building predecessor, Dominion. Detractors claim the game is predicated entirely on luck, but after regularly getting my ass handed to me by a specific player online, I can confidently say this isn’t the case. Luck and probability figure more heavily into Ascension, yes; it’s the poker to Dominion’s chess. It’s often called a tactical game, meaning that it challenges players to make the best possible snap decisions rather than emphasizing an overarching game plan. I think that’s accurate.
Players compete for “honor,” which can be accumulated by defeating monsters or buying cards to add to your deck. A finite pool of honor serves as the game clock. When the last honor is drawn from the pool, after the last player takes his turn, the game ends and players tally their score. Cards can be purchased or defeated using one of two resources, runes or power respectively. At any time there are six cards in a center row randomly drawn from the game’s deck. Additionally, there’s a stable of always-available vanilla cards: a mystic worth two runes, a heavy militia worth two power, and a cultist monster that can be defeated for two power (the Storm of Souls expansion adds a second monster, the fanatic, which can be defeated for three power). Ascension is at its best with two players, becoming increasingly chaotic with each additional player.
So how does Ascension compare to Ascension?
What’s the Same?
The iOS adaptation of Ascension replicates the mechanics of the card game and its expansions perfectly, in an intuitive touch-driven interface. Rules manuals can be easily referenced for beginners.
Money in your Pocket: When it comes down to it, the price of admission is a factor for most gamers. Cardboard Ascension typically retails for somewhere around $30. Digital Ascension will cost you $4.99. That’s not even taking into account opportunity costs: there will always be someone available to play digital Ascension with whereas the cardboard version requires planning, coordination and consensus. If you’re not playing a game of digital Ascension it’s because you, yourself, don’t want to. The $5 price point also makes it accessible to fence-sitters who may kind of like the game but don’t feel like it’s worth a $30 purchase.
Accessibility: Cardboard Ascension isn’t weighed down by too many fiddly bits, but you can’t exactly whip it out anywhere. In addition to online play, digital Ascension offers slightly clunky pass-and-play settings for when you’re on a particularly boring bus or train trip with a friend.
Variety of Opponents: If you game with your friends often, you probably have a sense of how they think and play. Online play expands your horizons to people much better and worse than you. You can also play against a surprisingly decent AI (on the hardest setting) if you’re looking to hone your strategies.
Rules Adjudication: iOS Ascension takes care of all the timing issues and passive effects that you might genuinely or conveniently forget about during your turn. There’s nothing for players to argue about here, not that that would even be possible with the lack of a chat feature.
Visual and Audio Cues: The game conveniently surrounds cards you can interact with in a glowing nimbus. If you’re playing with the sounds on, various screams and dings will alert you that an action has been performed, which can occasionally be handy when you’re watching an opponent’s turn blow by.
Checking Your Deck:With a touch you can see all the cards currently in your deck without disrupting the game. This is particularly helpful given the discontinuity of longer online games.
Continuity: Depending on the length of game you and your opponents have agreed to, there may be hours to days between each of your turns. As such, each of your turns requires you to refamiliarize yourself with the state of the game. Chances are, you’ll also be playing multiple games at once, which can potentially lead to making poorer decisions than you would at the table. Note, it is possible to effectively play a “real-time” game by setting your game clock to 10 minutes, if you plan to be on your device and attentive to the application for that period.
Game Space: Digital Ascension does a good job of fitting everything on to the screen, but it still needs to hide certain elements like your discard pile and your construct sideboard. This generally isn’t a problem, but every now and then you may overlook a hidden element.
Freedom from the Rogue Button Press: So I’m looking through my discard pile for a card to banish and my cheese doodle-slick thumb slides ever so slightly north at the wrong time and I prematurely end my turn. This has only ever happened to me twice, but it’s devastating when it does. I imagine it’s less of a problem on the iPad, but there’s still no going back when you make a tiny mistake.
More of your Math Skills: The computer tallies up all your resources and honor and highlights cards for you, making it possible for your high school math skills to atrophy even more than they already had. Keep that in mind when you fail to come up with the planet-saving equation that would deflect a giant killer asteroid from a collision course with Earth.