App and game reviews by Mobilism's Android Reviews team
Feb 27th, 2017, 5:49 pm
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Game: Ascension v1.13.1
Developer: Playdek, Inc.
Category: Card Game
Price: N/A
IAP: $0.99 - $6.99 per item

Ascension is an engrossing and increasingly popular deck-building card game that is based in a unique fantasy themed universe featuring incredibly interesting artwork and mechanics. Created by Stone Blade Entertainment, originally known as Gary Games, and headed by Magic: The Gathering Champion Justin Gary, Ascension draws considerable inspiration from the classic card game Dominion. Teamed with seasoned designers Brian Kibler, John Fiorillo and Rob Dougherty, who also brainstormed the recent Star Realms phenomenon, Mr. Gary sought a more colorful and complex type of deck-building card game that would surpass Dominion's more straightforward classic approach. Released at GenCon in 2010, Ascension instantly gained a fanbase with its wildly vivid illustrations, unique universe of factions, fast gameplay and fun card synergies that drew massive crowds of card game fans.

Originally entitled Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, later to be toned down to Ascension: Deckbuilding Game, the game was quickly released for iOS in 2011, then on Android and PC in 2014 by Playdek, Inc.. As with other card games in this particular format, Ascension now boasts no less than ten expansions that add many more cards and unique mechanics with every new set. Similar in vision to Star Realms, Ascension borrows positive aspects of Dominion and Magic: The Gathering, while excluding the cash-sink marketing and obsoleted block formats of collectable card games. Sporting eye-opening artwork and lucid imagery from artist Eric Sabee, scratchboard was initially used as the medium to create the game's stunning visuals, generating fans worldwide of his unique style. With the deck-building format still gaining traction and popularity with today's gamers, Ascension is regarded as a relatively new timeless classic card game with periodic content updates on the horizon.


Terms Of Engagement

In a two player game, each starts with zero Honor Points that are earned through defeating Monsters and other means, with the declared winner of the game having the most Honor. Single player games have 60 total Honor Points, three player games 90, and four player games 120. Players battle it out to earn Honor Points from this cache of points, and the game ends when all points have been allocated completely. Ascension will also allow custom Honor Point settings that some players enjoy for longer games, especially with multiple expansions in play, to allow access to more cards in a game. Each player starts with a small deck consisting of only 8 Apprentice cards, used to generate Runes, and 2 Militia cards that generate Power. Runes are used to acquire new cards and pay for other effects, Power is used to defeat Monsters that build up your Honor Points. Six cards always exist in the Center Row, dividing both players, that are available to purchase with Runes during the game. These Center Row cards are supplied by the main Portal Deck, which contains the core Ascension cards and whatever expansion sets you choose to play with, and lies next to the Center Row face down to avoid unwanted insight. Whenever a card is acquired from the Center Row using cards from your hand with Rune values, a replacement card from the Portal Deck immediately fills its vacancy. This keeps a constant flow of available cards to choose from that regulate the flow of the game; for better or for worse.

In addition to the Center Row for acquiring new cards for your deck, there are also three piles of common supplementary cards above the Center Row to choose from; the Mystic, Heavy Infantry and Cultist. The Mystic yields 2 Runes, Heavy Infantry gives 2 Power, and the Cultist earns a player one Honor Point. These cards exist in the case that you cannot afford more expensive cards with higher Rune values in the Center Row, and will help boost your Rune and Power draws in future turns to help in that regard. As a player adds more exclusive cards to their personal deck that give higher yields of Runes, Power, Honor and abilities, a sound strategy is to look for ways to discard the more common cards during the mid to late-game phases. In doing this, the player will then draw more quality cards, being more effective, efficient and powerful, while leaving the common cards behind that offer no abilities or little value. Those lowly Cultists do indeed generate one Honor Point each, but provide no abilities or synergies with other cards; thus, taking valuable space in your deck. The sooner you get your mind around the self-discard idea, the more challenging of a player you will become once you master this technique.

Cards that leave the game end up in a special pile called the Void where they remain out of play unless any card dictates otherwise. Each player starts the game by shuffling their starting decks, then drawing five cards to start the game. As you play all your cards and finalize your turn, you discard them into your personal discard pile (not the Void), then draw another five cards and wait for your next turn. If you cannot draw five cards from your deck, your discard pile is shuffled and replenished as your deck, ready to draw cards from again. This process repeats throughout the game; though, other cards in play may decide how many cards you are allowed during your draw phase. You may also choose to play all the cards in your hand during a turn, or hold certain cards, even all of them, and simply end your turn. This might seem like a great way to lose, but timing can be critical in playing certain cards due to synergies that exist with other cards in play. Waiting for that perfect combination of cards to land in your hand can be worth the wait, and it also provides options whereas a hand with no cards provides none. For more insight on the basic rules of engagement, a lovely PDF of the Ascension Manual can be downloaded to review at your leisure. Now that we have our walking orders and plan of action, let's greet the denizens of the Ascension universe.


Fantastical Frenetic Factions

Ascension's stars of the show are the incredibly diverse creature and item cards that fill up the Center Row for acquisition and combat; usually inspiring players to scramble to obtain cards with synergies within their personal decks, and to defeat Monsters with large Honor Point values. Three general categories of cards in Ascension exist to make the game interesting; Heroes, Constructs and Monsters. Four total factions are offered in the game with different play styles and general sensibilities; the Enlightened, Lifebound, Mechana and Void. The Enlightened are represented through cards that allow players to draw cards and manipulate the board through unconventional means. The Lifebound give players access to powerful magics and the ability to control your own fate. The Mechana allow players to wield powerful Constructs that work together to create powerful effects. The Void thrive on dark aspects, gaining power over death itself, and have warriors of unimaginable strength to provide it. While the Center Row fills up with random cards in no particular order to acquire, it's rare to rely on just one faction, or even two, throughout the game. Each faction will bolster their relative card's synergies through abilities that will make them lucrative picks in the Center Row, depending on availability and the contents of your own deck. There are many synergies, or reactive card combinations, that will allow for elongated turns with tricky mechanics between cards that meld well to generate incredible boosts per turn. Carefully choosing which cards you obtain, when to play them, and in conjunction with other cards are the tactics of champions.

Heroes are generally members of these particular factions that offer unique abilities when used, especially in combination with their relative faction cards. When playing Heroes, that player will gain the effect of their abilities and offerings during their turn, then they are discarded to your personal discard pile afterward. Constructs are the many items, weapons, magical items and fantastical devices you encounter during a game. When you play these particular cards, they stay in play for as long as possible to give your turns an extra punch of mechanics. Multiple Constructs can be played per turn; you can use their effects only on your turn and when they are played. Monsters are devious minions that are periodically drawn from the Portal Deck into the Center Row for players to combat for Honor Points to aid them in winning the game. These can vary from the impish "weenie" variety to full-fledged nightmares spouting numerous hindering side effects across the board. Though, slaying Monsters isn't necessarily the primary source of Honor Point income, it certainly helps to drop a few along the way. The really fascinating aspect of Ascension is the art of balancing between a strong economy and brutal strength, or perhaps leaning strong in one area or another depending on how the Center Row pans out. For example, if you start a game and see the Center Row loaded with Monsters, it probably isn't the best idea to stock up on Rune-based cards immediately as there are many Honor Points to be had there. Some player needs to eliminate them to get the other cards flowing into the Center Row; it may as well be you to reap the rewards. However, a string of Heroes could be drawn thereafter, leaving you poor with no way to obtain them. The game decides the flow of action, and every game is uniquely different depending on the cards in play.


Bite-Sized Boxes Of Blocks

With the advent of popularity of Ascension, Justin Gary decidedly deviated from Magic: The Gathering's release schedule of expansions, which is notably a good thing. As Magic's expansions cycle out of Standard format every couple months, becoming obsoleted trash with pretty graphics, the need and desire for a more permanent system of longevity was well overdue. Ascension has historically been released as two sets spaced apart over time called 'blocks'. The first set offered the core Ascension cards and minutiae in a large box, then the first expansion was released with just the new cards and whatever pieces were necessary. Through the course of production, that trend continued for quite a while until recently. With each base set, an expansion was released to compliment it, then moving on to another cycle. The reason for this is that new card mechanics were released with each new base set and relative expansion pack that would rely on those particular cards for synergies and combinations. As they wanted to keep the game fresh to avoid stagnation, new methods were introduced that changed the nuances of Ascension to offer new experiences with variety. Because of this release cycle, the game is best played in their relative blocks of two sets; the digital edition is absolutely no different. The beauty of this is that even though Ascension blocks can be years old, they won't 'phase out' due to competitive marketing schemes concocted solely to strip you of your money every 60 days.

New players will often enable all the expansions the game currently offers just because they can, but don't realize the effects in doing so. Unleashing the mechanics of all sets combined at once in a single game will create a brick wall learning curve, extremely complex games, confusing turns, and will slow down AI opponents as it struggles to compute through a logical decision tree. Simply enabling two expansions at a time is the best method for a meaningful and enjoyable game without sending everyone into meltdown mode. Some card abilities and effects only point to particular cards in their relative expansion counterparts, so diluting the Portal Deck with obscure cards can lead to a baffling session. Ascension games weren't designed to last three hours; it's a very fast-paced game with some thought between moves, but with limited time to achieve the necessary Honor Points. Using a Portal Deck of 600 random cards will probably offer a peculiar game that plays in a very clunky and random fashion. Of course, this is just a suggestion as one can play Ascension as they want with everything enabled, just for the sake of fun and giggles.


Skirmishes Suited For Style

When it comes to serving up a method to play Ascension, quite a few modes of play are on offer, minus a true campaign mode of sorts. The single player experience can be custom tailored in quite a few ways including the number of AI opponents of up to three, their relative difficulty, their avatars and names and expansions you wish to enable. Six savegame slots are available to store multiple games with different settings at a time, which can be set for different blocks to play at any time. Single player creates a simulation of Ascension as if you were playing humans; though, they will not exit the game when they are losing, which is fantastic. The AI is fairly clever and offers a decent challenge when cranked up, though seasoned players will probably scoff at the notion and go straight to online play. It's also a great place to test synergies with different sets to see how cards react to each other as a whole. This is actually my preferred way to play Ascension as I like the more casual route and don't get nervous during a game that is rated or counted statistically. I also like the peace and quiet, relaxing nature and uninterrupted play that single player offers, but that's just me.

Multiplayer can be also be played locally in hotseat mode by setting the game up just as described above, except by switching the AI opponents to Human, or mix and matching, then passing the device around between turns. I suspect this is probably the best way to play the game in multiplayer as just one person dropping out online can really mess up momentum for the rest of the players. The online multiplayer is where things can get a bit strange; or in some cases, not even get the opportunity to do that much. Setting up an online game works similar to single player in that you have six savegame slots for multiple games at once, with up to four total players, that can be played synchronously or asynchronously. This means that you can either play in real-time or have pre-defined time limits between turns ranging from 10 minutes to days. The person setting up the game defines how long turns can last to accommodate other people's schedules, similar to a chess timer that eventually expires with no activity. The timer cannot be changed after starting a game, and the person setting up the online game must also start the game once all players join it. This can lead to deadbeat hosts that never end up starting the game, or certain players that run off and join the Army before the game is finished, leaving an unattended slot to drag the game into eternity. When it becomes your turn, days later in some cases, you will receive a spiffy notification to jump into the game to play your cards, then go back into waiting. Online play is also cross-platform that connects to iOS, PC and Android players, which is a very nice touch. All online games have composite ratings of win/loss, so it's best to practice in single player first before committing to the unknown.


Release The Kraken!

So, Ascension is really awesome, but how does the app run? A little history might be in order to answer this question properly. I will officially go on record saying that Playdek is considered to be an iOS developer, which has led to some static from the Android community over their practices. My belief is that they know the iOS platform like the back of their hand, but Android is a big fish that breaks their pole. Ascension runs amazingly well on iPAD and iPhones with 1 gigabyte of RAM with almost no complaints from that side of the fence. However, playing on Android can be a hit or miss experience depending on a lot of factors. My Nexus 7 2012 can barely handle the game at times, even though the hardware and specs well-surpass an older iPhone or first generation iPAD. Simply trying to list the purchased IAP, or just trying to enter your email to sign in online with that device can be treacherous and horribly slow. Newer devices with 2 gigabytes of RAM and decent graphic chips should run it smoothly with no problems, but this is a graphic-heavy app that requires some resources to run properly.

With multiple expansions loaded, the AI will fling cards around the screen like crazy as it takes advantage of synergies and complex card mechanics. This can lead to really long turns, CPU cycles to compute, and RAM to display the cards and graphics. Some devices will heat up considerably after one game with all that transpires in a single session, which probably signals a decent break between matches. Ascension is fantastic when all systems are go, but it is indeed a demanding little beast with all things considered. I feel like I'm releasing the Kraken every time I go to launch the app, but I just can't stay away because I love the game so much. With that being said, the interface works well once you learn the iconography, and where everything is located and why. The look and feel of the game does resemble something that was produced in the year 2000, but not necessarily in a negative way. Once you get used to everything, games fly by rather quickly as most actions are routine and repetitive, becoming second nature after learning the cards. Sometimes the AI turns go by so fast, even with the speed turned down, that checking the log to review a turn is in order to see what just transpired.

Alas, back to my blurb regarding Playdek and their seemingly covert modus operandi. The company remains remarkably quiet to their customers to an almost uncanny degree. Got technical problems? Crickets. Got questions? Frogs. Wondering why Lords of Waterdeep still isn't on Android years after the iOS release? Dead silence. Android users have been screaming for that game for years with only a slight mention that they might actually get around to it someday, though nothing yet and they refuse to answer on the subject. Playdek holds some lucrative licenses with big names in gaming like Wizards of the Coast that offer little hope for Android users at this point. As they currently offer 9 titles at the App Store, but only 3 titles on Google Play, this should validate my claims regarding their preferred platform. When they release a new expansion for Ascension, it goes live on Google Play and Steam, then they run back into their cozy cave until further notice. There are rare times when the app updates for mere bug fixes, but it seems only when it's time to release another expansion. Don't expect chronic emails and notifications from Playdek because they simply will not come. Going on their Facebook page and asking questions is another terrific way to be ignored, which is strange considering it's social media. If you can handle a developer that lurks with top secret hit and run maneuvers, then this shouldn't be a problem at all.


Tidbits To Ponder

Ascension is a very large game with currently just under 700 cards with all expansions unlocked, which are reasonably priced compared to their physical counterparts. Within the game are all rule books for every expansion unlocked that explain in detail the new mechanics and subtleties of each set, which makes for a great reference compendium. There is also a nifty library to browse each card that is sorted by category that allow you to glance at the art and read what each card specifically does. The production values are relatively high, though a modern device is required to enjoy it smoothly, and the game resources will cost about 565 megabytes of storage memory. The audio is passable with sparse sound effects that don't detract from the experience; more notably, you can disable the scream of the Cultist as you pick the card. I've never seen a card game with an option to disable one sound effect for a single card, but you will see why when you go to play it the first time. I can imagine dogs going crazy when that sound goes off, and is probably why the option exists.

I have to admit that of all the card games for Android, Ascension is one of my favorites due to the sheer variety of cards and mechanics, along with the interesting theme and unique art. There are currently ten expansions as IAP that include promo cards that are offered in cheaper bundle rates, which might seem like a cash generator for Playdek. In actuality, it brings a very reasonably priced complete Ascension experience to your device without breaking the bank. To own the physical sets would run approximately $30 per expansion versus the mere $2 or $3 they are asking as IAP per set. It's really difficult to complain about considering what you get here. However, unlike Star Realms, separate purchases are required per platform as they will not unlock the game and all IAP globally. I would have loved to give Ascension a top rating like Star Realms, but the technicalities and comparative community engagement simply isn't quite on par with what White Wizard Games is currently offering. If you are an avid card game buff with a semi-decent device, Ascension is one of those must-have games that will stay on your device until the day it refuses to boot up. Incidentally, playing Ascension too long at one time will probably get you there sooner, so play smart, folks!

Pros:
  • Complete Ascension game on your device.
  • A massive library of almost 700 cards total.
  • Single player and multiplayer modes available.
  • Built-in expansion manuals and interactive library.
  • Online and offline play with cross-platform support.

Cons:
  • Requires a decent and modern device.
  • Requires around 565 megabytes of storage.
  • Separate purchases required for all platforms.
  • Online multiplayer games can require patience.
  • Playdek to Android users is like Dracula to garlic.

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Reviewer rating: Image
Device/OS used: Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note 3, Nexus 7 2012 & 2013, Nexus 10 / KitKat v4.4.2, KitKat v4.4.4, Lollipop v5.1.1

Purchase at Google Play
Mobilism: Ascension v1.13.1 [All Unlocked]


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Feb 27th, 2017, 5:49 pm