So, as the Ascension players amongst you will already know, I have the app on my iPad. I’ve played the game and lot and enjoyed it, got my money’s worth, but frankly I’m starting to get a little bored of it, even with the added pleasure of losing repeatedly to you lot. I guess deckbuilders aren’t really my thing: there’s not been one pure deck building game I’ve really enjoyed. Must try Nightfall some day, just to be sure, but for the time being I think my flirtation with the concept is done. Nice idea, generally poor execution. The future would seem to be using the mechanic in tandem with something else, much like Mage Knight and A Few Acres of Snow.
Assessing what I really thought about Ascension as an actual game rather than as a computer implementation has been difficult. The slick nature of the app, and the ease of playing quick games against the AI and of finding human opponents has a way of obscuring judgement on what the game would be like in real life. I was initially really excited by Dominion but initial enthusiasm after playing it on BSW cooled after ten games or so and my opinion of it actually went down after playing it face to face. It’s not actually slow, but with all the shuffling and without all the interaction, it damn well seemed it. I suspect Ascension would have a similar problem. So while I generated fairly intense initial enthusiasm for the app, I can’t see that translating into a purchase of the card game. It’s as good a demonstration as any of the dangers of trying to assess the quality of a game on the strength of online play alone.
So, I figured that given the curve of my feelings about Dominion largely mirrored those about Ascension it would be fair of me to say that I didn’t really like one all that much more than the other. But then I remembered something interesting. On my Android phone I had a copy of the free Dominion clone Androminion. Now, it’s not entirely fair to compare them: Ascension is played on the big-screen iPad and has a professionally designed and developed interface, while Androminion is played on my small-screen phone and has a bare-bones approach to presentation. But it’s by no means difficult to get to grips with, especially if you’ve got prior experience with the card game. So I got to grips with it and played a few games of the basic setup just to remind myself of how to play, and then a few more games against the more interesting “interactive” setups to see how that shook out.
And by that point, I was bored sick of it.
This isn’t down to prior experience. Before playing Androminion I hadn’t played a game of Dominion in over two years and I’d actually forgotten some of the extremely simple rules. Androminion also puts some of the myriad variants and expansions for the game, none of which I’ve played, at your fingertips and yet I wasn’t inspired to try them out. Clearly I like Ascension better than I like Dominion. And that of course begs the rather more interesting question of why?
I’ve often mused in the past that usually, the utmost single defining characteristic of whether I’ll like a game or not is whether it has much interaction. For the most part I can disregard weak theme, dull mechanics and low production values so long as it allow me to stick it direct to another human being in a meaningful way. But I can’t apply that here because Dominion quite clearly and demonstrably has more player interaction than Ascension. The latter has basically none, other than trying to steal or banish cards that you think your opponent might want to collect. In Dominion you can force your opponents to discard down with Militia, or use a Thief to steal their best treasure cards or, best of all, fill their deck with crap via the magic of the Witch. It’s not a lot compared to the chance to crush ones enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women that most of my favourite games offer me, but it’s enough to make the game not-awful. And it’s certainly enough for it to score higher than Ascension on the interaction ladder.
Could it be the theme? After all Dominion has a very dull theme to begin with and precisely zero thematic integration. But while Ascension has lots of cool sounding factions and heroes and actually allows you to fight monsters, its theme wasn’t interesting enough to make me care what these factions were, or why they were fighting, or even what a “godslayer” actually was. It’s lightly-dressed generic fantasy. And its thematic integration isn’t really any higher than Dominion either so I don’t think it’s that.
So I started thinking about mechanics. This seems like more solid territory. One key difference between the two games is that in Dominion there’s a pool of ten different cards with which to fill your deck and you’ll usually have a free choice between those ten at any given point in the game. However in Ascension there’s a pool of just six and it’s constantly changing so that what’s available one turn may be gone forever the next. That makes the game much more dynamic, much more tactical and much more varied in comparison to Dominion but also much less strategic as you can’t predict what’s going to be available and build your deck to a fixed model. But consider for a moment. Ascension generally offers you much less chance - or indeed because cards have a VP value, incentive - to fine tune your deck as you play than does Dominion. It also offers you less chances to recycle cards than its predecessor which offers a slew of options for extra card, actions and buys and in which its sometimes possible to build a deck capable of recycling itself in its entirety given a good starting draw. Those two things would tend to suggest that Dominion is actually the more strategic and the more tactical of the two.
That leaves Ascension as just being the more thrilling, exciting and dynamic game. And it leaves me, not for the first time, facing the fact that thrills and spills are actually what I seek the most when playing games. No matter how I like to dress up my analysis of games by delving into their strategic possibilities, and no matter how I might parade heavyweight titles like Twilight Struggle and Imperial as amongst my very favourite titles, when the chips come down I’d really rather shoot Craps than play Chess.
Lest I incite unnecessary nerd rage, I’m not suggesting that there’s no strategy or tactics in Ascension, merely that it has less than Dominion. I’m not bashing the idea that making important choices, or having strategy or tactics in games is a vital part of their design. I’m not deriding the value of Chess. I’m simply trying to be true to myself, stick my hand up and say that in addition to interaction, the excitement of gambling, variety and the lure of the unknown is much more important to me than deep strategy. I want to say this out loud, very loud, because too often in the board gaming community depth is held up as the be all and end all of quality, and those who can’t or don’t want to measure up to that ideal are made to feel small, usually by accident, occasionally on purpose but small nevertheless. That shouldn’t be the case: the ability, or indeed the desire, isn’t even a particularly clear indicator of someones mental agility let alone an indicator of their worthiness as a gamer or a person. We got Ameritrash back into the mainstream of gaming by standing up and loudly demanding to be counted. It’s about time we got exciting, dramatic games back into the mainstream by doing the same.