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Friday, September 30, 2016

Ascension: Dreamscape

It's been several years that Gary Games (now Stone Blade Entertainment) published their first deckbuilding game - Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer.

Even though I probably cannot be called a hardcore fan of Ascension I'm someone who really likes the game. When a new set is announced I look forward to it. I follow the visual spoiler and then I try to get my hands on the set. Unfortunately it is difficult to get it here and it usually comes out with 6-12 months delay. In the meantime a tenth set Ascension X: War of Shadows was released and new expansion is on its way. But I just discovered Ascension: Dreamscape.

Ascension Dreamscape is a ninth expansion set (stand-alone for 4 players) which was released in a digital version few days ago, but which was released in December 2015 in paper.

For those not familiar with Ascension the Game here's what I wrote to describe the first game.

Ascension the game

Ascension has a very simple rules and can be setup really fast. Each player gets a starting deck containing ten cards. There is a central row which contains a pool of cards from which you either buy cards or defeat monsters. After a card is bought or destroyed a new card fills the vacant slot. To buy a card you need a certain amount of Runes. To defeat a monster you need Power. Your starting deck contains 8 Apprentices (Runes) and 2 Militia (Power). You start the game with five cards.

On your turn you can buy anything as long as you have runes and you can also defeat monsters as long as you have Power. At the end of each turn you discard the remaining cards you did not use and draw 5 new cards.

In the center row there are three types of cards - Heroes, Constructs and Monsters. Constructs, after being played, stay in play. Monsters can be defeated in order to gain a reward. Heroes are one time effects that can be used on the turn they are played.

Each player has access to some common cards - Mystics, Heavy Infantry and Cultist. The first two are unaligned Hero type cards that give you Runes (Mystic) or Power (Infantry). Cultist is a monster that can be defeated if you have at least two power (you gain one honor when you defeat him).

The game ends when a pool (depends on the number of players) of Honor points is depleted.

When the game ends each player counts the number of honor points they have (cards in your deck have them and you also get them after defeating a monster).The player who gets the most points wins the game.

Ascension: Dreamscape - Components

Cards (214):
  • there are 4 starting decks (8 Apprentices,2 Militias per player)
  • 1 Cultist
  • 20 Heavy Infantries (not sure if it is 20/20 because in some of the games I bought there were more mystics)
  • 20 Mystics
  • 98 center deck cards
  • 35 dream cards
Counters/tokens:
  • 50 Honor tokens, clear diamond ones - 1 honor each, red diamond ones - 5 honor each
  • 30 Insight tokens, faceted egg orange ones. There are also two types, the bigger one is worth 5 Insight and the smaller ones 1 Insight.
Game board
Rules

Ascension: Dreamscape

Each Ascension expansion set brings something new to the game. In this game a new resource is added - Insight - that is used to buy Dream cards.

At the start of a game each player chooses 3 Dream cards from 5 Dream cards that are dealt from a shuffled Dream deck. The rest of the cards are shuffled back into the deck. The cards are put into Dreamscape zone and are hidden from other players (placed face-down on the table).

Dream cards can be either Heroes, Constructs or Visions. Heroes and Constructs when acquired are put into the discard pile as any other acquired card. When drawn they behave in the same way as normal versions of these card types. Vision is a new card type. Some Vision cards have only one time effect that you can thus resolve 'anytime (on your turn)' you wish (when you buy the card, the card is removed from the game then) or have an Ongoing effect (those stay in play).

Dream cards can be bought with Insight. Unlike Power or Runes Insight does not dissipate at the end of turn but stays till it is spent (orange egg shaped counters are used for this, yes the counters are round!).

In the digital copy Dreamscape zone can be brought by tapping the cloud icon on the left side of the screen.

Insight can be gained from cards' effects that you acquire from center row. Additionally if a Dreamborn card shows in the center row, each player gets 1 Insight. The player to acquire the card will gain additional 1 Insight.

I have to say that I like the idea of Insight. I wasn't a big fan of Energy from Rise of Vigil. That worked like Threshold, you could reach certain amount of Energy on your turn and profit from all cards that required that amount of Energy. That set was very swingy. While it was fun to play one long turn and gain all the Honors it wasn't an interactive game that I would prefer, it did not really make sense to play a multiplayer game from my point of view. The solitaire game was quite good though actually.

Insight and one's own pool of cards is something that looks balanced to me and I actually like the idea. It is simple but gives us more options to what we can do. For me this is a good idea how to add something new to the game. If one knows how to use the Dreamscape well, they can get some advantage that does not usually end in a huge swing. Also since the Insight does not dissipate at the end of turn it is easier to work with it and you don't need to be frustrated like in Rise of Vigil when you couldn't get the right amount of energy you needed and your opponent got it and just ended the game on his turn. The cards added to Dreamscape are added randomly but we get the choice to buy the cards we want and when we want which gives us control over our decks and I really like that.

What I do not really like about this new instalment is the art. I know that is a subjective thing. I already got used to the new frames and new look of Sabee's work but in Dreamscape the illustrations' feel is different and I'm not a big fan of it. Some of the Void cards do not really look like his work. I miss his omnipresent lines I guess. But this also means that for the same reason I do not like the art, someone might like it even more.

Apart from the art the game is solid and beginner friendly even though building a deck is not that easy in this game and the game has more depth that won't be seen at first sight. The only problem the set has is the fact that it cannot be well mixed up with earlier expansions much. Certain amount of cards will be fine, but after certain number of cards added it will become too diluted and no one will be able to buy the Dream cards easily (because gaining Insight will become rather tricky). This game allows a four player game but for 6 player game it needs cards from other sets to be added (I actually played it with the promo packs and that worked fine, but some promos are rather strange so I wouldn't recommend it, but I did not have problem producing Insight).

Certain cards are really powerful and Chaos Cannon can produce way too much power per turn when there are other Mechana constructs in play! My relatively power centered deck couldn't keep up with it. Probably needed some Lifebound as well to gain more honor per turn.

Strategy and other comments

At first sight Ascension players always tend to try what worked in earlier sets. Dreamscape looks very much like a return to the very first set even though it is not. The first thing one will learn is the fact that one should be careful with buying Mystics and Heavy Infantries. Dreamscape might seem simple but actually requires more thought and planning in order to win. The balance between gaining Insight, adding cards to Dreamscape and the timing of when to buying Dream cards should be balanced and well thought out. When a swing happens there is usually way how to deal with it unless the game takes longer than it should (or some of the big impact dream cards was acquired on turn 5-6). Players should remember that the usual control/aggro strategies work here even though all of these are way more tempo oriented and thus a single misstep can be a problem. It is not the randomness of the game that makes huge swings but rather decisions taken at a wrong time.

As I mentioned earlier, the games I played so far were very tempo oriented. It is very important to buy cards at a certain moment. One needs to have the right amount of runes or power or buy Dream cards at very specific moment not to lose tempo, rather than be able to produce the same amount of runes/power per turn. This is also due to the fact that there isn't too many cantrips nor cards that banish other cards from the deck. Even though Arha Sensei upgrades Apprentices to Mystics or than changes runes into power it does not help get the deck thinner. But I don't find that to be wrong, the game just plays out differently and needs some getting used to.

As for the Dream cards. People might to tend to compare them to Soul Gems but these cards have a different impact on the game. First of all, those cards are not cards from previous sets, they have other effects. These effects shouldn't be thought of as a random additional effect we can get but rather something we should incorporate into our strategy plan and use it well. There are cards that are situational, can be really good or just totally useless. For example Technological Leap is such a card. I like this one but I'd rather see a different cost on it (higher one). Some cards might seem useless at first (Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes) but actually come pretty handy and Dust to Dust played at the right moment can save you and win you the game. Test of Faith is seriously a test of how lucky you feel like and that is something I'd like to avoid. Armistice is a card that at first I totally ignored but then I realized...it gives an extra turn!

There are two cards that acquire a random card from the Dream deck and I really wish they would have MAY in their text because there are sometimes cards that are being added to one's own deck that simply bog it down. And it is not uncommon to hit three Dream cards that have no impact on the game.

The game feels to be quicker than the previous sets but in reality it is not in terms of turns. We usually finish the game around 16th turn. If we both go for similar strategy it either speeds up or slows the game down but when both players are trying to win the game and take the path that is open the game lasts around those 16 turns. This was true for the previous sets as well. The thing what makes it feel 'faster' is actually the fact that we can observe a power creep and that sometimes 20 honor can be taken from the pool in a single turn.

Verdict

This game feels more like the base game but requires planning and different style of play. This game can be played on different levels which adds more depth to the game. Even though it introduces a third resource I do not find that as something bad. It is actually good. It is not difficult to keep track of it and does not require too much of concentration or going through cards to check the amount of Insight one has (other players can check that easily and it is easy information to remember). Even though it has certain similarities with Rise of Vigil (tempo, card draw inexistant, too few banishing of cards) the game feels different if one discovers the routes one can take. If someone likes very swingy games and likes doing crazy stuff this is not the set for him even though it allows for it a bit as well. But it is something that happens 'randomly' rather than I will acquire this and that and go crazy (if you see what I mean).

No matter if you are a new player or an experienced one, you like to learn, discover and think ahead this set is for you.

Rating: 4/5