Descending beneath Ascension's surface

Tribute day3While I have a half-written post about my Origins 2011 adventures, I must defer it to address instead recent iOS adaptation of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Ascension (originally designed and published for the tabletop by Gary Games, iOS version by Incinerator Studios), and planned to write about it anyway. But it won priority in the wee hours earlier this week when I discovered myself hallucinating my way through a game. Only several moves in did I realize that I was lying on my side in bed, staring at a wall in the dark.

I did in fact enjoy a very real game just hours before that, sitting on Cambridge’s riverside esplanade with several excellent friends, passing my iPad around while we waited for Boston’s Independence Day fireworks to start. And while memories of a good game session have often rolled around in my head for hours after playing, I don’t recall the last time my subconscious mind blustered in and demanded to watch the tapes in full as soon as my head hit the pillow. So, something’s going on here.

Ascension isn’t a perfect game; while a very faithful and eminently playable adaptation of the physical card game, it’s not without flaws, mostly involving UI and polish (the details of which we shall leave for another post). It nevertheless strikes several chords with me, in particular my obsession with online multiplayer games, and my more recent interest in tablet versions of tabletop games. Its properly transparent use of Apple’s GameCenter has resulted in my playing at least as many online games as I have solitaire games against the bots (an especial boon since the bots don’t seem terribly skillful). Those online games have been a half-and-half split between my GameCenter friends and total strangers. And, now that I think of it, they’ve featured a half-and-half split along another axis, between real-time games and asynchronous ones.

None of these features are, taken individually, new to iOS games — I believe that the platform’s Carcassonne version features them all now, for one, and presents them in a far more polished package. So perhaps it’s just me; maybe Ascension just happens to be the first iPad game I’ve played that’s presented all this stuff to me all at once, driving it from a decent deck-building game into a startlingly direct expression of my current digital game obsessions.

But for me, the real closer is the game’s theme. Mechanically, it’s a deck-builder similar to Dominion, and follows a current trend among among new card games of presenting some variant of Dominion-plus-monster-slaying. (More on which when I get to my Origins post.) The theme, though, I adore. On the surface it’s somewhat corny dark fantasy; the flavor text on the cards tends towards the cartoonish, and the artwork is evocative but a bit loose. However, various card interactions that occur in play — and which the iOS version brings attention to — suggest an engagingly deeper story.

It sketches out a fantasy world that’s suffered, I believe, a sort of Lovecraftian Greenhouse effect. Alien-worshipping secret societies have been allowed to flourish unchecked, and now all manner of squamous reality-bending horrors stomp freely down the street in the middle of the damned day, snacking on the citizens and converting the survivors into their enthralled cultists. The players are mage-lords, invincible in their towers and normally unmoved by the affairs of mere mortals. But many-angled Mistakes of Creation devouring the city is a bit much. And besides, if their rival mage-lords slay all the monsters first and win the peoples’ terrified love and tributes for generations, well, that won’t do either. And so they each get to work at their scrying pools, which manifests itself to the game’s players through the familiar motions of deck building, drafting armies of mystic warriors to put the hurt on some trans-dimensional outrages. The winning player is the one who collects the most points, through a combination of a high-value deck and a trophy case full of freshly lopped demon heads.

One key bit of flavor to which the iOS version particularly contributes involves the Cultist, an ever-present monster card depicting a raving, scripture-waving street lunatic. If you have the bad luck to draw a strong hand when no juicier monsters are on the board, you can always choose to kill a Cultist or two for a better-than-nothing reward. In the tabletop version, he’s just a single card that stays on the table no matter how many times players zap him for his one lousy point. The iOS version punches this up delightfully, having the Cultists emit Wilhem screams while they careen off the playfield as fast as you can flick them away with your finger — several at a time, if you can afford it, but always leaving another Cultist behind. I delight in the notion of your mage-lord, dealt a crap hand, taking out their frustration by planting their Wizard Rifle on the tower windowsill and burping a few rounds at the nearest batch of streetcorner pamphleteers, whose gory deaths barely attract notice. Even though we’re still looking at graphics of playing cards on a table, the extra, lightly-cartoony effects the digital version brings helps gel the game’s darkly humorous narrative to a surprising degree.

There’s an option specifically to silence the Cultists’ screams, but I don’t know why’d you’d ever want to do that. In fact, I’m disappointed that the screams aren’t extended to the Apprentices, your hapless underlings who play a role analogous to Dominion’s Copper cards. While they’re important to your first few buys, they quickly become dead weight in your hand, obsoleted by the very cards they allowed you to gain. Various Ascension cards let you “banish” unwanted cards from your deck, to use the game’s term for permanent removal. So the midgame often features players banishing their poor Apprentices as fast as they can, divesting themselves of two or three on a single turn if lucky. I find this strongly thematic, since I can’t help but read “banish” as a polite euphemism for rather more pyrotechnic exits — working as an all-powerful mage-lord’s lackey is dangerous work, you know? Inevitably, my mental enactment of a turn in Ascension has me envisioning a typical workday for the evil Mistress from the highly NSFW webcomic Oglaf (who graces the top of this post) or this gentleman:

(And that’s David Warner as Evil in Time Bandits, of course.)

I guess what I’m saying is that if you have an iPad, and you enjoy deck building games, you’ll probably like Ascension. And if you enjoy reading far too much into the storylines of your deck building games, you might even love iOS Ascension as much as I do. (It’s also available for iPhone / iPod Touch, but I haven’t tried that version.)

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One Response to Descending beneath Ascension's surface

  1. Andrew Plotkin says:

    The game actually comes with a bit of ingrained backstory. It's not our world, but the dimensional crossroad city of Vigil, being invaded by evil demon hordes et al. (And if "dimensional crossroad city of Vigil" sounds familiar, google "Planescape: Torment" and you'll get a clear idea what the designers are riffing off.)

    I was thinking about this after the Esplanade, because while I like the tone and setting of Ascension, I *don't* find it narratively compelling in the way that _Race for the Galaxy_ is. When I plop down a Rocket Courier X-99, I don't see the scarred and implant-encrusted figure pulling on his helmet and taking to the streets on my behalf.
    It just isn't there for me. I wish it were.

    I think it's that the cards aren't distinct -- Dominion has the same problem. There are several Rocket Courier X-99s in the deck, and there's no reason to distinguish between them. (In Race, every world is unique, and even technologies have no more than one duplicate.) And maybe there just aren't quite enough mechanics in Ascension. All the cards boil down to either zap or chop; it's not quite grounded enough in the gritty mechanics of a multidimensional guerilla campaign -- which in turn is not really grounded enough in my fictional experience. (Whereas I know exactly what a star-spanning hegemonic civilization is like.)

    None of this is a knock against the *gameplay*, which is exactly as compelling to me as it is to you. I've been burning hours of my life (and my iPad's battery) on this thing.

    The UI, as you say, needs some work, and I believe I will write up some column-inches on that this evening. But I have to admit that I turned off the Wilhelm. I'm sorry. Please don't hate me.

    By the way, readers should note that the Oglaf links lead to a not-very-safe-for-work comic. Just in case it matters.

    (Excellent comic, too, in case *that* matters.)

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